That Old Time Religion
In his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Dr. King says no
The issue: Breaking the rules to ensure human dignity
In April, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested in Birmingham and thrown in prison. The occasion of Dr. King's arrest was a sit-in at a stand-up lunch counter in a local discount store. When he and five others sought service they were told that the counter was closed. When they refused to leave, they were arrested.
In the demonstrations that resulted from their arrest, the Birmingham police used dogs against citizens objecting peacefully to segregated lunch facilities. The police refused to grant Dr. King bail and permitted him no visitors. The local papers reported that the demonstrators were from Ohio in an effort to assure people that these problems were simply the result of outside agitators.
The year before, the City of Birmingham had closed all public parks, and other public facilities, to keep from them from being integrated. T. Eugene "Bull" Connor, the chief of police, had no qualms about using fire-hoses or German shepherds on non-violent marches and pickets organized by African-Americans in Birmingham.(1)
Despite the non-violent nature of these protests, white church leaders in Birmingham responded with a statement calling the demonstrations "unwise and untimely."
Among those signing this statement were C.C.J. Carpenter, the Episcopal Bishop of Alabama, and George M. Murray, the Bishop Coadjutor. (Partly because of his interactions with Dr. King, Bishop Murray later became a leader in the church for civil rights and women's ordination.)
The text of their letter displays a clear preference for following the rules even if they are unjust. The bishops and other clergymen "warmly commended" the Birmingham police for "keeping order" and "containing violence." What they said can be read in full at the archives of the Birmingham Public Library.
Their suggestion that Dr. King stand down remains a shortsighted failure.
Dr. King replied to the clergyman with his eloquent and historic "Letter from Birmingham Jail," where he reminded the clergymen that he and his fellow men had waited 340 years for justice. In it he argued quite well that there is a litmus test for differentiating between just and unjust laws.
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."He also wrote about the Church's responsibility to take the lead in promoting liberty and justice, as it had in the early days of the Church.
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.
So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.The full letter can be read at the King Archives at Stanford.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom.
As a fellow clergyman, Dr. King took the concerns of the bishops seriously. They were the religious power structure, supporting the rules, because they are the rules. And they were wrong.
Dr. King's response, as always, was to use peaceful persuasion. This is understandable in light of Dr. King's training as a minster and his faith as a Christian, but given the circumstances and the odds, it was remarkable enough that the Nobel Foundation awarded him the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1964. Quoting Dr. King, the Foundation said:
We will only say to the people, "Let your conscience be your guide." Our actions must be guided by the deepest principles of our Christian faith... Once again we must hear the words of Jesus echoing across the centuries: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you."
Throughout his letter and his life, Dr. King applied a simple rule of thumb evidenced by the Lord himself: if human life and well-being is improved by so doing, break the rules.
It's a good rule of thumb.
(1) Some material adapted from Professor Terry Matthews, Ph.D (Church history).