I would like to see Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963) added to all new Bibles.
I don’t propose this lightly. Three times in the Bible, in three different places, listeners (and they wouldn’t have been readers) are exhorted not to add to, or take away, from specific books. One is about Revelation, one is specifically to the Israelites in Deuteronomy to listen to the law, and the other is in Proverbs: “Every word of God is true….do not add to his words, lest you be proved a liar.” I think it’s safe to say that I won’t propose adding any new words of God to the Bible. I’m advocating something less radical. If we can have letters from Paul, we can have letters from Martin.
When it comes to relevant living with each other, and honoring God, we have read and read Paul’s letters, noting his biases, and noting that these are letters about how to live the Christian life. I have poured over Galatians and Ephesians and both Thessalonians and I find great truth in there, but I also find a lot of irrelevancy stemming from a historical culture that has long since passed. While Paul’s letters are important, there are always the caveats: we must understand the context in which he was writing. No one is getting the context. People are reading Paul literally: “I don’t allow a woman to speak” in a time when we need complete gender equality.
I’m not advocating removing a single letter of Paul from the Bible. After all, the different Councils worked SO hard deciding what everyone needed to read, I’d hate to ruin their 1700 year track record.
But I do think the Bible needs to be updated. If we’re going to be reading Letters about conduct of churches, there is nothing better than Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. It’s addressed to “fellow clergymen”, those who had undoubtedly studied the 66 books we do have in the Bible in depth but who still didn’t feel like taking a stand against racism and brutal treatment of blacks in the South during the Civil Rights movement. The 66 books do not address matters of race well, or if they did the pastors MLK addresses did not translate the Jewish oppression through time as any corollary for blacks in the South.
Today, we face a lot of racial tension in America, and outright racism within individual Christians and churches. Because there is no text in the Bible that brings this to our attention on a Sunday by Sunday basis, we are free to avoid that topic on a regular basis. Free to believe that all the work is done, and that everyone is equal. Or that race doesn’t matter.
Injustice and Justice are important to consider as part of God’s Work. And yet, because there are few texts on justice and injustice in the Bible–with regards to women, race and sexual orientation–there are few Christians thinking about them. We are free to ignore them, and only do what the Bible says we should do, ignoring all other pleas for justice. “Be warm and be filled.”
If the phrases become limited, if the verses don’t touch on the modern issues at hand, irrelevant to the concepts we want to talk about, we must continue to add to the phrase book. It’s just like updating the Spanish dictionary when new words are created. Why have we left the Bible alone for 1700 years? If this is going to be our guide book; if this is going to be the one book of wisdom that carries us through for generations, helping us be better human beings to each other, why have we not included works that reflect the new cultures that have come along? Certainly the Bible doesn’t reflect only ONE culture. It spans generations of time so that you can see how the Israelites changed, how they went from desert wanderers to slaves to Middle Eastern Kings to slaves, to cities occupied. That wasn’t the end of their story, and it certainly doesn’t reflect the history and stories that have come afterwards. The United Church of Christ has a wonderful phrase, “Still Speaking.” The Spirit is still speaking, but we’d rather not add those new thoughts to the Bible, lest we muddy up the message.
But the message is dated, and we are not listening to the specifics that apply to our culture because there is so much first century AD culture clouding the message.
So let’s add some 20th Century AD message to it.
Why add “Letter from Birmingham Jail”?
Like Paul’s letters, King’s is addressed to churches, in this case, the clergymen of Birmingham, Alabama. It is, like Paul’s, a letter designed to help churches moderate a cultural situation that has overwhelmed them. The opposition to desegregation was fierce in Birmingham. King was asked to come and lead a non-violent demonstration–in case they needed one. And they did.
Like Paul, King was thrown in Jail. Many of Paul’s letters are written from jail or house-arrest imprisonment. These are times and places where great thinkers evaluate the issues surrounding the state of churches, and sometimes, the state of their own incarceration. Being thrown in jail does not constitute the most important reason to include King with Paul, but it is a noted similarity that brings context and continuity to the section of the Bible reserved for Letters.
King addresses injustice using biblical, scriptural references, as does Paul. King has a few more centuries on Paul to reference thinkers that followed, but essentially their methods are similar.
