Fifty-one years ago, a man sat incarcerated in Birmingham, Alabama’s city jail, in the name of justice. Restricted from the activities that had brought him there, the man wrote a long letter, explaining, “What else is there to do when you are alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell other than write long letters, think strange thoughts, and pray long prayers?”
That man was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the letter he wrote is known as “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”. The reason for his incarceration was the active nonviolent protest he and others were leading to end the injustices of racial prejudice. Where legal agency had viewed justice as being put into effect by jailing King, and where a group of prominent Alabama clergymen had denounced King’s actions, King’s letter challenged that idea of justice in a stunning public reply. It’s worth reading.
His comments quite beautifully parallel the words penned by the Jewish Prophet Micah, twenty-eight centuries earlier, “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah, too, has learned that justice is not merely an idea. It is not a word to be carved into beautiful and stately edifices at city hall and left there. It must be prayed for and acted upon. It must be the fuel that fires every person’s spiritual and social role if we say we love God and value justice. Listen to some of the phrases King pens:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“Groups are more immoral than individuals.”
“Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
“An unjust law is no law at all.”
“A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.”
“There are some instances when a law is just on its face and unjust in its application.”
“The time is always ripe to do right.”
“Right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”
He has many more eloquent and inspiring comments with which he describes justice. But he writes with more than just words. He has put action to those ideas and he calls others to do the same. I am convinced he spent many hours on his knees beseeching the Father for wisdom in that situation; complementing that, he devoted his time and energies, sacrificing his own liberty, to bring justice to a segment of society that was under oppression.
In King’s day, the bulk of the population held a passive stance regarding racial prejudice. The church reflected a similar acquiescence to the laws that oppressed a people distinguished and repressed by skin colour alone. It might be time to ask a searching question. What areas of injustice does our generation sit idly by and accept with equal apathy and passivity? Will our children and grandchildren look back at this era in disbelief that we, people of such affluence, influence and resources, blindly ignored and failed to act on behalf of a people similarly oppressed?
Perhaps it’s time to move from justice’s idea-forming stage and, through focused prayer, seek direction to begin to act justly. Perhaps there exists a group of individuals today that is denied legal personhood, like in King’s day. Perhaps they have been refused access to any of the tenets of the Charter of Rights. Might there be some who have been systematically oppressed, brutally destroyed, and carelessly disposed of? Surely not in our enlightened society…
 King, Dr. M. L. King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”, 1963.