Truth? What is truth?

cost3Before I launch into the morning cyber-papers, let me share a glimpse of what I will be looking for on this holiday.

The writing team that works with Chuck Colson has some interesting quotes from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the BreakPoint radio script that came out today. The quotes come from the famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” text, the part in which a circle of ministers challenged the civil rights leader to explain his belief that Christians have a right to disobey some civil laws.

King went further and said that Christians had a moral duty to disobey unjust laws. This leads to the logical question: How does one know when a law is unjust?

A just law, King wrote, “squares with the moral law of the law of God. An unjust law … is out of harmony with the moral law.” Then King quoted Saint Augustine: “An unjust law is no law at all.” He quoted Thomas Aquinas: “An unjust law is a human law not rooted in eternal or natural law.”

This is the great issue today in the public square: Is the law rooted in truth? Is it transcendent, immutable, and morally binding? Or is it, as liberal interpreters argue, simply whatever courts say it is? Do we discover the law, or do we create it?

Many think of King as a liberal firebrand, waging war on traditional values. Nothing could be further from the truth. King was a great conservative on this central issue, and he stood on the shoulders of Augustine and Aquinas, striving to restore our heritage of justice rooted in the law of God.

This is, of course, a variation on the “Culture Wars” thesis of sociologist James Davison Hunter at the University of Virginia, who stated that our culture is divided into two groups: The “progressives” who believe that truth is personal, experiential and evolving and the “orthodox” who believe there is such a thing as eternal, absolute truth. Click here for more info on that.

All of this, on a personal note, reminds me of that famous issue of Sojourners in November of 1980 that made a progressive case for opposition to abortion. It was the Jesse Jackson essay that really hit home for me at the time, arguing that abortion could be used as a form of institutionalized racism. Jackson even wrote an article that was published by National Right to Life that ended with this statement:

What happens to the mind of a person, and the moral fabric of a nation, that accepts the aborting of the life of a baby without a pang of conscience? What kind of person, and what kind of society, will we have 20 years hence if life can be taken so casually?

Colson and his team are convinced that King, if he had lived, would have asked similar questions about abortion and would have kept asking them — right up through last week’s U.S. Senate hearings for Judge Samuel Alito.

Perhaps. However, I am sure of one thing. I have trouble seeing MLK having much to do with the pseudo-libertarians — moral on one side, economic on the other — who dominate our political life today.

Now it is time to go see if any of this makes it into the newspapers today, of all days. Help me look for those quotes from Birmingham. It’s the kind of language that, today, will make people sweat on the left and the right. If you find anything interesting, let us know.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • dk

    Had MLK lived, it would have been interesting to see how he handled the arrangement that evolved between liberal democrats and “the black vote.” Had he resisted, it might have had a hugely positive effect. Had he crumbled, like Jackson, things would be worse.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    It isn’t clear where King would have fallen on the abortion issue. It is hard to look to King’s family since some of them have split pro-choice and some of them have split pro-life.

    It is known that King received an award from Planned Parenthood (that Coretta King accepted on his behalf, with a speech written by him), and that he was in favor of family planning and the use of birth control methods.

    Perhaps, King would be in a position that would please neither the far left or the far right on the issue (he had a habit of doing that). I personally believe that he would support cutting the demand by eliminating poverty and improving social programs instead of turning the legality of the act of abortion itself into a political football as is the case today.

    The more I study the thorny issue of abortion politics the more it seems that everybody is ignoring the vast institutional mechanisms that make abortion a more favorable option economically than having a child.

    King, ever one to think deeply on an issue would see that focusing on the court battles and the legal access to abotion is a red herring. We fight over this instead of striking the root of this and many other issues.

    Just MY two cents however.

  • Mollie

    Interesting quote today in Times-Picayune from New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin:

    “This city will be a majority African American city. It’s the way God wants it to be.”

  • Sam Rocha

    HI! Great Blog! I linked over here on a Blog search, today I posted an article on a perspective on MLK Jr. Day, check it out if you’d like… I’ve enjoyed reading through your archives, I’d love to establish a reciprocal link with your blog, let me know if you’re interested:

  • Micah Weedman

    Colson seems to gloss over King’s non-violence (not to mention King’s use of his non-violent platform to sharply critize the war in Vietnam). If linking law and eternal truth, a “central issue” makes King a conservative in Colson’s (or Hunter’s)spectrum, what does being a student of Ghandi’s pacifism make him? I’m aware, of course, that not all of King’s lietenants were quite as non-violent as he was, but its a significant thing often overlooked by cultural conservatives that, as the Letter makes clear, one goes about disobeying unjust laws by refusing to participate in violent actions *becuase that’s how you witness to the justice of God.* He might have been a critic of abortion, but he certainly would have been a critic of every war and military action in which America has engaged since 1968. If, as Colson claims, King’s views were rooted in one eternal truth, it would seem difficult to pick apart those parts of Kings views that fit the culture-war mapping and ignore the others in such and ad hoc fashion. And yet, one cannot read King without noting that he constantly links the Justic e of God with nonviolent action.
    Liberals may want us to forget King’s Christian convictions, but conservative’s tendency to gloss over key fruits of those convictions seems to me no better.

  • Avram

    Micah, lots of people don’t fit on the simplistic liberal-conservative spectrum that the media tries to sell us. Every war and military action we’ve been in since 1968 can be criticized from both a liberal and a conservative perspective.

  • tmatt

    Colson says that MLK would be a conservative on the issue of the nature of truth. As I said, I have no doubts whatsoever that MLK would not fit in the modern GOP. I also have doubts that he would fit in the current Democraty Party. I know that you know enough about Orthodox and Catholic thought to realize that many moral conservatives in those traditions are also pacifists and/or harsh critics of many military actions in recent decades.

  • Micah Weedman

    I’m not so sure its just “the media” trying to sell the simplistic culture war dichotomy.

    Anyway, my point was that I’m not so sure you can seperate MLK’s view on the nature of truth from his view on the nature of war and violence, as Colson’s piece pre-supposes. Furthermore, I’m trying to point out the oddity, sheer oddity, of someone who was part of a hawkish White House trying to claim, on his side, one of Christian America’s most vocal opponents of the war that White House was trying to prosecute. Has Colson somewhere undergone another conversion that I don’t know about?

    My ultimate point is that pacifism/non-violence, as in the case of the Christian Peacemaker Teams, simply doesn’t fit the culture-war spectrum of “progressive” and “orthodox.”

  • Dan

    The non-violence that Martin Luther King (and Ghandi) preached (and that JPII practiced with regard to Polish communism) is part of the basis of the pro-life position. Abortion is an act of violence. The pro-life movement says “no” to this violence and urges love, not violence, as the “solution” to a “problem” pregnancy.

  • Victor Morton

    King died before Roe v Wade, which fundamentally changed the dynamic of abortion, religion, politics and culture. Unless we impute a priori sainthood to the man, I see no reason to assume King would not have done what virtually all the black leadership class have done — either (1) develop political ambitions and become lockstep pro-choice because of the nature of Democratic politics; or (2) preach against abortion “in house,” but draw no political conclusions therein while being folded into a wholly-owned subsidiarity of the Democratic Party.