Monday, April 01, 2013

Exorcising God from Martin Luther King

Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times ran an Op-Ed piece entitled "King's Easter epistle" by David B. Oppenheimer for Easter Sunday. The article wasn't really a nod to Easter observances. Rather, it marked the 50th anniversary of King writing his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Oppenheimer discusses the events surrounding King's imprisonment and how he answered the charge of how one could violate the law in arguing  for following the rule of law. He also reproduces a portion of King's letter, ending with what Oppenheimer feels to be the key idea: "One may well ask: 'How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?' The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws."

Photo credit: Adam Jones, Ph.D.
While all of this is well and fine, I find it interesting that Oppenheimer stops his quote short. He takes a 540 word paragraph and lops off 15 words that make up the last sentence. The closing of the King passage reads, "I would agree with St. Augustine that 'an unjust law is no law at all.'"

Why would Oppenheimer choose to exorcise that sentence? Perhaps the reason is that in both the article and in the excerpt, Oppenheimer avoids the question of "What is it that makes a law just or unjust?" But this is King's goal in writing his letter! He is not simply telling his interlocutors why he chooses to protest, but providing the moral basis for so doing. King holds that the moral grounding for discerning between just and unjust laws is found in God Almighty.

The fact that King rooted his morality in a biblical belief is clear from the letter itself. In the very next paragraph of King's letter, he writes:
 "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."
So, King quotes from Augustine and Aquinas in grounding his judgment between just and unjust laws in the moral law.  Both Augustine and Aquinas argue that the moral law is rooted in God's law, a point which King agrees when he follows up the phrase "moral law" with its clarification "the law of God." This makes sense as King begins the paragraph quoted in the article with the sentence "We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights." Notice King states that his rights are given by God. That makes them irrevocable by local ordinance.

I think it's telling how Oppenheimer chooses to amputate a sentence from the key area of his excerpt on King. He feels that discussing the examples of prejudice King cites will move his audience and those examples alone are enough to buoy King's argument.  But King didn't feel this way. He used the examples as a way of setting the stage for his real argument: men have rights endowed to them by God and it is the responsibility of anyone who follows that God to also act out against the injustice of those laws. Later in the letter, King writes:
"Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

"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."
I do agree with Oppenheimer that "Anyone who hasn't read King's response lately (and most of us who have) would benefit from spending a few minutes reading it this Easter weekend." But Oppenheimer needs to take off his selective glasses and receive the letter as a whole.  As King noted above, just doing what is legal or illegal because the state has declared it such doesn't make it just or right. We need to ground our concept of justice in "a higher moral law."  Only then can we see clearly and advocate justly.

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