Letter From A Birmingham Jail

 

On April 12, 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. produced one of the great pieces of literature composed on U.S. soil. Locked up in Birmingham jail, with nothing but a pen and the margins of a local newspaper, Dr. King proceeded to respond to the supposed call to unity from Christian ministers, calling for an end of all demonstrations. More than a half century later, the words are as potent as ever.

The message reverberates through the decades. The Church was never meant to reinforce the status quo; the church is God’s challenge to the status quo. If you have never read these words, I am presenting the first portion for your consideration.

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16 April 1963

My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
 While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. I am here because I have organizational ties here.

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

Last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants–for example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained. As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?” We decided to schedule our direct action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic-withdrawal program would be the by product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.

Then it occurred to us that Birmingham’s mayoral election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the run off, we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run off so that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct action program could be delayed no longer.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Finishing Your Fast Well

Finish well.

I can’t tell you how many times I ended a fast gorging at a barbecue restaurant, only to be miserable a few hours later. And strangely dull in the days to follow as I went back to “life as usual.” So foolish. If you have been fasting, I dare you to consider finishing well.

Start with the physical: come off the fast slowly. As a general rule, raw fruits and vegetables are the way go for the first day or so. Specifically, here’s where I’ll be going in the next couple days:

  • Apples, grapes, watermelon or other easily digestible fruit with a high water content.
  • Vegetable soup. Not the canned stuff, and not creamed, it’s easy on the stomach and wonderful.
  • Eggs. Time to get some protein back in the system.
  • Sweet potatoes are supposed to be another winner. Not my favorite but I’m considering it.

But then embrace the spiritual parallel. In the same way you can physically digress by breaking a fast with all the wrong foods, you can emotionally and spiritually digress by re-engaging in a “life as usual” lifestyle. Don’t do it!

I believe the days right after a fast are as deeply important as the time you spent on the fast itself. Did you make some gains in the area of Scripture intake? Maintain the gain. Did you make progress in the area of prayer? Maintain the gain. Did you discover a heightened focus by scaling back on entertainment and social media? Maintain the gain. Did lust lose a little grip on you? Maintain the gain. This is not to say that you never watch a movie again, but it is to say you consider the possibility of a life other than “life as usual.”

Imagine a life of self-control. There’s a fun word.

Don’t let your fast end without some serious chewing on this potent concept. Consider this wild passage:

Make every effort to add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge SELF-CONTROL, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. If these things are yours and abound you won’t be unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord. (2 Peter 1:5-8)

I see so many believers come to God by faith and immediately embrace some degree of virtue. I’ve talked to singles who started believing Jesus and immediately made the decision to stop sleeping together. It’s virtuous. Then they begin to get into the Scriptures and learn the ways of God. They add knowledge. But then I’ll talk to the same guy who can’t shake porn. I have no self-control, he says.  Exactly. It’s time for more spiritual math. Add to your knowledge self-control.

Few disciplines work self-control into a soul like fasting.

If.

If you finish well.

So finish well.

Prepare your heart for the day after. The week after. Maybe you won’t be fasting physical nourishment. But you can embrace the fasting lifestyle. You can fast self-reliance, and boasting, and wasting your life. You really can choose to not live by bread alone … but every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Make these next couple days as holy as the last few days.

After all, this isn’t about you anyway. Our great breakthroughs are not the result of how hard we fast and pray and work; we have victory because our King spent 40 days in a desert where He did the ultimate fast, that led to the ultimate life, that took Him to the ultimate death where He fasted life itself. And then He said, It is finished.

With your eyes fixed on Him, go finish well.

 

Why Bother Fasting?

Why should I consider ignoring a growling stomach, bypassing entertainment, and denying myself of the legitimate need of nourishment? Because the discipline of fasting can do what nothing else will do in your life.

Simply defined, fasting is the voluntary abstaining from food for higher purposes. It is a potent way to forego lower pleasures for higher pleasures. And I dare you to consider it.

