Dr. King Addresses the American Church

Today is the day that Americans celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He played a pivotal role in leading the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s and to awakening America (and the white church) to its failure in its treatment of African Americans. In my book, When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus, I ask questions about why the white Evangelical church failed on the issue of Race and I look at what lessons we can learn from the past. I also consider how Jesus can lead us in a better way in our engagement with culture in the future.


In chapter 5 of the book, I give a thorough treatment of Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963). I believe that this writing was prophetic in both its correction of white moderates who wanted to “go slow” in addressing racial segregation and also its correction of white Christians who were not living out their call to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). An excerpt:

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Martin Luther King Jr.—Prophet and Catalyst: It is not my desire to break any new ground on the ministry of Dr. King. But it is significant that he did ask our question of how this system of separation, persecution, violence, and evil could happen in the South, a land filled with Christian churches and dripping with the language of Zion. King was arrested April 12, 1963, in Birmingham for violating a law in Alabama against mass public demonstrations when he tried to revive the “Birmingham Campaign,” a direct- action protest against the segregationist business practices of Birmingham’s downtown merchants. King and his fellow minister and best friend, Ralph Abernathy (Chapter 1), marched from the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church and were subsequently arrested. The march was intended to push their agenda forward and get the attention of community leaders. He did get the attention of Birmingham’s religious leaders as eight members of the white clergy wrote a letter to the Birmingham News that criticized King’s direct-action strategy, calling it “unwise and untimely.” They also appealed “to both our White and negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”130 Here we again find the Stoic appeal to order and honor and duty. Instead of seeing the brutality and injustice and speaking out against it, these white clergy, who held cultural and social power and who considered themselves racial moderates,131 sided with the perspective that would best preserve the status quo and the white Southern way of life. Don’t rock the boat. Do not try and bring change too fast. It is not time yet. Just wait. Dr. King read the words of the white clergy from his jail cell telling him to wait and he felt he had to respond. That jail cell in Birmingham would become a pulpit from which Dr. King would speak to the world in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” as he began to blow the lid off of Southern religious hypocrisy.


After defending at the beginning of his letter his reasons for protest of the unjust system of segregation, King turned his penetrating gaze upon both the white moderate in the South as well as the church. In regard to the white moderate who was not a blatant, violent racist, but saw himself as the benefactor of the black man and the gatekeeper of social change in the South, King leveled a stinging critique

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler 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; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can- not agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, where the negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substance-filled positive peace, where all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all the tension its exposing creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.132

King, sitting in a Birmingham jail, was bumping up against the Stoic call for honor, stability, and submission to the natural order of things, an order that directly benefited the perceived superiority of Southern whites. He and Walker Percy would have had a lot to talk about, I think. This rac- ism, while real and evil, was a philosophical necessity to support the status quo that let the white establishment continue to enhance its prosperity and security. If segregation began to break down, then the entire social structure would break down with it, or so it was feared. The direct action of King and others who were advocating for justice in Birmingham was meant to bring the structure of hypocritical oppression to light in a crisis so that it could be dealt with. White society was more interested in “order” and “peace” for itself than in justice for the oppressed. And white church leaders were sid- ing with the desires of the white society. King was rightly calling that out. one must remember that he is speaking not to businessmen, however, but rather, to Christian and Jewish clergy who were rooted in a long theological tradition of prophetic activism on behalf of the oppressed but who were allowing that tradition to be subverted to the prevailing culture. He next addresses them directly:I had the strange feeling when I was suddenly catapulted into the leader- ship 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 move- ment and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows. In spite of my shattered dreams of the past, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and with deep moral concern serve as the channel through which our just grievances could get to the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disap- pointed.

King, present two years earlier at the siege of First Baptist Church on Ripley Street in Montgomery in May 1961, was one of the first to ask the question that is at the foundation of this book: Where was the white church in all of this? or, rather, what was the white church? A few years ago at an event commemorating a Freedom Riders museum opening in Montgomery, I had the privilege of meeting Fred Gray, the African American civil rights lawyer who worked with Dr. King. He also represented Rosa Parks and the Freedom Riders and argued many landmark civil rights cases. I asked him if he ever thought about the white church and why it did not intervene. He looked at me dismissively and said that he never gave any thought to it. He had no time back then to worry about white Christians and what they were doing or were not doing. But two years after the siege of First Baptist, King states that he thought about it quite a bit. He goes on: I have heard numerous southern religious leaders call upon their wor- shippers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say follow this decree because integra- tion is morally right and the negro is your brother. In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say: “Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern,” and I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other-worldly religion which makes a strange, un-biblical distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.

King now nears the real issue. The separation of the issue of race from the gospel and the marginalizing of race to a mere “social issue, with which the gospel has no real concern” was what allowed white Southern Christians to ignore the dehumanization of black people that occurred in Birmingham and throughout the South. White Christians seemed to be most concerned with going to heaven, or with their own spiritual standing before God. What happened to their neighbor, especially if he was black, did not involve their religion. This “un-biblical distinction between body and soul” was known as gnostic dualism, a Greek and early Christian heresy that is addressed, at least in its early iterations, in 1 John when it says that if you claim to love God but hate your brother, you are a murderer and there is no eternal life in you (1 John 3:15). So how one treats other people is a core issue in the Christian life.

