Martin Luther King, Natural Law Theorist

Recreation of Martin Luther King's cell in Birmingham Jail at the National Civil Rights Museum
Recreation of Martin Luther King’s cell in Birmingham Jail at the National Civil Rights Museum

A small confession: until a few hours ago, I had completely forgotten that today is Martin Luther King day in America. Providentially, I happened to be watching a TED talk yesterday that “got” King in a way that few people today do. The talk was by Simon Sinek, and his overall theme is that people are inspired by why you do what you do, not by what you do: that articulating ideas matters more than just making plans. One of the examples that he gives is King’s march on Washington:

In the summer of 1963, 250,000 people showed up on the mall in Washington to hear Dr. King speak. They sent out no invitations, and there was no website to check the date. How do you do that? Well, Dr. King wasn’t the only man in America who was a great orator. He wasn’t the only man in America who suffered in a pre-civil rights America. In fact, some of his ideas were bad. But he had a gift. He didn’t go around telling people what needed to change in America. He went around and told people what he believed. “I believe, I believe, I believe,” he told people. And people who believed what he believed took his cause, and they made it their own, and they told people. And some of those people created structures to get the word out to even more people. And lo and behold, 250,000 people showed up on the right day at the right time to hear him speak.

How many of them showed up for him? Zero. They showed up for themselves. It’s what they believed about America that got them to travel in a bus for eight hours to stand in the sun in Washington in the middle of August. It’s what they believed, and it wasn’t about black versus white: 25% of the audience was white.

Dr. King believed that there are two types of laws in this world: those that are made by a higher authority and those that are made by men. And not until all the laws that are made by men are consistent with the laws made by the higher authority will we live in a just world. It just so happened that the Civil Rights Movement was the perfect thing to help him bring his cause to life.

That’s it, exactly. As both a pastor and a social activist, King was uniquely poised to see the tension between the law of God and the law of man. This isn’t Sinek trying to shoehorn King into a box to try to make a broader point. No, this is how King saw his own mission. In one of the most beautiful parts of the brilliant Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King acknowledges an objection: how he can advocate enforcing Brown v. Board while simultaneously disobeying Jim Crow laws? (As I mentioned back in July, this exact same objection is resurfacing today: how can Catholics advocate enforcing Hobby Lobby while simultaneously disobeying the HHS Mandate and gay-marriage laws?). Here’s how King answers that objection, in his own words:

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.

This is the key to getting King and the Civil Rights movement: why it was about ensuring justice, not snatching power. King saw clearly what so many of us fail to see today: human laws are rooted in Divine law, which also creates a check on the civil authority. It means that there are certain things that the State can’t do, and which we don’t have to idly let the State try to do. This principle is what undergirded the Civil Rights movement, as well as the United Nation’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (not coincidentally, Jacques Maritain, a Catholic philosopher in “the Aristotelian-Thomistic natural law tradition,” was responsible for much of the initial drafting of the text).

In other words, this is a critical part of who King was, and what he and his movement stood for. What’s more, it’s a crucially important principle, particularly in this modern age of rapid expansion of federal authority. Given that, it’s disappointing – and even distressing – to see that the King Memorial in Washington, D.C. fails to make any reference to King’s views on natural law, or even to his belief in God. None of the 14 quotations inscribed give the slightest hint that King was a pastor, much less a natural law theorist. This is nothing less than a reappropriation of Dr. King: an attempt to turn a man fueled by love of God and His Law into a secular community organizer.

1 Comment

  1. Natural law implies the duty to obey ones conscience, not the right to disregard laws one feels are unjust. Where duty is neglected privilege becomes abuse.The failure of the Civil Rights Movement is that it inspired people to hate privilege but not to love duty.

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