More than fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Much has transpired in the half-century since, and progress has been made in the issues that were close to Dr. King’s heart. Thankfully, the burning crosses, biting police dogs, and angry mobs of that day are long gone. But in their place, passivity has emerged. A passivity that must be addressed.
That’s the aim of Letters to a Birmingham Jail. A collection of essays written by men of various ethnicities and ages, this book encourages us to pursue Christ exalting diversity. Each contribution recognizes that only the cross and empty tomb of Christ can bring true unity, and each notes that the gospel demands justice in all its forms. This was a truth that Dr. King fought and gave his life for, and this is a truth that these modern day "drum majors for justice" continue to beat.
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About the Author
BRYAN LORITTS is the Lead Pastor of Fellowship Memphis Church, a multi-ethnic church ministering to the urban Memphis community. Bryan has a Master¿s Degree in Theology and is currently working on his PhD. In addition to serving the community of Memphis, Bryan¿s ministry takes him across the country as he speaks to thousands annually at churches, conferences, and retreats. He is the author of God on Paper and A Cross Shaped Gospel. He was also a contributing author for the book entitled Great Preaching. Bryan was recently voted as one of the top thirty emerging Christian leaders in the country by Outreach magazine. He serves on the Board of Trustees at Biola University. Bryan is married to Korie, and is the father of three sons: Quentin, Myles, and Jaden. You can follow Bryan on twitter @bcloritts.
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LETTERS TO A BIRMINGHAM JAIL
A Response to the Words and Dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
By BRYAN LORITTS
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2014 Bryan Loritts
All rights reserved.
WHY WE CAN'T WAIT FOR ECONOMIC JUSTICE
WELL, MARTIN, there've been a few risings and settings of the sun since you wrote your letter from that Birmingham jail. You could not have known what that letter and your death would do to propel the cause of equal rights in this nation. Many of us during that time dared to dream the same dream that you gave words to. And many have paid the ultimate price to see that dream come to fruition. Thank you for giving voice to our struggle. Thank you for trusting in God and serving him in both life and death.
God worked in mysterious ways to prepare my life for engagement with the struggle that you gave your life to and for. His most powerful shaping came in the form of the death of my mother.
I was born in 1930 in New Hebron, Mississippi. My mother died of starvation when I was seven months old. My earliest memory is hearing the words, "Your mother is dead." Even as a young child, I knew that there was something really wrong with a person dying because of the lack of resources to buy food. I suppose this reality set the course of my life—at least subconsciously, Martin—on a track to champion the rights of those who were disenfranchised: the poor.
After my mother's death, the five children in our family, three boys and two girls, were taken in by my grandmother. She had already given birth to and was raising nineteen of her own children. My people were poor sharecroppers. The sharecropping system was an extension of the slave system. For those slaves who did not have land and had been property themselves, the sharecropping system put them back to work on a system that was semislave. It was a hard life. There was no such thing as economic justice for the sharecropper. His survival was dependent on a God-given ability to do much with little—and his willingness to remain silent when he was taken advantage of.
I learned this lesson of survival early in life. When I was about eleven or twelve years old, I worked a whole day hauling hay for a white gentleman. I was expecting to get a dollar or a dollar and a half for that day of work. But at the end of the day, he gave me a dime and a buffalo nickel ... one dime and one buffalo nickel. What I really wanted to do with it was take it and throw it on the ground, because I had value and worth. My value and my worth were well placed in my labor. I wasn't asking for him to give me anything. So I was completely affronted. It affronted my whole being. That's when I discovered that I had dignity, but I didn't have any way to protect it.
The harsh realities of bigotry and racism stirred the embers of anger and bitterness in my heart. I had not come to know the Lord yet, so this internal storm was raging towards a dangerous end.
My brother Clyde served faithfully in World War II, fighting Hitler's war. He survived the horrors of that war only to be reminded that he still had no rights in this country as a black man. When Clyde was murdered by a white police officer in 1947, I knew that I had to leave Mississippi—to stay would have meant certain death for an angry seventeen-year-old boy. So I went to California to get a fresh start.
California provided an environment far from the glare and oppression of Southern racism. It was the ideal place to start a family, so I married Vera Mae Buckley and was soon drafted to serve two years in the military. After my return from the military, our family began to grow and the first two of our children were born.
Our four-year-old son, Spencer, began attending a church and I was able to see a change in him, as he insisted on quoting a Bible verse before every meal. I went along to hear what he was learning. It was here that I heard the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ preached. The words of Galatians 2:20 (KJV)spoke directly to my heart: I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh Hive by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. Martin, my life changed at that very moment. I learned that I was loved by a holy God. As I look back on everything, it seems like since that moment I've been carried along by the hand of God.
