Whenever we clergy quote MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” we run the risk of forgetting that the whole point of the letter was to say that the comfortable mainstream churches stood against everything King was doing.
We Presbyterians use the phrase “decently and in order” all the time. In essence, the mainstream clergy of MLK’s time were asking him to do things “decently an in order.” As he sat in a dark cell in solitary confinement, King tried to make out the words of an ad in the Birmingham News where eight white ministers called him a “troublemaker.”
Having no paper, King began to draft a response to the ministers writing around the edges of the newspaper. His lawyers smuggled the prophetic scraps out of the jail and began to piece them together to create what we now refer to as the letter.
The clergy claimed they weren’t opposed to civil rights, but objected to King breaking the law. King famously quoted St. Augustine’s dictum that an unjust law is no law at all. King reminded the clergy of their city’s history of injustice against people of color. He reminded them that the very courts they were asking him to appeal to, were on the side of injustice. He said, “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 am not suggesting that clergy should not read “the Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” I am just saying we should not project ourselves as sitting beside King in that dark cell. Instead, we should receive the letter as one of the eight smug and comfortable clergy who needs to be reminded that justice delayed is justice denied.
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