President Levin, in his “Statement in Commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” encouraged us to honor King by making Monday “a special day to renew our personal and collective commitment to racial, social and economic justice.” I applaud Levin’s call for reflection and a renewal, but I would like to suggest that we address King’s thinking at an even deeper level and allow him to challenge us today in our moral philosophy as he challenged Americans of his own day in their racial discrimination. It would be shortsighted to take from King all the things we like — his call for justice, his crusade for equality, his vision of harmony — and to ignore the foundation on which he grounded these ideals. Perhaps a genuine consideration of his moral thinking will spark a reassessment of the cultural relativism so many of us today accept without careful reflection.
While confined in the Birmingham jail in 1963, King wrote an open letter to a number of Alabama clergymen who had denounced his methods of protest. This aptly titled “Letter from Birmingham Jail” provides a stirring and insightful glimpse of the philosophy undergirding King’s actions. Following a haunting paragraph on the pains felt by victims of racial discrimination, King addresses one of the main worries of the Alabama clergymen: How can it be moral to obey some laws and break others?
King justifies his willingness to participate in civil disobedience by an appeal to natural law. He cites St. Augustine’s conviction that “an unjust law is no law at all.” This immediately raises the question: How do we know which laws are just? The answer, for King, is rather simple: “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.” Any law, for instance, which undermines human dignity does not square with the law of God. Therefore, it is unjust and should be disobeyed.
Like any true natural law theorist, King goes on to expound his argument in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas. “An unjust law,” he argues, “is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.” This “eternal law” is the rational pattern of the universe which consists in God’s divine reason. Humans, as finite beings, cannot fully grasp but can participate in this divine reason, and it is this participation that is termed “natural law.” To quote St. Thomas, natural law is that “by which each man understands what is good and what is evil.”
Christian natural law theorists have long found scriptural support for the idea of natural law in St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Paul wrote in this epistle that even the Gentiles, who were without the law of Moses, knew the general principles of right and wrong by a law “written on the heart.” King, holding firm to this idea, believed that everybody, deep down, knew racism to be wrong.
Alas, if King were to revisit our campus today, he would be deeply grieved. Of course, he would be pleased by the progress we have made with regard to racial diversity and equal opportunity. There is little doubt, however, that he would be taken aback by the prevalence of cultural relativism in our moral thinking. This notion that “what’s right for one culture may be wrong for another,” this attempt to ground morality in nothing more than human whims, would be met by an incredulous stare (as well as a moving oration, no doubt).
After all, if morality is what a culture determines to be right and wrong, there is no place for a Martin Luther King, Jr., nor for a William Wilberforce, a Socrates, or any other moral reformer who goes against the grain of society. In fact, those who do go against the grain are by definition immoral, and should therefore be silenced. As King was well aware, it is only the existence of a higher law which can make sense of moral progress. Progress implies some goal to be reached, and this goal, if it is to defy human laws, must transcend them.
In the end, we cannot grasp nor fully appreciate the mission of King until we come to terms with his belief in the natural moral law. As we reflect on his contribution to our society, may we begin to question the cultural relativism that has pervaded our thinking, burrowing even to the level of unquestioned assumptions. It would be a shame if we who so admire King were to embrace an ethical theory that made no place for those who defied the evils of their time for the sake of transcendent good, without time at all.
Bryce Taylor is a freshman in Silliman College.