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.


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.”

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…

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)

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.

Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.

I like honest conversations.

And I love the fact that God’s shoulders are big enough to handle our intellectual, emotional, and theological struggles. It’s why I am so drawn to the death of Lazarus (John 11).

On a holiday where billions will celebrate Jesus’ ultimate victory over death, I am reminded of the painful reality of living in the gap between the promises of God and realization of those promises.

Here’s the summary. The gospel writer goes out of his way to emphasize that Jesus loves Lazarus and his family. They were very well-acquainted with the healing reputation of the Messiah. By John 11 Lazarus is sick. Playing their friendship card, his sisters send word to Jesus, informing Him of Lazarus’ condition. You know, do your thing, Lord. Much to everybody’s surprise, Jesus does NOT come. Jesus does NOT heal. And Lazarus dies.

There’s the tension.

You could have stopped this. You could have fixed this. You could have prevented this. You could have intervened before bad became worse. And yet You did not. You stopped death for others; You prevented disaster for others; You saved the day for others. And yet You left us hanging. (And you love us?)

What do you do when God leaves you hanging?

It’s the question that has haunted me in recent years. Why? My God, my God, why? I’ve even invented my own angst-filled question-like emoji for my prayer journal in my moments of particular frustration. Why not me? Why not us? Why not help my child? Why not heal my sickness? Why aren’t you showing up? My God, my God, why?

If You would have been here, my brother would still be alive.

As the grieving sister Martha laid out her complaint to the Lord, Jesus made a promise: Your brother will rise again. To which she responded with a declaration of orthodox, albeit abstract piety:  I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day. But somehow we’ve all felt the impotent effects of intangible theology divorced from real life.

I was recently in a conversation  with a precious Muslim refugee. As the dialogue turned to the hope of life after death and my faith in Jesus, her response to my predictable evangelical pie in the sky was convicting: “To be honest with you, my deepest longing is for peace on earth. Is there any hope for salaam? My family is stuck in a war zone.” Great question.

Jesus, my brother is dead, and our hearts are broken. Is there any hope for peace on earth? I suppose I affirm the doctrine of a distant resurrection, but is there hope for broken hearts on earth? Lord, you’re too late.

And then Jesus drops the bomb. I am the resurrection.

I am.

I’m not sure why it means so much to me, but it has become one of the defining realities of my journey with God. Every time it feels like God is disappointing us with delay or disappointment (or silence!), you can be sure of this: He is about to reveal something new about Himself. I am the resurrection. I am the healer of broken hearts. I am the author of peace on earth (yes on earth) and goodwill toward humans. I’m actually starting to realize the gifts of God are great, but God himself is better.

Why does He allow death? Why the unresolved tension? Why are so many of us waiting in the valley of delay? I’m not sure. But I know this: He is creating a people stronger than death. Stronger than disappointment. Stronger than circumstance. He has a love stronger than the grave. He rules a kingdom that can NOT be shaken. Everything down here on earth is shakeable, which is why the plan has always been to bring up there down here. On earth as it is in heaven. Envy is shakeable. Comparison is shakeable. Worry is shakeable. Health is shakeable. But not Him. Not His kingdom. And not His people.

But my brother is dead, Lord. Not for long.

This weekend reminds me that it’s never too late. It’s never too hard. It’s never beyond his scope. It’s never beyond his reach. It’s never out of his control.

I thought it was game over. But it’s only Friday; Sunday’s coming.

See you at the Odome.

April Fools & Faith

We don’t know what to believe.

From the promises of a slippery salesman to the smooth words of a coercing boyfriend, life has taught us to be suspicious. It’s certainly not just April 1st, we live in a world where we have no idea when and where to let our guard down and trust.

It clearly didn’t start this way. All you have to do is watch a young child and it’s clear that our default setting is belief. Wide-eyed and vulnerable, a child enters life fully prepared to give the benefit of the doubt and take you at your word.

But life has way of beating the belief right out of us. Broken promises, hidden agendas, and the ubiquity of deception train up a child in the way she should not go as we learn to put up our guards and protect our souls from the dreaded shame – or pain – assigned to the gullible.

Doubting has become a virtue. Cynicism is a badge of respect. And yet cynicism is really just soul-laziness. It’s the easy way out. It’s the acquiescence to the peer pressure of the age to never get your hopes up. But the kingdom of God is released by faith, not doubt. And faith is substance of things hoped for.

