Friday, January 18, 2013

Remembering Martin Luther King

    This coming Monday the U.S. will be commemorating the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. (His actual birthday was January 15). It is thus appropriate that we should take a few moments to reflect on his life and legacy.
    Dr. King was, of course, the preeminent leader of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950's and '60's. What is sometimes forgotten or overlooked, however, is that he was also a Baptist preacher and that he called his organization "The Southern Christian Leadership Conference." For him there was no such thing as separating religion from politics. True religion, in fact, requires involvement in politics. A truly devout person cannot ignore injustice in society.
    The point was beautifully stated in his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail." On Good Friday in April, 1963, Dr. King was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama for marching without a permit. It was a deliberate act of civil disobedience on his part, and one that he know would be controversial. A group of clergymen published a statement in a newspaper critical of his actions, and he wrote a response from his jail cell.
    Among other things the clergymen wanted to know how he could break the law while urging others to obey the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation. His answer is that there is a difference between a just law and an unjust one. "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.'"
    Dr. King then went on to explain what made the difference between the two: "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." Dr. King then explained that "segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful . . . Is not segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness"? And so the need for direct, non-violent action to remedy the situation.
    Today there are many who argue that religion should be kept out of politics, and that legislative decisions should be made strictly on the basis of secular considerations. But that is to separate the law from morality and surrenders society to the law of the jungle. Why obey the law? Why seek to change the law? If laws are purely man-made and there is no higher standard of morality, there is no reason to do either. Even more to the point, what hope is for minorities? As Dr. King so plainly saw, if there is no transcendent standard of justice, there is no defense for the weak and helpless, the outcasts and the downtrodden. They are entirely at the mercy of the unsympathetic majority.
    Dr. King's personal faith gave him a passionate commitment to justice – an unwillingness to accept things simply as they are. He devoted his life to the struggle for justice because he was absolutely convinced, in his own mind, that there is a higher law, the law of God, and that eventually as human beings we must all give answer before the bar of divine justice.
    But he also saw that the ends do not justify the means. ". . . it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends." This is why he was also committed to non-violence. We are required to respect the rights even of our enemies. Why? Because God demands it.
    We can continue to be a nation "with liberty and justice for all" only if we remain "one nation under God."

Other posts you may enjoy (click on links):
Christianity and Politics 
William Jennings Bryan: a Lesson in Faith and Politics 


  1. For him there was no such thing as separating religion from politics. True religion, in fact, requires involvement in politics.

    There's an important difference between religion being involved in politics, and religious people being involved in politics.

    As far as I know, Martin Luther King supported only the second of those.

  2. I can't be absolutely certain, because I never met the man, but from all that I can gather from his writings I think he would probably disagree with you. What I think he would say is that religion informed his goals and objectives -- social justice, and that religion informed his methods -- non-violent resistance. On the latter point he described it like this: "in any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts . . . ;negotiation; self-purification; and direct action" (Why We Can't Wait, p. 78). On self-purification he said, "We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: 'Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?''Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?'" (p. 79). Granted, King was writing a theological statement to fellow clergy, and a lot of his methodology was taken from Gandhi, but Gandhi in turn got it from the Sermon on the Mount.
    The marching song of the Civil Rights Movement was an old spiritual "We Shall Overcome."
    He concluded his final speech with these words: "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 to 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. So 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."