Note from the Editor: “Civil disobedience” is a troubling issue that arises in disturbing times when one must decide whether to obey the law of the governing authority or to disobey the law for reasons based on a higher moral standard. People have considered the option of civil disobedience in societies across the world and throughout time, prompting responses such as the Apostle Peter’s who proclaimed that “We ought to obey God rather than men,” to more modern expressions in American society such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s explanation of “Why We Can’t Wait.”
While sitting in a jail in Birmingham, Alabama, as a consequence of disobeying a police order, Dr. King wrote the famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” explaining his position on nonviolent civil disobedience. Although a generation has passed since it was first read, the philosophy of peaceful civil disobedience presented in King’s letter continues to offer resources to men and women working toward greater justice within their own societies, and it is worth special attention by Christians seeking to determine what is a biblical approach to state-society relations.
In early 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. led what began as a peaceful march through the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, protesting the city’s hiring practices and the segregation of blacks and whites in the local department stores. The march grew as young people left their classes to participate, until eventually, the city found itself locked in a standoff between white business leaders and a mostly black crowd. Soon the police were called out to break up the crowd and send the protesters home. When King’s followers refused to disperse, they were put down with clubs and fire hoses and many, including King, were arrested.
On hearing of King’s imprisonment, eight local ministers composed a letter urging the black leader to curb his recent activities. These ministers were among the white moderates of the South, proponents of racial equality and desegregation but concerned that aggressive or illegal activities might disturb the social order and snuff out what little good will there was between blacks and whites. King’s activities, they warned, were “unwise and untimely,” and could create a racist backlash. In response to these ministers, King wrote the famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he explained his doctrine of nonviolent civil disobedience. Dr. King then published the letter in the June 12, 1963 edition of The Christian Century, eliciting an enthusiastic response among the periodical’s readers.
The content of King’s letter might best be understood if one first considers the two main sources of King’s philosophy. The first was Gandhi’s concept of Satyagraha. Satyagraha is a compound of two Hindu words meaning “truth” and “firmness.” It refers to the power of truth to vindicate itself without recourse to violence. For Gandhi, the practice of Satyagraha included public denunciation of an unjust law, open disobedience to that law and willingness to suffer the consequences for that act of disobedience. It was Gandhi’s belief that unjust laws derived their force from the fear of those subject to them. When the oppressed understood that the truth was on their side, and that this truth was stronger than violence, the oppressors lost their power.
The second source of King’s philosophy was Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that it was possible to turn the tables on powerful enemies by repaying evil and abuse with love and truthfulness. Jesus taught first-century Jews, who had been intimidated by occupying Roman soldiers, neither to run and hide nor to take up armed resistance but to stand firmly when struck in the face and to give beyond what was asked. “Love your enemies,” he said; “Bless those who persecute you and pray for those who abuse you.” Although many Christian theologians have found in Jesus’ words an ethic of personal purity with little or no public relevance, King understood the social force of Jesus’ teachings. He believed that love had the power to transform societal evil in a way that violence could not.
Through his study of both the Sermon on the Mount and Gandhi’s doctrine of Satyagraha, King had arrived at the conviction that only through direct nonviolent action could unjust structures be effectively challenged and lasting justice called into being. For King, the pattern put forward by Jesus and Gandhi constituted a “third way” between the softheaded passivity that allowed injustice to go unchallenged and the hardhearted violence that only served to perpetuate racial hatreds. “Through nonviolent resistance,” he believed, “we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system.”
In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King points out that love requires truthfulness, and that to be truthful means to take action against injustice. He repudiates the notion that silent submission will soften the hearts of racists over the course of time. He had seen the power of unjust structures to rationalize and reinforce themselves over time, as well as the corrosive effect of humble waiting on the self-respect of black community members. If the civil disobedience of King and his followers was “unwise and untimely,” as the pastors in Birmingham had said, it was not because they were acting too soon. If anything, King believed, they had allowed their condition to go unchallenged for too long. In his letter, he argued that his generation would have to repent “for the appalling silence of the good people.” Progress, he warned, was not inevitable. It was the result of “the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers 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.”
Thus, King found himself, as he wrote in his letter, “in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community.” On the one hand were those who had grown too complacent with the status quo, either from having accepted their inferior place in society or from having achieved enough success within the system to want to avoid disruption. On the other were those in whom resentment had fermented into bitter hatred which was about to explode into violence. Between these two he offered a third way, “the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest.” And none too soon. “If this philosophy had not emerged,” King wrote to the pastors, “by now many streets of the south would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood.”
The effectiveness of nonviolent resistance, according to King’s letter, lay largely in its power to confront oppressors with the injustice of their actions. “Nonviolent direct action,” he wrote, “seeks to foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”
King was not nave as to the risks and difficulties involved in nonviolent civil disobedience. He understood that it was not a miracle cure promising quick solutions to society’s ills. Disobedience incurs penalties, and those in power, once challenged, are often quick to retaliate. It is in the face of such retaliation that the resister learns what it is to love one’s enemies. “One who breaks an unjust law,” King wrote, “must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” This kind of resolve in the face of punishment testifies to the authenticity of the resister’s actions and thus contributes to the success of the cause. By willingly accepting unjust punishment, King argued, the resister arouses “the conscience of the community” and calls it to its highest virtues.
Racial injustice has not been eradicated in the United States. Nevertheless, the situation has drastically improved since the 1950s, and the American conscience has been so awakened that overt racism is no longer tolerated in public and covert racial inequalities continue to come under closer scrutiny. After half a century, the practices of nonviolent civil disobedience spelled out in King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” continue to bear fruit.