Hope requires courage. If you will not dare to hope, you have no fuel for faith.

Make no mistake about it, we already believe. As Seth Godin comments on April Fool’s, we just believe the wrong things. Like the player who never settles down and marries the woman he knows is Mrs. Right, we roam and flirt from object to object, never fully committing. Never really believing.

Believing is really about listening to a word. In the absence of the right words from the right Source, we wander into the wrong words from the wrong sources. This was the essence of the original question toward Adam in the Garden of Eden. Who told you you were naked? We might ask similar questions. Who told you you were ugly? Who told you  you’ll never make it? Who told you you are unwanted? That’s why if you have attached your soul to those words and believe you are unlovable, unworthy, hopeless, and cursed, no one can talk you out of it. No one can make you believe.

Faith is always about a word. It is a fixing of our attention on that word. I spent most of my life thinking faith was feeling, and because I could not conjure up that feeling, I must not have the gift. But faith is not a feeling, it’s a focus on a word and the person who spoke it.

It’s why one of the primary assignments against your life is to keep your eyes off of the words of Jesus. Because if you saw what He says about you, you just might get your hopes up. And faith is the substance of things hoped for.

So on this April 1st I dare you to get your hopes up. I dare you to treat the words of God like a child treats a birthday promise. I dare you to major on the promises, listen to the promises, memorize the promises, speak the promises, pray the promises, and attach your life to the promises. Because if the Cross tells you anything, it tells you that God keeps His promises.

I’m a believer.

April Fool’s Day


God has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Jesus who called us to His glory and virtue by which He has granted us His precious and very great promises, so that through them we are able to possess all that He has provided. (2 Peter 1:3-4)

We ask of God, and He will give us nations for our inheritance. I believe the glory of God will cover the earth like the waters cover the sea. (Psalm 2:8)

We are redeemed from the curse of the first Adam because of the finished and perfect work of the second Adam, Jesus. (Galatians 3:13)

The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me? (Psalm 118:6)

When I am afraid, I put my trust in You. (Psalm 56:3)

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. (1 John 4:18)

I will live, move, & make decisions by faith and not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5:7)

We fear the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom. In every area we lack wisdom, we request it, & believe we receive it. In all our ways we acknowledge Him, & He will direct our paths. (Proverbs 9:10, James 1:5-6, Proverbs 3:6)

The blessing of Abraham comes to us in Christ Jesus. He shows us where to go to, He blesses us so that we may be a blessing to all the peoples of the world. (Galatians 3:14, Genesis 12:1-3)

Great is the peace of our children for they are taught of the Lord. (Isaiah 54:13)

The Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need. (Psalm 23:1)

I am like a tree planted by the rivers of water. I will bring forth fruit in season. My leaves will not wither. Whatever I do will prosper. (Psalm 1:3)

We delight ourselves in the Lord and He will give us the desires of our hearts. (Psalm 37:4)

As we give, it will be given unto us: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over. (Luke 6:38)

There is no lack, because our God supplies all our needs according to His riches in glory. (Philippians 4:19)

Jesus bore our sins in His body on the tree, therefore we are dead to sin and alive to righteousness and by His stripes we were healed. (1 Peter 2:24)

We can expect both forgiveness and healing because Jesus Himself took our infirmities and bore or sicknesses. (Matthew 8:17)

We present our bodies to God as a living sacrifice. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit inside of us quickens our mortal bodies in times of need. We stand on this promise. (Romans 12:1, 1 Corinthians 6:19, Romans 8:11)

I will not limit God because He will do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think or imagine. (Ephesians 3:20)

We will bear one another’s burdens, remember the poor, and meet urgent needs. (Galatians 2:10, 6:2, Acts 4:32, Titus 3:14)

We will do nothing through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind consider others better than ourselves. We will look out not only for our own interests, but also the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)

We overcome the evil one by the blood of the Lamb, the word of our testimony, and by not loving our lives even unto death. (1 John 2:13, Revelation 12:11)

*These are not all direct quotes from Scripture, but written how I often pray them or speak them out. These are not exhaustive, but a few examples of how I attempt to bring God’s truth to mind, heart, and mouth.