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MLK memorial detail of hands

Martin Luther King Jr. and Natural Law

Kevin E. Stuart

  • Carolee Uits

    The depth of the words here are so deep. As a person who lived the civil rights movement in Detroit, they return memories and stir again the soul. He is/was a Christian voice to the core - living alive in a struggle which still prevails. While God is with us, it takes us who also must prevail by living out the words of Scripture and thus, of MLK even now. The injustices still call us to speak, march, and live out King's passionate dream which dwells in the souls and remaining injust darknesses of the least, lost, and "little." To not do so is to participate unknowingly- and knowingly, in that darkness Thank you for this always timely article. May it prick our hearts, pick up and fast-pace our feet, hands, and voices to continue what Caesar Chavez called, "La Lucha" - the fight. Both these men remind us of the struggle to and through the cross we that we are called to join - in the very footsteps and the name of Him who first showed the way - Jesus.

  • Kevin Cushing

    We badly need a prophet like MLK who provided a vision based on the gospel, where freedom means following Christ in His ways of true peace and justice, of love of enemies and defense of what is right. Such freedom worthy of the name is based on the bedrock of God’s revelation in the Bible and in the teachings of the Church, not on the quicksand of current fashions and demands. I’m not sure there is a common morality anymore since society is so fractionated into sects with their own false gods and perverted worldviews. We need to step back and see what is happening- political divisiveness, war and violence, a culture of death (as Pope John Paul II put it), a widening gulf between the rich and the poor (nationally and internationally), the devastation of our God-given earth. Too many people don’t or won’t see the larger picture- just humming along in their small worlds, climbing the socionomic ladder to wealth and power or just struggling to survive.

We are getting worse at arguing with one another. Even as technology puts all of us into closer and easier contact we have become ever more isolated. This isolation is intellectual, spiritual, moral, and political. In America, our physical communities are becoming more homogeneous, sorting themselves along ideological, educational, professional, and class lines. The nonphysical communities of discourse in which we engage – the news we choose to consume, the opinion pieces we read, the social media groups to which we belong – are likewise increasingly tailored to reflect what we already believe. We are the architects of our own echo chambers.

And yet, even as we are surrounded by those like us, our political rhetoric is conducted in tones increasingly strident. What we see on television is often mere bickering, rival assertions suffocating genuine deliberation. It is not real debate, or real argument, because reasons are not being exchanged in an environment of mutual respect. Often, speakers make no appeal to a common moral framework or shared ideals – we do not hear speakers striving to be understood and even to persuade those who disagree.  On those occasions when we ourselves venture out of our own ideological bubbles to engage with others, this same thing occurs. We cannot seem to disagree without demonizing our opponents, and we can’t seem to find common ground within which to frame that disagreement.

The parlous state of public discourse was placed in stark relief recently as I re-examined some of the writings and speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. Reading them again, I was struck not only by King’s deep substance but also his profound style. King has a clear intellectual vision, evidenced by the unity and integrity of his collected works. He consistently returns to a core set of premises and conclusions. But he also crafts a rhetoric to reach the heart and the mind, standing on principle without ever surrendering charity for his interlocutor – especially an interlocutor who disagrees. The end result is a philosophically and theologically rich argument paired with a rhetoric that stands squarely in the (small-r) republican tradition of deliberation. Our day desperately needs rhetoric like that. In short, we still have a lot to learn from Dr. King.

King as Natural Law Thinker

King’s rhetoric is permeated with the themes of the Christian natural law tradition in philosophy. This is in certain ways a surprising claim: he does not frequently use the language of natural law; most of his training was in the liberal Protestant personalism of Walter Rauschenbusch rather than the natural law tradition associated with Aristotle and Aquinas. But again and again, his arguments, and the very means by which he argues, reveal a dependence on natural law categories.

What is this tradition? Natural law is our participation, through reason and conscience, in God’s eternal law. Good is to be done and pursued, our hearts tell us; evil is to be avoided; from these small but sturdy beginnings, we can work our way to what we ought to do. Because we are rational creatures and share in God’s reason, there is in our nature the ability to perceive and act according to our true purposes, and to guide ourselves and our communities towards what is really good for us, and finally towards God.