  • Fasting reveals. More than any other spiritual practice, I have found fasting to expose the things that control and subdue me. Sometimes my problem is that I don’t know what I don’t know. I feel like I’m self-aware. I feel like I know my heart. I feel like my motives are pure. But sure enough, a couple days into a fast and my idols and crutches and darkness rises to the surface. This is a gracious gift.
  • Fasting is humbling. Time and time again Scripture directs us to “humble ourselves.” I cannot delegate my own humbling. But how exactly do I humble myself? One of the most neglected ways was explained by David: “I humbled myself with fasting.” (Psalm 35:13). What an interesting insight. Another example of this is a day of fasting, known as the Day of Atonement  (Yom Kippur): “In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls, and no do any work…” (Leviticus 16:29) We assume the biggest challenge to fasting is our appetite; in reality it’s our pride.
  • Fasting clarifies the will of God.  When King Jehoshaphat was in grave trouble, what did he do? He “resolved to inquire of the Lord, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah.” (2 Chronicles 20:3) His fasting-prayer is one of my favorites in all of Scripture: “For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on You.” (2 Chronicles 20:12) Is there an issue where you need to hear wisdom and direction of God? Fasting is one of your best friends to enable you to discern what is the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God.

Is it possible that you need some things revealed? Do you need to take the humility call more seriously? Are you seeking God’s will, but still waiting on His answer? I dare you to embrace the call to fast. Lay aside your food and distractions for a day, or three, or more. Make yourself available to God in prayer and Scripture. Wash your face and brush your teeth (so you don’t ruin it with religious showboating). And then get ready to allow God to do what only He can do. Hope to see some of you at our prayer meetings this Tuesday through Thursday.

On earth as it is in heaven…

It’s our time: Responding to Richard Spencer

Richard Spencer is coming to town and Gainesville is nervous.

Every time I hear the story of our nation’s racial past I struggle with understanding how so many people could stand by and do so little. Until I watch how deeply we struggle acknowledging our racial present. We have a problem, and it won’t evaporate with the passage of time.

So how do we respond to Richard Spencer and the fear-fueled hatred of the alt-right?

We are not calling you to complacency, inaction, or silence. We must resist hate and white supremacy in all its forms. We are just calling you to resist in ways that will demonstrate true power.

Use our heads.

First, don’t show up and physically protest. To do that you are walking into a trap that has been set for you. You are an extra in a play where Richard Spencer is the playwright. You are on his turf. He’s set this stage on many university campuses across the nation. Violence and even death have been his applause. You don’t have show up to the set. You don’t have to take cues from Spencer and company.

Think about it. If a handful of people show up to his gathering, its impact is quelled right then and there. The press would expose that type of hate for the powerless movement it is without real clout or sway.

If 3,000 protestors show up and violence erupts, hate is the ultimate victor and Spencer gets exactly what he wants: national/international coverage, a bolstering of confidence for his white supremacy base, and the impregnating of thousands of counter-protestors with hate.

Don’t fight hate with hate. Don’t give hate the momentum of a home turf contest. Don’t stoke the flame by walking directly into the publicity trap.

Resist this. Fight it. Do not give in.

Let me clear. Doing nothing is not an option. Saying nothing is not an option. But let’s do the right thing. And let’s say the right thing.

Pray.

Acts 12 tells the story of the apostle Peter being imprisoned by King Herod and surrounded by squads of guards in preparation for his public execution after Passover, “but the church spent the night earnestly praying to God for him.” Acts 12:5. How did this story end? An angel of the Lord arrived at the prison and set Peter free.

Who held the most power in this story? King Herod? The prison guards? No. The church in constant prayer.

Don’t roll your eyes too quickly. Prayer is not the only thing we do, but it better be one of the first things we do. Otherwise everything else we do is impotent.

Pray for God’s protection over our city, it’s leadership, and our law enforcement. They are laying their lives on the line right now. Pray for the kingdom of God to come in Gainesville as it is in heaven. Pray for the safety of the citizens in our city and our uninvited visitors.

