Martin Luther King, Ethics, and the Law

This day, the commemoration of the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., represents something important for America in general, and for ethicists in particular. This day marks a triumph of ethics over law. What do I mean exactly? To put it plainly, King was law breaker. And that was a VERY GOOD thing.

It was good because the laws King broke were evil laws. Laws which were lies and committed to violence because they said some people were better than others. Society was ready to apply power to enforce those lies, both through the violence of the police and legal system and through extrajudicial violence like lynching. One way to hide a lie it to threaten those who disbelieve it.

But King didn’t care about that. A lie is always a lie, and should be exposed and allowed to shrivel up in the sun. A good exposure to truth ought to kill most lies in short order. King knew there was a higher law which declared the “laws” of society and the state to be lies. What was this higher law? God’s law, of course.

King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail (PDF here) is a landmark piece of American history – and philosophy. In this letter King explains why he is breaking the law, and he explicitly appeals to the Christian tradition of ethics, citing St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, among others. Any human law which violates natural or divine law is not a law at all, but violence against the law, and therefore it need not be obeyed. Under some circumstances one can not only choose to ignore evil laws, but actually must disobey if one wants to do the right thing. Laws can be both passive and active, allowing actions or mandating them. Some of the early Christian martyrs rejected immoral laws when they refused to give up their faith and pay respects to paganism or the emperor. The state laws mandating paganism had no power because they were false laws. Dr. King’s actions were analogous. Laws based on race were powerless because they were false. King exposed these laws to the light of truth and they shriveled up, but only after a fight.

King always said he was not causing violence, only exposing the violence that was already there. He was right. The powerful like their lies, and are willing to send others to fight on their behalf to protect their lies (they hardly ever go themselves).

Perhaps the most important thing that this day should teach to us is that might does not make right. Sometimes might makes wrong. And in that case, might needs to be challenged, stood up to, and informed that it is doing evil. It takes a very brave person to do that, a person with a lot of faith in God and/or humanity. King was one of those people and he died in the process. But the truth he showed us lives on.

And for us, the challenge of truth is left to further unravel… What laws of our land are unjust? Which need to be ignored or disobeyed? I think there may be a lot. And as the laws of our land change over time, are they getting better or worse and how do we know? If you have ideas, please comment and let us know. I think Dr. King would approve.

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