All human persons share a common human nature: what is morally good conduces to flourishing according to that nature (e.g. friendship is good), and what is morally bad is what thwarts the flourishing of that nature (e.g. murder is bad). Furthermore, our shared human nature includes basic moral directives and principles that are right for all people and also understood, even if sometimes dimly so, by all people. Natural law is, in the words of the Apostle Paul, the law written on the heart. It is not a rigid code, arbitrarily imposed by God. Neither is it mere intuition, for natural law principles can be arrived at and refined by reflection on human nature, and claims based on natural law are open to scrutiny and evaluation based on reason. The natural law tradition in philosophy is not an exquisite, rarified field of study relevant only to philosophers, but an effort to clarify and refine the solid ethical starting point of the common man. The natural law philosopher does not invent moral codes or construct castles in the air, but rather sharpens the focus of the moral norms derived by reasoning from human nature that he or she finds operating in the daily lives of ordinary people the world over.

What does this way of thinking imply for human law? Now we come to something that begins to sound very familiar to careful readers of Dr. King. The natural law theory of human law teaches that the purpose of human legal systems is to secure justice (which includes equity), and so any law that does not do this – any unjust law – isn’t doing the proper job of a law; it’s not fulfilling its proper function, and so in some sense it is no law at all.

To figure out how we should act and which laws are just, requires reason. Talking to each other, persuading each other, is one way to exercise that reason. The practice of philosophically refining and clarifying moral starting points is of practical use as well as theoretical interest because, as flawed human beings, we often fail to follow through on the implications of our moral commitments or we act in ways that are contrary to the convictions we hold. The would-be natural lawyer does not so much tell us something new, then, but presents afresh what we already know. This is exactly what King often does as he deploys natural law reasoning in his sermons and speeches.

Letter from Birmingham Jail

Take, for example, King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The overarching question King considers in the letter is how to square his actions, which broke the law, with a respect for the rule of law and his efforts to make the law more just. In breaking the law, wasn’t he undermining the very system he claimed to respect? That’s what a group of eight “moderate” white ministers, sympathetic to his plight but reluctant to adopt his methods, asked King in a letter.

In his famous reply, King explains that his non-violent resistance to “Jim Crow” laws was not simply a matter of will, and not about personal preferences, but was the result of an ethical and theological commitment.

While his invocation of the natural law tradition is often implicit, in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” King refers directly to the natural law tradition through two of its greatest exponents in the Christian tradition.  In justifying non-violent direct action, his chosen method of uprooting injustice, he writes:

One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are 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 when 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 and natural law. Any law that uplifts 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.

There are three important moves in this argument. The first is that unjust laws aren’t really laws, but counterfeits. “Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice,” he says later in the letter, and “when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” False laws do not command the moral respect that genuine and just laws do, so if King is right that the law is unjust, then it’s not a contradiction for him to break unjust laws in the service of advancing justice.

The second move, then, is to establish what makes any particular law unjust. Here, King turns from Augustine to Aquinas, citing Aquinas’s argument that a law made by humans must be congruent with the laws of God. Divine law sets the boundaries for human laws. Any human law that violates God’s law is unjust, and is therefore a fake. King then adds a second way laws can be unjust: any law that transgresses personhood is unjust. Segregation laws are bad for the entire community: they not only damage and distort the personhood of the oppressed but also of the oppressor. This “transgression of personhood” is something like his attempt to meld a classical natural law position with the personalism that was so central to his understanding: the natural human purpose in which natural law is embedded is the flourishing of this personhood.

King’s arguments thus run sharply up against several aspects of contemporary moral discourse. Many political theorists today have an antipathy towards any claim that comes from a religious source. In fact, some want to completely secularize the public square. Those critics must, then, own up to the fact that they would necessarily exclude one of the most important figures in our nation’s long struggle for equality and freedom. But King’s view cannot be dismissed as “merely” religious. One can trace carefully in King’s writings the conviction that philosophy and Christian theology are entirely compatible – all truth is God’s truth, whether the path leading to it is natural reason or divine revelation.

