What were you doing in April 1963?
It's been a while -- 50 years.
If you are a senior citizen, you might have watched the debut of the long-running soap opera General Hospital. If you are a baby boomer, you might have purchased the first album put out by the Beatles, Please Please Me.
If you are a member of Generations X, Y or Z, you weren't even born yet.
But if you were a leader of the clergy in Alabama, you would have received a strongly-worded letter from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
On April 16, 1963, King issued his Letter from Birmingham Jail.
The civil rights leader was locked up in the city jail after being arrested for his part in the Birmingham campaign, a nonviolent protest conducted by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. King was president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and had been invited by the Alabama Christian Movement to take part in the protest.
King wrote his letter on the margins of a newspaper, which was the only paper he could find. Bits and pieces of the letter were carried by his lawyers back to the headquarters of the movement.
So why did King write the letter?
Eight white Alabama clergymen -- four bishops, three pastors and one rabbi -- had written a statement calling King's efforts "unwise and untimely." They agreed that racial segregation was a problem, but that it should be handled in the courts instead of in the streets. These religious leaders rebuked King for being an outsider causing trouble in Birmingham.
King responded by saying that he was not an outsider because he had ties to the Alabama Christian Movement. But more importantly, "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here." All communities and states are interrelated, he asserted, and "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. ... Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." Therefore, "anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider."
Alabama clergy leaders were upset because demonstrations were happening in Birmingham. King acknowledged that the demonstrations were unfortunate, but said, "it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative."
The church leaders also questioned the timing of the protests. They wanted King to wait and see if a new city administration would improve conditions for blacks. But King responded that for blacks in the United States, the word "wait" had almost always meant "never." They had already been waiting 340 years for their "constitutional and God-given rights."
Three hundred forty years. That's too long to wait. King was sick and tired of waiting for human authorities to act.
It was time to obey God.
Not that King was the first to practice civil disobedience. He spoke of the Old Testament's Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, refusing to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar ..., Socrates practicing civil disobedience in ancient Greece ..., American patriots participating in the Boston Tea Party ..., and, of course, early Christians facing persecution for their faith.
Like Martin Luther King Jr., they knew that they must obey God.
Not human authority.
The story of Peter and the apostles could easily be labeled "Letter From a Jerusalem Jail." They had been arrested for performing numerous healings and for telling the story of Jesus. Their time in jail did not last long, however, because an angel opened the prison doors and brought them out to continue their teaching (Acts 5:12-21).
On the day of the apostles' trial, the temple police arrested them again, and they were brought to stand before the Jewish council. The high priest questioned them, saying, "We gave you strict orders not to teach in [the name of Jesus], yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man's blood on us" (vv. 27-28).
In other words, the efforts of the apostles were "unwise and untimely."
But Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him" (vv. 29-32).
The apostles decided to obey God, rather than humans. A bold stand for them to take. But how did they know that they were hearing the voice of God?
This was a problem for Martin Luther King Jr. as well. After all, the clergy of Birmingham believed that they were obeying God, just like the high priest and council of Jerusalem. And they also had the authority of human beings on their side.
King addresses this question head-on. In his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," he says that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. "I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws," says King. "One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that 'an unjust law is no law at all.'"
But how do you know the difference between the two? That's the tough part. "A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God," explains King. "An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law."
A just law, according to King is: "Any law that uplifts human personality."
An unjust law is: "Any law that degrades human personality."
Based on this reasoning, he concludes that "all segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority."
King quotes the theologian Paul Tillich in saying that sin is separation, and then makes the point that segregation is an "expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness."
If segregation is sin, then King can justifiably urge his followers to "disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong." Segregation ordinances can be disobeyed because they are unjust laws, codes that are out of harmony with the moral law.
Unjust laws are no laws at all.
So, go to homileticsonline.com for more work on a sermon idea called "Letter from a Jerusalem Jail" based on the Acts text.
This post written by Henry G. Brinton, author of "The Welcoming Congregation" (Westminster-John Knox), 2012, Senior Minister of Fairfax Presbyterian Church, Fairfax, Virginia, and frequent contributor to The Washington Post, USA Today, and the Huffington Post online.