Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’ Explains the Difference Between Just and Unjust Laws
Supporters of Kim Davis are thrilled about her release from jail. Kim was jailed because she refused to violate her conscience by issuing and signing same-sex marriage licenses. What happened to Kim Davis might happen to other Christians. Already, we have seen Christian florists and bakers persecuted because of their refusal to participate in same-sex marriages. Now is a good time for us to revisit Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Dr. King’s powerful letter explains when and why we should disobey unjust laws.
The impetus behind Kim’s incarceration was the Obergefell v. Hodges U.S. Supreme Court decision, where the Court used the fuzziest of reasoning to issue a decree redefining marriage in the 50-states. The case was decided on the narrowest of margins (5-4). We know two of the Justices, Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Gingsburg, should have recused themselves. Each had officiated at a same-sex marriage ceremony. Federal law states:
Title 28, Part I, Chapter 21, Section 455 of the U.S. Code reads: Any justice, judge, or magistrate judge of the United States shall disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.
As is often the case with liberals, the ends always justify the means. By ignoring federal law, Justice Kagan and Ginsburg, simply followed the arrogant example of the president who appointed them. But like Dr. King and Kim Davis, we must be willing to actively resist laws and edicts that run counter to the higher law we place above the edicts of man.
. . .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. 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? 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.”
Carol M. Swain is author of Be the People: A Call to Reclaim America’s Faith and Promise (2011) and The New White Nationalism in America: Its Challenge to Integration (2002).