by Ryan Wallace
Director of Organizing, Interfaith Worker Justice
In 1962, civil rights leaders began organizing to desegregate the stores in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. By the spring of 1963, the campaign was heating up and tensions were growing high amidst a series of boycotts, sit-ins, and other demonstrations. And on April 12, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested for not having a proper parade permit for the demonstrations he was participating in.
While he was in the Birmingham City Jail, his lawyer sneaked him in a letter that was printed in a local newspaper that 8 white clergymen in Alabama had drafted about the current state of affairs in Birmingham. In the letter, ironically titled “A Call for Unity,” they accused Dr. King and the other civil rights leaders of being impatient, outside agitators who were inciting violence and hatred, and they urged Dr. King and his partners to put an end to the demonstrations in Birmingham.
Dr. King's response—now famously known as the Letter from Birmingham Jail—addressed the cowardly arguments made by those clergymen.
In one particularly poignant section of Dr. King's letter, he distinguishes two kinds of peace: negative peace and positive peace. He says that negative peace is the absence of tension whereas positive peace is the presence of justice. In my own words, negative peace is implicitly endorsing the status quo. Let’s leave things the way they are so we don’t rock the boat.
On the other hand, positive peace is the active pursuit of justice. It is acting to build the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. For Christians, taking up the cross—an ancient symbol of political subversion—means proliferating positive peace to challenge the status quo to make way for a more just world, and expecting conflict to follow.