THE BLOG
02/03/2014 03:25 pm ET Updated Apr 05, 2014

Dr. King on Conflict

Lately I've been working on self-improvement. In particular, I'm trying to eliminate a certain snarkiness to which we academics are particularly vulnerable. I don't like that about myself. I can also be too judgmental. And again with the academics, sometimes I just enjoy seeing the other side of things. If you told me you really enjoyed In-N-Out burgers, I'd probably say something bad about their fries -- the truth is, I'd get on a plane right now to visit an In-N-Out for a Double-Double Animal Style with fries.

I'm currently thinking about how I characterize groups of people with whom I disagree. For example, I offended some friends awhile back when I wrote that anti-LGBT Christians rely on the Bible to cover up their bigotry. On issues like race, gender, poverty, and justice for sexual minorities I know I can come off as abrasive. We Christians are called to be people of peace. We're supposed to seek unity. Our humility should caution us against judging others. Could it be that sometimes I get out of line?

Seeking wisdom, I've turned to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." As far as I'm concerned, King's letter provides the classic example of standing up for one's principles in the midst of conflict. I find myself reading it several times a year.

King dated the letter 16 April, 1963. This wasn't King's first prison epistle: he had also written from the Albany, Georgia jail in 1962. Perhaps King had composed similar pieces in other contexts. Birmingham had attained notoriety for its particularly vicious enforcement of segregation. The civil rights campaign there involved coordinated sit-ins, marches, negotiations, and other actions. On April 10, the Birmingham city government obtained a court injunction against the protests, but the protesters chose to defy the court order. After all, King said, "We cannot in all good conscience obey such an injunction which is an unjust, undemocratic and unconstitutional misuse of the legal process."

King was arrested on April 12, and placed in solitary confinement. That same day, eight Birmingham clergymen issued a public statement in which they expressed vague sympathy for the protesters' cause but also judged that the demonstrations were "directed and led in part by outsiders" and were "unwise and untimely." King's famous letter provides the rebuttal to this statement.

I'd like to name several lessons I've gleaned from Dr. King's famous letter.

First, King begins by attempting to maintain relationship with his eight critics: "I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth." He begins not by belittling his critics but by honoring them. I know I need to learn from this example, but there's more to say later.

Second, King lays out the truth as he sees it. Here he does not worry about hurting anyone's feelings. When his critics call him and his colleagues outsiders, King points out that he was invited to Birmingham. Moreover, he points out that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." King puts it right out there. His critics aren't thinking for themselves, he says. On the contrary, they've bought into the common complaint that "outside agitators" were behind the Civil Rights Movement.

King's assessment strikes right at the heart of things. The critics have claimed that King's path would "incite to hatred and violence." King will have none of that. King isn't inciting violence; the violence is already present. Birmingham, he says, is "engulfed" by racial injustice with "an ugly record of police brutality." King then elaborates a classic argument for the necessity of nonviolent direct action: "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor."

Now for a third observation. Although King reached out to his critics by affirming their good faith, he did not spare them from the truth about themselves. "I guess it is easy," he writes, "for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say 'wait.'" King's critics need to acknowledge their own stakes in the segregation system. Of course they don't want to push change. Every day they benefit from the very violence they decry.

King never calls his opponents names, but he clearly points out their hypocrisy: they may "deplore" the demonstrations, but "I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being." The demonstrations make them uncomfortable. Apparently living in a culture defined by racial violence does not. These clergymen have somehow found a way to congratulate the police for maintaining order -- those same police who allowed their dogs to bite six of the protesters, who shoved and cursed women and struck men, who refused food to the protesters because they wanted to sing grace together before the meal. There's nothing pretty in this picture.

Fourth, King names what is at stake for his critics. He remains kind, but he is also direct. "Over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate." What he says could gravely injure someone's feelings, but King presses the point. In the end, he implies, the overt racists can only do so much harm. It's the white moderates -- people like these eight religious leaders who claim to be sympathetic to Birmingham's black population -- who do the most damage. His critics stand on the wrong side of providence.

I have a lot to learn from Dr. King. Only God knows how frustrated, angry, or disappointed he must have been, but he never gives up on his critics. Throughout the letter he continues to invite them to change. He even congratulates them for showing courage in significant ways. At the same time he names the truth and he names the moment. Unsparingly. "The judgment of God is upon the church as never before." Dr. King teaches me that I must always extend love, must always see the best in those with whom I disagree, and must never give up hope. He also teaches me that the truth can hurt. And that sometimes the truth must be spoken.