Martin and Jesus (Part 1): Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Christianity Reflected In Two Historic Writings From Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

February is Black History Month. Many schools will highlight the contributions and accomplishments of various African-Americans in history. This provides an excellent opportunity for students to also learn about the influence of Christianity on the Civil Rights Movement. For example, if students are to truly understand Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s activities for Civil Rights, they need to understand how Christianity influenced his thinking.

In this blog, I will highlight his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Next, I'll look at his "I have a dream" speech.

Letter From A Birmingham Jail

In his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," Dr. King answered a group of clergymen who had criticized him for his civil rights involvement. One of their accusations was that Dr. King was an extremist. His eloquent response is filled with biblical references. In addressing the accusation of extremism, Dr. King quotes Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
That portion of the Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew 5:43-44. This passage is crucial to understanding what public school officials call Dr. Kings’ "religious dedication to nonviolence."
"But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’"

Dr. King, then, refers to the Crucifixion as an example of "extreme" behavior:
It is well within legal boundaries for students to read Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount as well as to read the description of Christ’s crucifixion. How could a student truly understand Dr. King’s references without reading the actual stories from the Bible?
"In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime---the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists."

In the Supreme Court case of Abington School District v. Schempp, Justice Clark, writing the majority opinion, stated:

" might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment."

Without looking at biblical passages that Dr. King referred to in his writings, students are, unfortunately, receiving an education that the Supreme Court rightly asserts is "not complete."