On April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King sat in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. King had been arrested for taking part in the Birmingham Campaign, a non-violent protest against intense segregation in Birmingham’s government and retail centers. On April 12, the same day the Birmingham Campaign began, eight white Alabama clergyman (Christian and Jewish) published a public statement in opposition to these protests (you can find that letter here). Although they agreed that social injustices existed, they also argued that local protesters should not involve leaders from outside “our metropolitan area,” (i.e., King) and should not participate in public civil disobedience. Instead, they should be patient, and make their case for justice through “the proper channels”: “law enforcement officials” and “courts.”
Although King rarely responded to public criticism (because he received too much of it to directly address), this time, he made an exception. On April 16, he wrote what has come to be known as one of the great documents of the Civil Rights Movement, and of American History in general: "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." (You can find King's letter here).
There are many lessons in truth we as people (and as Christians) should glean from Dr. King’s letter, particularly in light of our own political conversations and involvement. I will share three with you today, and three tomorrow, on Martin Luther King Day.
1. Recognize the good will of those who oppose you
The opening paragraph of King’s letter asserts: “Since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.”
Yes, people are sinners, and often have sinful motives. But people are also genuine, and generally desire for good things to happen. Rather than assuming that the person who disagrees with you wants an evil thing, try assuming that they actually want a good thing, but have a different perspective on what “good” looks like. This will do wonders for creating humility in you and goodwill in your conversations.
2. Sympathize with your opponent before attacking them.
Not only do your opponents generally desire good things like you do, but they also, like you, have experienced pain, disappointment, and suffering in their lives. Before you attack them or assume the worst, try and sympathize with the difficulties they have endured.
Dr. King urged the white clergyman who opposed his protests to do this. “Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim…then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
3. We are interconnected, whether we like it or not
One of the primary complaints the white clergyman and citizens of Birmingham had was that many Civil Rights leaders (like King) were “outsiders.” People from outside the state, they argued, had no right or reason to be getting involved in their local affairs. To this, King responded: “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Individualism, localism and libertarianism can be good, helpful, and even admirable qualities. But Christians, of all people, should understand that we are bound together by more than blood or zip codes (see Ephesians 2). We are bound together by beliefs, ideals, and most importantly, by Christ. Our individualism (or conservatism) should not be practiced without reference to our connection to others.
Three more lessons in truth from Dr. King tomorrow! (Read part 2.)