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.

Racism is Not Merely a Matter of Ignorance

We had a great time taking church outside this past Sunday!

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One of the things I heard was that people in the nearby buildings came out and listened to the worship and the sermon from their balconies.

Every Sunday we invite people at White Fields to text or tweet us abut the sermon as a way of interacting. Someone sent this text message in response to this past Sunday’s sermon from the Church Matters series on the topic of the gospel:

Could you please share with me what you said about racism in the sermon today? I had never heard it put that way, and I found it very insightful.

It was during the section where I was talking about what the gospel does, that it gives you a new status before God.

Here’s that text from my notes:

The gospel transforms the way you think about yourself and about other people.
As long as you are still trying to justify yourself, you will always be looking for reasons why you are better than other people. That’s what the first guy in Jesus’ story (Luke 18:9-14) did. He prayed: “Thank you God, that I am not like other people! Thank you that I am better than other people, like this TAX COLLECTOR for example! I’m a much better person than He is!”

That kind of attitude leads to things like racism, prejudice and condescension.

Everyone wants to feel that they have value and worth, and one of the main ways that people try to find value and worth is by looking for ways that they can believe they have an edge up on others — so they can feel better about themselves. What they’re ultimately looking for is justification! And it makes you feel like you have value and worth if you can look at other people and say: I’m better than them!

This is where many people find their identity: in looking at other people and convincing themselves that they are superior for whatever reason.

But when you understand the gospel, you no longer have the need to prove yourself, to justify yourself or try to build an identity or a resume by which to make yourself acceptable. Because the message of the gospel is that God has justified you in Christ, and in Him, He has given you an identity and has accepted you. When you understand that on your own merits, you are completely bankrupt before God, and yet God loves you with a greater love than you could have ever dreamed of — not because you earned it or deserved it, but simply because of who HE is and because HE loves you — and through Jesus, He acted to make you His own, and to transform you into His child!

When you really understand the Gospel, it makes you, on the one hand, incredibly HUMBLE (because you recognize that you aren’t actually any better than anyone else) — and at the same time it makes you incredibly CONFIDENT! (Because you know that you are completely loved and accepted by the one being in the universe whose opinion really matters! Because in Christ, God looks at you and says: You are my child, in whom I am well pleased.

And therefore, the gospel enables you to be incredibly confident — without being the least bit condescending towards others, because you no longer derive your value and worth from being better than other people, but from God’s love for you and the identity He has given you in Christ.

I actually wrote this before the events that took place on Saturday in Charlottesville, VA. I am deeply grieved by what happened there and my heart goes out to the family of Heather Heyer, the woman who died, as well as to the people who were injured and their families.

Here’s the thing we need to understand as Christians: Many people in our culture say that racism is a matter of ignorance. “If people were only less ignorant,” they argue, “then they wouldn’t be racist.” Yet what the Bible teaches is that racism isn’t merely a matter of ignorance, it is a matter of the heart.

We saw this very thing in our recent study of Jonah. Jonah was racist, and he assumed that God shared his views, and he was shocked to find out that God did not. Jonah’s problem was not ignorance; it was a heart issue! He did not share the heart of God, which was love for all people of all nations.

That racism is not merely a matter of ignorance should be clear from the fact that the majority racist movements of the twentieth century (Fascism and Naziism) took place in some of the most highly educated countries in the world. The German Nazis were not ignorant, and yet they were very racist. Racism isn’t merely a matter of ignorance, it’s a matter of the heart.

Racism is a sin which the gospel reveals and heals. Racism, as I said on Sunday, is a means of self-justification. Racism is completely incompatible with Christianity. God loves the world, and so should we. Jesus died to save people of every tribe, tongue and nation and to make them all ONE in Him.

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:11)