Celebrate the Cause of the Cause
With great and unending respect for Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today, in America, is Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., deserves the praise of all Americans for raising the collective consciousness of the American people about the injustices of racism. I was not even ten years old when Dr. King was assassinated, but I remember reading the headlines and asking my mother why someone had killed him. My mother told me that some people just hate other people on the basis of their skin color and that was wrong. Dr. King knew it was wrong and worked to bring an end to that wrong. He had a dream of a nation in which "one day out in the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood." It was a dream of unity and peace between races. That was Dr. King's cause, and we should celebrate it.
But Dr. King's cause did not arise out of thin air. His belief in the equality of all human beings, which led to his championing of the civil rights movement, was rooted in his Christian faith. Perhaps Dr. King's greatest exposition of his understainding of the effect of his faith on his life is found in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In many ways, it is his Letter to the Romans--explaining the basis for why he is did what he did. This letter shows that his beliefs arose from a belief in God and God's justice, and speaks of freedom as the people's "God-given rights."
The letter contains a beautiful defense of his decision to use civil disobedience as a result of natural law. This natural law is, ultimately, based on his belief in God.
You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: There are just and there are unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that "An unjust law is no law at all."(Emphasis added).
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when 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 Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority, and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. To use the words of Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, segregation substitutes and "I-it" relationship for an "I-thou" relationship, and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. So segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Isn't segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, an expression of his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? So I can urge men to disobey segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong.
Note the many references to natural law being based on Christian thinking (or, at least, theist-thinking in the case of Martin Buber). He references the writings of Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas and Paul Tillich. He defines a just law as a law that squares with the Law of God.
Let me make this perfectly clear: If it weren't for his deep and profound Christianity, there would have been no Martin Luther King, Jr.--at least not one with a profound commitment to human rights.
We need to celebrate his cause--a cause where progress has been made, but the work is not done. But we equally have to remember and respect the basis for that cause--the cause of the cause, as it were. That basis, i.e., the root of his belief in the equality of human beings, lies in his knowledge and belief that God has given to every single human being living on planet earth value as the result of their having been made in God's image. There are none who should be deemed second class citizens on the basis of their race or anscestry. We need to continue to strive towards this equality and seek to make Dr. King's dream a reality.
And perhaps the best way to remember Dr. King is through the last public sermon he gave the day before his untimely death.
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.