I have a friend who teaches ethics in a secular university. He is a Catholic. His employers are not friendly to his point of view. His challenge is teaching right and wrong in a world that no longer believes in right and wrong. More precisely, a world in which the only wrong is believing there is a right. We were talking some months ago about how to present objectively true ethics in a way that students would appreciate and administrators would accept. I asked him, “Why don’t you teach MLK?” He answered, “My class just finished the Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”
I write this one day before our nation rightly honors Dr. King for his astonishing life and legacy. King is respected for his heroic courage in the fact of injustice. But what of King’s vision of right and wrong? What of his belief in a universal moral law incumbent on all people at all times? When King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize he said, “I refuse to accept the idea that the “is-ness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘ought-ness’ that forever confronts him.” We remember King’s dynamic personality and moving oratory. Do we remember or acknowledge the philosophy and theology that sustained his vision?
The great challenge to freedom today is what Pope Benedict called “The Dictatorship of Relativism.” It is a false view of freedom that makes the will or whim of the individual the ultimate criterion of right and wrong. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy endorsed this view and trashed human dignity when he declared that I can kill you if I decide you are not a person. “At the heart of liberty,” Kennedy wrote, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” (Planned Parenthood vs. Casey)
King’s writings and speeches stand flatly in opposition to this view of human freedom. King was not simply a partisan proponent of one group’s claim on public life or the radical freedom to say or do whatever I want. Rather, King promoted a universal vision of right and wrong. King advocated the equal dignity of every human person, not the moral equivalence of every culture or society. For King, segregationist culture is objectively worse than the culture defined by brotherhood, love, and human dignity.
Dr. King was not a Catholic, but his thought was deeply consistent with major elements of Catholic moral theology. On two points in particular King’s philosophy echoes the teaching of the Church. King believed in the primacy of reason, the eternal and natural law, and he believed that Christ reveals the transcendent dignity of every human person.
In the Letter from the Birmingham Jail, King wrote:
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. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
Similarly, King once commented, “When we truly believe in the sacredness of human personality, we won’t exploit people, we won’t trample over people with the iron feet of oppression, we won’t kill anybody.” (Christmas Sermon on Peace) “Segregation, he said, “is a blatant denial of the unity which we all have in Christ.” (Paul’s Letter to American Christians)
King was inspired by his Christian faith and appealed to the moral sensibilities of his fellow Christians. But the truth is, you do not have to be a Christian to see the sense in what King fought for. The bedrock of natural law is not a uniquely Catholic morality, nor Protestant morality, not Hindu, Islamic, or Buddhist morality. It is human morality, the morality of common sense. The pagan Socrates said, “Do not do unto others what angers you if done to you by others.” A Nigerian proverb says, “One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.” What we read in the Dhamapada (an ancient Buddhist text) we could have found in King’s sermons: “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.”
Common sense is under assault today. The post-modernist world seeks to throw out the patrimony of the whole human tradition: reason and truth, right and wrong, life not death, man, woman, child. The Catholic Church stands prominently against that onslaught and teaches that God is divine reason. “The truly divine God,” says Pope Benedict, “is the God who has revealed himself as logos [reason] and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf.” In that fight for reason and truth, in our dialogue with modern America, Catholics should celebrate the legacy of Dr. King.