Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Martin Luther King; A Letter from the Birmingham JAIL, April 16, 1963

How does King's letter relate to the current immigration debate?

   Despite the evidence of violence and devastating poverty in Latin American countries and the inadequate and unfair immigration law of the U.S., many U.S. citizens condemn undocumented immigrants for one reason:  immigrants are breaking the law.

   Doctor Martin Luther King Jr., in his letter from the Birmingham Jail, noted that both St. Augustine (Father of the Church, 354-430) and St. Thomas Aquinas (Church Doctor, 1225-1274) stated that a bad law was no law and did not require obedience. Dr. King was referring to the ‘Jim Crow’ laws of the South as bad law, but historically, there are many other examples, such as slavery itself.

Aquinas and Augustine on law

St. Augustine of Hippo, North Africa

In his letter from the Birmingham jail, King quotes St. Augustine: 

“That which is not just seems to be no law at all.”  

Aquinas quoted the above statement by Augustine and added:  

“But if in any point it (human law) departs from the law of nature (reason), it is no longer a law but a perversion. (1.)

Aquinas and Augustine knew that civil law was crucial.  Augustine wrote no matter what government (even the Roman Empire), man must obey the law, 

“…so long as he is not compelled to act against God or his conscience…” (2.)

Augustine and Aquinas represent differing philosophical and theological points of view but agreed that human law must serve all people – the common good.

St. Thomas defined law as:

 “… nothing else than an ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by him who has care of the community.” (3.)

   A law can be a ‘bad law’ on two grounds:  if it is unreasonable and if it does not serve all in the community; it is a matter of forging a proper, peaceful society. 
   Law cannot rule out all possible or perceived evil.  Such a law may cause more harm than good.  In a pluralist society such as the U.S., religious mandates cannot be inflicted on the general public that would damage the common good.  An example would be a law to deny the right of some to health care.    An example is the Roman Catholic hierarchy attempting to impose the unreasonable prohibition of abortion in all circumstances, prohibition of contraceptives, and denial of gay rights.  St. Thomas states:

“…human law cannot punish or forbid all evil deeds, since, while aiming at doing away with all evils, it would do away with many good things, and would hinder the advance of the common good…” (4.)

The debate in forming the U.S. Constitution resulted in accepting slavery as the only possibility of forming the Republic.  The Constitution legalized slavery, but the horrible Civil War resulted in a change of the Constitution and a modicum of freedom for slaves.

Human Solidarity

   John Courtney Murray, S.J., a key advisor of Vatican II on freedom of conscience quotes English Dominican Thomas Gilby, O.P.:

“Civilization is formed by men locked together in argument.  From this dialogue the community becomes a political community.” (5.)

The dialogue is of existential importance. Timing is a factor.  When do practical politics move the Creator’s ‘self evident truths,’ expressed in the Declaration of Independence, to become the written law of the Nation?  The Letter from the Birmingham Jail gives a resounding cry of – Now!  In a book published in 1968 Doctor King explained:

“We still have a choice today: nonviolent co-existence or violent co-annihilation, this may be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.” (6.)

Dr. King used the term ‘mankind.’  Classic theology and philosophy attempted to be universal and not nationalistic.  St. Augustine wrote:

“The simple truth is that the bond of a common human nature makes all human beings one.” (7.)

Undocumented Immigrants

   U.S. immigration law is flawed, but there is a human bond with immigrants and is recognized by the U.S. Constitution and America’s basic proclamation, the Declaration of Independence.  Paul Rougeau emphasizes the need for International Solidarity advocated by John Paul II in his encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis.   Rougeau calls for a ‘cosmopolitan’ community. John Paul II writes Solidarity is:  

“…a fundamental concept that all humankind and Christians should agree upon and put into practice.  Solidarity should influence the lives of persons, nations and the world in general.” (8. R 78)

 In reference to the U.S. immigration crisis Rougeau states:

“Christians are called in solidarity with these migrants to promote meaningful dialogue about changing this system. (immigration)   “… we must confront the reality that respect for human dignity, human rights and liberal democratic principles excludes the possibility of massive deportations of undocumented immigrants. (8. R152)

Civil disobedience, a part of political dialogue

  Dr. Martin Luther King, a 20th century Baptist minister, in explaining why he broke the law, referred to classic theology and philosophy that predates the Protestant Reformation, capitalism and nationalism. Classic philosophical thought corresponds to the basic proposition of the U.S. founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence.  King quotes Lincoln’s 1858 ‘House Divided Speech,’ “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.”  

How do you solve the problem?  Like Lincoln at Gettysburg King refers to the U.S. Declaration of Independence – and the basic American political proposition, ‘All are created equal.’  For the community to survive, “the bond of mankind” - Augustine’s words, must be recognized – “all are created equal” means everyone.  King understood America as did Lincoln at Gettysburg. (9.)  King goes further and re-established an important part of civil dialogue in forming community, non-violent civil disobedience, to overturn unjust law.  The American tradition goes back to writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau.

   Dr. Martin Luther King is rightly considered an American patriot and a model to follow.


Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Benziger Brothers, 1947, I – II
(1. Q. 95 – A. 2, p.1014)  (3. Q. 90 – A. 4, p. 995)  (4, Q. 91 – A. 4, p. 998)

St.Augustine, Image Books, City of God, 1958, (2. P.113)  (7, p. 302)

John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths, Sheed & Ward, 1960, (5. p. 6)

The Declaration of Independence.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter From a Birmingham Jail.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Where do We Go From Here: Chaos or CommunityBantam Books, 1968, (6, p. 223)

Vincent D. Rougeau, Christians in the American Empire, 2008, (8, p. 152)

Gary Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg, Simon & Schuster, (9.)

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