When is Tension a Good Thing? (Reflections on King's Letter from Birmingham Jail, Part 1)

By Jordan Grooters on April 2, 2018

Editor's Note: This week marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., civil rights activist, minister and spokesperson for nonviolent activism. He was killed on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., but his legacy lives on today. As we prepare for our series on Justice + Unity: Toward the Healing of a Fractured Church, two Cornerstone University staff members, Jordan Grooters, communications coordinator, and Kenneth Russell, director of diversity and multicultural affairs, reflect on Dr. King's “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Dr. King wrote this letter five years prior to his death after being arrested for peacefully protesting segregation and racial terror in Birmingham, Ala. He was writing to respond to eight white religious leaders who wrote a public statement expressing concern and caution about the civil rights movement. The themes of this letter and his call for justice and unity among church leaders resonate with what many feel today.

In this two-part series we—Jordan Grooters and Kenneth Russell—want to reflect on two major themes in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” We want to invite our readers to join us in a conversation about these themes and why they're so relevant today. We alternate offering our thoughts, and we invite you to engage the conversation as well. If you have never read this letter before (or even if you have), you can read the whole thing here. It's worth your time.

Tension and Waiting

Two excerpts from Dr. King's letter:

You may well ask, "Why direct action, why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. I just referred to the creation of tension as a part of the work of the nonviolent resister. This may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth…

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was "well timed" according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "wait." It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This "wait" has almost always meant "never." It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration. We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.

JG: King's call for “constructive nonviolent tension” as a means for justice is something that we can still learn from today. Our human nature is to steer clear of tension, to avoid tense or even awkward situations. In the Letter from Birmingham Jail, King calls the church to dive right into those situations in order to address an issue that can no longer be ignored.

I think of all the ways throughout history that movers and shakers have created nonviolent tension in a situation in order to bring light to a bigger issue. When Esther approached King Xerxes in the inner court, she created constructive nonviolent tension. When Jesus allowed a sinful woman to poor perfume on his feet and forgave her sins, he create an awkward situation for the Pharisees to prove a point. When Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat, she created an uncomfortable and extremely tense situation in order to call attention to injustice and to cry out for change. Helen Keller used a unique form of storytelling to bring light to women's suffrage and labor rights. Harvard professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is known for stating that “well-behaved women seldom make history” in the 1970s. I think it's still true today.

As Christians, we should seek out opportunities to create and enter into those tense conversations, with the purpose of bringing justice and positive growth.

KR: I think you touch on a good point. You're talking about the pleasure-pain dynamic. Unfortunately, our drive to avoid pain prohibits us from seeing two other important words: process and purpose. Too often we want the outcome without the process, and it doesn't work that way. King's brilliant use of constructive tension reminds us that growing pains are a part of a healthy growing process, and it is purpose that makes the uncomfortable journey worthwhile.

In a word, purpose conditions the growing pains of process. There are growing pains with any change and development, and the conversation on race and racism is no different. The answer isn't to be colorblind or color-silent. The answer is to be color-conscious.

As we move forward today that requires all of us to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, and sometimes cause a little trouble, as we seek to grow in our reflection and embodiment of the Kingdom.

JG: I think we can also learn from King's frustration in the Letter from Birmingham Jail. He's fed up with being told to “wait” for justice and freedom.

Oftentimes today, racism is still seen as something that is generational, and not something that is subtly embedded in our society. King's statement that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor rings true, and his point here is that in the eyes of the oppressor there is never a “right” time for the oppressed to demand that freedom.

I think of the words that Mordecai spoke to Esther: “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father's family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14).

Mordecai's faith caused him to believe that deliverance would rise from another place, but he also knew that if Esther waited to demand justice, it would be too long delayed and therefore denied. King also points out that the freedom demanded by the oppressed here is a God-given and constitutional right, and no man or woman should be told to “wait” for that freedom.

KR: Dr. King's disappointment with the myth of time and the poor response of the oppressor for the oppressed to wait is a timeless truth. As Brother King recognized, and as you noted, there has never a been a “right time” for the oppressor to give up rights and privileges. The call to wait is often an abdication of responsibility rather than a sincere desire to timely execute a strategy.

For me, I view it along the same lines as when Christians hide behind prayer as an escape from action. As Brother King notes in The Letter,

We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.

At some point we must not only pray but also act. Both oppressors and oppressed must recognize this. So we must not “wait” because, as Brother King states elsewhere, “[t]he time is always right to do the right thing.”

JG: If you want to know more about MLK's call to step into the tension with courage and love, the entire Letter from Birmingham Jail is a great place to start. It can be uncomfortable, and even painful to enter into these conversations, but it is our calling as brothers and sisters in Christ to care for one another in this way. Racial division hurts everyone, and true healing can only happen when we let down our guard and acknowledge the problem.

If you want to know more about our call to justice and unity, be sure to check out the upcoming series Justice + Unity: Toward the Healing of a Fractured Church. The first conference in the series will be on April 26.

Categories: Culture, Discipleship, Ministry