Saturday, May 31, 2008

Dr. MLK and Barack Obama

When I was at home last week, my mom and I went to a thrift store. I bought an old Norton Reader, and in it is Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter From Birmingham Jail." In that letter, he explains the importance of obeying just laws and disobeying unjust laws. But how did he distinguish the two? Here are some quotes:
  • "One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws."
  • "Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws."
  • "I would agree with St. Augustine that 'an unjust law is no law at all.'"
  • "A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God."
So the source of moral law is God. This makes sense, because it's absolute and unchanging. If morality always depends on the shifting will of the people, we'd never get anything done.
  • "An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law."
An unjust law clashes with moral law, or God's law, and I assume he means as written in the Bible. But the Bible condones slavery, right?

Genesis 9:24: When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said,
"Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
will he be to his brothers."

This was just after Canaan had planted a vineyard, had Noah drink some wine, and Noah got drunk and lay down naked. But overall, Noah was a Godly man, right? But he was a Godly man who condoned slavery. This is just the first slavery reference I found using a Bible search (NIV) on Bible Gateway, but there are many others.

If justness of a law is measure by how deeply its morality is rooted in the law of God (the Bible), and the Bible condones slavery (at least in the Old Testament), does MLK's segregation argument fail?
  • (St. Thomas Aquinas): "An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust."
This argument makes more sense to me. God made us in His own image (Genesis 1:27), so it makes sense that he'd want us to express that image, and not degrade one another. John 10:10: Jesus said, "I have come that you may have life, and have it more abundantly." Laws that degrade human personality are not reflective of that.
  • "An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself."
This is a classic Golden Rule sentence, or Tyranny of the Majority. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Make laws that you would consider just, and that you would follow yourself.
  • "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."
  • "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."
This is the best argument in this letter. If a group has no way to participate in the lawmaking process, why should they have to follow the resulting laws? They shouldn't. That's not addressing people who have every right to vote but don't because of apathy; they're stuck with the outcome. He's obviously referencing people who don't have the right, or constructive right, to vote.

Anyway, I'm enjoying reading Dr. King's writing. His writing reminds me of Barack Obama -- sweeping, persuasive, focused on change. I've always likened Obama's way of speech to a pastor's. Hopefully he can come through on the vast promises he's made.


Anonymous said...

The Old Testament and New Testament recognize slavery as part of the existing societies. That doesn't mean God condones slavery. The other arguments you cited from his letter and from scripture indicate that God does not condone slavery.

Sharon said...

True -- if we're made in God's image, and our bodies are "temples" using them for slavery doesn't make sense.

Anonymous said...

The Bible is irrelevant.