From a Birmingham jail in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. penned his now famous response to the liberal clergymen who opposed his methods for fighting racial discrimination.1 Among his many disappointments, one stood out above all others. In the face of manifest ungodliness, the Church had been silent. King was painfully aware that when the Church is silent about sin, evil will follow. As a minister of the gospel, he was equally convinced that the Church could speak prophetically to the culture and transform it. But unless her voice was faithful and clear, she would become irrelevant. He was right.
Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership . . . I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.
When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church, felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; and too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows . . .
In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other-worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular . . .
Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
There was a time when the church was very powerful—in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the Christians pressed on in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man . . .
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.2
1 “Statement by Alabama Clergymen, April 12, 1963,” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Paper Project at Stanford University Website, http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/frequentdocs/clergy.pdf.
2 Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963,” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Paper Project at Stanford University Website, http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/frequentdocs/birmingham.pdf.