The Forgotten King

I can’t bear to take in the speeches being offered today in commemoration of Martin Luther King’s famous March on Washington speech that took place 50 years ago this week.  A note from Ken Masugi this morning observes that most of the speeches are partisan drivel and Obama cheerleading, a sign of the appalling decay of the so-called civil rights movement today.  Ken notes separately how the Martin Luther King monument on the Mall perfectly exemplifies this decay, preferring the older Freedman’s Memorial from 1876 instead:

The fuss over the lame misquotation on the statue (“I was a drum major for justice…”) is nothing compared with the greater disgrace of the mediocrity of the statue. The civil rights revolution transformed America; the stubborn King just stands there, arms folded, glowering across the Tidal Basin, with Jefferson off to his left. Its size (at 30 feet, half again the height of Jefferson) undermines the real King’s message of equality. This monstrosity from China is art in the fascistic mode (cf. Mt. Rushmore).

While King’s significant statement on how the object of a color-blind society where people are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin is getting some play, I wonder whether anyone will also look back on another significant moment of King’s teaching also from 50 years ago—his Letter from the Birmingham Jail.  There, in the middle, is King’s embrace of something utterly anathema to today’s left: natural law as understood by Aquinas, etc.  In fact, King mentions Aquinas specifically.  Here’s the relevant passage:

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, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. 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. 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. 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. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. Paul Tillich said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression ‘of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

Try reading this today to a roomful of liberals, and watch them squirm.

P.S.  Yes, this last bit about a law that “a majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself” is indeed an ironic commentary on how Obama has exempted Congress from the terms of Obamacare.  Yup.  King the conservative shows up again.