Martin Luther King in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” carefully responded to religious leaders who criticized the activism of King and his followers. King chastised white, moderate religious leaders who actively participated in developing laws and strategies to deny the basic human rights of African Americans, while simultaneously espousing to the fundamental religious teaching of love and care for humanity. King’s letter rejected the dissociation of love from justice. He demanded that religious leaders do more than just talk about love, but rather put love into action.
Dividing love and justice into mutually exclusive concepts is not only dangerous it is not human. Love cannot exist without justice and justice will not be fair without love. The desegregation laws during the civil rights era granted African Americans protection from discrimination, but the laws did nothing to restore their dignity. For King, these laws were important but he wanted religious leaders to declare that freedom and equality for oppressed people was morally right. He wanted to hear these leaders say “…the Negro is [our] brother.” King wanted the church to come together and meet the challenges of racism, discrimination and poverty together. He believed that the most effective way to combat injustice was for people to authoritatively affirm the humanity of their brothers and sisters regardless of race, gender, religion, nationality, or sexual identity. King expected religious leaders to recognize God’s involvement in the struggle to put an end to racism and discrimination, but their understanding of God’s love was limited.
Many of the struggles that were present during the civil rights movement are still experienced in today’s society. There still remains racism and discrimination, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia, etc. Although a great deal of progress has been made in breaking down some of these stereotypes, our society has only scratched the surface. All of us can play a part in fighting against discrimination. But our understanding of love for each other must include fighting against injustices. It is not possible for us to love and neglect the need for justice. This view of love is ineffective. A love that is not concerned about the wholeness of humanity will always miss its mark. Love and justice requires all of our participation in the push for equality.
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