Today I taught Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It was part of the “community” unit in Messiah College’s first-year CORE course: Created and Called for Community. I am by no means an expert on King or the Civil Rights movement, but I always enjoy teaching things outside of my area of expertise.
This time around I was struck by King’s nationalism. True national community, according to King, is rooted in “just laws. He defines a “just law” as 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.” Just laws “uplift human personality” or respect the inherent dignity and worth of human beings. Unjust laws do not. Thus King’s vision for America is a Christian one. Equality, freedom, and liberty can only be sustained when a society’s laws measure up to the law’s of God.
But sometimes, King argues, Christians fail to promote just laws. This was certainly the case with churches of the 1960s American south. (See David Chappell’s great book, A Stone of Hope , on this issue). The fact that the church does not “come to the aid of justice” does not worry King because justice is also embedded in the values and ideals that have defined the nation throughout American history. As King puts it, “the goal of America is freedom.” And it always has been.
King believes that the only way to end segregation is to embrace these universal principles that define Christian and American views of justice. King takes on the local ministers in Birmingham who perceive him as an outside agitator. He makes no apologies for his visit to this heavily segregated city. He represents the ideals of the United States of America and Christianity against the localism of Birmingham–a localism defined by racism and segregation.
I left class today thinking, once again, about the relationship between place and cosmopolitanism. (For my thoughts on this idea in an eighteenth-century context click here). King’s “Letter” reminds me that a commitment to localism, regionalism, place, and tradition has sometimes resulted in the worst forms of injustice. This was certainly the case with the history of the American south.