In "Letter from Birmingham Jail," why is King disappointed in the white church?

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In his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," Martin Luther King quotes another letter he has received from a "white brother" in Texas, who writes:

All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious...

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In his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," Martin Luther King quotes another letter he has received from a "white brother" in Texas, who writes:

All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has.

Such misconceptions about the civil rights movement, according to King, border on tragedy. It may seem realistic and reasonable to wait another two thousand years for a remedy when you are not the one being oppressed, but it is entirely different when you have to endure daily indignity and humiliation. It is this apathy on the part of white Christians—and church leaders in particular—that has disappointed King. He says that he had initially assumed that the white church would support his efforts, remarking:

I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies.

Instead, King has found that their attitudes (with a few honorable exceptions) have ranged from the indifference of King's correspondent in Texas to the outright hostility of those who refuse to understand the civil rights movement and condemn its leaders as extremists. These people would have regarded Christ as an extremist, along with the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, and many other reformers. King had hoped that all Christians would support him in the name of justice and human brotherhood. Instead, however:

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern."

In short, King's disappointment stems from the apathy, cowardice, and even opposition of the white churches in their failure to espouse the causes of social justice and civil rights and in their apparent indifference to the sufferings of their fellow human beings.

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In the beginning of his letter, King tells his immediate audience of clergymen, "I feel that you are men of genuine good will." It is disappointing to him that the Christian clergy (and a rabbi) who criticized his and his supporters' actions are not behaving as good men of God because they fail to recognize and address the injustices suffered by African Americans. 

King feels disappointed that these clergy do not understand and insist on civil rights for African Americans. He cites theologians that the clergy surely have read and believe themselves to endorse, such as when he calls to mind Martin Buber in saying "an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship . . . ends up relegating persons to the status of things" with regard to the then-lawful subjugation of African Americans. King's reference to the Old Testament and "the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake" is a direct analogy to what he is in Birmingham to protest, and it is disappointing to him that his fellow clergy fail to make the connection.  

One last, resonant point that King makes is that what Hitler did in Germany was "legal" at that time, but far from congruous with any sort of higher, moral law. He is disappointed in the moral blindness of these educated spiritual leaders. 

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Generally, King is disappointed in the white church because they don't see the bigger picture; they don't really understand what the struggle for civil rights involves. The churchmen approach the question from a narrowly legalistic standpoint, insisting that African Americans should attempt to secure their rights through the courts. Further, the white churches are so integral a part of the existing power structure that they even praise the notoriously racist and corrupt Birmingham Police Department for maintaining good order in dealing with civil rights protests.

Because the white churches are so compromised by their complicity with institutionalized injustice, they are unable to develop the perspective necessary to help advance the cause of civil rights. White churchmen need to remind themselves that they are Christians. As such, they must be prepared to stand up for God's Word, even if it means defying existing laws. That's what Dr. King and the civil rights movement are doing, and it's what the white churchmen should be doing too.

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In his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," Martin Luther King Jr. expresses considerable disappointment with the white church for a number of reasons. First of all, he is disappointed that the white ministers and priests have not offered their support to his campaign for racial equality. King Jr. believed that they would be among his "strongest allies" but, in fact, they have formed some of his most staunch "opponents" because they failed to understand the aims of the movement and often "misrepresented" the views and actions of its leaders. 

Secondly, he is also disappointed that many white churchmen have failed to see the importance of the Gospel (and of religion, more generally) in this movement. To support this idea, he quotes some ministers who have stated that this movement is a "social issue" with which the Gospel has "no real concern." For King Jr., this is disappointing because he is trying to encourage unity and harmony between races which, in his opinion, is a cornerstone of the Christian religion.

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The basic problem that King expresses with the white church in this letter is that they think that order is more important than justice.  They would prefer, he says, that King and other blacks wait and let justice come to them in due time, without causing disorder.  He tells them that this is disappointing to him because he can understand those who actively oppose him but has a harder time understanding those who claim to support justice but won't support the methods needed to achieve it.

King is disappointed with the white moderate churches because they want him to wait patiently and keep order even if that means suffering from injustice.

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