As today we are celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., I have again been looking over his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” a crucial document in the history of the civil rights movement. It is in this potent defense and application of an ethic of civil disobedience that we find such well-known statements as these:
- “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
- “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust…is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”
- “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love…for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”
In his argument for full equality for black Americans, King appealed repeatedly to Scripture (especially the New Testament and the words of Jesus) and the authority of Christian theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas. Now it is interesting to note that today many Americans staunchly oppose any mixing of religion and politics. More specifically: they are critical of any use of theological arguments to defend public policies. So by this standard, King was way out of line when he appealed repeatedly to Scripture to defend his views. And he was completely off base when declaring “We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”
Of course, some theological arguments are better than others, whether they regard issues in metaphysics, ethics, politics, or any other subject matter. Some criticisms of theo-political arguments are quite warranted. But the point is that not all such arguments are necessarily flawed or illegitimate. And if one believes otherwise, then one must be willing to accept the uncomfortable conclusion that King’s approach was fundamentally flawed.
So the next time you hear someone complain tout court about appeals to theology to defend political views, you might want to kindly inquire what they think of the tactics and rhetorical strategy of Martin Luther King, Jr. I suspect that more often than not the person will be disturbed by the realization that their anti-theological dogma forces them to bite a bullet they aren’t prepared to bite.