Letters to a Birmingham Jail: A Response to the Words and Dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.Written by Bryan Loritts, ed. Reviewed By Matthew Jones
In April 1963, the great American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., was unjustly thrown into jail at the hands of a malevolent system, oppressing those who dared to expose the evils of its racial iniquities. King’s exercise of his rights to decry oppression landed him in a cold jail in Birmingham. While imprisoned, he saw a headline in the local newspaper entitled, “White Clergyman Urge Local Negroes to Withdraw from Demonstrations.” Using the margins of a newspaper, King scribbled a response, which became his prophetic piece, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” This letter became one of the most critical texts in the burgeoning American civil rights movement. Some fifty years later, a team of racially diverse evangelical ministers has come together to offer a new generation needed reflection on this historic prison epistle. Under the leadership of editor Bryan Loritts, these men compiled various chapters that formed the present book.
The book opens with a powerful chapter by the renowned racial reconciliation leader John Perkins, which reads as a personal letter to Dr. King. Rather candidly and vulnerably, Perkins shares his own story as one who was victimized by the evils of racism in our country. His testimony shatters the romanticism of those who would anachronistically Christianize American history, exposing the injustices of white oppression in our land and history, while providing readers with an optimistic hope of the power of the gospel to grant forgiveness in our hearts toward oppressors and also renew society. In the second chapter, the format of the book transitions: all subsequent chapters start with a brief letter to Dr. King (following Perkins’s lead), and then transition into the pastoral reflections of the given author of the chapter.
In the second chapter, John Piper frankly shares with King his sincere desire that the civil rights leader “had made the biblical gospel clearer” (p. 56) in his works. Piper thanks the civil rights leader for his sacrifices and moves into his own pastoral reflections on how the power of King’s theology combined with the centrality of God, Scripture and the gospel stands today as a means for experiencing genuine ethnic/racial diversity and justice. In the third chapter, Crawford Loritts Jr.—an African American pastor of a predominantly white church—speaks of his “profound debt of gratitude” (p. 74) to King and offers readers his personal “progress report” (p. 76) of what has transpired since the famous letter from Birmingham. Loritts’s stories are heart-wrenching, recounting evils of white oppression in our country and the silence of white churches in decrying racism. The ensuing chapters likewise share this sentiment, further unpacking through personal stories the evils of the past and the current blindness of the majority culture.
In addition to the blindness of the majority culture, the authors challenge the readers to see the impaired vision of the evangelical church. In chapter four, John Bryson observes that, “We live in an incredibly racialized society . . . . Ugly parts of American history need to be owned, acknowledged, and ought to lead us to ask for forgiveness and repent” (109). Bryan Loritts writes in the fifth chapter about how “the church of Jesus Christ has been entrenched in homogeneity” (p. 124), failing to not only see the scars of racism, but also the power of Christ to transform the church. In the sixth chapter Sandy Willson thanks King for the “trails you blazed” (p. 132) and unpacks the long journey ahead, given the current reality of racialization in our country and in our churches. Albert Tate’s chapter then opens by quoting King’s comment that Sundays “[on] the 11a.m. hour is the most segregated hour of the week” (p. 152) and moves to recount stories of utter blindness among his white peers in Christian college and in local church ministry. In the eighth chapter, Charlie Dates calls on readers to see how “American evangelicalism . . . is yet unrepentant of its sin of segregation” (p. 171). In the ninth chapter, Matt Chandler offers readers a theology of diversity for the church in light of the gospel of Jesus. The book closes in the tenth chapter by addressing the challenge of multiethnic ministry in light of the current context of American evangelicalism, where the homogenous unit principle (HUP) seems to have given evangelicals permission to function under de facto segregation.
There is much to be gleaned from this excellent book. The personal stories are sobering and the wisdom of the authors is priceless. Constructively, readers may long for more pragmatic application and theological depth. Pragmatically, the book offers little by way of systems for clergy looking for a how-to manual, which personally is refreshing to me. It is a healthy move on the editor’s part to refrain from simplistic formulas, as this needs to be wrestled with by church leaders in local contexts. Theologically, the chapters will leave the readers longing for more interaction. The book could have been strengthened by including a number of additional black theologians in the evangelical tradition (e.g., Vincent Bacote, Bruce Fields, Ralph Watkins, Joy Moore, Craig Mitchell, etc.), as well as including interactions with theologies of race (e.g., J. Kameron Carter’s fine book, Race: A Theological Account [Oxford: OUP, 2008]). That said, the book is certainly theological and aimed to stir practical application. Moody Press and editor Bryan Loritts should be applauded for this outstanding and accessible text. It is a gift to the evangelical church and hopefully a conversation-starter for having a long overdue and frank discussion in the church.
Del Rey Church
Los Angeles, California, USA
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