When I visited a prison in California to share my faith, staring at me from behind the prison bars were young black men who looked just like me. Many of them had come from the Deep South to make a new start, but just didn't make it. As I looked at those young men and interacted with them, I knew God was calling me back to Mississippi. Back to that place of bigotry and racism—there was much that was unfinished in my heart toward Mississippi. There was much that God intended to teach me about His love for people—regardless of color. So at thirty years of age I came back to Mississippi to begin the work that God was calling me to.
In 1963 a group of civil rights workers came and spoke to me about the Voting Rights Drive and we got involved in it. When we heard about all you were doing for the cause, this was an inspiration for our work in voter registration. We got excited about the possibility of One Person—One Vote. This meant recognition of our personhood! It was the affirmation of our dignity as human beings! The Voting Rights Act was the beginning of the end of that old sharecropping system. We helped to organize voters in our county and the surrounding five counties in spite of tremendous threats from the Ku Klux Klan and other organizations that were determined that the Southern system was not going to change.
The great state of Mississippi was not ready yet to yield to the law of the land. It had a system already in place to handle agitators: jail. You found that out in Birmingham, Martin, when you were unjustly arrested. Darkness seemed to have the upper hand. Those must have been some difficult nights for you. But we already knew that great things can happen in jail. They can imprison your body, but they can't imprison your mind.
The apostle Paul called himself a prisoner of Christ, and declared that God can do great things from a prison cell: but ... the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel (Philippians 1:12 KJV). Great revolutions start in jail, and just like the apostle Paul, your prison epistle has been a rallying cry to all people—both black and white—for generations. Your letter spoke hope to us. It expressed the longings of a people for recognition, for respect, for equal access to the American Dream—for economic justice.
I too learned what it meant to be jailed unjustly—first in Mendenhall in December 1969. There was tension everywhere as our people were beginning to be mobilized to vote. Those of us who were helping with voter registration were labeled as troublemakers. I had gone to the jail to make sure a friend was not beaten. Knowing that if I went alone they would likely beat me as well, I took three carloads of children with me. We were all put in jail. As the crowd gathered outside the jail to protest, I was able to address them from my prison cell window on the second floor. I challenged them to be calm and to not fight hate with hate. We could not win with violence. We would instead boycott the merchants. We began to see that justice was an economic issue. I made up my mind while in the Mendenhall jail that this fight for justice was a worthy fight. There would be no turning back.
Our nonviolent protest and our demands for jobs for blacks, spots on the police force, and an end to police brutality were effective in drawing attention to the plight of blacks in Mississippi. And they were also effective in enraging the white power structure. Two months later twenty-three of us were arrested and put in jail in Brandon, Mississippi. I was met by the demon of racism and hatred in that place. I was tortured in the Brandon jail almost to the point of death. I was broken—almost defeated. I saw the effect of hatred in the eyes of our torturers. They were blinded by their ambition to maintain white supremacy in the South. I saw something that cannot be humanly overcome. Only the love of God could overcome such evil. I knew that if I didn't forgive, I would be overcome by the same darkness. I purposed at that moment to preach the gospel strong enough to win whites and blacks—to burn through the bigotry and hatred of racism.
Justice is birthed from the very heart of God. He revealed divine intent in the act of creation when He created man in His own image, in His own likeness. He put all people on an even plane, regardless of color—worthy of dignity and respect. And oh how our people needed to know that truth, Martin! We were not second-class citizens. God did not intend for us to grovel and beg and have a subsistence living. His heart was for each individual to work and to have their needs met through that work. So, economic justice was a fair and right claim. At its core economic justice is rooted in the proper stewardship of God's resources. The psalmist David boldly declared: The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof; the world and they that dwell therein (Ps. 24:1 KJV). Our resources have been supplied by God to be used in ways that honor Him and demonstrate our love for our fellow man.
But that's not the end of the story. The other side of that truth was that I had to wrap the image of the Southern racist in that same reality. The white racist also bore God's image and I had to allow God to love him through me. In the face of lynchings, beatings, murders, and all manner of inhumane treatment, this was not a man-sized challenge. This challenge could only be met with a power much greater than man: the love of God. In God's economy each individual was to be enriched by the other: our people were to benefit from the bounty of the white who had become enriched by free labor; the whites were to benefit from the character building truths that blacks had learned throughout and because of slavery.
