Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Karl Marx’s phrase “religion is the opium of the people” suggests a numbing effect for religious practice, rather than a quickening effect. Too often in modern Western society this is true: religion is for those who want to go to sleep.

Rev. Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” contains a passage (quoted at length below) in which he talks about “fostering tension” in a community. This is the opposite of the narcotic effect: to raise tension is to raise discomfort. To raise discomfort, to raise tension, is one of the marks of authentic religious practice and expression. It is nothing less than the prophetic voice of religion, canonized in the Hebrew Scriptures in such figures as Isaiah, Hosea, and Amos.

Society does not change unless creative tension is brought to crisis. Rev. Dr. King knew this. While an edgy American populace continues under the delusion that a different election result will bring about “change we can believe in,” or “renewal,” or whatever slogan catches on, the truth is spoken more clearly in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” New life– more fair, more just, more compassionate, more hopeful– is the province of a religion that calls insistently for people to wake up.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.

via Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.].


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