Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter to Pastors

55 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter to fellow pastors from a jail cell in Birmingham, where he sat because of a non-violence “sit-in” protest. He wrote the letter mostly on pieces of toilet paper and scraps of newspaper.

Here are some excerpts of that message which every Christian would do well to read today.

“Though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church.

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.”

For the full text of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” click here.

How Martin Luther King Jr Got His Name

This coming weekend at White Fields we will be starting a new series for the 500 year anniversary of the Reformation about the 5 Solas.

Partly in preparation for this and partly out of my own interest and curiosity, I’ve been reading a few books. One of them is Eric Metaxas’ new biography of Martin Luther, and the other is Stephen Nichols’, The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World.

Metaxas begins his book with a story, which I had never heard before: How in 1934, an African American pastor from Georgia got on a boat to make the trip of a lifetime; he sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, through the gates of Gibraltar, across the Mediterranean Sea, to Israel. After this pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he traveled to Berlin to attend an international conference of Baptist pastors. While in Germany, this man, Michael King, became so impressed with what he learned about the Reformer, Martin Luther, that he decided to do something dramatic: he decided to change his name to Martin Luther King. This man’s son, also named Michael, was five years old at the time, and although close relatives would continue to call him Mike for the rest of his life, his father also changed his name, and he became known to the world as Martin Luther King Jr.

Metaxas uses this story to highlight the dramatic impact that Martin Luther has had, not only on the world, but on those who have come to know the story of his life and understand his actions, which have indeed changed the world and Christianity as we know it – even Roman Catholicism.

What has caught my attention most in the book so far, is how shockingly little even those who did have access to the Bible actually read it in Luther’s time, and how deep and widespread the problems were in the church at that time, largely as a result of this. It seems that what really set Martin Luther apart, and what led to the Reformation, was simply that he read the Bible. May we not be guilty of neglecting that in our day!

Tomorrow evening (Tuesday, October 24), my wife and I will be going down to Denver to see Eric speak about his book at Cherry Creek Pres. If you’re interested in going, here’s the event site where you can get tickets.