Few names evoke the awe and reverence we associate with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s. His is a legacy of progress, justice and social change, rivaled in reputation perhaps only by Mahatma Gandhi. In fact, Dr. King’s name has become synonymous with seeking out and exterminating unjust action and policy in our nation. In reading “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” one encounters over and over again this notion of justice as it seems to be the crux of King’s appeal to his white pastoral brethren. He and his fellow black citizens can no longer tolerate the actions against them as these actions violate a deeply ingrained sense of justice which King presumes to be shared between the two parties. In invoking this idea of justice, King appeals to an external moral authority, a sense of right and wrong untethered to political policy and independent of social context. It is inherently wrong for black citizens to be denied the same freedoms and privileges offered their white counterparts and this motivates King to stage nonviolent protests and “direct actions” in order to affect policy and public opinion in favor of desegregation and racial equality.
I have been wondering of late regarding the nature of external moral truths. From time to time I engage in conversation with naturalists and atheists who do not believe in objective truth claims or inherent moral realities, but that “truth” and “justice” and “love” and “freedom” are merely social structures, dictated by psychology which itself is dictated by biology; no aspect of the human experience is more substantial than mere chemical reactions in the brain. Some days I have a hard time disagreeing with them, and on those days I set out to discover if belief in these “truths” is consistent with living an enlightened, self-aware life. In seeking to justify belief in Moral Truth I often turn to those whose counsel I trust, both now and across time, and Dr. King certainly qualifies as one whose opinion I hold in high regard. He is a paragon of good, and I trust that his motivations are rooted in truth, if there is such a thing. So if he believes in truth for truth’s sake, in a morality provided by a sovereign, loving God, I will take notice. And this letter, I believe, demonstrates as much.
Dr. King does not seem to fall victim to the ever-present false dichotomy of morality versus reason we so often see in contemporary political and religious spheres. He in fact opens his letter with a reasonable, rational appeal to those who oppose his nonviolent protests, refuting one by one their erroneous claims regarding his and his colleagues' behavior. He explains in the face of accusations of being an “outsider” that affiliates of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, citizens of Birmingham and “insiders” have invited and in fact impelled him to come. He also cites the “interrelatedness of all communities and states” with regard to the pursuit of common justice as reasoning for his presence in Birmingham, as injustice in any portion of our country threatens the health of just pursuits elsewhere. He goes on to deconstruct the nature and purpose of “direct action” and nonviolent protest (“four basic steps”) in order that his detractors might understand his purpose. He is not a man opposed to clear thinking and reasonable decision-making, but neither is he a man opposed to faith in a higher governing Power. We see in his words a devotion both to reason and to faith miraculous by modern standards.
While King regards highly the laws and governing authorities of his time, he demonstrates a much deeper devotion to God's truth, particularly as it pertains to justice (which perhaps for these purposes should be written Justice, as a form). Justice, King claims, is not dependent on the laws of man. In fact all laws, according to King, are subject to evaluation in light of the principles of Justice. He delineates between just laws and unjust laws, a just law being “the code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God.” It is clear, then, that he does not equate morality with the social attitudes of the day. Morality runs deeper, wider and higher. It is independent of common opinion and even the democratic process. Even when the courts say segregation is legal that does not make it morally permissible, and action must be taken in the pursuit of just law and practice.
“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever,” King claims, but I wonder why that might be so. Is it that oppressed peoples are taught they deserve better? No, in fact the opposite is far too often true that the marginalized are coerced into believing their lot is one of subjugation and inequity. Why, then, must “the arc of the moral universe... bend toward justice” as King claims is the case in another work? It is because within the hearts of men and women is the echo of a voice (as N. T. Wright puts it) that whispers the inherent worth of humankind in a world meant for Justice. Even in the world-weary soul of a black man ever-denied equality, “something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom.” If social forces have not planted this seed, then I believe (as does King) that our hearts bear the imprint of a Creator who designed us for a better world. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the one in which we find ourselves, so campaigning for Justice, in God's name, is a necessary step.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a brilliant orator and, as it turns out, an equally brilliant writer. His command of rhetoric was masterful and his mission clear. It is no wonder we look back on him with such veneration; he was a brilliant man. For some time I have intermittently suffered under the fear that my tribe, the Christian church, is one devoid of intellectual depth, that the Christian faith is logically untenable and if I were to ever give the matter proper thought I would become an atheist. Of course this is far from true, and I now realize that thanks in large part to the influence of brilliant Christian men and women like Dr. King. It brings me solace to know his mind arrived at a similar conclusion to my own: that some things are unjust, not by human standards but by Divine mandate, and the role of humanity is to aid in the bending of the moral arc toward Justice.