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"Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and the Good Samaritan

January 17, 2022

Discipleship Blog Author

Scott Long

Central Campus Pastor

Each year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I read some of Dr. King's work and listen to his teachings. It has become edifying for me to write and share my reflections with my church family. Dr. King fought for justice and racial unity in our country, calling us all to the highest gospel virtue of love.

This year, I re-read Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It was penned on April 16, 1963, while King was detained in Birmingham, Alabama. He had been leading demonstrations in an effort for city leaders to take notice of the unjust segregation practices still taking place there. From the context of the letter, we can see that Dr. King had been criticized by white pastors and church leaders in the city for the “poor timing” and extreme nature of these demonstrations. In response to their criticism, Dr. King wrote this letter addressed to all “fellow clergy.” The address he gave is one that still preaches today.

Read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” here

Dr. King's letter is a call for Christian pastors to notice the plight of blacks who were being pushed down and severely mistreated. It was a challenge from one pastor to other pastors that they should not be criticizing his actions but joining him with action of their own to take up the cause of the marginalized. He calls them out for not loving their neighbors in a biblical sense. I believe the heart of this letter is extremely relevant for the church today. There is still much disunity in the American church around the issues of justice and race. Pastors and Christians are still criticizing each other for either taking a stand for racial justice or being silent. Churches are still largely homogenous--meaning its congregants are predominately made up of people of the same ethnicity.

Personally, I don’t think the greatest problem contributing to the church’s division today is active racism. To be sure, there is racism and prejudice that still exists. There are many stereotypes that need to be broken. But in my experience inside the church itself, It’s not blatant racism that divides us. Rather, it’s a lack of empathy and unwillingness to step across the aisle to serve each other in our pain. In my experience, minority brothers and sisters are frustrated at feeling unheard, unseen, and uncared for when people who look like them experience injustice and pain. I’ve also had many conversations with white brothers and sisters that are frustrated and feel labeled, mistrusted, and accused when someone who looks like them commits the sin of racism or what appears to be racism. We are simply missing each other. We don’t empathize with each other’s pain and thus can’t trust one another. The end result is that we often don’t feel comfortable worshiping with one another..

That is what Letter to Birmingham Jail calls for. See me! Help me!

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice;” – MLK Jr.

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” – MLK Jr.

This lament is not over what ungodly people are hatefully doing, but what godly people are not lovingly doing.

As I read, I can’t help but think of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan--a story about two religious folks who didn’t love their neighbor by seeing him and helping him, while one unlikely person--a Samaritan—beautifully demonstrated loving one’s neighbor as Jesus loves us.

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
Luke 10:25-37 ESV

The lawyer asks Jesus how a person can inherit eternal life. How can we enter a relationship with God? How can we have our sins forgiven and enter His kingdom? Jesus’ answer is meant to make the man pause. He points the lawyer to the law of God (God’s perfect design for life). The lawyer correctly answers with a summary of the whole law in two commands: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” (v.27)

No one can fulfill these commands. We are all sinners who have broken these commands repeatedly. The lawyer should have asked another question: “Lord, I can’t do that, so what must I do to be saved?Jesus would have then said something like what he told Nicodemus in John 3:16, “Believe that God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (My paraphrase) 

When one believes on Christ for the forgiveness of sin, they have eternal life. Flowing out of that new life is a new power and desire to love God and love neighbor. Instead, the lawyer asks who his neighbor is. He falsely assumes that he could love his neighbor according to God's perfect standard. This time Jesus answers with a story about how to love our neighbors and who are neighbors are. 

Question 1: “How do I love my neighbor?” - Compassion & Practical Service

The Samaritan, unlike the two religious leaders, went out of his way to see the plight of the man who was beaten and left for dead. He didn’t ask why the man was in that part of town. He didn’t try to figure out if the facts of what happened to him warranted him getting beat up. He didn’t “just preach the gospel” to him and pray for him. He saw the man’s pain with great compassion. And he gave out of his own blessings to meet the man’s needs. 

