“In the days when he was in the flesh, he offered prayers and
supplications with loud cries and tears to God, who was able to save him
from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Son though
he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when perfected
he became the source of eternal salvation…,”
Today is the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., the great civil
rights activist, and we want to celebrate it fittingly. His “Letter
from Birmingham City Jail” enfleshes much of the beauty and power of Jesus’
life as seen in and through these verses in the Letter to the Hebrews.
Let us notice Jesus’ cries and tears, and Jesus’ reverence in the following
excerpts from King’s famous letter written while suffering in jail for
breaking unjust segregation laws. Martin Luther King’s heart was
perfected in the crucible of obediential, creative, suffering-love.
“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. 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’…..Now, what is the difference between the
two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust?
Indeed, Jesus’ Spirit lives now in King’s resurrected blazing heart
filled with God’s love. Through Martin Luther King, Jr.’s lived faith
salvation’s freedom for the children of God is enjoyed. May we receive
inspiration from his words as we strive to incarnate Jesus’ Spirit this
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. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law
that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes
are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.
It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated
a false sense of inferiority…..I hope you are able to see the distinction
I am trying to point out.
In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would
the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who
breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness
to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law
that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty
of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over
its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law…..
One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will
be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them
to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that
characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed,
battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two-year-old woman in Montgomery,
Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided
not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity
to one who inquired about her weariness: ‘My feets is tired, but my soul
is at rest.’ They will be the young high school and college students,
the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously
and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail
for conscience’ sake.
One day the South will know that when these disinherited children
of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for
what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our
Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great
wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their
formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence…..
Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will
soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from
our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the
radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation
with all their scintillating beauty.”