The central premise of injustice and the unwillingness for the church to act on it are striking and relevant and recall the fiery Paul of Galatians, angry with churches who require law-keeping for Gentiles. King channels that fury and aims it at white moderates, lukewarm in their response, “agreeing” in principle with King, but unwilling to act. Their unwillingness to act exacerbates the tense situation, the abuse, the racial discrimination and racial violence of the South.
Why do we need to include it in the Bible?
The letter is a call to action. To put actions with words and sentiments. Including it in the Bible will remind congregants and believers
a) that they have to act on their good sentiments. It’s still not enough to say “be warm and be filled” and not answer the direct needs of our brothers. If they feel compassion for race relations, they must do something about it.
b) that following the Bible does not lead to right actions any more than following a cookbook leads to perfect cakes. The bible is not a recipe book. A reminder that good “Christians” of the 60’s were still fallible and did not know a practical, relevant way to get involved. They had no clue what Jesus would do, or if they did, they did not act on it. Christians are pleased to think they are well-advanced over their 1st AD cousins, that their cultures are different, their Christianity more loving and more secure and more well-thought out, and that they won’t make those mistakes. Putting the Book of Birmingham in the Bible will remind us that advancement in society and cultural “acceptance” of Christian ideas does not bring about a just society alone.
c) that these issues, race, justice for minorities, are not addressed in Paul’s letters in the same way they can be in a post-slavery world. It’s easy to say we’re against slavery! “So GLAD we’ve come so far!” It’s harder to admit that racial issues still plague us, especially us Americans. It’s easy to be better and more enlightened than first century Christians on slavery; but King still serves as a guide to strive towards. We cannot dismiss his arguments. We fall so short of his ideals. He is someone we can strive towards. Like Paul, he calls on us to work out our salvation still–our Christianity is not finished. Biblical discussions of race are old, and surpassed; King’s discussions call us to change–and that’s what the Bible is for. When the Bible has stopped working in an area–a call to see race differently, to see injustice–we must change our approach.
d) that there is so much inspiration in this letter. I read it frequently. It challenges my faith–to grow. It’s new and vibrant language has not been so memorized as to become rote, so its message is fresh. And yet, I want to memorize the whole thing as scripture. Every passage, to me, is spoken by the Spirit to the churches. How could this be different than Paul? “All scripture is given by inspiration of God”–and yet, Paul wouldn’t have been able to count his own letters as scripture. Now they are. If Paul’s letters can make the jump to holy scripture, certainly King’s letter can. I feel just as much conviction, power, Holy Spirit speaking in this letter as in any letter of Paul.
e) –the biggest argument for putting The Book of Birmingham in the Bible is to give MLK’s letter the weight, the importance, the authority, the urgency it deserves in Christian lives. Put it in that book, people will read it. Put it beside Paul, people will read it. And we need Christians everywhere to read it.
The work of Justice is not done. With so many 1st Century AD problems clouding the cultural context of scripture, it’s easy to dismiss it as “their” problems and NOT see our problems. King shows us our problems. We cannot escape that gaze. Events in Dayton, Ohio, and Ferguson, Missouri and Charleston, South Carolina, shootings of unarmed black citizens, protests, civil unrest— means we have a LOT of work to do to overcome race issues in America. This should not be happening in 2016. Our Bibles have not been working as they should. If our nation wants to define itself as a Christian nation, it has to work hard to eliminate racism, and that is going to start in the home, in the church, in the schools.
My argument is that if churches across America had The Book of Birmingham in their Bibles, pastors would be obligated to look at it as relevant, preach on it, talk about it.
The spirit is still speaking–the BIBLE is not finished because God is not finished speaking to people.
After you read Letter from Birmingham Jail, an excellent place for application of this letter is in Edward Gilbreath’s two books on the importance of this letter: Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King’s Epic Challenge to the Church. And Remembering Birmingham: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter to America—50 years later. As well, his book Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity is useful in understanding race relations within the evangelical tradition.
The Bible is overdue for a modern addition. The Book of Birmingham is that addition. A little guidance, a letter on peace and race relations in the Bible from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. could be the difference. Call it King’s Letter to the Churches at Birmingham. Abbreviate it as Birmingham, give it verses. It will fit. It will work.
Will Zondervan, Intervarsity Press, Tyndale House, Holman, Thomas Nelson, Moody, and others Bible publishers, will you consider The Book of Birmingham as an appendix, as an addendum, or as a legitimate book of the Bible for your next edition? Would Philip Yancey be able to persuade the NIV Student Bible folks to include this important book?