Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.
While the Civil War ended slavery in America, it took another century to achieve the rights that war sought to ensure. This commentary first appeared on Dr. King’s birthday in 1999.
Today is Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, and all over the country millions of children are studying his life and his work. But while plenty of kids can quote portions of King's "I have a Dream" speech by heart, many of them don't know that King also penned one of the most eloquent defenses of the moral law that must undergird our nation's laws.
In the spring of 1963, King was arrested for leading a series of massive non-violent protests against the segregated lunch counters and discriminatory hiring practices rampant in Birmingham, Alabama. While in jail, King received a letter from eight Alabama ministers. They agreed with King's goals but they thought that he should call off the demonstrations and obey the law.
King disagreed, and his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail explains why. "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 kinds of laws: just laws… and unjust laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws," King said, "but conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws."
How does one determine whether the law is just or unjust? A just law, King wrote, “squares with the moral law of the law of God. An unjust law… is out of harmony with the moral law.”
Then King quoted Augustine: "An unjust law is no law at all." He quoted Thomas Aquinas: "An unjust law is a human law not rooted in eternal or natural law."
King stood squarely in the middle of a long Christian tradition, and more than three decades after his death, Christians are still influenced by his legacy. For example, those who engage in civil disobedience at abortion clinics, but believe that a law permitting the murder of unborn children is unjust, and therefore, not a valid law at all are a part of King's legacy. Thus, we have the right—even the duty—to protest injustices like abortion.
As we celebrate King's birthday, it's well to remind ourselves of his great contributions, not just to the advance of civil rights, but the defense of a Christian view of the law. And it's especially timely in an era when judges are constantly exceeding their authority: making the law for themselves, threatening the right of self-government, holding themselves accountable to no one.
King's letter is a sober reminder that there is indeed a transcendent law, and that IT, not what some arbitrary judge might say, is the basis of the rule of law in our land.
From the time of Emperor Nero, who declared Christianity illegal, to the days of the American slave trade, from the civil rights struggle of the Sixties to our current battles against abortion and euthanasia, Christians have maintained what King maintained. We must preserve the integrity of the law even though resisting it when it is unjust, that the rule of law may be maintained.
As we celebrate King's birthday this year, 100 senators sit in somber judgment in the historic impeachment case now underway in Washington. They would do well to quietly reflect on King's great legacy—a deep and abiding commitment to the rule of law and its integrity.
For more insight to this topic, order your copy of Doing the Right Thing, the new DVD series from BreakPoint, from our online store. Or read the article, “Dissing the Law: Who Governs America?” by Charles Colson.
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