January 7, 2019

Branding or Being: Letter from the Birmingham Jail and Its Relevancy Today

In considering the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he appears more revered in death than in life. Cornell West, professor at Union Theological Seminary who also taught at Yale, Harvard and Princeton, declared, Although much of America did not know the radical King — and too few know today, the FBI and U.S. government did. They called him ‘the most dangerous man in America.’” In 2019, are you aware of any pastor that is considered the most dangerous man (or woman) in America” who advocates for love and promotes non-violence like Dr. King?


Through an analysis of the letter from the Birmingham jail, written over 55 years ago, we note the concerns raised then by Dr. King as still relevant today. Instead of focusing on his response to a diverse group of clergy in Birmingham, let’s consider its applicability to Seventh-day Adventists in the Lake Union through this particular excerpt.


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 often vocal sanction of things as they are.”



Unlike our pioneers who took a stand against slavery and participated in the Abolitionist movement, the Adventist Church continues its quest of the status quo when it comes to police brutality, especially as it relates to minorities. Instead of advocating for the oppressed (Proverbs 31:8-9 and Isaiah 1:17), the Church leaves the marginalized, more or less, to fend for themselves. Statements are good, but we need to end this now.


A religion that leads men to place a low estimate upon human beings, whom Christ has esteemed of such value as to give Himself for them; a religion that would lead us to be careless of human needs, sufferings, or rights, is a spurious religion. In slighting the claims of the poor, the suffering, and the sinful, we are proving ourselves traitors to Christ” (Ellen G. White, Thoughts from the Mount of Blessings, p. 136, emphasis supplied).


Samuel G. London, Jr. in Seventh-day Adventists and the Civil Rights, identified conservatism, an ideological point of view that stresses maintaining the status quo as one of five primary reasons for the failure of the church to engage in the Civil Rights Movement. In its quest to straddle the fence, it begs the question: Is this a characteristic of the Laodicean church? Trying to be neutral or pursuing a compromise in the face of human needs, sufferings or rights widens the distinction between supremacy and inferiority.


From the burnt offerings to Amos, to the public ministry of Jesus Christ, to the early church in Acts, the Bible addresses the marginalized and the oppressed to ensure an authentic representation of the gospel. Consequently, we should embody the gospel and not just promote it. The gospel’s distinction only identifies the difference between believers versus nonbelievers in Jesus Christ. In considering the letter from the Birmingham jail, does your partisan persuasion, political perspective, race, gender, wealth or creed trump the gospel?


Edward Woods III is the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty director for the Lake Region Conference and chairperson of the Conscience & Justice Council. 


To download a copy of Letter from Birmingham Jail:  https://bit.ly/1T9MB3o