This letter was written from a jail in Birmingham after King had been arrested for parading without a permit. It was in response to criticism from clergymen about his non-violent activities to protest against segregation. It's one of the few times he responded to the criticism he often received. He begins by explaining why he is in Birmingham, since he was previously in Atlanta. He was invited, but more than that, Birmingham was a place of grave injustice. So he went where he was wanted and needed. He went to where the injustice was, instead of staying in Atlanta. Not once did he say that the injustice in Birmingham wasn't his problem. He recognized that injustice in one city directly or indirectly affected the entire nation and he didn't shrink back.
In order to fight injustice in Birmingham, King and those who worked alongside him had "to undertake a process of self purification." They had to prepare themselves, ask themselves hard questions, and evaluate whether or not they were willing to bear the cost of their actions. For King, it ended up meaning going to jail. He was willing to disobey unjust laws and accept the consequences "to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice...."
In his letter, King addresses some of his disappointments. One of his disappointments was the white moderate. These are the white people who would rather sit on the fence about segregation and desired to keep the peace instead of speak out against injustice. They were the people who thought they needed to give it more time. Time, however, as King made clear, would not change anything.
Another one of King's disappointments, the one that really caught my attention, was his disappointment with the church. "I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership." He goes on to acknowledge some exceptions. "But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church." This man was not speaking out of criticism, but out of love. He was a minister of the gospel and dearly loved the church. Here was a man who had been expecting support from the church, and was finding that people in the church were some of his greatest opponents. For them, the issues of injustice had nothing to do with the Gospel.
This really made me think. How many people within our nation or around the world would say this about the North American church? We are not living up to our calling! But King doesn't stop there. He goes on to explain how the early church was different.
"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 day 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."
Here I broke down crying. I cried over how far the church has fallen.
". . . 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. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust."
What I'm about to say in the next couple paragraphs I say to myself as much as to my readers.
These words were written 50 years ago, and what has changed? It sounds hardly any different from the church in North America today. This ought to break our hearts. This ought to disturb us, deeply. Instead of the church shaking up the world, the world is shaking up the church. And we are silent. We are silent as our government allows the killing of millions of children. We are silent as children are sold for sex. We are silent as same-sex marriage is legalized. Many who bear the name of Christian are active participants in the injustice and immorality. Sure we may speak about these things amongst ourselves, but do our politicians ever hear about it? Are we having any affect on public opinion? Or are people just looking at our churches in disgust, as social clubs with no meaning?
It's time to speak up. It's time to shake our nation. It's time to stand for truth and for justice until we start receiving some opposition, which may perhaps come from other believers. It's time for the church to hear again "These people have turned the world upside down!" We need to return to the power of the early church. Yes, there will be a cost. Jesus told us so much. Have we experienced the extent of the cost He described?
I was told recently that it only takes 3 percent of a population to shift culture. If that be true, why aren't we doing it?
Where are you at? In what ways to you need to disturb the peace around you? Where do you need to stand for truth?
Find the answers to those questions and go turn the world upside down!