Litany of the Imprisoned

This litany was co-written with the Rev. Laura Kelly for a course on Christian Ethics. The italicized portions are excerpted from Psalm 142. The plain text is excerpted from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written in 1963. The bold text is original.

With my voice I cry to the Lord;
with my voice I make supplication to the Lord.

What else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

I pour out my complaint before him;
I tell my trouble before him.

 For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

When my spirit is faint,
you know my way.
In the path where I walk
   they have hidden a trap for me.

One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” … Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

Look on my right hand and see—
   there is no one who takes notice of me;
no refuge remains to me;
   no one cares for me.

I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.

I cry to you, O Lord;
   I say, “You are my refuge,
  my portion in the land of the living.”

I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. … Yes, they have gone to jail with us. … They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. 

Give heed to my cry,
   for I am brought very low.
Save me from my persecutors,
  for they are too strong for me.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. … We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

Bring me out of prison,
   so that I may give thanks to your name.
The righteous will surround me,
   for you will deal bountifully with me.

The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? 

In Christ’s freedom, we say Amen. 

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