All of this could have happened if America had lived up to the truth of her calling. God blessed this great nation to prosper beyond imagination. And I believe it was because of the desire of the first pilgrims to find a place where they could worship God, free from the tyranny of any government. But our nation is losing a sense of gratitude for the abundance and great bounty that God has bestowed upon us. In America we have witnessed the god of materialism sink his teeth into the fabric of the human soul. He has unleashed a spirit of rugged individualism, fueled by selfish greed. This has become normalized behavior that discourages a care for the other, and especially for the poor. The hope for America is that we will see our responsibility to care for the least among us in recognition of the truth that every person is created in the very image of God.
No, we cannot expect America to abide by the principles of love and justice of our Creator. America is not a Christian nation. But you were right, Martin, to voice strong disappointment in the church. The church should have been our strongest allies in the freedom movement and should have spoken truth to power. But instead they divorced themselves from the responsibility to bear witness to the world through the modeling of biblical love and care for one another. As you said, "they committed themselves to a completely other worldly religion which made a strange, unbiblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular."
Sadly, that debate still rages in the church today, fifty years later. The church is still today unsure whether we are called to be fully engaged in the social needs of people. It grieves my heart to see how we have missed the opportunity to be fully engaged in the battle for economic justice. We have abundant resources yet have failed to properly steward those resources because we have accommodated an apartheid church. The church was to be the vehicle that would represent the kingdom of God in the world. We were to be a model of oneness, sharing the love of Jesus Christ one to another, and meeting the needs of one another. The church in Acts 2 is a beautiful model of this oneness: Jews and Greeks having all things in common.
Yet there is hope for the church. My greatest hope is in the new emerging church leaders who have caught the vision for true biblical oneness: multicultural churches. They operate in an almost postracial context, not seeing each other as black, white, or brown—just as brothers and sisters in Christ. This is wonderful news! I see this as a powerful move of God among His body of believers. The vision is for many others to partner together in planting similar churches. Large churches may choose to plant churches in the inner city and become intentional about their engagement together: going as a group to the inner-city church once a month, providing a percentage of their tithe to support the inner-city church.
The gospel is meant to reconcile people to God and then to each other across cultural, ethnic, and social barriers. And all of this is so the world will know we are Christians because of that oneness. That's dynamic! I want to dedicate my remaining years promoting and encouraging these types of churches.
I am seeing churches catch the vision to adopt schools and prisons and engage with them to educate and bring hope and direction to those who are suffering. We see the economics of this, but more importantly we see the hand and heart of God in this as we seek to redeem the life of each child and affirm their dignity as image bearers of our God.
When I returned to Mississippi and began the work that God called me to, there was no grand vision, Martin. I'm sure you felt the same as you went from city to city. From a boycott, to a march, to The Poor Peoples Campaign in Chicago, and to jail you were following the divine hand of God. Trusting His hand to lead you in ways that would bring Him honor and help our people. It was the same for us in Mendenhall, as we fell in with the people and sensed needs that demanded a response. With meager resources and no political clout, God multiplied every investment of time, heart, and energy. Little became much in His hands.
What began to emerge were three principles that would be foundational in the formation of ministry to hurting people. They are what I call the three Rs: relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution. These three components are essential in restoring dignity to the poor and needy. You embodied the first principle, relocation, when you moved to Chicago to launch the Poor People's Campaign. Living among the people allows us to live out the gospel by sharing in the suffering and pain of others. Their needs become our needs, and we have the opportunity to better the quality of their lives spiritually, physically, and emotionally as we better our own.
The best picture of relocation is when Jesus took on the form of man and dwelt among us in order to give us a picture of righteousness and justice. His ultimate sacrifice of dying on the cross is the supreme example of bettering the lives of those we come to live among.
The second R, reconciliation, was based on Matthew 22:37–39 (KJV): Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. The heart of reconciliation is for people to be reconciled first to God and then to one another.
When we began preaching the Word in West Jackson to a few dozen people, our numbers multiplied quickly and Voice of Calvary Fellowship was formed. It became a place where white and black Christians worshiped side by side. It was one of the few congregations in the South where a black pastor and white pastor shared the same pulpit. I rejoice to see this happening more and more these days.
In an atmosphere where people have relocated to tend to the needs of others and where reconciliation has taken place, the third R, redistribution, is a natural response. It is easy to share one's wealth and resources with people you truly love and care for. There was an abundance of needs in Mendenhall and in West Jackson and God provided direction for how those needs were to be met. The People's Development, Inc. was a charity that purchased homes and sold them to the poor to help them become homeowners. Samaritan Inn was organized to provide shelter for those in distress. The first persons to stay in Samaritan Inn were white.