We are called to pray for our enemies. You and I both know that Richard Spencer is a hurting, broken and fearful person who has placed his hope in sin. We know it because we were once hurting, broken, fearful people who looked for life in sin. But with the grace of Jesus there is hope and power and freedom. We are now free to resist hate, even unto death. We know the King! Pray and intercede for the salvation of Richard Spencer and his followers.

Pray for the Church. This is our chance to talk about race and injustice. This is our chance to get right what the church got wrong during the days of slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement. This is our chance to come into agreement. This is our chance to forsake all of the unbiblical, colonialized versions of Christianity and return to the world-changing, counter-cultural masterpiece we read about in Scripture. I don’t want conservative Jesus. Or liberal Jesus. I want the real Jesus. But it takes humility to see Him.

Fast.

This is why believers from multiple churches all over our city are choosing a day to fast and pray this week. Ask the Lord to search our hearts for the ways in which these ills of racism and hate remain in us. 2 Chronicles 7:14 is true. If God’s people humble themselves and repent He will heal our land. Let’s be honest, our land is not healed.

Imagine what would happen if Christians did what nobody else in our culture does: humbled ourselves.

It would be a sign.

Protest.

The absolute best resistance is to counter-protest far away from where Spencer wants us to be. Where we engage not with him, but the white supremacy that he stands for through a unified front in ways that will not feed into his publicity stunt. Without physical protest, he loses and his voice is silenced.

Earlier this week we recorded a panel discussion trying to wrestle with the insidious nature of hate. Of racism and how it divides us. But also true reconciliation and what are some of the steps needed for moving forward. These issues of tribalism and racism are common to man. It has destroyed many nations and kingdoms before us. Law enforcement has asked us not to hold any large gatherings in any form of counter protest as this will lead to a significant security risk. Security for Spencer’s event is already costing our government and the University of Florida over $500K.

Instead of one gathering we are asking you to imitate the early church. Meet house to house with your microchurch, with friends, with neighbors all throughout the week and watch this video together. Talk about it. I strongly urge you to gather with people of other racial backgrounds and listen to them. Hear them out. Be slow to speak. Become meek enough to inherit the earth.

Boast!

Yes, things are tense. We acknowledge the clear and present danger. But something happened by 6:00 on Good Friday. The same Cross that tore down the wall of separation between God and humanity has the power to tear down the walls of fear and hatred and division. No more boasting in race; no more boasting in nationality. I agree with Paul: As for me, may I never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Galatians 6:14)

 

Peace. Authority. Hope.

These are words that I am speaking today with our family. These are not direct quotations, but rather Scripture turned into confessions.

Peace. What you meditate on you magnify. What you magnify will move you.

  • I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)
  • You are the One who formed us; We will not fear, for You have redeemed us; You have called us by name, we are Yours. (Isaiah 43:1)
  • You command Your angels concerning us to keep us in all our ways. (Psalm 91:11)
  • But You, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory and the lifter of my head. (Psalm 3:3)

Authority. Use your words.

  • We are of God and we overcome, for greater is He that is in me than than he that is in the world. (1 John 4:4)
  • I take the shield of faith and with faith in Jesus I quench all the fiery darts of the evil one against me. (Ephesians 6:16)
  • In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything in all of creation – not even a hurricane – will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39)

Hope. Eyes on Jesus, who took the Cross, then beat the grave.

  • Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us today … and He WILL deliver us … But if not, we still refuse to bow to fear and anxiety because our hope is in the name of Jesus. (Daniel 3:17-18)
  • I have been raised with Christ, so I seek the things that are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. I set my mind on things above, not on things of earth. (Colossians 3:1-2)
  • I love you O Lord my strength. You are my Rock and my Fortress and my Deliverer, my God, my Rock, in whom I take refuge, my Shield, and the Horn of my salvation, my Stronghold. I call upon the Lord who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies. (Psalm 18:1-3)

Hurricane Hysteria

All eyes are glued on Irma.

There’s nothing quite like walking through the water bottle aisle during a hurricane threat. People who have lived on coffee and sodas for years suddenly become obsessed with H2O. Hysteria.

I get it. I have eight children. I have a family to protect. And I am tempted to go check the weather reports every 10 minutes like the rest of the world.

