In an era when the big issues on our agenda includes devolution, Brexit, Scottish independence; and a tory government that is promoting localism, are the answers to the challenges facing humanity local or global? In the age of globalisation, digital TV, telecommunication, cheap travel and the internet; can anyone be considered an outsider?
Clearly issues like climate change, terrorism, disease and epidemics, immigration, tax evasion, etc., are best tackled through cooperation, and by sharing of resources and expertise. So what then was Dr King trying to convey to his audience when he stated that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”? The answer to this pertinent question lies in the spirit in which it was written in the first place. And by spirit, I mean the surrounding circumstances from which the author wrote — in a nutshell, the reason why Dr King wrote his seminal Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
So in this essay I will be treating liberation theology within Christian theology, and chief reason behind this particular letter.
Liberation theology within Christian theology
Cone (1970) argues that “Liberation is not only consistent with the gospel but it is the gospel of Jesus Christ. There can be no theology which is not identified unreservedly with those who are humiliated are abused” (p. 17). In reference to (Proverbs 14:21; Deuteronomy 24:14–15; Exodus 22:21–23; and Proverbs 17:5), Gutierrez (1973) alluded that “to love Yahweh is to do justice to the poor and oppressed” (p. 194)
Gutierrez (1991) argued that Job’s friends “follow the prevailing theology of the age: a doctrine of temporal retribution, which says that the upright are rewarded with prosperity and health, while sinners are punished with poverty and sickness.” (p. 147). Interestingly, this philosophy has survived through history and has been a source of shame, condemnation; leading to apathy and poverty of aspiration for those who have unfortunately found themselves on the other side of life’s wheel of fortune. But Jesus tackled this paradigm headlong when his disciple asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” he answered: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (John 9:1–3)
Evidence of this trajectory is visible in the history and formation of Western society as we know it today. Debt, poverty and suffering is often perceived as the fault of the victims. As a result, in times of hardship the poor and the disenfranchised tend to suffer the most through: loss of jobs, salary caps or freeze, reduction in welfare spending, immigration controls, reduction in charitable giving and aid.
But social justice is a cross cutting theme within the fabrics of the Bible. In Genesis we are introduced to the story of a people who went to a neighbouring country in search of food, only to end up there as slaves under a brutal regime. We are also privy to hear God’s side of the argument as he said to Moses: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings” (Exodus 3:7).
As the story progresses, even the Israelites themselves were presciently warned by Moses: “When the Lord your God thrusts them out before you, do not say to yourself, “It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to occupy this land”; it is rather because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you.” (Deuteronomy 9:4). And after they had settled in the Land, the Jubilee (a year at the end of seven cycles of Sabbatical years) was introduced. During this season slaves and prisoners were to be freed, their debts forgiven, and their land and properties restored. The people are given the opportunity to start again, free from the chains of slavery and the shame of indebtedness (Leviticus 25:8–13).
Centuries later Prophet Amos would prophesy against crimes, injustices and greed; against the ruling elites who were imposing unfair labour and trade agreements on the people (Amos 6:1–7). The Prophet Jeremiah would pick up this theme in his era, citing the unwillingness of the ruling elites to observe the Jubilee as the reason behind their captivity and exile (Jeremiah 34:12–17).
In the New Testament, we see Jesus unveiling his ministry by quoting Isaiah 61:1 (Luke 4:18–19), and his work with the poor being fundamental to his daily activities, even so much so that Luke summarised his ministry in these words “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (Acts 10:38).
St Augustine’s idea of the kingdom of God, is highlighted by Rowland and Corner (1990): “Drawing upon his distinctive interpretation of the messianic kingdom in Revelation 20 as a description of the era of the church, Augustine argues that the church now on earth is both the Kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of heaven (City of God xx.9)” (p.114).
In reference to America’s origins, which happens to be pivotal in understanding the socio-political background of Dr King’s letter, Moltmann (1984) noted that, “the nation entered world history two hundred years ago with all the passions of political messianism. It lives from the power of the vision to be “a new nation conceived in liberty” (Abraham Lincoln)” (p. 148). For Atherthon (1994), and with reference to the church, it was “as a result of that war [the American Civil War], many Protestants gained the confidence to attack the new problems presented by industrialization” (p. 22). This rich history and lessons it provides, would eventually form the basis for community organising, and the strength of the prophetic voice of the church during the civil rights movement America.
Reason behind the Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963)
By way of background, the Birmingham nonviolent desegregation demonstrations kicked off in April 3, 1963, taking the shape of a coordinated sit-ins and marches against racism and racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama.
This was a spearheaded by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), and Dr King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Seven days into this exercise, Circuit Judge W. A. Jenkins raised a blanket injunction against their actions. In response to his injunction, leaders of both groups announced that they would not comply, so on April 12, Dr King and other activists were arrested and jailed.
