Was Martin Luther King Jr. a Thomist? That intriguing question is posed in an excellent recent piece at National Catholic Register by Kathy Schiffer.
King and Aquinas coincidentally are close to one another on the calendar—with King’s Memorial Day each year marked on the third Monday of January and Thomas’ Memorial Day marked every January 28.
But the two have more in common than the calendar.
Kathy Schiffer began her treatment where I often begin with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when I bring him into my lectures on natural law. Specifically, I quote from his Birmingham Jail letter. What King wrote that day in April 1963, incorporating not only Aquinas but also Augustine, is profoundly important:
You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, “how can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: There are just and there are unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.”
Now what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when 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 Saint 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. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distort the soul and damages the personality.
King asserted that an individual has a moral responsibility to disobey an immoral law, agreeing with Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” He then posed a crucial two-fold question on the difference between a just and unjust law and how one determines which. His answer is based on the natural law: “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.” It was there that he drew directly from Aquinas: “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.”
King did not end there. He then addressed something that ought to strike us particularly today, taking aim at a nation’s “antireligious laws”:
We can never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal. If I lived in a communist country today where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I believe I would openly advocate disobeying these anti-religious laws.
This should speak keenly to Christians in America today, especially as secular progressives who admire King aggressively seek to coerce and cancel those who disagree with them on anything and everything from vax mandates to gender transitioning to same-sex “marriage”. They will force a healthcare worker or police officer or first-responder in New York to violate his or her conscience and receive a Pfizer jab against sincerely held religious beliefs. They will force a baker in Colorado to make a cake for a same-sex wedding ceremony that goes against his understanding of what is Biblical and moral. They (rightly) hail Dr. King for pleading his rights against laws that violated his conscience, whereas they angrily sue modern Christians who dare do the same.
In fact, they sent Kim Davis, the Kentucky marriage-license clerk, to jail for not issuing same-sex marriage licenses in her name. Davis, quite significantly, quoted King’s Birmingham Jail letter in her defense. Rather than support her, liberals called her a bigot and a hater. They literally handcuffed her. (Click here for my April 2019 lecture on this subject.)
How do progressives reconcile the obvious inconsistency and hypocrisy? That would require several answers. But for here, I’ll note just one: In truth, many don’t even know of the Aquinas-Augustine section of King’s letter, even as today it is required reading in schools. When I recently put together a Power Point presentation on King’s letter and natural law, I struggled to find online a version of the speech that had not inserted an ellipsis at the Aquinas-Augustine portion. In many cases, that section is deleted entirely. When I lecture on it, I always ask for a show of hands from students who recall reading that section of the letter in school. At best, three or four raise their hands. I ask them where they went to school. The answer is usually a private Christian school or homeschooling.
But I digress.
Returning to my lead in this article, Schiffer took the King invocation of Aquinas to an even deeper level. I shall quote her in full detail:
St. Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologiae, argued that we must obey laws only
- when they conform to “eternal law,” the law of God, and
- when that eternal law is self-evident—is exhibited in the universal principles of practical reason (what we call “natural law”).
To be just, a law must be good as to:
- its end: it must be ordered to the common good;
- its author: it must not exceed the jurisdiction of the one who imposes it;
- its form: it must not place disproportionate burdens on any of the subjects involved.
Thomas Aquinas taught that a law that is unjust in any of these ways does not impose any obligation. That is, a law ceases to have binding force if any of these is true:
- the law is not ordered to the common good, but merely to the private good of those who impose it;
- it exceeds the authority of those who impose it; or
- it places disproportionate burdens on any of the people in the community.
Aquinas explains that an act that does any of these things is more like an act of violence than like a law. It may share some features of a just law, but it is not a law in precisely the same sense.
So Aquinas teaches, as does St. Augustine, that an unjust law is no law at all. The only way in which an unjust law may obligate is indirectly—when it is clear that disobeying it would lead to evils worse than obeying it.
Aquinas’ third argument against an unjust law is that human laws do not obligate when they bring injury and loss of character on human beings—when they oppress the poor and humble. Oppressive laws, Aquinas taught, are perversions of law, acts of violence; and no one need feel guilty about disobeying an unjust law.
This is an astute analysis by Schiffer. She then deftly noted how King’s Birmingham Jail letter argued that a nonviolent campaign follows four stages:
- collection of facts to determine whether injustice actually exists;
- negotiation in order to resolve the matter peacefully;
- self-purification, in which there is careful preparation for nonviolent direct action;
- direct action through nonviolent means.
Schiffer added that King, in incorporating Aquinas to argue that all segregation statutes were unjust given that “segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality,” was thereby skillfully applying Aquinas’ Third Objection—namely, teaching that segregation laws were unjust because of the moral and physical injury they induced.
That is spot on.
To be sure, one might argue that this does not, ipso facto, make Martin Luther King Jr. a Thomist. At least not up and down and across the board. Fair enough. Nonetheless, the argument that King was making undeniably draws from Thomistic thinking. No question.
And perhaps most important, it draws from teachings on the moral and natural law, from Aquinas and Augustine alike, that should not be forgotten and must continue to be invoked by Christians today. We need them now more than ever, especially as some of King’s greatest admirers flatly ignore them.
As Catholics, we are called to deepen our interior life, to seek virtue and avoid vice, to conform to the will of divine Providence. That means following God’s laws, including the natural law, even if it puts us at odds with the unjust laws of the state. King recognized that in his day. We must in ours as well.
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