We should note carefully what King has done in his response to the white ministers. Natural law theory functions because God’s law is written in the hearts of all men, who share a single human nature, and because it is based in reason. It is universal, a conceptual public square, a shared meeting place and a ground for a real give-and-take of reasons and arguments. Too, King performs a great service for the cause of justice and the common political discourse in rearticulating natural law with no abstruse jargon. He brings natural law theory down from the ivory tower to the public square. And he does not simply study natural law like a scholar – he wields it.

King as Natural Law Orator

If the argument King offered, drawing as it did from a long tradition, was not novel, his rhetoric was unusually powerful. King models a way that’s not only morally respectable but also rhetorically effective. His arguments succeed in part because they come as a prophetic word in the great tradition of the Old Testament. But they also succeed because they are about more than a particular marginalized group treated unjustly in America in the middle of the twentieth century. They proceed from the demands of justice and morality as universally understood. King has offered his reasons in a rhetoric of universal appeal grounded in the moral law he takes to have universal intelligibility and applicability. The universal and absolute claims don’t shut down argument, but rather they create the preconditions for meaningful disagreement. Because there is genuine agreement about some things, there can be persuasion rather than merely force.

In a 1954 sermon titled “Rediscovering Lost Values” King said that the first principle of value to be recovered is that

all reality hinges on moral foundations. In other words, that this is a moral universe and that there are moral laws of the universe just as abiding as the physical laws…some things are right and some things are wrong. Eternally so, absolutely so.

And the foundation of this law is love. He went on to press his audience rhetorically, challenging them in saying, “I’m not so sure if we really believe that there is a law of love in this universe and that if you disobey it, you’ll suffer the consequences. I’m not so sure if we really believe that.”

This truth runs throughout the world and across all ages. “It’s wrong to hate,” he says.

It’s always been wrong and it always will be wrong. It’s wrong in America, it’s wrong in Germany, it’s wrong in Russia, and it’s wrong in China. It was wrong in 2000 BC and it’s wrong in 1954.

If love is the law of the universe, how does King envision love operating in politics? Consider his thought experiment in the form of an imagined Pauline letter to American Christians. King praises scientific progress, but has Paul chastise Americans, saying “I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress.” He then calls the attention of listeners to higher things, urging them to focus on what matters most. “You must never allow the transitory, evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God.” Later in the letter, after modeling the way in trying to convince his audience to change their ways, he instructs the audience how to treat those whose minds they will now seek to change. “I would urge each of you,” he has Paul write,

to plead patiently with your brothers, and tell them this isn’t the way. With understanding goodwill, you are obligated to seek to change their attitudes . . . Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love.

What is this weapon? It is seeking the good of the other. “In your struggle for justice,” he has Paul write,

let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him, or even to pay him back for the injuries that he has heaped upon you. Let him know that you are merely seeking justice for him as well as for yourself.

Non-violence itself is, from another perspective, this weapon of love, the “sword that heals.” In his 1965 Oberlin College commencement address, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” King said that “something about this approach disarms the opponent. It exposes his moral defenses, awakens his morale, and at the same time works on his conscience.”

King’s writings are suffused with these references to a moral law of the universe and the deep-seated knowledge of it in the heart of every man and woman. King was successful where others failed because he went right for the conscience; he knew that his hearers had God’s law written on their hearts, even if they themselves did not know it. He also set a pattern for how to approach disagreement, one we would do well to emulate in our own time. The balance he struck meant that, on the one hand, he never watered down his claims out of false deference. No, genuine love requires the truth, and as we have seen he returned repeatedly to the deeper principles. On the other hand, love requires the great discipline of refusing to return hate with hate, of enduring hardships with the faith that a conscience cannot fail to be awakened when long exposed to moral courage because there is an eternal moral law of the universe. The ring of truth is a piercing sound, sometimes faint and at others painfully loud, but – as King never ceased to emphasize – eventually irresistible. “Let us realize,” he said, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

MLK memorial
Contributed By Kevin Stuart Kevin E. Stuart

Kevin E. Stuart is the executive director of the Austin Institute for the Study of Family & Culture. He is the editor of the Catholicism & Society book series for the Society for Catholic Social Scientists (Franciscan University Press).