Reflection on the Letter from the Birmingham Jail
by Howie Meloch
It is an honor to meditate on Dr. King's Letter from the Birmingham Jail and to share my perspective of how it should shape us as a community in this season.
God saw fit—for my continued discipleship and to prepare me for this reflection—to lead me to be arrested at the Ferguson Police Department on October 13, during the Moral Monday nonviolent civil disobedience.
How is arrest a part of my discipleship?
In responding to the charge by Eight Alabama Clergymen that the protests in Birmingham against the unjust treatment of Blacks was untimely, Dr. King retorted that "we've not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure." He also reflected, "Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation [or in our day systemic racism] to say, 'Wait.'"
As a white male, I fit in this category of lack of experience. What are the stinging darts that Dr. King spoke of and that caused him and his fellow marchers to manifest their yearning for freedom with their bodies? He described it as conversations with one's son about where he should fear going because he is Black, as having to explain to one's daughter why the wealth of the average White households is 13 times greater than Black households.
What can we learn from this?
As a faith community, particularly for my White brothers and sisters, we must be present in spaces where we can hear the real stories of life in America from those who are oppressed. This has led me to the streets to talk to the youth who have been leading the nonviolent protests over the last 163 days; to Federal court in the eastern district of Missouri to hear stories of those who were tear-gassed without a chance to disperse; to my workplace where a friend, a Black father, fears that his second child, whom he and his wife are now expecting, will be a boy; and to my home to read the stories of those who have bravely written them for all of us to see.
Let me encourage my White brothers and sisters to listen. Let's take the posture of Nehemiah from the Old Testament, who, when he got the report from his brothers that the walls of Jerusalem were broken down and the gates were on fire, first he wept; second he prayed; third he got together everything he could to help; and then finally, months later, he went to the location and inspected the gates and walls for himself to see what shape they were really in.
Notice that Nehemiah did not respond to the report saying, "Are you really sure the gates are still on fire? That seems pretty unlikely that they could be burning this long; you've traveled for a long time." But I've experienced this questioning posture often, in both myself and others: "Really? That happened? There must be some other explanation." No, Nehemiah truly listens to the report givers, and his reaction is empathy.
Notice that Nehemiah did not respond to the report saying, "Are you really sure the gates are still on fire? That seems pretty unlikely that they could be burning this long; you've traveled for a long time."
In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Dr. King recognized that while a handful of people in the White community had been present with him in Birmingham and other places, the majority of the White moderates had been a resistance to him and the movement. We've seen this same dynamic in St. Louis as well.
Did you notice how, last summer, after students in Hong Kong were tear-gassed, thousands of local residents went out on the streets to join them?
I wonder what would have happened in St. Louis if—as soon as we heard of reports of youth being tear-gassed, police dogs being brought to a prayer vigil, sniper rifles being used as optical scopes—thousands of the faith community had joined the youth in the streets, listened to their stories, wept with them, and prophetically challenged our community to reconciliation and justice.
But is it really the role of God's people to stir up tension? As a White Midwesterner I do not like visible tension! But again, Dr. King's letter is instructive to us in this. He writes the demonstrations "merely bring to the surface hidden tension that is already alive," and that we as white moderates are often "more devoted to 'order' than to justice [and prefer] negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…"
As King reminds us, the early "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." Throughout the Scriptures we see a public witness that disturbed the status quo:
- Moses, who publically called Pharaoh to repentance, shared the consequences for his lack of repentance, and marched the people out of Egypt.
- Ezekiel, who put on a public morality play.
- Habakkuk, who God called to write the vision of justice and righteousness and to make it plain.
- Jesus, who spoke in the public square against the teachers of the law, who were the religious and political leaders of his time.
- Paul, who, from prison (for disobeying authorities), encouraged us not to resist authorities but to honor God's directives above earthly ones.
We see this same work in the history of our faith movements in America—with those who fought to end slavery, child labor, lack of voting rights, and Jim Crow laws. It was even a minister from Missouri who first introduced an anti-lynching bill to the US House of Representatives in 1918.
Through his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Dr. King still implores us today as Christians to be present to listen, to empathize with the oppressed, and to be those who collectively show up to fight for justice and righteousness on our streets.
With Dr. King, we know as followers of God that righteousness and justice will come, and we continually long for and press toward that day.
Howie Meloch has been on InterVarsity staff since 1997 and currently serves as Associate Regional Director for InterVarsity in the Central Region. He is a member of the Leading Servants Team, InterVarsity's Black Campus Ministries national leadership team. He lives in St. Louis, Mo., with his wife, Camilla, and their three children.