Last week, in the guise of celebrating one man’s legacy, the nation took a day to solemnize our formal commitment to equality before the law. Blacks in this country have suffered much, finally gaining their freedom only to be hunted like animals in some places. I understand that the beneficiaries of and successors to the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. look to him as an icon, a martyr in the struggle for civil rights. I would be a sentimental fool if I pretended I was somehow part of that experience, as if I could somehow claim that legacy as my own. Society’s evils are society’s problems, so I do not mean to try to opt-out of this great American struggle. But my grandparents were not chased by hooded men on horseback, and if my parents were treated with suspicion, it was not for the color of their skin. So while I endorse and support equality for all as a Christian and an American conservative, I don’t pretend to “get it” like those in afflicted communities.
That does not mean the holiday is irrelevant to me. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a complex character, and I choose to celebrate him as a civic philosopher in the tradition of the Apostle Peter, Thomas More, Martin Luther (MLK’s namesake), and James Madison. The principles of justice and righteousness that King eloquently proclaimed are not unique to the race problem in the United States. They are universal. Here is a taste of King’s most famous letter that gives you an indication of why my choice is appropriate:
But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.
King apparently wrote this, an impressive appeal to natural right, on the margins of a newspaper without any sources to consult. He must have been truly steeped in Christian philosophy and the natural law tradition, and he must have been a brilliant mind to weave together a complex argument like the one that emerged from the smuggled snippets of newspaper.
Now, consider two examples.
State authorities and sheriffs around the country have declared their refusal to enforce federal gun control provisions that violate the Second Amendment. If a government of limited powers enacts a law outside those powers, is that a “just” or an “unjust” law? Is the right to bear arms a natural right or a pragmatic license our framers thought wise to enshrine? Would it matter if the Second Amendment were repealed, or if it were re-enacted without the preamble? Regardless of your stance on firearms policy, consider this question through the lens King provides in his letter. (I am aware of the assertion that the Second Amendment was implemented to protect slavery. I am not convinced that this was its only purpose in light of the plethora of conflicting sentiments, nor does what those men may have thought bind our inquiry now. Only consider this: whom do you think Bull Connor would disarm?)
Fourty-four lawsuits have challenged the ill-famed contraceptive mandate issued under the authority of the Affordable Care Act. Now, this is the Evangelical Channel, so perhaps most of our readers find opposition to contraceptives to be a bit abstruse. Consider instead a mandate that employers pay for employees’ abortions, in the name of public health. Is there a clearer case of a “code that is out of harmony with the moral law”? Should subscribing to a particular vision of society be a precondition of doing business in the United States, from Bangor to San Jose?
What would Martin Luther King, Jr. say about a government that flippantly legislates outside of its defined authority? What would he say about laws that compel citizens to commit sinful acts?
To be sure, claiming “religious freedom!” is not a hall pass to skip laws you don’t like. Only lightly should one disobey the authorities, as Paul implies regarding “all authority.” Dr. King explains that one resisting an unjust law must be willing to accept the state’s punishment, and thus he made no whiny arguments about being stuck in a dark hole by racist pretenders. But what should be apparent from his life and death is that, once convicted of the unjustness of a law, the true evil lies in compliance.