The Idea of Letter from Birmingham Jail
The renowned civil rights titan, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was unjustifiably thrown into jail by a system which sought to silence those who would dare to expose its vile racist inequities. King, who was exercising his right to protest, resulted in him being thrown into a cold dark cell in Birmingham. While imprisoned, he read an interesting headline in the local newspaper entitled, “White Clergyman Urge Local Negroes to Withdraw from Demonstrations.” Within the margins of the paper, King composed his response, which became his, Letter from Birmingham Jail. This letter became one of the most crucial documents in American civil rights history. Fifty years later, a team of racially diverse evangelical ministers would come together to offer the new generation much-needed reflection on this historic text. With the leadership of editor Bryan Loritts, these men compiled various chapters that formed this book.
The powerful opening chapter is written by John Perkins. The chapter emulates as a personal letter to Dr. King, and in it, Perkins shares his personal story of racial inequality. His testimony destroys the idea of Christianized American history, exposing the injustices of white oppression while providing optimistic hope that the power of the gospel will grant forgiveness in our hearts toward oppressors and allow us to renew society. The second chapter, as well as the rest of the chapters, will begin with a short letter to Dr. King before transitioning into a pastoral reflection by the given author of the chapter.
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John Piper is the author of chapter two, and in it, he shares with King his desire that the civil rights leader “had made the biblical gospel clearer” (56). Piper thanks Dr. King for his sacrifices as he moves into his pastoral reflections on how the King’s powerful theology combined with the harmony of God, Scripture and the gospel stands today as a means for genuine ethnic diversity and justice. Crawford Loritts Jr., an African American pastor of a predominantly white church, takes up the reigns in chapter three. He expresses his “profound debt of gratitude” (74) to King and tells his personal “progress report” (76) of what has come to past since the letter from Birmingham. Loritts’s stories are tragic, narrating the many evils of white oppression and the silence of white churches in the midst of storming racism. The other chapters likewise share this sentiment, through personal stories the atrocities of the past and the blindness of today’s culture.
In addition to the blindness of the culture, the authors test the readers to see the damaged vision of the evangelical church. John Bryson in chapter four notes that “We live in an incredibly racialized society . . . . Ugly parts of American history need to be owned, acknowledged, and ought to lead us to ask for forgiveness and repent” (109). Bryan Loritts also writes in chapter five about how “the church of Jesus Christ has been entrenched inhomogeneity” (p. 124), failing to see not only the fallout of racism but also the power of Christ to transform the church. In chapter six Sandy Willson, like the other authors, gives thanks to Dr. King for the “trails you blazed” (p. 132) and uncrates the long journey ahead, given the current state of racialization in America and our churches. Albert Tate’s opens the chapter by quoting King’s comment that Sundays “11 a.m. hour is the most segregated hour of the week” (p. 152) and on all accounts of total blindness among his white peers at a Christian college and in a local church ministry. Charlie Dates invites readers to see how “American evangelicalism . . . is yet unrepentant of its sin of segregation” (p. 171) in chapter eight. In chapter nine, Matt Chandler offers readers theology of diversity for the church in light of the gospel of Jesus. The book comes to a close in chapter ten by approaching the trial of multiethnic ministry given the current American evangelicalism.
There is much to be gathered from this magnificent book. The personal stories given by the authors are genuinely sobering, and their wisdom is priceless. Readers, however, may long for a more pragmatic application and theological depth in which the book offers little by way of methods for clergy looking for a how-to guide, which personally is refreshing. It is a good move on the editor’s part to abstain from simple formulas, as this sensitive topic needs to be wrestled with by church leaders in local contexts. Theologically, the chapters left me longing for more interaction. In addition, the book could be strengthened by including more black theologians, as well as including interactions with theologies of race. That said, the book’s theology will undoubtedly stir the reader to apply what has been read. Editor Bryan Loritts deserves applause for this Magnificent book. It is a beautiful gift to the evangelical church and hopefully will provide help for the long overdue discussion in the church.