Dr.King’s Prophetic Condemnation of the Church

King in JailAmericans (some begrudgingly) recognize Dr. Martin Luther King as the leader who was the driving force behind the Civil Rights Movement. Few of them may recognize him as one of the few Biblical prophets of modern times, much less a martyr for the Gospel. What follows is an excerpt from his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail“, in which he responds to criticisms of his campaign for civil disobedience, as expressed by some leading religious leaders of the South. If you have never done so I recommend that you read the entirety of this important letter, especially if you claim to follow Jesus. http://coursesa.matrix.msu.edu/~hst306/documents/letter.html

Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions….

But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. 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. I felt that the 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; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” 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 otherworldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi, and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips for Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

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. 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. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender 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. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion to inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.”


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  1. #1 by Christian on January 23, 2008 - 3:33 pm

    What a great response to that line. I’ve heard it so many times and have often been at a loss for words (hard to believe, huh?). But that is exactly right – the poor are rarely (if ever) among us – they’re always some other place, where poor people seem to belong. But if we actually invited the poor in among us….well, there goes the neighborhood (and our sacred property values as well.)

    Thanks Ric, I gotta get that book. Come back soon and share some more.

  2. #2 by Christian on January 23, 2008 - 3:40 pm

    I just went to Clairbourne’s website:


    Pretty neat, and I like the fact that he has a good sense of humor. I also found it interesting that he quotes Eberhard Arnold since I’ve been reading some of the Bruderhof’s spiritual writings lately. Good stuff as well. (they are all free)

  3. #3 by Christian on January 23, 2008 - 3:47 pm

    Correction; Bruderhof materials used to be free. Apparently their website is no more. Too bad.

  4. #4 by Chris on January 23, 2008 - 8:36 pm

    Bruderhof e-books ARE still available online – go to http://www.plough.com – many of Eberhard Arnold’s titles are there…

  5. #5 by ric booth on January 24, 2008 - 12:17 pm

    I’ve been thinking since reading and commenting yesterday. If Shane’s view of Jesus’ words in Matthew 26:11 is correct (and I believe it is) does that imply that wherever I find the poor I will find His disciples?

    And what does that say for a community without poverty within?

    Was The Church always with King as he marched and as he sat in a jail cell?

    Was the “white church” of the US 60’s not The Church (according to Jesus’ description).

    Did the “black church” of the 50’s – 60’s more closely resemble the early church where the believers we imprisoned by the empire and shunned by the ruling class?

  6. #6 by Christian on January 24, 2008 - 1:42 pm

    I think there is something to be said for the church losing some of its validity as it becomes more powerful. The more authoritarian it becomes the less authority it seems to have. It runs counter to Jesus’ idea that weakness and surrender be our goal.

  7. #7 by Rick Witlow on March 20, 2009 - 7:32 pm

    “Few of them may recognize him as one of the few Biblical prophets of modern times, much less a martyr for the Gospel.”

    Racism, Segregation, lynching, etc. were and are wrong. The support of those kinds of things is sin. Period. But, Christ was no social engineer and MLK, while he accomplished many things that needed to be accomplished, was no Christian. He did not hold to the inerrancy of Scripture, he denied the virgin birth, and I haven’t read a sermon or address yet where the gospel was proclaimed faithfully. Stanford University’s online repository includes King’s seminary writings in which he disputed the full divinity of Jesus, the Virgin Birth, and the Resurrection, suggesting that we “strip them of their literal interpretation.”

    Here is King on the virgin birth: “First we must admit that the evidence for the tenability of this doctrine is to (sic) shallow to convince any objective thinker . How then did this doctrine arise? A clue to this inquiry may be found in a sentence from St. Justin’s First Apology. Here Justin states that the birth of Jesus is quite similar to the birth of the sons of Zeus. It was believed in Greek thought that an extraordinary person could only be explained by saying that he had a father who was more than human. It is probable that this Greek idea influenced Christian thought.”

    “On the resurrection he said this: “This doctrine, upon which the Easter Faith rests, symbolizes the ultimate Christian conviction: that Christ conquered death. From a literary, historical, and philosophical point of view this doctrine raises many questions In fact the external evidence for the authenticity of this doctrine is found wanting.” The early church, he says, formulated this doctrine because it “had been captivated by the magnetic power of his [Jesus’] personality. This basic experience led to the faith that he could never die. And so in the pre-scientific thought pattern of the first century, this inner faith took outward form.”

    Morally, MLK was an extremely flawed man, to put it mildly. On the night before he was killed, King participated in an orgy. He hired prostitutes and paid for them with church money. He beat at least one of them up. According to King biographer Taylor Branch, during a long party on the night of January 6 and 7, 1964, an FBI bugging device recorded King’s “distinctive voice ring out above others with pulsating abandon, saying, ‘I’m f***ing for God!’”

    King’s Nobel Prize Lecture was plagiarized extensively from works by Florida minister J. Wallace Hamilton; the sections on Gandhi and nonviolence in his ‘Pilgrimage’ speech were taken virtually verbatim from Harris Wofford’s speech on the same topic; the frequently replayed climax to the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech—the ‘from every mountainside, let freedom ring’ portion—came from a 1952 address to the Republican National Convention by a black preacher named Archibald Carey; and the 1968 sermon in which King prophesied his martyrdom was based on works by J. Wallace Hamilton and Methodist minister Harold Bosley.

