Some of the most important passages, in my mind, from Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (1963), which I take as one of the most important religious texts of our time. Substitute synagogue for church, etc., and you'll get a flavor for how prophecy might sound to us in our day.
In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of
racial and economic injustice, I have heard 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, on Biblical distinction between body and soul, between
the sacred and the secular.
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 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 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
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.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before.
If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early
church, it will lose its authenticity, 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.
Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status
quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner
spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the
hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from
the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of
conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom, They
have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia,
with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for
freedom. … Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the
true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel
of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.