In 1963, writing while in a Birmingham jail cell, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned a stirring response to local clergy leaders who had publicly criticized his part in non-violent protests against racial inequality.
King’s words spoke powerfully to the commonplace injustice of his day. But his prose echoes throughout the decades to underscore the pro-life argument today.
We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.
The greatest strength of our life-saving efforts today is to continue with “tireless efforts” and “persistent work” as we remain “co-workers with God” in the great work of championing the sanctity of life.
It’s almost as if Dr. King was speaking directly to the questions surrounding the pro-life movement as a whole, and even the pregnancy help movement in particular, as the letter progresses.
His audience was Southern clergy who, while sympathetic to desegregation to some degree, had not yet become emboldened to stand for the equality of their black brothers and sisters. It was not the infamous Ku Klux Klan or other rabidly racist groups who presented the greatest challenge, frustrations, or disappointments to Dr. King. Another group posed deeper issues:
Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Far from a mere indictment or dismissal of the church, Dr. King wrote as a minister, who proudly proclaimed himself “the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers” who spoke to the church as a loving son or brother might lovingly—but earnestly—address his parents or siblings.
What an excellent example for those of us in the pro-life movement. We want to invite our churches into the good work of ministering to women and families who are vulnerable to abortion. We do best to address our pastors, priests, leaders, and clergy from a humble—“purified” in the words of Dr. King—position.
At the same time, we also do best to follow Dr. King’s example of relentless urgency:
By their effort and example [early Christians] 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.
Take some time this week and read through the Letter from the Birmingham Jail. You’ll be thankful you did.