For many it is a three day weekend. For many others it is simply another opportunity to advance Socialism by dividing good Americans with false but cleverly charged rhetoric. Instead I urge all Americans to take time today for reflection.
Here are some of mine. Unlike, say, President Obama, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was exemplary in keeping his temper and not assigning motives to others. For those who reflect today on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the word that should come to mind is courage. He exhibited courage throughout his national service of more than a decade. In a way, each day mattered but, in the long view, Dr. King changed history at three intersections.
The first of two in 1963 was his letter to his “fellow [8 white] clergymen” from a Birmingham jail April Sixteenth. You can find the letter here. These few quotes reveal the power and wisdom so right for Dr. King’s time—and ours:
- [B]asically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth century prophets left their little villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Graeco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
- I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country.
- History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals. There are just and there are unjust laws. I would agree with Saint 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 Saint 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. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority, and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. To use the words of Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, segregation substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship, and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. So segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Isn’t segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, an expression of his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? So I can urge men to disobey segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong.
Let us turn to a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. 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.
Did you hear that, President Obama? Dr. King, “An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself.”
Events moved fast in 1963. A scant four months after the “Birmingham” letter, Dr. King delivered his wonderful “I have a dream” speech from the Lincoln memorial on the National Mall. Here is its 80 second core. Watch. Then pray with me that this core King message is the lesson for millions of citizens across America this MLK Day, 2013:
Dr. King somehow knew that his speech in Memphis April 3, 1968 would be his last. He recounted the very high security measures the airline took because he was on the plane. He made the ending of that speech the summary of his life.
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!