Like the Prophet Amos who was seen as an outsider when he travelled from the Southern kingdom with an edict against social ills in the Northern Kingdom, in a time of peace and prosperity; Dr King was considered an outsider by other factions in the fight against segregation. So much so that while in jail, eight White Alabama clergymen expressed their fundamental disagreement with his approach in a newspaper article under the tile: A Call for Unity. In this piece, they noted:
“We agree rather with certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area. And we believe this kind of facing of issues can best be accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation. All of us need to face that responsibility and find proper channels for its accomplishment”. (A Call for Unity, Birmingham, Alabama, April 12, 1963)
Furthermore they questioned his timing, approach, and legality of this stance; urging protesters to withdraw their support from him.
A copy of the newspaper was sneaked into the jail and passed on to Dr King by a sympathiser. So, in response to the criticism posed by his fellow clergymen, and in a bid to express his belief in our common humanity, Dr King responded with his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
In this letter, Dr King put together a very robust defence, starting with their reference to him being an “outsider”. He used his position as the leader of the SCLC in his defence, citing its network of affiliated organisations, and perhaps most importantly, the fact that he was invited to Birmingham, Alabama. He took a further step to warn against possible division, which could potentially lead millions of African Americans to “seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies, a development that will lead inevitably to a frightening racial nightmare.”
On his tactics (public actions such as sit-ins and marches), which his critics cited as the main cause of the violence, Dr King noted that the situation had left them with “no alternative”, other than to pursue “constructive” tensions, with a view to cause meaningful negotiations with the oppressors. He noted, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
On their questioning of the timing of his actions, he noted that, “Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’”. For Dr King, the constitutional rights of the African Americans was long overdue, so citing Chief Justice Earl Warren, he noted that: “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” Dr King went on to argue that “Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’”, and that change was the product of “tireless efforts”.
On the legality of his actions, even though Dr King stressed the need for patriotism, for him civil disobedience was reasonable when faced with unjust laws. He argued, “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”
On their accusation that he was using “extreme” measures, for Dr King “the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”
Last, and by no means least, Dr King challenged their view that the police maintained order non-violently. For Dr King, the police were part of the power structure, therefore instrumental in helping the oppressors “to preserve the evil system of segregation.” His praise will be reserved for the nonviolent demonstrators, “for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes.” he noted.
In response to the questions posed in my introduction (1. Are the answers to the challenges facing humanity local or global? 2. In the age of globalisation, digital TV, telecommunication, cheap travel and the internet; can anyone be considered an outsider? Meier (1990) argues that, “Both secular society and the Bible start from the simple experience of a right or just relationship among people living in a community, and from the need for “putting things right” in society when correct relationships are thrown out of balance and chaos threatens to set in” (p. 278).
Furthermore Alan Torrance argued citing The Theological Declaration of Barmen 1934 (a document produced by Christians who were against the position of the German Christian movement, who were in coalition with the Nazi government and their ideology) in his essay in Eberhard Jungel’s Christ, Justice and Peace, that:
“the theologians who met at Barmen stood against the stream of ‘culture Protestantism’ and civil religion by making two central affirmations. First, there is no area of human life over which Christ is not Lord. This means that the one Word whom we are to trust and obey in life and death can neither be localised within some prior, subjective realm of individual piety nor translated into some form of cultural self-affirmation. Second, to confess the Lordship of Christ over all areas of life (intellectual and cultural, ecclesial and civil) means that, in the light of the Gospel, we are unconditionally obliged to be true and obedient to the One who is in person God’s Word to humankind.” (1992, p. 7).
Therefore, and in similar vein, we have Dr King’s noteworthy statement: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Atherton, J. (ed.) (1994) Social Christianity: A Reader. United Kingdom: SPCK Publishing.
Cone, J.H. (1970) A Black Theology of Liberation. 4th edn. Philadelphia: HarperCollins Publishers.
Gutierrez, G. and Gustavo, G. (1973) Theology of Liberation. United States: Orbis Books.
Gutiérrez, G. and Gutierrez, G. (1991) The God of life. London: SCM Press, London.
Jungel, E., Torrance, A.J. and Hamill, B.D. (2014) Christ, Justice and Peace: Towards a theology of the state. United Kingdom: Continuum International Publishing Group.
Meier, J.P. (1990) The Mission of Christ and his Church: Studies in Christology and Ecclesiology. Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier.
Moltmann, J. (1984) On Human Dignity: Political Theology and Ethics. United Kingdom: SCM Press.
Rowland, C. and Corner, M. (1990) Liberating Exegesis: The Challenge of Liberation Theology to Biblical Studies. United Kingdom: SPCK Publishing