Monday, January 16 this year, commemorates the life of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who worked tirelessly for racial justice and fell victim himself in 1968 to racial hatred. He was a man of principle and courage, but also of non-violence and genuine civility; a person who fought hard for his beliefs but never lost a fundamental respect for his opponents. At a moment in American life when vindictiveness seems to mark both sides of the political spectrum, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput offers as his column this week some words he first penned in 2008.Catholics can take a lesson in the courage to follow a well-formed Christian conscience from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King was first and above all a Christian minister, guided by his faith in Jesus Christ. His Letter from Birmingham Jail is an actual letter; a response to Alabama clergymen who publicly criticized King for interfering in local affairs, pushing for human rights, and breaking the law while arguing other laws were unjust.The clergymen wanted to know why King, an outsider, had come to Birmingham in the first place. King answered that he came because injustice was there. He argued that he could not sit idly by in Atlanta and ignore evil events in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere, felt King, is a threat to justice everywhere. People are linked in an inescapable network of mutuality, a single garment of destiny: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” King felt compelled to be in Birmingham. To stay in Atlanta would have violated his sense of what was just and morally necessary.
King then addressed the “troublemaker” charges leveled against him: “I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.” He was not naïve. He did not assume that progress would happen without human choice, action and sacrifice. Human history was not set on an automatic pilot to expand justice, freedom and equality under the law to all peoples. Certain people would need to create tension to push progress forward.
King’s “weapon of non-violence” required him and his followers to willfully disobey unjust laws and accept the legal consequences. He knew that when a critical mass of his followers accepted the cost of changing bad laws, a tipping point would be reached, and events would turn in his favor.
King believed that, “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” In his Letter, he invoked two great doctors of the Christian Church, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. He argued that, “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.”
King did not advocate breaking the law only because it was unjust, but also to teach a lesson. A person who breaks the law must also have 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.”
King wrote at length in his Letter about the kind of citizen he considered almost worse than the “rabid segregationist”– the “white moderate.” White moderates were citizens who agreed with his goals personally, but refused to support his public actions. He wrote that he had hoped that the “white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” His hope had often been disappointed.
Dr. King and his followers were willing to go to jail for conscience’s sake. His Letter is an example of using language in the service of truth; of the power of words to compel action consistent with God’s higher law; of a healthy and articulate Christian conscience. His Letter also reminds us that too many of us are willing to live quite comfortably as cowards. King wrote that, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”
King was deeply troubled that the world so readily dismissed the Christian Church, Christ’s community of disciples, “as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the 20th century.” He lamented that, “In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the Church.”
King had little use for lax Christians. And neither should we — especially if the lax Christians are us. We have no excuses. We have too many models of courage to guide us.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Archbishop Chaput will preside on January 16 at the 34th annual archdiocesan gathering to honor the life and work of Dr. King at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church, 437 Ridge Pike, Lafayette Hill, PA 19444. Choir Prelude: 6:30 p.m.; Prayer Service: 7 p.m . Light refreshments will follow. All are welcome.