This summer, the long-awaited memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. opened in Washington, DC. This event renews efforts to venerate the man for his extraordinary accomplishments. King is rightly praised for his fight against segregation in the South, which he did via non-violent means. Furthermore, he is rightly praised for his elegant rhetoric, which is filled with vivid metaphors and soaring prose.
But his most thoughtful contribution was not a speech. It was a letter he wrote while in jail in Alabama, from which its title — “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” — stems. This work best exposes the depth and breadth of King’s political thought. Far from eloquent platitudes, this letter speaks to contemporary audiences beyond issues of segregation, race, and civil rights. It speaks to essential questions of politics, human engagement, and the meaning of religion in America’s public discourse.
King’s articulation of the nature of the law and civil disobedience has no peer in the 20th Century. He first distinguishes between “just” and “unjust” laws. The positive law of the political community is not just merely because of its status as a law. King declares “[a] just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.” Right human laws realize justice; they do not create it. Thus, legislative authority is empowered and restrained by its transcendent source.
Our current political discussions would do well to consider these claims closely. While victors from previous Novembers remind us that “elections have consequences,” elections are not everything. The will of the majority may be king but it is a limited monarch, subject to the Constitution and to a concept of moral law. Our pluralism often makes us shy away from even considering non-majoritarian or extra-constitutional claims to justice. Many find assertions of foundations beyond will or culture dangerous, while others find them so imperceptible as to be useless to pursue. However, King shows us that the conversation can and should occur. Our difficulty in discerning the limiting and empowering facets of natural justice expose more than our innate sinfulness. The difficulty exposes how little we cultivate the thinking necessary to get at such questions fruitfully.
King is writing this letter from jail, imprisoned for disobeying an unjust law. Citing Augustine, King says that such a law is, in the end, no law at all. His point here is particularly thoughtful. He continues that unjust laws should be broken but done so “openly, lovingly… with a willingness to accept the penalty.” King continues further that breaking an unjust law and accepting the penalty “is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law.” King warns that disobeying an unjust law in the wrong way does more than undermine the pernicious legal statute in question; it can breed disdain for law itself. The anarchy which disdain for law fosters is manyfold worse than the imposition of one unjust law. Furthermore, if the law ever changes to reflect true justice, then respect for law in general must remain to ensure compliance. Thus King argues that disobedience must be done while knowing and accepting the associated punishment. In so doing, King upholds the concept of law while attacking an instance of its unjust manifestation. The balance is as subtle as it is crucial to protecting the vulnerable.
Next, the Birmingham letter fights against progressive notions of history. Such notions see history as a force that both creates its own evolving morality and bends human initiative to its overwhelming, impersonal flow. King laments the opinion that “there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.” Instead, he writes, “time itself is neutral.” History’s movement is guided by God and those “willing to be co-workers with God.” For King, without human initiative toward justice, there is nothing intrinsic in history to stop opposite movement toward oppression and chaos. We could debate the extent of man’s freedom in relation to God’s sovereignty but King’s point in articulating impersonal history’s personal agents is accurate. A personal God ordains history’s movement along with its eternal principles of justice, and he often does so through the only beings created in His image. Thus neither complacency nor despondency is an option. We must seek truth and justice as obedient servants of an all-powerful God.
Finally, in this letter King speaks in explicitly religious terms about America. Black freedom is “embodied” in “the sacred heritage of our nation.” He speaks of “the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage.” If we include his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, he calls on America to live out the true meaning of her “creed.” Many in the Christian community continue to speak of America in religious terms. They maintain a Christian heritage for the United States. Others recoil from this and see such statements as mixing political identity with the Body of Christ. While I have heard the first group cite King approvingly for his religious-American language, I have not heard much if any criticism from the second group regarding that same language. Does this stem from a veneration of King that de-humanizes him by elevating him above criticism? Are his statements essentially different from others’ claims using similar speech? Fully parsing King’s statements would take more than this article. Yet if we truly take King seriously, we must take these claims seriously. His words — and their wide acceptance — question anew Christianity’s role in the public square.
Therefore, as the new memorial renews commemoration of King, let us revere him for his role in the civil rights movement. At the same time, let us see him as even more, as a serious political thinker whose thoughts are worthy of discussion beyond issues of race and non-violence. Whether the topic be the nature of law, civil disobedience, history, or religious rhetoric, King remains a figure worthy of our contemplation, criticism, and highest respect.