In a previous blog, St. Martin is referenced regarding our recent corruption. This paper, the Birmingham Jail letter, is pulled out of materials once used in my Introduction to American Government class, taught for ten years at Oakland Community College. Martin is answering critics, since he has some time on his hands while sitting in jail, and he has just answered the argument that civil disobedience breaks the law. King answered with the distinction we call natural right, the basis of the distinction between just and unjust laws. We like this section because his teachers are the theologians rather than the political philosophers, and he appeals to the health of the soul as did the Brown decision, though in neglect of John Marshall Harlan’s dissent (in Plessy), that our constitution is “color-blind” and neither knows nor tolerates distinctions of race. Martin then turns to the criticism that their non-violent protests are unjust because they incite violence from the unjust:
In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence But can this assertion be logically made? Isn’t this like condemning the robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical delvings precipitated the misguided popular mind to make him drink the hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to his will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see, as federal courts have consistently affirmed, that it is immoral to urge an individual to withdraw his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest precipitates violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.
Indeed, women perhaps should not wear short skirts, but the raper is the criminal. Indeed, a good way to avoid thieves is to have nothing to steal. Indeed, my sister likes to say, “how’s that workin’ for ya,” and we have not yet been able to ask how perjury is working for her. And how is that “working for” Martin, and for us who let him stand up alone while our representative government with its beyond question honorable FBI committed crimes unanswerable against him, and may indeed have helped to allow him to be murdered? If you want to protect the integrity of the FBI, our suggestion is not that you suppress criticism, but rather, act with integrity, submit to oversight, and indeed learn to oversee yourselves, before the Americans do it for you.
Beneath all this is a very profound and ironic question of political philosophy which leads us to the teaching that not everyone should literally follow the actions of these heroes. Socrates harmed Athens by giving Athens the occasion to commit the heinous sin of killing the philosopher. We really must take care of our fellow man even in their very immorality, if we would practice the complete and perfect love incarnate in Jesus. At the same time, as Martin notes, “To a degree academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience.”
But as for the measure of right and wrong by material success, we note that the sun shines and rain falls on the good and evil alike. By following justice, it is only apparent that we set aside material advantages. One difference is in the pleasures and health of the soul, allowing us to enjoy the wealth we have more than the rich who are unjust. Beside that, we need less than the unjust, or indeed, need less than people commonly can imagine.