Christianity and King

When it comes to mixing religion and politics, I’ve often thought, the principle seems to be, it’s wrong when the other guy does it. For example, conservatives become annoyed  when Christians call for liberalizing immigration laws or for universal healthcare. Don’t impose your religious beliefs on society! When Christians argue for abortion restrictions or against same-sex marriage, by contrast, conservatives don’t complain too much. And it works in reverse. In fact, in my experience, liberals have a greater blind spot about the subject. Liberals object vigorously when conservatives like Judge Edith Jones defend capital punishment on religious grounds, but go strangely quiet when liberals, like President Obama, cite Christianity’s influence on their policy positions.

Here’s a good example of the liberal discomfort with religion from a New York Times profile of Barnard College sociologist Jonathan Rieder. According to the Times, Rieder, an expert on Martin Luther King, has focused on an aspect of King’s thought that receives little attention from scholars: King’s Christianity. How, you might ask, could King scholarship ignore Christianity? The man was a Christian minister. The Times explains:

Dr. Rieder’s book stakes very specific turf in the corpus of King scholarship with its relentless focus on Dr. King the preacher. By doing so … Dr. Rieder is restoring the overtly religious element to Dr. King and the freedom movement. While African-Americans readily grasp the link, many white liberals diminish or ignore it out of discomfort with religion being granted a role — even a positive one — in political discourse.

“The image of liberal secular King misses the essential role of prophetic Christianity,” [Rieder] said in a recent interview. “Jesus wasn’t just an interesting historical figure to King. He saw Jesus as a continuation of the prophets. He has a powerful association with Jesus.”

Would America have had the civil rights movement without Christianity? It’s impossible to know, of course, and it’s true that Christian support for King wasn’t uniform. But it’s crazy to ignore Christianity’s profound influence on King and, though him, the movement as a whole. The willingness to do so says a great deal about the state of scholarship in America today.

Vischer, “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Morality of Legal Practice”

Next month, Cambridge University Press will publish Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Morality of Legal Practice: Lessons in Love and Justice by Robert K. Vischer (U. of St. Thomas School of Law). The publisher’s description follows.

This book seeks to reframe our understanding of the lawyer’s work by exploring how Martin Luther King Jr. built his advocacy on a coherent set of moral claims regarding the demands of love and justice in light of human nature. King never shirked from staking out challenging claims of moral truth, even while remaining open to working with those who rejected those truths. His example should inspire the legal profession as a reminder that truth-telling, even in a society that often appears morally balkanized, has the capacity to move hearts and minds. At the same time, his example should give the profession pause, for King’s success would have been impossible absent his substantive views about human nature and the ends of justice. This book is an effort to reframe our conception of morality’s relevance to professionalism through the lens provided by the public and prophetic advocacy of Dr. King.

Augustine on The First Amendment, Freedom Riders and Passage of the Voting Rights Act

Jonathan C. Augustine (Louisiana Workforce Commission) has posted The Theology of Civil Disobedience: The First Amendment, Freedom Riders and Passage of the Voting Rights Act. The abstract follows.

In 2011, usage of the term “civil disobedience” resurged in the American lexicon for at least two reasons: (1) there was widespread civil protest in Egypt; and (2) America observed the fiftieth anniversary of the now-celebrated Freedom Rides. Both reasons demonstrate the continued relevance of the twentieth century American Civil Rights Movement (“the Movement”).

American media widely covered Egyptian citizens’ nonviolent acts of civil disobedience as Egyptians peacefully protested governmental corruption in demanding free and fair elections. Further, since 2011 marked the golden anniversary of the Freedom Rides in the United States, Americans were reminded of the nonviolent civil disobedience undertaken by an interdenominational movement of clergy and laity, undergirded by a Judeo-Christian suffering servant theology. Dissident adherents literally sacrificed themselves for the democratic cause in which they believed. Continue reading

Martin Luther King on Just and Unjust Laws

Today is Martin Luther King Day in the United States. In commemoration, here’s a passage from Dr. King’s famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which he wrote in 1963 to answer clergy who had criticized his willingness to break laws as part of his anti-segregation campaign:

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. 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.”

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. To put it in the terms of 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. 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. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a Continue reading

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