The Duty to Disobey

Today we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, and across the country, millions of children are studying his life and his work. But while plenty of kids can quote from King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech, many don't realize that King also penned a powerful defense of "natural law" -- the body of moral truths that must undergird our nation's laws.   In the spring of 1963, King was arrested for leading massive non-violent protests against the segregated lunch counters and discriminatory hiring practices rampant in Birmingham, Alabama. While in jail, King received a letter from eight Alabama ministers. They agreed with King's goals, but they thought he should call off the demonstrations and obey the law.   King disagreed, and his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail explains why. "One may well ask," he wrote, "how can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer, he wrote, "is found in the fact that there are two kinds of laws: just laws . . . and unjust laws."   "One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws," King said, "but conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws."   How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law, King wrote, sounding like Augustine, "squares with the moral law of the law of God. An unjust law . . . is out of harmony with the moral law."   King stood squarely within a long tradition dating back to Aristotle and then Augustine and Aquinas. But today, the whole concept of natural law has fallen out of favor. As Princeton legal philosopher Robert George writes in his new book, The Clash of Orthodoxies, many secular ideologues teach that "moral rights cannot come as a divine gift because there is no divine giver." According to this faction, moral rights "exist only in the sense that certain people . . . happen to believe . . . subjectively -- that rights exist and are willing to honor them. Where people . . . do not happen to believe in their existence, rights simply do not exist."   Confronted with such thinking, Dr. King would have been appalled, George writes; he knew that without enduring, objective standards of justice, then, as Nietzsche put it, "all things are permitted" -- including segregation and even slavery. As a Christian, King knew that even in our fallen state, humans have access to a law "written on the heart" -- the natural law -- as Romans puts it. Before this law, all unjust human law stands condemned.   "When Christians insist that human laws line up with moral truth," George writes, "we are not 'imposing religion.' Instead, we are making the entirely reasonable demand that reason be given its due in human affairs. Unjust law fails to bind the conscience and must be opposed by people of faith."   This was Dr. King's point to his fellow clergy. In King's time, the great sin against natural law was the systematic violation of human rights and dignity based on race; today, it's the assault on human life itself.   A wonderful way to honor King's memory is to teach our kids about his eloquent defense of natural law. Professor George's new book, The Clash of Orthodoxies -- or my book, How Now Shall We Live?, in which we tell King's story -- is a great place to start. You'll see why, for two thousand years, Christians have maintained exactly what King maintained.       For further reading: Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, How Now Shall We Live? (Tyndale House, 1999).   Robert George, The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis (ISI Books, 2001).   Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963.


Chuck Colson


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