But it doesn’t work.

God made us for peace – even during a hurricane season. We’re not wired to thrive in the hysteria of anxiety, fear, and doom. Don’t get me wrong, an adrenaline rush of fear just might save your backside from an approaching lion, or tiger, or bear. But we humans have proven that we don’t quite know when to say when to our anxiety. And we don’t process information very well through this emotion. That’s where Jesus comes in.

Christians don’t deny danger; we just go to God first. Because whatever you meditate on, you magnify. And whatever you magnify will move you. So if you spend the majority of your waking day meditating on the weather report, you will magnify the weather. And the weather will move your heart – for better or worse. But if you find a way to do what David suggested –  meditate on God’s word day and night – then you will discover what David promised: blessing. Peace. Strength. (Read Psalm 1.) Imagine what would happen if kids saw parents who turned to the promises of God as often as they turned to the latest update on a hurricane named Irma. Imagine what would happen if the state of Florida watched people so controlled by God’s peace that they were freed to serve and share and help. Because we know God has our back.

Followers of Jesus do not act like threats are not real; we just look at those threats in the light of God’s hope, not the darkness of human fear.

I just came out of a conference call with the emergency staff of our county. The reports from the National Hurricane Center are alarming. There are very real measures to take. Shelters are filling up, streets need to be cleared, preparations need to be made. Cell phones need to be charged, valuables made watertight, and houses secured. Do it.

But do it in hope. Paul told the Thessalonians that on one hand we are just like everybody else: we grieve. Yet when we grieve we do NOT do it just like everybody else; we do it in hope. When we buy our bread, we do it in hope. When we line up for gas, we do it in hope. And when we look at the weather report, we do it in hope. And just maybe, we can shine in such a way that onlookers ask for a reason for the hope inside of us.

Because we have a Shepherd. He is sovereign. And we are not orphans.

Eyes on Jesus.

 

3 words I’m using to respond to this hurricane.

 

 

What’s The Big Deal About Resurrection?

It really happened.

The message of Jesus is a resurrection story. It’s not just another religious tale. This is not a myth. The way of Jesus is not a compilation of pleasant, moral teachings; it is historical. The Christian faith is not the exaggerated account and reconstructed ethics of an imaginary rabbi named Jesus; it is the result of a real human who lived a real life and then died a real death.

But he isn’t just a human.

And he didn’t stay dead.

The very fact that it is so improbable makes it all the more vital to consider.

Think about it. The original Christian leader, Peter, was a Jesus-denier. The first witnesses to the resurrection were women, in a first-century world that scorned their testimony. The movement started in Jerusalem, the epicenter of Judaism, where they began to worship a man who said you had to eat his flesh and drink his blood. To top it all off, the earliest believers were being tortured and killed for their claims of having seen the resurrected real-life body of Jesus. Not the greatest motivator to sign up for this new faith.

And yet it exploded.

How do you explain the birth and expansion of this faith if he did not rise from the dead? What do you do with the testimony of hundreds of people who had nothing to gain, and literally everything lose by making such resurrection claims? What if it’s true?

It means light beats darkness.

Life beats death.

Justice beats oppression.

Cancer is going to bow. Poverty is going to bow. Racism is going to bow.

All things become new.

It means it’s not too late for you.

It means there is more hope for you that you ever thought possible, because the very worst thing this world can throw at you is death. And Jesus beat it. Which means death may be able to snatch you from this world; but Jesus is going to snatch you from death.

Which means you don’t need to be afraid of anything.

Ever. Again.

Which means the word impossible has been fundamentally altered for those who believe Jesus. His earthly ministry is bookended by two impossibilities: a virgin’s womb and an empty tomb. I don’t know how bad your situation is, but, he’s got this. There is nothing he can’t do. There is no mountain he can’t move. There is no life he can’t redeem.

Oh redemption. What a delicious word.

Great news! Jesus lived the life I should have lived. And then he died the death I deserved to die. But early Sunday morning, just as he promised, he rose. And so will you, if you’ll just believe.

Let’s go change the world.