    But King’s worst sin was what he did to the Black Church. He helped turn it from a powerful force to make, support, and teach Christians to some sort of social activist political organization. The majority of Black pastors have no Bible college or seminary training at all. And look at the state of the black family and community in general. Before the civil rights movement both of these were very strong in spite of the unjust society it existed in. But now, 32% of black males will enter State or Federal prison during their lifetime, homicide is now the leading cause of death for black men between 15 and 44, about 85 percent of black children are expected to spend some or all of their childhood in a single-parent family and 70 percent of African American babies are born out of wedlock.

    Yes, there was a time in this country when whites were able to commit violent acts against blacks with impunity. And that has changed for the better. However, almost 1 million white Americans were murdered, robbed, assaulted or raped by black Americans in 1992, compared with about 132,000 blacks who were murdered, robbed, assaulted or raped by whites, and 91% of all African American murder victims in 2002 were killed by other African Americans.

    I think we should keep these things in mind when we’re demonizing some people and deifying others. My intent here is only to point out the truth so we can better go about fixing the problems and repairing the damage that plagues us all. The worst thing you can do to a person who needs help is lie to him about the source of his malady.

    • #8 by Christian Beyer on March 20, 2009 - 11:52 pm

      Rick, welcome.

      Respectfully, I feel that the truth you point is hardly that. It is only your opinion, for sure, and that I will respect.

      To put it mildly, I disagree with much of what you have said. Especially those remarks concerning King’s character and those specious and misleading figures suggesting that African Americans were in some way ‘better off’ before the civil right’s movement. As for plagiarism? Orgies? If true it only points out his flawed humanity. Who in the Bible claimed to be perfect? It is irrelevant to the discussion at hand. Or should we endorse gay marriage because of Ted Haggard’s sin?

      Don’t you understand that what we are seeing in our culture today is due to the rippling effects of a society that embraced slavery for over two hundred years? Followed by another century of gross bigotry and racist oppression? A system so repugnant and pervasive that its lingering residue cannot easily be brushed under the carpet. Not surprisingly, troubles still exist.

      As for your theological criticisms of King; his ‘questionable’ statements sound remarkably reasonable to me. I would imagine that when it came to orthodoxy, King was much more conservative than I am. Even so, the orthodox American church did very little to promote civil rights and in most cases was instrumental in subverting those rights, especially those of African Americans.

      Christ was definitely no social engineer. But he most certainly aligned himself with the prophets when it came to condemning unjust societies. Which, sadly, happens to describe most of the world, including the USA. I think Christ would have been on King’s side. I do believe that King was on his side. He certainly put himself in harms way so that others might be free.

      • #9 by Rick Witlow on March 21, 2009 - 1:24 am

        I tried my best to leave my opinion out of this. To me, it’s obvious from his statements that he was not a Christian. How can a man be a Christian if he rejects the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and the validity of the Bible, which MLK clearly did? I don’t believe it’s possible but you’re free to disagree. You’re correct about his sins and being flawed. I hope we can remember that when talking about all the heroes from out past.

        You write that the orthodox American church did very little to promote civil rights and in most cases was instrumental in subverting those rights. It was not and is not the mission of the Church to promote civil rights-it’s mission is to save souls. Anything that detracts from that mission is wrong. Opening people’s eyes to Christ changes them which in turn changes society. (And any churches that attempted to subvert anybody’s rights were also wrong.) This is my issue with MLK. He sought to save people from discrimination and persecution, which were noble endeavors, but I see no evidence that he sought to save their souls from eternal damnation which, I believe, is infinitely more important.

        As far as being better off, you tell me. It’s my understanding that approximately 5000 black men were murdered by whites in the hundred years following the Civil War. This is horrible. However, today that same number are murdered every three months or so by other black men. Even Jesse Jackson said, “We lost more lives through dope than we ever lost to the rope …” This and the other statistics I related are the result of the breakdown of the black family. You and others blame this on slavery but the fact is these afflictions did not begin to manifest themselves until over one hundred years after slavery ended. In 1940, the illegitimacy rate among blacks was 19 percent and in 1960 it was 22 percent. A study of 1880 family structure in Philadelphia shows that three-quarters of black families were comprised of two parents with children. In New York City in 1925, 85 percent of black households had two parents. In fact, according to Herbert Gutman in “The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom: 1750-1925,” “Five in six children under the age of 6 lived with both parents.” I value greatly my right to vote but my affection for it does not begin to compare to how much I treasure being brought up with both my parents, married and living in the same house I did.

        Please understand-this is how I see it. Somewhere Satan, the ultimate racist, decided to attack the souls of black men and women and he knew the best way to do this would be to destroy the black family and distract the black church from the reason it was created. He looked around and saw the racism that existed and he liked it. He liked it because he likes for people to hate each other. But he also liked it because he saw an opportunity to use a good thing like fighting social injustice, which is evil but temporary, to further his agenda which is also evil but worse because it’s permanent.

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