In light of America’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr day on Monday, I thought it would be helpful for us to look into the stark contrast between civil rights activism done back then, versus the way it’s being done today.
Whenever you address the fight of civil rights, MLK Jr. is given the most recognition and attention. He had the unique ability to pierce the conscience of America and speak truth to power in his writings and speeches. As with many who spoke to the American conscience before, he wasn’t celebrated in his life as much as he is in his death.
Martin Luther King fought for racial equality and civil rights for much of his life, and near the end of his life touched on economic empowerment and reparations for blacks, protested the Vietnam War, and much more than can be addressed here. To fight for all the civil rights issues he addressed, he often appealed to a contrast that has either been ignored or removed in our secularized society today.
MLK knew that there was a contrast between what was legal in our law versus what was moral law, and in light of moral law superseding laws that were legal at the time, he fought on this basis. In his famous letter written while in jail to church leaders concerned with him breaking the law by protesting, he wrote this powerful point:
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.
Martin understood that human beings can create laws to govern amongst themselves, but this only happens because we ourselves reflect the divine image of God in us. It is this God that gave moral law, which reflects the goodness and virtues of His nature. It was from this place that he was able to challenge the American conscience, even as many Americans claimed to follow Jesus. It is this contrast between these two types of law, and the transcendent origin of moral law that is sorely missing in the fight for social justice today.
For example, if you take a look at the goals of Black Lives Matter, the seminal civil rights organization formed in light of police misconduct against people of color, you will find that they have very different points of emphasis regarding social justice. Some of the new points center around LGBT affirmation and the upending of the Western family structure, which aligns with societal mores, rather than an unchanging moral law.
For generations, the body of Christ—mostly amongst the majority of black congregants—civil rights activism was a central part. Yet doing activism with biblical morality as its foundation is antagonistic to the goals of BLM and other organizations like them. It is because of this disparity that today you will not find the church in the important position it once held amongst civil rights organizations in the past.
So the fight for justice now is less about the violation of God’s moral law by our legal law, but because of one human system of morality chosen over the other. Since humanity can govern themselves, it’s not up to any god to reveal morality. This is not explicitly said of course, but is done by actions. It is in this vein that the fight for justice loses the transcendent place it once held.
As we remember the life of MLK, let us not forget the true reason we are able to and must fight for justice. It is through the just moral law of God that we as believers must fight for the justice of our fellow-man.