Michael Metzger

A few words this morning regarding some forgotten words by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

On April 12, 1963, as the events of the Birmingham Campaign intensified on the city’s streets, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested for violating Alabama’s law against mass public demonstrations. From his prison cell he composed a letter in response to local religious leaders’ criticisms of the campaign. King later admitted it was a long letter, “but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?”[1]

In his letter he justified his tactic of civil disobedience by referring to the actions of biblical heroes Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They refused to obey Nebuchadnezzar’s unjust laws. King also referred to the colonists who staged the Boston Tea Party. He refused to submit to laws that were employed to uphold segregation and deny citizens their rights to peacefully assemble and protest.

King also decried the inaction of white moderates such as the clergymen, charging that human progress “comes through the tireless efforts 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.” He prided himself as being among “extremists” such as Jesus, the prophet Amos, the apostle Paul, Martin Luther, and Abraham Lincoln, and observed that the country as a whole and the South in particular stood in need of creative men of extreme action.

By extreme, King didn’t mean extremism. In his 1958 book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, King wrote, “A mass movement exercising nonviolence is an object lesson in power under discipline.” Extremism is power without discipline. King’s work required discipline as it was based on Jesus’ injunctions: Turn the other cheek. Love your enemy. These are easier said than done—and King recognized that. In his letter he lays out “four basic steps” in pursuing a nonviolent campaign: “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.” By self-purification, King meant practicing the disciplines of prayer, meditation, fasting, and nonviolence.[2]

How many of us practice these? Not many, according to Dallas Willard. In his 1998 book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, Willard lamented that the disciplines are grossly neglected in American Christianity. They include prayer, meditation, and fasting. Since Willard, many books have been written on the disciplines. Yet my sense is never has so much been written by so many with so little effect. We have become a nation characterized by extremism, especially in how we have become politicized. This includes Americans of all races.

It’s gotten so bad that a 2019 University of Michigan Law School symposium (“Blurred Lines: What is Extremism?”) recommended deleting the word “extremism” from our vocabulary, “because the chaos it causes adds nothing to the change society seeks.” This doesn’t seem to me to be a sensible solution, and I have a hunch King would agree. The practice of the disciplines of prayer, meditation, and fasting help us see our extremism, our hypocrisy. They can cause us to first take the log out of our own eye, and then we will see clearly to take the speck out of our brother’s eye (Matthew 7:5).

My sense is we’ve forgotten Jesus’ powerful injunction echoed in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. These days we seem to be closer to what Malcolm X said in 1963, when he criticized King publicly. “The only revolution in which the goal is loving your enemy is the Negro revolution … That’s no revolution.” I’m afraid it is. And I’m afraid many Americans have forgotten how revolutionary “love your enemy” can really be. The practice of the spiritual disciplines would go a long way toward reminding us.


[1] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Why We Can’t Wait (Signet, 1964), 94-95.

[2] Thou, Dear God: Prayers That Open Hearts and Spirits, ed. Lewis V. Baldwin, (Beacon Press, 2011).


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