Categories: American History

Martin Luther King Jr, the Birmingham Jail, and the Standard of Civil Disobedience

Dr. Joel McDurmon | January 21, 2019

(American Vision) – One of the less recognized (among modern conservatives, anyway) aspects of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s stand for civil rights and equal justice is how firmly his civil disobedience was rooted in the classic American, and Protestant Christian, doctrine of nullification and interposition. In this, he reapplied the views of Madison and Jefferson, which were derived from Christian theology.

In a previous article, I addressed how King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is a contemporary example of demanding needed, biblical social change. I highlighted King’s response to the failure of “moderates” who fear change to the point that evils inherent in the status quo never actually get changed. This is unbiblicalconservatism. I wrote about how Christians in the early-modern era rejected Copernicus’s “revolution” in astronomy, even calling him demon possessed, and refusing even to look through the telescope. I added,

That is the fallacy of secular conservatism. It is what happens when we mistake that which is established for that which is by default true. It creates in us a fear of change and this in turn creates a strident, emotional opposition to change—even if a needed change is biblical and godly.

Rest assured this same overweening defense of that which is established has a long train of abuses behind it, as well as a trail of bodies. Most of the “moderate” conservative Christians throughout the American slavery era knew it was wrong and said so, but did not want to end it soon because they feared overturning the established order would lead to greater problems than leaving slavery in place for however long it took.

However long that would be was never specified, and it never seemed to be a priority to get it specified.

Nothing had changed in 1963 when MLK, Jr. wrote his famous letter from the Birmingham jail. Among the gems in that pregnant masterpiece, he wrote the following:

Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.

What followed this, in King’s letter, was a rehearsal of many injustices the average black person faced, and to which many whites were either complicit (actively or passively), or indifferent. He then said,

There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws.

Indeed, why break laws? I would interject here that the only reason this was a problem for some people was prejudice (not just racial, but in general). We love to break laws (or the thought of doing so) we think are unjust; we also turn the proverbial blind eye to unjust laws or behaviors that serve our own interests. Here is King’s answer:

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?”

The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. 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.

And what is the standard by which we determine just from unjust laws? King answered:

Now, what is the difference between the two? 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.

As I wrote in Restoring America One County at a Time, when Madison and Jefferson appealed to the powers of the lesser magistrates, whether during declaring independence or later controversies, they were being moved (even if imperfectly) by the biblical doctrine of lower magistrates. Following a very similar view as King above, Madison said we are “in duty bound, to interpose, for arresting the progress of the evil.” Get that: it is a duty.

This is exactly what King said, too: “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

Of course, I would disagree with a good amount of what King also thought were good laws. His later, or perhaps underlying, vision of a synthesis between communism and capitalism was one more version of Socialism, in my opinion. But the vision of equal justice was certainly biblical, and the broader vision of alleviating poverty, if done biblically, is also certainly just, and a moral responsibility.

So, this is a good day not only to exhort what was good from King, but also to focus upon that Standard by which alone we can support it: God’s law.

On this recognition Day, I reiterate what I said in that earlier post:

I would challenge every one of my readers to sit down for a half hour or so and read through MLK, jr’s Letter. While there are few minor historical and theological things I would differ on, it is by overwhelmingly a tremendous work that is in harmony with Theonomy, Christian Reconstruction, Interposition and Nullification, Civil Disobedience, Presuppositionalism, and Postmillennialism. Yes, you read that right. Moreover, this man did and said these things when it was toughest—when it cost him everything.

The challenge is to read that letter, and then ask yourself why the majority of conservatives and conservative Christians at the time opposed it vehemently.

From that exercise, perhaps we can get a sense of what it looks and feels like to be found on the wrong side of opposing social change, and what that also looks like when looking back upon it. Perhaps we can realize that our standard needs to be the Bible, not party or tradition or the sentiment of (sometimes) our clamoring friends and even relatives.

Perhaps we can, from the long list of injustices committed and endured for righteousness’ sake, recognize that standing for Christ means opposition sometimes from both sides, while you sit in jail, literally or figuratively. Sometimes, there is not a choice between blood or no blood, but whether the blood will be on your face or on your hands.

Choose ye this day what is worth fighting for, or opposing, and by what standard you do it. But don’t choose by party or tradition. You see what the most sold-out, conservative Christians of King’s era did while thinking, believing, and proclaiming loudly that they were standing for the justice of God; when in reality they were inviting His judgment. Sometimes we think we are so clear-headed, and yet we commit or tolerate so much wrong, when we are really following the pressure of men instead of the Word of God.