Martin Luther King on Religion and Social Justice

From the Letter from Birmingham Jail:

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.

Read the whole thing. (The full letter text is available at many websites, including ). It’s scripture for our time.

11 comments for “Martin Luther King on Religion and Social Justice

  1. In the spirit of MLK jr.’s words being scripture for our time, I’d like to share this:

    “Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites – polar opposites – so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love. We’ve got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love. It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our time.”

  2. Oh, and incidentally, Chris, thanks for your post today over at BCC. I would’ve commented over there, but I checked in earlier today when the trolls were invading.

  3. It is important when reading MLK’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” to understand the “Letter of Unity” written by 8 white ministers from the Birmingham area, written earlier. Their letter (just google “Letter of Unity”), appeared as a plea to avoid anger and hatred and violence. If read on its own, it is a very well-thought out response to the fear gripping the country. But then, we get to read MLK’s response. While many remember the “I Have a Dream” speech and honor it as the crowning achievement of Dr. King, fewer realize that “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” is the truly definitive,’brass tacks’ statement of the entire non-violent protest movement. Dr. King’s greatness lay in his ability to cut through the ‘verbiage’ of the Letter of Unity, and expose it for what it was: fear…fear of the unknown, fear of non-conformity, fear of change. By reading both letters, we get an image of where we once were, and where we should ultimately be.

  4. Thanks, Kaimi. My wife and I make a point to read the Letter from Birmingham Jail every year for FHE.

    And thanks, DeAnna, for your comment.

  5. I don’t know why, but I’m reminded of the 13th Article of Faith, of which Dr. King would surely have approved:

    13 We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.

    We can find wisdom and guidance in many places; perhaps the Letter from Birmingham Jail could be on our Teachings for our Times agenda.

  6. I am not finding any links that appear relevant when googling “Letter of Unity.” Anyone have an address?

  7. To #8, forgive my not being more specific. It is entitled “Call for Unity” and was written April 12, 1963. Wikipedia has the information. –Dee

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