Civility Under Fire: Chuck Colson & Timothy George Revive MLK's Legacy
Image: Dan Farrell / NY Daily News Archive / Getty images

It may have been the most civil statement ever made in thoroughly uncivil times.

Responding to fellow clergy who criticized the civil rights protests in Birmingham, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. penned his towering, magnificent "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in 1963.

It's time that King's letter—and the spirit and tone in which it was written—be re-examined by every pundit, every pastor, every activist, and every politician who rightly bemoans the demise of civil discourse in the U.S.

If anyone had a right to unleash an uncivil, scathing, ad hominem attack on his opponents, it was King. It is hard for younger people to imagine (and getting harder for many of us older ones to remember) the conditions under which many African Americans lived throughout the South just over 40 years ago. Segregation, lynchings, African American churches and homes firebombed. Jim Crow laws even prevented "colored people" from attending the circus and playing pool with whites.

Yet civil rights leaders painfully, persistently, and peacefully protested the injustice of segregation. In doing so, they often broke segregation laws. All too often, protesters reaped a reward of fire hoses, police dogs, and incarceration.

Several Birmingham clergy admonished the protesters, urging them to work within the law. King's letter was a response to those clergy.

Put yourself in his place. Who would not be furious, even enraged, by the statement of these ministers? How was King able to respond in such a civil and well-reasoned manner? Remember that King himself was a Baptist pastor. His response reflected his deeply held Christian convictions. He quoted the words of Jesus, and appealed to the example of Paul, ...

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Contra Mundum
Chuck Colson & Timothy George

Charles Colson was the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, an outreach to convicts, victims of crime, and justice officers. Colson, who converted to Christianity before he was indicted on Watergate-related charges, became one of evangelicalism's most influential voices. His books included Born Again and How Now Shall We Live? A Christianity Today columnist since 1985, Colson died in 2012.

Timothy George is the dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University and a member of Christianity Today's Editorial Council. His books include Reading Scripture with the Reformers and Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? Like Colson, George has been heavily involved in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together discussions. George began cowriting "Contra Mundum" with Colson in 2011.

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