Letter from Birmingham City Jail Themes and Analysis

  • The most prominent themes in this letter are justice, Christianity, civil disobedience, and freedom.
  • King employs the rhetorical devices of ethoslogos, and pathos as he argues that denying justice to one person threatens justice for everyone.
  • King draws on Christian values and beliefs to argue that every human being deserves justice and freedom from tyranny. If that belief makes him an "extremist," then he's an extremist for love, not hate.

Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In his argument for nonviolent activism, King fused the tradition of civil disobedience exemplified by Socrates, Henry David Thoreau, and Mahatma Gandhi and voiced by Reinhold Niebuhr with the Protestant Christianity King had absorbed from birth. Since King’s consciousness was formed by the Church—his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all Baptist ministers—he saw the world through the lens of the King James Bible (though that lens was enlarged by the studies that culminated in his Ph.D. degree). King’s language is infused with the biblical idiom. The grand simplicity by which the Bible expresses complex ideas, the majesty of its earthy images, the parallelism and antitheses of its sentences—all are characteristic of King’s style.

Furthermore, the structure and the voice of the letter are those of the epistle writers of the New Testament. Like Peter or Paul, King speaks to recipients who share his Christian faith but who err in the implementation of that faith. King believed that white liberals, and particularly the white church, are too optimistic about human nature; time, he says, will not automatically lead to justice.

In spite of his lack of optimism about human nature, love formed the core of King’s message. The essence of the New Testament is charity, derived from the examples of Jesus and from its statement by Paul in I Corinthians 13. King loved not only his black brothers but also his white oppressors....

(The entire section is 480 words.)