Letter from Birmingham, USA

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
3rd March 2006

Tagged: beeson birmingham luther king

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Over the last two weeks I have been speaking in the Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham Alabama.

It is not really possible to visit this city without revisiting the history of Martin Luther King and the civil rights demonstrations of the early 1960’s.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in the centre of Birmingham contains a beautifully presented museum of the story of the struggle for civil rights.

As history is written by winners so museums are the demonstrations of the winners’ point of view. In this museum, the civil rights story is told with passion and the clear perception of the victory of good over evil.

One turning point in the history was the letter written by Martin Luther King from his gaol cell in Birmingham. It is a strikingly powerful piece of literature that stirs the heart and imagination while challenging the mind. It can be listed as one of the greater pieces of twentieth century literature, just as his “I have a dream” speech is one of the great orations of the century.

However I had forgotten about the eight ministers that Martin Luther King was addressing when he wrote. They came from a variety of religious backgrounds (one was a Rabbi). They were respected and moderate men, leading religious communities in Birmingham. They were not the racists who were arguing for white supremacy or even the maintenance of the laws that were so unjust. They had previously argued that the white members of society should accept the rule of law and integrate the schools of Birmingham.

Yet Martin Luther King soundly condemned these men when they wrote an open letter calling upon him to stop the non-violent civil disobedience. Their plea for calm, law-abiding discussion and negotiation working towards a change in the laws was met with hostility and withering rhetorical scorn.

They were not evil or bad men. They wrote their public appeal to Dr King with good conscience. Theirs was the appeal for law and order for peace and gentle progression in solving injustice. But they had not understood the times.

Timing is so important in the affairs of life. When their letter came out Dr King was sitting in prison. The moral high ground had shifted from those who wanted to uphold law and order to those who were suffering for righteousness sake. More than that, the time had run out for moderate people to find a law-abiding way to change the unjust laws. More consultation, more discussions, more committees were just the stalling tactics of those who wanted no change.

Suffering for righteousness sake involves more than playing the committee games of those who are opposed to change. It involves stepping out to do the right thing and accepting the painful consequences of civil disobedience. If we wait for everybody to agree with us we will wait forever. If we act righteously then times may change and people may even come around to agree with us.

The power of suffering for righteousness sake is usually overlooked by both terrorists and tyrants. The martyr suffers but his cause often wins. When people are willing to be gaoled rather than bow the knee to current opinion the world stops and reconsiders. We who follow the crucified Christ should be at the forefront of those who understand the importance of suffering for righteousness sake.

The rule of law is an important part of a just and peaceful society or organization. But we must not confuse law with justice, or rules with righteousness. For unjust laws and rules can easily be passed. There are occasions and times when righteousness demands that laws and rules are disobeyed because the maintenance of law and order is a ruse for institutionalising oppression and injustice.

The Bible teaches us that there is “a time for every matter under heaven”. The eight ministers did not understand the times. We must pray for God’s wisdom as we seek to understand our own times that we may uphold righteousness and truth.