Letter from a Birmingham jail – part 3


I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. 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; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. 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. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.


My deepest frustration is not with the outright sinner. It’s the moderate believer. It’s me. When I settle. There is nothing so tragic as the man or woman living a tamed Christian life in a world in need of our untamed Redeemer. The slave masters of the 19th century were wicked.  The policemen of the 1960’s were often corrupt. But it was the white man who turned his back that frustrates me the most. I can hear the excuses. “I don’t want to get involved.  It’s too risky.  I can’t make a difference.”

Oh the danger of complacency!

When will we stop being surprised by the sins of the sinner, or the terror of the terrorist?  Evil men will always do evil. If anyone is to stand for justice, it must be those who bow to the King whose throne is founded on justice. It’s not enough to depart from evil; we are called to do good. We aren’t saved by our doing; we are saved by Jesus’ doing. But that eternal reality is supposed to translate into action-oriented fruit.

Talking is good, but not enough.  Christians have mastered the art of talking about Jesus and talking about the Bible and talking about how bad the world is.  We even talk about talking about Jesus.  But at some point the rubber needs to meet the road.  We need to do what it says.

Do you love justice?  Than go work justice.  Activate.  Do you believe human trafficking must be addressed? Then stop buying chocolate from companies who use cocoa harvested by slaves. Help us build rescue homes. Are you pro-life?  Do you believe abortion ends a life created in the image of God? Then do something about the thousands of foster children that no one has adopted. Use your voice as the conscience for our culture. Activate. Do you hate racism? Then have the guts to recognize the connection between race and the massive proportion of the black community that has been exterminated via abortion (check out this link). Do you hate poverty?  Then sell your possessions and give to the poor.  Or partner with people to tutor at-risk children so that the cycle can be stopped.  Or add 1% of your income to provide micro-loans to start-up businesses in third world countries.  Are you concerned that your heart is getting hard? Then drive downtown and eat lunch with a homeless man. Take a trip to Haiti. Start visiting a nursing home. Do you feel like you’d like to know God better but feel so distant? Set your alarm and wake up two hours early to pray. Do it now! Read the book of Revelation in one sitting. Memorize Colossians 3. Take ten minutes of silence. Visit the jail. Do you wish people would be more authentic? Then stop bickering and start inviting people to your house. Make some food, open your soul, make the first move.

Oh the danger of the Christian moderate. Oh the danger of an inactive faith. Perhaps our world’s greatest tragedy is not the terrorism of the wicked; but the complacency of the righteous.


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Thoughts on Letter from a Birmingham jail – part 3

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