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Dr. Martin Luther King's Lesson On Civil Disobedience

Sat, Sep. 10, 2011 Posted: 12:14 AM


In Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's "Letter From A Birmingham Jail" comes a lesson for us as Christians on how we are duty-bound to stand for righteousness and justice instead of allowing evil to prevail. Just as Dr. King challenged the culture of racial hatred in his day, so must we apply these same basic principles of righteousness today. In our case, it is unjust for men to be forbidden to exercise the God-given liberty to pray or freely exercise their expression of faith even in the public square. We are seeing an increasing resistance to the presence of our Judeo-Christian culture as our public servants exercise their powers to restrict if not eliminate all together the individual's right to pray, display or even mention any references to Jesus or Christianity in general. Groups seeking to remove public displays of crosses, Bibles and replicas of the Ten Commandments, government administrators seeking to regulate prayer and religious activities even at our Veterans National Cemeteries and the general public ridicule and portrayal of Christians as being psychologically impaired and unintelligent are some of what we face.

The most recent sign of this tide of resistance comes from New York City's mayor Michael Bloomberg's decision not to include chaplains and religious leaders at the 10th anniversary of 9/11 commemoration service. In spite of the fact that it was our faith in God that enabled us as a nation to morally and spiritually survive that horrible day, he has chosen to ignore the need for humanity to feel the presence of its Creator in such somber and sacred times. The imposition of such laws are certainly unjust and down-right evil—just as sinister as the denial of basic human rights for African Americans!

In light of the increased intensity to deny us of our own heritage, it is so common today to see our very courts and judges join forces with the intellectual heathen of our day to dictate for us the times that it is or is not appropriate for us to pray, and when not to pray, to speak of our faith or to comply with self-imposed censorship—we, the majority of Christians have truly been converted into helpless, bleating sheep waiting for a great slaughter!

Reading Dr. King's letter tells us that it was a very somber and humiliating experience for him, not because of the fiery furnace of racial hatred encompassing him, but because of the attitudes and attacks foisted upon him by those who were supposed to be sympathetic to his cause. As he sat there in the belly of the beast, he managed to write this rebuttal to his detractors on pieces of toilet paper, the margins of newspapers and other scraps of paper he could find. His dilemma seems to be what we will face for praying when the law says it is forbidden. Like the clergy that opposed him, fellow Americans who know our Christian history seek to bury it, to ignore America's religious roots and establish their own America without Christianity. Dr. King's reasoning on just and unjust law is profound in its truthfulness, and provides a model for behavior today...

"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... 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."

He is saying that as children of God, we are to reflect in life His will, even when it means facing the risk of persecution. We are degraded whenever we are forced by law to halt our expressions of faith. We are well aware of the effort of many to squelch Christianity at all points. Should we bow down when a law says "bow down?" Is it good citizenship to be silent when the authorities command us to be silent? Should we obey judges who command us to not pray or acknowledge God while the walls of their courts have pictures of Moses and the Ten Commandments?  King's letter says, "No!" And he was not alone!

Before him was the first church leadership—obedient to God by being defiant to men! It is commonly recognized that throughout world history, it was the indifference within the body of Christ that emboldened evil. As we sat in comfort, the devil unhindered established his empires, whether it was slavery in the United States, the Jewish Holocaust in Germany or many of the human abuses and atrocities we have come to know. Today, thousands of pastors have not a clue to what is happening to our freedoms. As far as they are concerned, they are too busy taking care of the things church leaders are supposed to take care of—sitting on corporate boards and working on this month's sermons, or studying the preaching dynamics of some great evangelist or some other project related to church operation.

Recall in the book of Acts chapter 5 when the Jesus' disciples were imprisoned and threatened with extreme violence—including death. An angel of the Lord released them and instructed them to go, speak and minister to the people at the temple. Obeying the angel, they went back to the temple, but were arrested again and brought before the Jewish leaders and authorities who then argued, "Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name?..." But Peter and his fellow disciples recognized that even the powerful Jewish council was subordinate to the command of God! They saw that the direct order to not mention the name "Jesus" was an unjust law. They answered the authority they would normally obey with "We ought to obey God rather than men." Similarly, a law is unjust when even a judge decides that we cannot pray at a public event.

Here today, we have an undoing—a deliberate dismantling of our system of faith—aided unfortunately by the air of indifference and complacency within the gut of our own Christian community, complimented by those who believe that the world would be better without God. Thus caught up in the process are those who still believe that it was the same God who made America great is the One we must not exclude from our public dialogue today. The result has been persecution for those who attempt to pray or exhibit any form of religious expression. Does this reek of injustice? Even king David, when he had disobeyed the Lord and was given three choices for punishment, knew better not to place his fate into the hands of men. "... And David said unto Gad, I am in a great strait: let us fall now into the hand of the LORD; for his mercies are great: and let me not fall into the hand of man" (2 Samuel 24:14). So why should we acquiesce to the wisdom and judgment of fallible and sometimes ungodly judges and rulers who promulgate the notion that there is a line of demarcation between our faith and our government? Does it not begin with, "We the people...?"

It is no doubt that Dr. Martin Luther King's impassioned letter treatise presented an indisputable argument before those of the Birmingham, Alabama power structure who sought to deny black people even the most basic of human rights. Since their logic and reasoning was severely flawed, they had no legitimate or reasonable reply. Just as Dr. King pointed out the injustice of racial segregation of that time, we can point to the government suppression of prayer and religious expression of our day. There is no law that bans a man from acknowledging the existence of or expressing reverence for God that can be considered just. Our duty is to be who we are praying and practicing Christians, willing to suffer for the cause of Christ!

Dr. Melvin Johnson