Reflections on King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

As we celebrate the birthday, life, and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today, I have seen several references to his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”.  I had never taken the time to read it.  Today, I did.

It is important to note that the context of this letter was to address harsh criticism from eight white local clergymen for his leadership in non-violent protests against segregation and police brutality. 

Here are some quotes that got my attention and my heart and some brief reflections in parentheses:

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” (Ministry of presence. I need to be intentional to be with those who are suffering.)

“I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (Unlike many other Christians that I know, my heart mind is not wired that way. Out of sight; out of mind. I don’t know why, but I rarely am emotionally impacted by suffering that is happening far away. Perhaps that needs to change.)

“You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being.” (This is relevant to today, but I struggle with this.  The extreme violence of last summer’s riots were counterproductive in addressing legitimate issues of police brutality and racial injustice. Dr. King’s non-violent direct action seemed to get more results.)

“I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging facts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.'” (I believe this country has come a long way since this letter was written, but there is still much work to be done. I truly want to understand the pain of my fellow citizens of color. I do want to be part of the solution. I want to see Dr. King’s dream become a reality in my lifetime.)

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen Council-er or 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. . . Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.  Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” (Ouch!  Lord, help me be more committed to justice than things remaining the same where there needs to be change.)

“Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must opened with all its pus-lowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.” (I want to understand the real concerns of racial injustice that exist today. It is not obvious to me. It know that racism is not as systemic as it was in the 1960’s, but I also know there are still things that need to be addressed today.)

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.  We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.  It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”  (I have not been silent on these issues, but I have not said nearly enough.)

“I had the strange feeling when I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery several years ago that we would have the support of the white church.  I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be some of our strongest allies.  Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many other have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”  (This was painful to read.  The church universal should have been the church united on the issue of racial injustice from the start.  Shame on any church today that opposes or is silent on this issue.  The church should be a model of racial reconciliation.)

“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 of their scintillating beauty.” (Amen!)

This was a powerfully written letter.  My brother, Dr. King was God’s chosen instrument to speak out and take action to oppose segregation and racial injustice.  May God raise up others who can speak out in such an articulate manner today. 

May I be part of this critical and righteous cause for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who died for every man and woman of every race and color, and who brings us hope, healing, and restoration.

(Note: I invite you to read other articles I wrote on this topic: an article from February 2019 on diversity in the workplace inspired by the film, “Hidden Figures”, my review of Benjamin Watson’s book, Under My Skin from November 2019, and an article from November 2020 on building your team by showing dignity and respect.)

About the author:

Robin_McMurry_Photography_Fort_Leonard_Wood__Missouri_Professional_Imaging_Russ_Gerlein-7161-Edit-Edit

Russell E. Gehrlein (Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 40 years, father of three, grandfather of four, and author of Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He is an ordinary man who is passionate about helping other ordinary people experience God’s presence and integrate their Christian faith at work. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. After serving 20 years on active duty, Russ now works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. More than 50 articles posted on this blog have been published 100 times on numerous Christian organization’s websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, Acton Institute, and The Gospel Coalition.

How Can We Be Agents of Racial Reconciliation?

untitled(Note: This article was written by request for the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics and was published in July 2018.  It was also posted on the Coram Deo blog and the 4Word Women blog.  I invite you to read a related article I wrote on the value of diversity in the workplace in February 2019.)

On a Focus on the Family radio program last fall, I heard Benjamin Watson, an African-American pro football player and Christian speak intelligently, compassionately, and frankly about racial issues.  His balanced and biblical perspective opened my eyes.  Right away, I ordered his book, Under Our Skin: Getting Real About Race – And Getting Free From the Fears and Frustrations That Divide Us.  I finally finished it a few months ago.  This excellent book helped me to understand the challenges that my co-workers of another race face every day.  I would like to offer a brief review.

Watson begins his introduction by taking us to the tragic events that took place in August 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, two hours from where I live.  Three months later, in November, a grand jury concluded there was no probable cause to indict the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, a black teenager.

Initially, Watson articulated his gut reaction to this decision in a lengthy Facebook post.  He shared that he was angry, fearful, embarrassed, sad, sympathetic, offended, confused, introspective, hopeless, hopeful, and encouraged.  He rearranged and expanded on these feelings, which then became the framework for the chapters in his book.

Injustice should make us angry

In chapter 1 he recounts, “I’m angry because the stories of injustice that have been passed down for generations seem to be continuing before our very eyes.”  This is disheartening to me.  He continues. “I’m angry because white people don’t get it.  I’m angry because black people don’t get it, either.”  At least he has confronted us equally.

He indicates that it has been over 150 years since slavery was abolished.  He painfully points out: “You’d think that after all this time we’d have reached real parity between the races, that there would be truly equal opportunity, and that we’d be seeing and experiencing fairness in society between blacks and whites.”  Sadly, he reports, “A lot of white people believe that’s actually where we are.  A lot of black people know we aren’t.” I have to agree with him here.

These thoughts may seem controversial.  They may make us uncomfortable.  For me, I was grateful to see these issues through Watson’s eyes and experiences.  I cannot be part of the solution if I do not understand what the real problems are.

My own reflections on race

I was brought up by my parents to respect people of all races.  In my early elementary school days in Long Island, New York, I thought that kids of various skin colors were no different from kids that wore a red, blue, or yellow shirt.  It just did not matter.  This background made for an easy transition to active duty military life, where we served and lived with many Soldiers of diverse races who all got along with each other due to our shared Army values and unity of purpose.

A spiritual dimension to this issue was introduced at a Promise Keepers conference in the mid-1990’s, where I was challenged to be active in racial reconciliation.  This conviction influenced my thinking and shaped men’s ministry events I led over the next several years.  This concept was reemphasized during the 2016 Faith@Work Summit, as one more than one speaker pointed out that the movement had become too male and too pale.  Since then, I have been seeking more opportunities at work to bring racial harmony when I can by ensuring that I, and those who work for me, treat everyone with dignity and respect.  This radio interview and book came at the right time, pushing me further towards what the Lord had laid on my heart a long time ago.

The gospel should bring us encouragement and hope

The passion and honesty that Watson expressed throughout the book was refreshing and on target.  Every once in a while, Watson gently taught me something that I truly needed to hear.  He writes, “The problem of racism is not in ‘that guy over there.’  It’s right here.”  He confessed that racism is inside himself and suggests that it is inside all of us as well.  He believes that the solution is for each of us to look inside ourselves, honestly confront the biases we have, and begin to change the evil that is in our hearts.

In the middle section of the book, I read with great interest his exposition of the fears that he and other men and women of color experience.  My heart was deeply grieved to read statements like this: “Black people have little expectation of being treated fairly by police in any situation.  We have a high expectation of being demeaned, abused, and possibly treated violently in any encounter with law enforcement. . . This is a reality that white people simply don’t know.”  I only had a glimpse of how bad this problem really is, only because I have asked Soldiers of color that have worked for me in the past to help me to see what I have never experienced firsthand.

At the end, Watson expresses a sense of encouragement, despite the fact that “we still have race issues in America”.  He asserts, “ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem.”  He is encouraged “because God has provided a solution for sin through his son, Jesus, and with it a transformed heart and mind.”  He concludes that the cure for these front-page racist tragedies is not education or exposure, but the gospel.  The gospel, he reminds us, “gives mankind hope.”

I highly recommend this book if you want to better understand the complex issues of race in order to be agents of reconciliation.  Isn’t that why we are here, to tell people that Jesus’ free offer of salvation is available to all?  Ultimately, there will be a vast number of men and women “from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9).

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.