The forgotten message of Martin Luther King Jr.

One of my all-time favorite pieces of political writing is Martin Luther King’s letter from Birmingham jail. The truth in that letter is second only to the declaration of independence in my mind. In fact, they both espouse the same truths and virtues. They are both based on the concept of natural law.

Natural law is the philosophy that all men are created equal and by virtue of nature or, in King’s point of view God, we are endowed with certain rights. Among these are life, liberty, and property. King believed that these laws were an integral part of justice. He wrote,

 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.

Letter from Birmingham Jail

King believed that any just law had to coincide with natural and eternal law. These were prerequisites to determining what is just and unjust. This is something we have largely forgotten as a society. Many reject the idea of natural and eternal law and think that because we live in a representative republic that whatever is voted to be legal is therefore just. Or perhaps whatever is reasoned to be just is therefore just. However, King made it very clear in his letter that this could never be the case.

Relative morality can never bring society closer together. Society must be based on common morality. In the USA, our common morality is natural law. Everyone has a right to act as long as they don’t violate the natural rights of others. Unfortunately, this is largely forgotten in our society and it will be to our dustruction.