Every year on MLK Day, I am struck by the same familiar memory. I am sitting in Mr. Morgenstein’s classroom, and on my desk are a few sheets of paper, stapled together in the upper lefthand corner. I have a pen and thick highlighter ready, as I always do. And in my mind’s eye, I can see the title on the top of the page, in a bold, seriffed font: “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
It was on that day that I first read these words:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Even now, that sentence gives me goosebumps, with their simple profundity, the way I sense its truth deep in my bones.
In his letter, Dr. King writes about why it was necessary for him to come to Birmingham. He talks about current events and the personal and professional ties that drew him there, but eventually he boils it down to this: Dr. King was in Birmingham because there was injustice in Birmingham.
Isn’t that what Jesus did, too? When he ate dinner with tax collectors, when he spoke with a Samaritan woman at the well, when he turned over tables in the temple? He put himself in the middle of injustice wherever it existed. And when he told us to feed the hungry, invite in the stranger, visit the prisoner? He is asking me, too, to work on behalf of anyone suffering under injustice and oppression. Isaiah said it well:
“Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and provide the poor wanderer with shelter–when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)
The church we attend here in Grand Rapids includes “working for measurable change among the oppressed” in their mission statement, right after a bit about living out the way of Jesus. The more I’ve read Scripture, the more I’ve realized that you simply can not separate following Jesus and fighting injustice. I don’t believe Jesus gave us that option.
And interestingly enough, the first place I remember learning that lesson wasn’t in a church service. It wasn’t in Sunday school or even in a Bible study. It was on a weekday morning during first period, reading Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Admittedly, I don’t do this well, most of the time. I write letters to Fotunate and hang her photo on my fridge. I pay attention to organizations like IJM who are working for change, and sometimes I send money. Once in a great while I write a letter to a government official. There is so much more I could do. I don’t always know what to do, and even when I do, I don’t always do it. I am often stuck in my suburban, privileged bubble. If I were alive during the Civil Rights movement, would I have been marching alongside Dr. King? I hope so, but I’m not always sure. I suppose if there is anything I’m meant to gain from having a holiday like today on the calendar, maybe it’s that I should come away with a renewed desire to live a life that honors Dr. King’s work.
This morning, I reread Dr. King’s letter, and then I wrote a quick note of thanks to Mr. Morgenstein. (And by “note,” I mean Facebook message.) I had to thank him for handing me that copy of Dr. King’s letter that day and forever changing my understanding of my roles as a citizen and as a follower of Jesus.
“We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God…”
I read the news headlines and I read my Bible, and I know that all Dr. King wrote in that letter is true. Even now, it is true, and I want to be a willing coworker.
I’ve been posting a small benediction on Instagram each Monday. This morning I couldn’t quite find the words, but here they are now, better late than never:
May we reflect Jesus the same way Dr. King did: desperately hoping for peace and justice, while allowing our hope to move us towards action. May we draw near to those suffering under injustice. May we pray for God’s kingdom to come, but may we also use our words, hands, and feet to build it together.