The religious leaders did the opposite. They stepped around the man, choosing not to see his condition. They turned a blind eye. There are probably many reasons why they chose to do that. Some may be legitimate and understandable. But the bottom line is they didn’t see, and they didn’t help a person in pain. Dr. King was calling out his white fellow pastors for acting in the same way as these religious leaders in Jesus' parable.

What does this tell us practically? If we want to love our neighbors, we must see their plight with empathy and strive to meet their needs as we can--even when it's inconvenient. This is what Dr. King was calling the clergy to do. See our pain! Don’t step around us when we are lying in the streets. Don’t walk on the other side because you’re afraid of what other people who don’t love God might say about you or do to you. See us and help us! 

Question 2: “Who is my neighbor?” -The “Other" Person in Need

The last question is the game changer. After telling the story Jesus asks the lawyer, “which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor?” (v. 36) The lawyer’s answer--or lack thereof--shows that Jesus dropped a kingdom bomb in his life and ours. The clear answer to Jesus’ question of “who proved to be a neighbor” is the Samaritan man. That is significant because Jews hated Samaritans. There were centuries of racial tension between these two ethnic groups. Samaria was conquered by Assyria in 722 BC. Many of the Jews were deported, but some remained. When the Assyrians conquered other nations, they moved those people into Samaria with the remaining Jews. There was intermarriage between these different ethnic groups. So, Jews considered Samaritans to be half-breed, ungodly, and dirty. In short, the Samaritan from the story would have been the bitter enemy of the Jewish lawyer. To answer Jesus’ question, the man would have had to say, “my neighbor is my enemy.” The person from that “other” ethnic group that he hated.  

To truly love neighbor, we will have to not just see and help our people. We will have to see and help the “other” people as well. The ones that are ethnically, culturally, and economically different than us. The ones that our cultural history tells us ought to be our enemy.

It’s here that the gospel has the power to break down our ethnic barriers and create God-glorifying unity. Everyone expects us to see and help our own. Everyone is willing to see and help the need in their neighborhood. But what we need is a power that compels us to be a neighbor to the person who is on the Jericho Road in the “other side” of town. We need a power so potent that we would inconvenience ourselves to cross the divide and have compassion for someone who is “other” than us. That is exactly what we have in the gospel. (See Eph. 2:11-22) The precious blood of Jesus poured out on the cross is powerful to break down ethnic barriers and create a new category of people. In Christ, there’s not “my people” and “other people." There’s redeemed people and not yet redeemed people. When redeemed people from any background are in pain, I am obligated and empowered by the blood of Jesus to see them and help them. Some of those needs are tangible. We certainly can’t meet every need for every person. In those cases, we live by the principle, “do for one what you wish you could do for all.” But a lot of those needs are emotional. We meet them by having the capacity to feel one another. To not dismiss one another when our cultural background makes us view things a certain way. To not try and negate or vilify one another simply because we don’t agree on how the plights of people in America should be met. Dr. King wasn’t telling his brothers exactly what they needed to do to fix the problem. He was simply calling for allies and advocates in his suffering, rather than critics. To be honest, Black, White, Latino, and Asian brothers and sisters alike all need to do better at stepping into this call. We are all missing it. We all need to grow.

You may be thinking, “I struggle with empathy and don’t have opportunity to meet needs of people who are different than me.” There’s good news for you on this MLK Day. Empathy and opportunity grow when we are close to neighbors who are different. Diverse churches. Diverse small groups. Diverse dinner tables and friend circles. When you start getting close to people who are “other,” then you will begin to hear stories that grab your heart. The gospel builds a diverse family where stereotypes and fears break down. You will begin to look for ways to meet needs of others because needs are no longer far off and irrelevant, they are in your life, carried by people you love. In light of Jesus seeing and helping us, let’s learn to see and help each other.