So far in this series on Five Ways to Respond to the Letter from Birmingham Jail, we’ve talked about celebrating the progress that has already been achieved, confessing the sins of the past and the present for myself and corporately, continuing the struggle against prejudice and racism today. Today I want to introduce the fourth way I want to respond: [highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]finding the new fights which[/highlight] MLK and the Civil Rights Movement should inform us in today.
[highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]Cultural Evils[/highlight]
We would too often like to freeze our Black leaders in carbonite, making them our own “Han Solo of 1968,” rather than letting them live on in their own path. We do this with Martin Luther King, Jr. himself. Since he was killed in his prime we can think that he would have continued to fight the same fight in the same way. But we see by reading his works and speeches that he was already working for many other oppressed people, the poor in particular. One of the ways I can learn from the Letter from Birmingham Jail is to unfreeze MLK and let his movement live on again in my heart by fighting the new fights.
I’ll return to this thought at the end of this, but for now let me say that I think that the Letter from Birmingham Jail inspires me to think about the cultural evils all around me that make things “okay” that are simply not “okay.” Many of our cultural evils are perpetuated in a way that have little to do with the law, and are instead about just plain old sin. Around the world people are always inventing ways to oppress other people, or they are resurrecting old patterns of oppression (the history of Afghanistan is a case-study in the latter.) I see people actively working for women’s rights and against human trafficking. I see people alert to new signs of ethnic cleansing, and others working for the rights of indigenous peoples, or the rights of children (which includes those children who are unborn). Multi-national corporations and the ubiquitous nature of the internet have both caused us to ask human rights questions that cause many to fight new fights.
In each of these cases there is a new topography to evil, even if there is a longer history and track-record of oppression What is not new is that those in power will often oppress those without it. Power corrupts, and in systems where power becomes more and more absolute the tendency is for the oppression to be absolutely insurmountable without someone else with power fighting against it. Whether it be the power of communication, government, community mobilization, networking, or even scholarship: we must use our power to speak truth into the vacuum cultural evils create. I believe each new generation has within it an inner light to find these new fights and to fight them valiantly, if we can cultivate it. As a Christian I believe the Church is the greatest power to fight these evils. However all too often the Church looks the other way (as it too often did in the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s) with only the more active Churches and Christian leaders as exceptions. At other times the Church is actually complicit in the cultural evils itself (as it was in American Slavery from the beginning and right up until the Civil War, with only a few abolitionist movements, like we Wesleyans) as exceptions. But when the church is at its best (as it was among abolitionist churches and civil rights movement churches) there is no more powerful force on earth for change.
In part because of the example of the Letter from Birmingham Jail, I feel compelled to fight the new fights that come our way as evil reinvents itself in every age.
[highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]Unjust Laws[/highlight]
Sometimes a cultural evil, like racism, becomes so embedded in our countries that the laws themselves begin to reflect these sins. When that happens, it is incumbent upon us to work to change the laws. I am a law-abiding American citizen, but at times I must yield to a higher law, and I must be loyal to my higher citizenship in Heaven. But how do I make these decisions on principle and with accountable authority, without becoming a relativist who makes up my own rubric for right and wrong.
Martin Luther King, Jr gave us three invaluable principles in the Letter from Birmingham Jail for making these decisions.
1) Unjust Laws Lack Harmony with God’s Moral Law
“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 terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: ‘An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.'” – Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Letter*
This principle has fallen out of fashion today. People are uncomfortable with the idea that our secular human laws in our nations are “rooted in eternal law.” But King’s activism is deeply rooted in scripture and the truth of God. He, like Aquinas before him, philosophically believed that these laws can be affirmed in natural law all around us, the way the universe works, because God, as Creator, has embedded his truth into the laws of the universe itself. Sometimes the laws of the land lack this congruity with the Truth… they no longer harmonize with God’s moral law, and instead become dissonant chords in our system of laws. When they do we must change them.
2) Unjust Laws Falsely Degrade Some and Inflate Others
“Any law that uplifts the human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
When we find that we have codified in our laws something that degrades the actual value of a human life we must overthrow these laws. Human personality is not just a Psyche 101 concept for us to throw around as a freshman. Instead, human personality is the Imago Dei, and a crime against even one person made in the image of God is a crime against not only humanity, but a crime against the creator of it. Laws must uplift and protect this humanity. in this sense a theologian should be the most active human rights activist. Knowing God should inspire in us a devotion to protect his creations–particularly the one that is made in the Image of God himself: men and women.
3) Unjust Laws Institutionalize Oppression of One Over Another
“An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
When we find that our laws themselves are crafted to protect the power of the powerful, to restrict its access perpetually, so that a caste system of economics, education, or ethnicity is in place, then we are beholden to overthrow that system. When our cultural evils make it “okay” to allow a majority to make a minority “fall in line” and “keep quiet” then we are institutionalizing our oppression, and all the calls to be “law-abiding” themselves fall on my deaf ears, because the system, the law itself, is broken. We must in these times follow King’s example from from the Birmingham jail and quote our prophets in Scripture, quote our philosophers and theologians to call for reason, revive the best of each of our religious traditions, and even share stories from our own experience that penetrate the hearts if not the minds of our foes. By following this pattern we can change even the laws of the most powerful countries that have ever ruled this earth–even the United States of America.
I have been deeply impressed with those current civil rights leaders who are working on things such as Immigration Reform in the United States. In particular I’ve been impressed with African-Americans who are working for people not like them, who don’t speak their language as well, or who look different from them. Regardless of whether your views match mine on immigration, you must admit that it is honorable to see these black leaders stick to their human rights principles, rather than merely sticking to their faction’s guns. It is fascinating to see these leaders “unfreeze the carbonite” and lead on principle. This sometimes makes people uncomfortable. We sometimes would rather that African-American leaders “play a role” and only “represent their own.” This is it’s own kind of discrimination–one where blacks are elevated in our minds from before–but not elevated to the place of determining their own scale of activism.
Instead, we can unfreeze our conception of Civil Rights and unlock them from the 60s. The Civil Rights Movement is alive and well in our hearts today as we continue to fight new fights!
*References to the Letter are all to the Letter from Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.[divider type=”simple”]
Links to the “Five Ways to Respond to the Letter from Birmingham Jail” Series: