In remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. it is often forgotten that he was first and foremost a Christian pastor and his beliefs in human rights and equality were grounded firmly in traditional Christian thought. There is perhaps no greater articulation of this than in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Here he lays out his views on the basis for law, and civil disobedience:
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 sinful. Paul Tillich has 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.
This sort of reasoning has a long and well-founded history. We see it in the Old Testament prophet Daniel and his refusal to bow to pagan idols. We see it in the actions of the apostles who refused to cease preaching the gospel saying, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” These men were willing to endure the persecution of authorities because they had a moral courage derived from a belief in the supremacy of the unchanging moral law of God.
As we remember Dr. King today, it is also good to remember the source of his courage and philosophy on civil rights.