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Martin Luther King and the religious motivation for social change

Martin Luther King derived from his religious heritage not only the metaphysics that informed his social activism, but also the nonviolent method that he employed.

Martin Luther King, Jr., at the 1963 Civil Rights March in Washington, D.C. (Image: Rowland Scherman - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikipedia)

A principal reason why the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was so successful both morally and practically was that it was led largely by people with a strong religious sensibility. The most notable of these leaders was, of course, Martin Luther King. To appreciate the subtle play between King’s religious commitment and his practical work, I would draw your attention to two texts—namely, his Letter from the Birmingham City Jail and his “I Have a Dream” speech, both from 1963.

While imprisoned in Birmingham for leading a nonviolent protest, King responded to certain of his fellow Christian ministers who had criticized him for going too fast, expecting social change to happen overnight. The Baptist minister answered his critics in a perhaps surprising manner, invoking the aid of a medieval Catholic theologian. King drew their attention to the reflections of St. Thomas Aquinas on law, specifically Thomas’ theory that positive law finds its justification in relation to the natural law, which finds its justification in relation to the eternal law. Aquinas means that what makes a practical, everyday law righteous is that it somehow gives expression to the principles of the moral law, which in turn are reflective of God’s own mind.

Therefore, King concluded, unjust positive laws, such as the Jim Crow regulations that he was contesting, are not just bad laws; they are immoral and finally offensive to God.

Here is King’s own language: “One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws.”

But then King contrasts this with obedience to an unjust law: “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.’” And in clarifying the difference, he turns to Aquinas: “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.” This is not pious boilerplate; rather, it reveals what gave King’s movement its justification and purpose.

The very same dynamic was on display six months later, when King addressed the throng who had gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington. He was not giving a sermon. He was making a political speech, advocating in the public place for social change. But attend to some of the language that he used: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.’” He was directly relating the social revolution he was advocating to the mystical vision of the prophet Isaiah.

And listen to the magnificent conclusion of the address in which he artfully blends the lyrics of an American patriotic song to the lyrics of a song he and his family sang in church: “And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” Once again, on King’s reading, the political nests within the moral, which nests within the sacred.

Martin Luther King derived from his religious heritage not only the metaphysics that informed his social activism, but also the nonviolent method that he employed. What Jesus reveals in the rhetoric of the Sermon on the Mount (“Love your enemies”; “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who maltreat you”; “If someone one strikes you on the right cheek, turn and give him the other”; etc.) and even more strikingly in his word of forgiveness from the cross is that God’s way is the way of peace, nonviolence, and compassion.

As a Christian, King knew in his bones that reacting to oppression with violence would only exacerbate the tensions within society. He sums up this principle in one of his best-known sermons: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Within the confines of this brief article, I cannot begin adequately to address the social upheaval occurring in our culture today. But I will say simply this: it is indisputably clear that there are severe moral deficits in our society that must be addressed, but the best way to do so is from within a moral and finally religious framework. May Martin Luther King’s model of leadership in this regard be a lodestar.

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About Bishop Robert Barron 205 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron has been the bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in Minnesota since 2022. He is the founder of, a nonprofit global media apostolate that seeks to draw people into—or back to—the Catholic faith.


  1. Jesus did not assign his church the task of correcting society’s flaws. This is a false gospel. Maybe the church should concentrate on correcting its own flaws, speaking of “severe moral deficits”.

    • Oh, I dunno. That might be debatable….

      When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

      By now it was already late and his disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already very late.

      Dismiss them so that they can go to the surrounding farms and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”

      He said to them in reply, “Give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Are we to buy two hundred days’ wages worth of food and give it to them to eat?”

      He asked them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out they said, “Five loaves and two fish.”

      So he gave orders to have them sit down in groups on the green grass.

      The people took their places in rows by hundreds and by fifties.

      Then, taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to [his] disciples to set before the people; he also divided the two fish among them all.

      They all ate and were satisfied.

      And they picked up twelve wicker baskets full of fragments and what was left of the fish
      Those who ate [of the loaves] were five thousand men.

  2. I applaud Bishop Barrons article & believe every word of it. Martin Luther King was a leader and the people allowed & listened to him, he spoke with power and authority. Our leaders today, our Bishops need to do the same as a unit, all of them United. It’s good we have a few speaking out, but the ones who are not speaking out, are speaking more loudly by saying nothing. Bishops are the leaders, our Shepherds and we are the flock, the flock needs to be led by the Shepherd as is the image in scripture. We listen and donate when are asked to give money, be obedient. Isn’t this more important to be led when the morals of our church are second to money!!

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