Excerpted from LETTERS TO A BIRMINGHAM JAIL by BRYAN LORITTS. Copyright © 2014 Bryan Loritts. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Letter from a Birmingham Jail 19
1 Why We Can't Wait for Economic Justice John Perkins 41
2 Waiting For and Hastening the Day of Multiethnic Beauty John Piper 57
3 A Painful Joyful Journey Crawford W. Loritts 75
4 Don't Do It Again John Bryson 95
5 Why We Can't Wait for Multiethnic Churches Bryan Loritts 113
6 Why Traditional, Suburban Churches Can't Wait Sandy Willson 133
7 The Multicultural Church Begins in Your Living Room Albert Tate 153
8 Why We Can't Wait for Christ-Exalting Diversity Charlie Dates 171
9 The Time Is Now for Multiethnic Churches and Movements Matt Chandler 187
10 A More Biblical Sunday Morning Soong-Chan Rah 203
Contributor Biographies 221
What People are Saying About This
This important book addresses an issue many assume resides outside of evangelical concerns: racial reconciliation in America. Reigniting Martin Luther King’s challenge to do the hard work of racial justice now, the articles in this volume boldly consider what might be done to effectively respond to a still “racialized” country. An overriding theme of fellowship is woven within this timely volume, encouraging the eager reader, evangelical or not, to imagine anew a beloved community of racial inclusion at the looming sunset of the Obama era. In a most brilliant move, this book calls for evangelicals to carry on the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement while expanding its limitations. It acknowledges that changing legislation is but one step toward racial reconciliation for a people with, as W.E.B. DuBois once eloquently put it, “unreconciled strivings” and “warring ideals.” This volume offers the Bible as a potent tonic to change and cure the depraved heart regarding racial equality.
Derek S. Hicks, Assistant Professor, School of Divinity, Wake Forest University
This collection of personal narratives by gifted Christian leaders—black and white—strikes a blow against indifference to racism and advances the cause of Christ-exalting diversity in the church. Letters to a Birmingham Jail looks forward as well as back, addressing the ethnic conflicts of a new generation. It does not seek answers from culture but from the gospel, which transforms both our vertical relationship (with God) and our horizontal relationships (with one another).
Dr. Philip G. Ryken, President, Wheaton College
If it were within my means, I'd buy 100,000 copies of Letters to a Birmingham Jail and give them away to pastors and Christians all across America. This book is just that important to the future of Christianity in America. Be warned though:the borders of your present reality will breached by the flood of truth that overflows out of every page. You will be called into a deeper, more beautiful, gospel story that births missional, gospel-centered, multiethnic churches.
Derwin L. Gray, Lead Pastor, Transformation Church Author of Limitless Life: You Are More Than Your Past When God Holds Your Future
Letters to a Birmingham Jail provides a thermostatic rather than a thermometeristic approach to the church's response to inequity and injustice within the world it serves to adjust rather than to acknowledge the social temperature. It is bathed in a Christo-conciliatory solution that fosters authentic racial reconciliation within the church, thus serving as a headlight rather than a taillight to the world.
This book advocates gospelizing the social—that is, letting the gospel subversively address the social problems within our world rather than socializing the gospel—making the gospel subservient to the social methodologies employed to address the problems within our world. The soil of this volume carries within it the seeds of the ministry of Jesus that must be cultivated if the church is to lead the way to a true and biblical revolution that engages this world's dilemma. I enthusiastically endorse this work.
Dr. Robert Smith, Professor of Divinity, Samford University
Bryan Loritts has assembled a wonderful group of ethnically diverse church leaders to respond to the now famous letter from the pen of Martin Luther King Jr., which, though written from a Birmingham jail in 1963, continues to appear timeless and relevant today. In response to King's well-known letter, these influential leaders seek to advance the issues raised in that letter by addressing both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of themes such as gospel, church, race, diversity, and racial reconciliation. Each chapter in the volume offers insightful guidance, providing a beautifully harmonized chorus that will challenge readers to think, live, and serve Christianly in a more faithful way in whatever context they may find themselves. The result is a powerful, probing, prophetic, convicting, biblically grounded, gospel-centered, culturally sensitive, interculturally competent, illuminating, helpful, and hopeful book, which I gladly and heartily recommend.
David S. Dockery, President, Union University
In the spirit of King's iconic Letter fifty years ago, Letters to a Birmingham Jail calls us to contend with the slow, hard work of building a Christ-centered church—one that challenges us to do continual battle with the earthly divisions that diminish all who profess the name of Christ. This book is essential reading.
Charles W. McKinney, Jr., Associate Professor of History, Director, African American Studies, Rhodes College