Dr. King and unity through justice

The church season often called "Epiphanytide" runs from January 6 to the Feast of the Presentation on February 2. In this time, Christians focus on the revelation of Christ to the world and His universal mission: to Israel and to all nations. Christ came for all people — rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female — because, as the Apostle Paul tells us, we “are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

This week, too, many Christian churches will observe the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity beginning on January 18, an ecumenical celebration that recalls Jesus’s prayer for unity in John 17: "that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me." 

Whether by chance or providence, Americans celebrate the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the third Monday in January, a date which invariably falls during Epiphanytide. It is a perfect occasion for reflecting on what unity within the church means.

Dr. King's 1963 "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" is one of his most famous works. It was a response to an open letter by eight Alabama clergymen entitled "A Call for Unity," which branded Dr. King an "outsider," urged "a realistic approach to racial problems," and, in response to peaceful civil rights demonstrations across the South, called for "law and order and common sense."

Dr. King rejected this false sort of unity, condemning those who were "more devoted to 'order' than to justice" and those "who prefer[red] a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice." For Dr. King, true unity was possible only through reconciliation, and reconciliation was possible only through justice. He lamented Christian leaders who did nothing but "mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities" from the sidelines of the civil rights movement. And he "wept over the laxity of the church":

But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

Dr. King followed up with one of the most convicting passages in the letter:

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. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators." But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. 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.

Dr. King pleaded for a true Christian unity – unity defined by a commitment to justice – praising those Christians who were "active partners in the struggle for freedom." "I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour," he wrote. He concluded his letter in that same spirit, expressing his hope to meet each of the clergymen who wrote him "not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother."

"Let us all hope," Dr. King wrote in the letter's final paragraph, "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."

View an original early draft of the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and listen to audio of Dr. King reading the letter here.