King analyzed the theological and social situation of the churches well. They could not act because they held a false view of the implications of the gospel, seeing the result of gospel belief to be narrowly concerned with the individual state of the sinner before God. This is my view and the evangelical view, not necessarily King’s, but we must remember that the core of the gospel most definitely addresses individual salvation and justification through faith in the person of Jesus Christ and acceptance of his substitutionary atonement on the Cross and through the Resurrection. But the implications of the gospel affects all of society, as people made right with God then live to please God by doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8).

King goes on: So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a tail light behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. on sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at her beautiful churches with their spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlay of her massive religious education buildings. over and over I have found myself asking: “Who worships here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification.133 Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

You can hear echoes here of Bonhoeffer in Germany in 1933 addressing his fellow pastors or Frederick Douglass when he attacked the false Chris- tianity of the slave holders. “Who worships here? Who is their God?” King was asserting that the Christianity expressed by the white evangelical church in this regard was not the faith of the Bible. What was being demonstrated through racist religion was not the lifestyle that flowed from those who ac- tually knew Jesus. Bonhoeffer said the same when he said that whether the German and the Jew could be in the same church was a gospel issue, not a social issue, and that the church that separated on the basis of nationality or race was not the true church. King strikes the same chord. A basic reading of Ephesians 2:10–22 would cause one to consider that if the implications of the gospel are lost (Jew and Gentile coming together in one church with the dividing wall of hostility and separation torn down in Christ), then is not the gospel also lost, at least in its totality? I do not think that King is saying that whites who sided with segregation and did not advocate for justice were not Christians. Actually, King appeals to them as Christian brothers. But it is clear that he is saying that amongst those who claimed the name of Jesus, the implications of the gospel had been lost in how Christians were to treat others. Because of this, the church was weakened. King continues with just that point:

There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were 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. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But they went on with the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven” and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God- intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.

Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter 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 vocal sanction of things as they are.

The church has a call to be a “colony of heaven,” but it had forsaken that call to side with the culture and defend the status quo. According to Walker Percy, as we have stated, this was the philosophy of the Greeks and Stoicism and not Christianity. Support the status quo. Maintain order. Keep the peace. Maintain your status in society and live with quiet honor, dignity, and virtue because it is right to maintain the framework of society. Accept your lot and do not disturb it. This social fatalism protected the powerful and those in the higher echelons of the community, but kept the oppressed in a subservi- ent position. The white-black separation in the American South during this time reminds one more of the caste system in India under Brahmanistic Hinduism where the strata of religion and society were fixed and one must fatalistically accept their position in that society than of the picture of God’s people coming together that we see in scripture.

The church was supposed to confront all of that division and separation through proclaiming that all are made in the image of God and all have worth and dignity before the Lord. Christ died for all and the church is to be made up of all people who have experienced salvation in Christ. Even those who rejected Christ were to be treated with dignity and sacrificial love because Jesus commanded it. We are called to disciple nations (Mat- thew 28:18–20), which means that Christians are to make disciples of individuals as well as teach nations what is right and proper and how to live according to God’s design.

The Kingdom of God is fundamentally different from the kingdoms of this world. A segregated society that even proliferated division in the church according to race was/is an unthinkable position biblically. Bonhoeffer was right. So was King. Yet this division was maintained by the white church because it cared more about what was acceptable according to the larger so- ciety and its own preferences and way of life than it cared about what God had in mind. Bonhoeffer and King could both see this and it is interesting that in their opposition to the status quo, both shared a martyr’s death.134

now it is true that the Bible commands Christians to submit to the gov- erning authorities (Romans 13:1–7) and to lead quiet and peaceful lives and to mind their own business (1 timothy 2:2; 1 Thessalonians 4:11). But this was written to Christians who were not in power and who were persecuted and oppressed. In the South in 1963, white Christians largely held the reins of power. They most often were the governing authorities. Their pastors and churches influenced greatly what happened in Alabama and elsewhere throughout the South. They were not supposed to sit idly by while unbibli- cal sin, injustice, and division permeated the land. They were the ones in control. Were they not to act in some way to make things right on Earth as they were in Heaven?

King goes on to say that this position of being a chaplain to a corrupt culture would have a massive effect on the future influence of the church in America:

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the Church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early Church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust. Maybe again I have been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inex- tricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Maybe I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual Church, the church within the Church, as the true ecclesia and the hope of the world.

Fifty years later, King’s words seem quite prophetic. The white evangeli- cal church has lost its foundational place in society since the 1960s. You can even make the case (as I will in the next chapter) that America’s flight from God and rejection of Christian thought and values finds its impetus, at least partially, in the failure of the white evangelical church to live according to biblical truth in places like Montgomery and Birmingham in the 1950s and ’60s. our actualized fall was that precise and that recent and preceded the public acceptance of immorality and libertine values in America. But King makes the same distinction that Frederick Douglass made in his denunciation of the religion of the slaveholders (Chapter 2). He says that there is a true church, a real ecclesia (called-out ones) who, because they cling to Jesus Christ, the Suffering Servant, remain the hope of the world. Yes, there is hope, but it was not being well expressed by those claiming to make up the white church in Birmingham or throughout the South in the early 1960s. Still, the faithful church existed then in those who looked to Christ instead of this world and it exists today. It was often obscured in the South in the 1960s by the status quo church that helped maintain the Southern way of life.

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