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[Chalice] Christianity and Social Justice; [Chalice]
Reflections on 'Letter from Birmingham Jail'

Presented January 21, 2007, by Melissa Holden

Opening Words

A very broad definition of social justice is that "social justice reflects the way in which human rights are manifested in the everyday lives of people at every level of society". It can be further defined as working towards the realization of a world where all members of a society, regardless of background, have basic human rights and an equal opportunity to access the benefits of their society.


From Matthew 7:12:
"Consider this: Treat people in ways you want them to treat you. This sums up the whole of the Law and the Prophets."

Last summer, a friend of the church featured on his blog an interesting essay published in Harpers in 2005 under the title "The Christian Paradox, on what it means to be Christian in America". It reports in part:

"Somewhere around 85 percent of us call ourselves Christian. Israel, by way of comparison, is 77 percent Jewish. It is true that a smaller number of Americans-about 75 percent-claim they actually pray to God on a daily basis, and only 33 percent say they manage to get to church every week. Still, even if that 85 percent overstates actual practice, it clearly represents aspiration. In fact, there is nothing else that unites more than four fifths of America. Every other statistic one can cite about American behavior is essentially also a measure of the behavior of professed Christians. That's what America is: a place saturated in Christian identity.

However, only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and barely half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels. Twelve percent believe Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. While this failure to recall the specifics of our Christian heritage may be further evidence of our nation's educational decline, it probably doesn't matter all that much in spiritual or political terms. But here is a statistic that does matter: Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that "God helps those who help themselves." That is, three out of four Americans believe that this ultra-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, actually appears in Holy Scripture when in fact it was uttered by Ben Franklin. And the thing is, not only is Franklin's wisdom not biblical; it's counter-biblical! Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love our neighbor.

"Love your neighbor as yourself" : It's a radical notion, perhaps the most radical notion possible. Especially since Jesus, in all his teachings, made it very clear who the neighbor you were supposed to love was: the poor person, the sick person, the naked person, the hungry person. This call to action would appear to be nearly altogether missing in today's world if you actually start looking at ways to measure it.

Despite the Sixth Commandment, we are, of course, the most violent rich nation on earth, with a murder rate four or five times that of our European peers. We have prison populations greater by a factor of six or seven than other rich nations. Having been told to turn the other cheek, we're the only Western democracy left that executes its citizens, mostly in those states where Christianity is theoretically strongest. President Bush's homestate of Texas leads the nation with 379 state-sanctioned killings since 1976, while runner-up Virginia trails distantly with 98 executions in the 30-year period since the death penalty was reinstated.

Despite Jesus' strong declarations against divorce, our marriages break up at a rate that compares poorly with the European Union's average. Teenage pregnancy? We're at the top of the charts. Infant mortality? Same thing. Personal self-discipline-like, say, keeping your weight under control? Buying on credit? Running government deficits? Do you need to ask?

You might in fact be able to say America is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior."

So when we talk about social justice and the idea of a just society, which gives individuals and groups fair treatment and a just share of the benefits of society, it sounds like another one of these paradoxes. Except for this time around, the concept really is embodied in the Bible but seemingly categorized by conventional wisdom as the work of left-wing liberal fanatics ought to destroy corporate America.

One of the most striking works produced on social justice (or rather in this case Injustice) is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's "Letter From Birmingham jail":
Excerpted from an article published in Salon by Joan Walsh, August, 2003

In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. called Birmingham, Ala., "by far the worst city for race relations in America." Also known as "Bombingham," the city had become infamous for at least 50 bombings of black homes and churches in the years since World War II, along with Sheriff Bull Connor's fire hoses and snarling police dogs during Freedom Summer in 1961. And all of that was before the awful slaughter at the 16th Street Baptist Church on Sept. 15, 1963, when white supremacists blew up the spiritual home of the local civil rights movement during crowded Sunday services, killing four little girls and wounding 23 people. This terrorist act was the work of Christians against Christians.

So it's hard to imagine that when King wrote his famed "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," he was facing national criticism for bringing the wrath of the civil rights movement (in the form of protests in the streets) down upon a hapless city that, despite its ugly past, was supposedly doing its best to change, and in no uncertain terms he assigned responsibility for these failings squarely at the feet of the white church. On the eve of King's direct action campaign against Birmingham, its citizens had just held an election that repudiated the administration that backed Bull Connor. A covert alliance between conservative blacks and white businessmen concerned about the city's brutal image was trying to find ways to dismantle local segregation gradually. And many Birmingham black people were skeptical of King's crusade. The civil rights leader went to jail that Good Friday, April 12, 1963 -- on the trumped-up charge of parading without a permit -- at least partly because almost nobody else would. Three-quarters of the city's black ministers, for instance, at first withheld support from King's campaign.

