Tuesday, November 8, 2011

MLK essay

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is stuffed with relevant appeals to the same elements that make up James Bretzke’s Sources of Moral Theology. In short, Bretzke’s Sources are explained this way:

"Scripture (the sacred text which has a special sacred claim on the Christian community), Tradition (which represents the lived wisdom of the Christian community), Rational Reflection on the Normatively Human (e.g., human rights discourse, moral philosophy, and the whole tradition of natural law theory), and Human Experience…[which] involves not just individuals’ own experience, but the whole range of scientific and social scientific disciplines that help us to gather, organize, and interpret data drawn from our individual and collective human experiences."

These four elements together, according to Bretzke, make up the source for arguments appealing to morality and ethics.

King’s “Letter” makes use of each element. Given King’s profession, it would be surprising if he didn’t appeal to the Bible in his argument, and indeed there are many references to it throughout the “Letter.” He refers in several places to the Apostle Paul, to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, to Jesus, and the prophets Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah.

But he appeals also to what we might call uniquely Christian scripture—he quotes John Bunyon, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Buber (not Christian himself but recognized by Christians), Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, as well as his namesake, Martin Luther. And he references uniquely American secular scripture by quoting Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and American poet T.S. Eliot. He manages also to reference Socrates and Elijah Muhammad, two men outside the Christian sphere but whose works have long been considered a form of scripture to many.

These last names could be considered as King’s appeals to Tradition inasmuch as each writer has developed a following that hews to an exact reading of his words. But more importantly King contrasts the church as it was experienced by the early Christians who

"rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded ideas and principles…it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered town, the people in power…immediately sought to convict [them] for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” (28-9)"

“Things are different now,” he continues.

"So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanctions of things as they are. (29)"

Moving to the sphere of Reason or Rational Reflection on Normative Human Experience, King appeals to the recognition of the difference between just and unjust laws.

"An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power group compels on a minority to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal…A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising…the law…One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law. (20-1)"

Everyone, he argues, not simply the majority, wants to live justly and fairly under a system of law and order. “In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law…That would lead to anarchy” (20). But at the same moment “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal’” (21). This appeal to rationally upholding laws as well as whether the laws are just that fixes the reasonableness of King’s “Letter.”

Finally, King makes an appeal to shared humanity by evoking the experiences of Ruby Bridges, James Meredith, Mother Pollard and whites who have suffered along with black protesters. However, it’s his evocation of the experience of his own daughter Yolanda in the midst of a litany beginning “We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our constitutional and God-given rights”; then contrasting the slowness of American progress with the speed of Asia and Africa; the willingness of “those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait’”; the visions of lynch mobs and “hate-filled policemen,” the smothering by poverty; the need to sleep in the car on a cross-country trip “because no motel will accept you”;
when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”, when your first name becomes “nigger,” and your middle name becomes “boy”…and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”, when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tip-toe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments…then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. (20-1)

It is in the midst of this that King best articulates the appeal to experience as his daughter asks plaintively, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?” King confesses himself tongue-tied in the face of such a question. But he recognizes it is also the best question to ask.

  • Bretzke, James. (2004.) Morally Complex World: Engaging Moral Theology. Collegeville, MN; Liturgical Press: 20.
  • King, Martin Luther, Jr. (2011.) “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Edited and Annotated by Earl Schwartz. Journal of Law and Religion: Hamline University; Minneapolis.

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