But the rebuke that prompted King's letter was a statement by eight white Birmingham religious leaders denouncing his moves against the city. The eight men praised the emergence of "a new constructive and realistic approach to racial problems" in Birmingham; they attacked King as an "outsider"; and they urged the local Negro community to protest its grievances in the courts, not in the streets. Thanks to King's letter, the eight went down in history as having been on the wrong side of the fight for justice.

However, the clergymen weren't alone in their condemnation of King: at the time the Washington Post insisted the demonstrations were "prompted more by leadership rivalry than the real need of the situation.", Time magazine called the Birmingham campaign "a poorly timed protest" and The New York Times praised the new administration of Mayor Albert Boutwell and editorialized that it didn't expect change in Birmingham "overnight" -- and cautioned that King "ought not to expect it either."

When the letter was first released, his supporters' skepticism about its power seemed justified. Nobody outside the movement paid attention to it, and the Birmingham campaign continued to sputter. Ultimately, the campaign, along with King's "Letter," became ringing historical success stories only because of a combination of tragedy, serendipity and courage in the weeks after King's jailing. I'll tell you this little known backstory because of its brutality and what you must remember about the times. . . . right before King was finally released after spending 10 days in solitary confinement, a white man named William Moore showed up on the White House steps with a letter for President Kenendy. Moore, was a Congress of Racial Equality member and was on the second leg of his lone protests against racial segregation. Along with his pleas for integration, Moore's letter to JFK notified the president that he intended to walk to Mississippi.

So for this third protest Moore planned to walk from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi and deliver a letter to Governor Ross Barnett urging him to accept integration. He was wearing two signboards: one read "END SEGREGATION IN AMERICA" and the other, "EQUAL RIGHTS FOR ALL MEN". Gov. Barnett, by the way, was a KKK member, endorsed by the White Citizens' Council and was known for his regular and public use of racial epithets. He was sanctioned by the federal government for his attempt to prevent James Meredith from entering the University of Mississippi and later also figured prominently in the first trial of Byron de la Beckwith, killer of civil rights activist, Medgar Evers. He was not a believer in social justice but he was a professed Christian.

So, on April 23, 1963, a passing motorist found William Moore's body in the road in Attalla, Alabama, just seventy miles into his protest march. He had been shot twice in the head at close range with a .22 caliber rifle. Despite the gun's ownership being traced to a local resident with whom Moore had argued earlier that day no arrests were ever made. Moore's letter to Governor Barnett was found on his body and opened. In it Moore reasoned that "the white man cannot be truly free himself until all men have their rights." He asked Governor Barnett to "Be gracious and give more than is immediately demanded of you...."

And so it was that Moore's crusade and martyrdom moved blacks and whites and even President Kennedy, who'd been unimpressed by King's confinement in the Birmingham jail. It helped reignite the energies of the civil rights movement, and volunteers began streaming to Birmingham to strengthen King's crusade.

The ultimate victory of the campaign, though, was guaranteed when hundreds of Birmingham's young people, some as young as 6, began volunteering to violate the order against demonstrating and go to jail if necessary. This was no small test for King, to risk the school careers, the safety, even the lives of young black children in Birmingham's awful jail. Again the city and the movement divided over whether to let the young people march. Again King backed the high-stakes strategy, and the children's crusade began. It's one of the most awe-inspiring stories of the entire civil rights movement: Hundreds of black children, teens and college students peacefully took to Birmingham's streets, facing not only jail but Bull Connor's dogs and fire hoses.

Photos of their bravery and persecution (a tiny girl upended by the cannons of water from the fire hoses; a teenage boy standing impassive while a snarling German shepherd tears into the flesh of his stomach) captured the world's sympathy. Thousands followed them into the streets, until the jail and a spillover outdoor holding area were too full to arrest anyone else. Birmingham's conservative black leaders flocked to King's cause, and its white leaders knew they had to give in. They reached an accord to dismantle segregation in Birmingham -- beginning with downtown stores' dressing rooms, ending with lunch counters -- barely three weeks after King left jail. King's gambles had paid off (although the deadly September church bombing would prove that all civil rights victories of the era were only partial).

I've chosen just a few themes from the letter to highlight. It runs over 7 pages and I'd urge everyone to read the whole thing at least once.
Writes Dr. King:

"My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, .groups tend to be more immoral than individuals."


"I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; . . . .and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season."

And perhaps the most searing indictment of the Church:

"I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: "Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother."

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi. on sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South's beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: "What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices .? 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. . . ..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."

And this one should certainly give us all pause because it rings so true today:

"We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people."

This is your call to action.

Today's closing words are also from the Letter:

"Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty."

©2007 Melissa Holden

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Holden, Melissa. 2007. Christianity and Social Justice; Reflections on 'Letter from Birmingham Jail', /talks/20070121.shtml (accessed July 13, 2020).

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