Martin Luther King, Jr. was born this day -- January 15 -- in 1929.
Above is an audio track of the sermon entitled "But if not," delivered by Dr. King on November 05, 1967 -- only five months before his earthly life was violently ended by a cowardly criminal act of assassination.
Dr. King was a powerful and eloquent orator, and his words speak for themselves. If you have never listened to his sermons before -- and even if you have -- his birthday is an appropriate day to listen to them again, and this sermon is rightfully famous.
While Dr. King's message needs no elaboration or additional explanation, a few particular points impressed me as being especially worthy of brief comment (below -- you may prefer to listen to Dr. King's sermon first).
Here are a few brief comments for those interested -- but of course the entire sermon is deeply moving and worthy of careful consideration from start to finish. Longer direct quotations from the sermon are printed in a blue font in order to make it easier to distinguish those quotations:
- The title of the sermon is taken from the scriptural passage in the Book of Daniel, chapter 3 and verse 18. There, the three Hebrew youths who have in their captivity been given the Babylonian names Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, famously declare that they will not bow down to the king's idols, and specifically they will not bow before and worship the golden image he has raised in the plain of Dura, and that they will trust their God for deliverance, knowing that he can save them -- "But if not," they concede (that is, even if he does not deliver them), they will still do what is right and obey the law of God over the arbitrary and tyrannical proclamation of the king.
- In this sermon, Dr. King points to this story as an example of civil disobedience. Beginning at 03:30 in the track above, he defines civil disobedience, saying: "Now I want you to notice first here that these young men practiced civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is the refusal to abide by an order of the government or of the state or even of the court that your conscience tells you is unjust. Civil disobedience is based on a commitment to conscience. In other words, one who practices civil disobedience is obedient to what he considers a higher law. And there comes a time when a moral man can't obey a law which his conscience tells him is unjust."
- Without using the terminology of natural law as articulated by abolitionist and political philosopher Lysander Spooner in the 1800s, Dr. King draws the exact same distinction that Spooner draws, between artificial (or man-made) law and natural law (which Dr. King calls "conscience," "higher law," "moral law," or "eternal and divine law" in this sermon). In other words, both declare any immoral "law" to be no law at all -- Spooner using the example of the Fugitive Slave Acts in the United States, and Dr. King using the example of criminal acts perpetrated in Nazi Germany under Hitler which were "legal" but only in the sense of artificial law -- they were actually immoral and illegal and Dr. King declares he would have openly disobeyed them. Warming to this theme, he declares beginning at the 06:50 mark in the above audio: "And so it is important to see -- that there are times -- when a man-made law is out of harmony with the moral law of the universe; there are times when human law is out of harmony with eternal and divine law: and when that happens, you have an obligation to break it. And I'm happy that in breaking it, I have some good company!"
- He later connects this obligation to resist man-made laws which oppose the moral and eternal and divine law with the statement by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego in Daniel 3:18 beginning with "But if not." Dr. King explains that our obligation to oppose immoral law is not dependent upon being spared from negative consequences in doing so, nor is it dependent upon being promised positive rewards for doing so: it must be done because it is the right thing to do. This leads him directly to his soaring and justly famous conclusion, a portion of which is quoted next, beginning just prior to the 17:00 mark in the above audio.
- Notice that directly connected to his assertion that we must come to the place where we cannot but stand up for the moral law irregardless of reward or consequences is Dr. King's mention of the conventional doctrines of heaven and hell -- and he likewise declares that we do not simply decide to stand up for the right either for the promise of the one or the fear of the other. At 16:46, building to a crescendo, Dr. King proclaims: "What does this mean? It means in the final analysis, you do right NOT to avoid hell. If you're doing right merely to keep from going to something that traditional theology has called 'hell,' then you're not doing right. If you do right merely to go to a condition that theologians have called 'heaven,' you aren't doing right. If you are doing right to avoid pain, and to achieve happiness and pleasure, then you aren't doing right. Ultimately, you must do right because it's RIGHT to do right. You've gotta say, 'But if not.'"
- It is impossible not to notice that Dr. King's framing of the concepts of heaven and hell as "something that traditional theology has called 'hell'" and "a condition that theologians have called 'heaven'" serve to call into question the traditional or conventional (that is to say, "literal") understanding of those two concepts, and to distance himself those traditional literal theological interpretations. The fact that Dr. King here appears to strongly call into question the traditional literal understanding of those two ideas is in keeping with the argument put forward in the preceding post (and elsewhere in other previous discussions), that the literal interpretation of the scriptures can be (and historically has been) used to control thought and behavior and even to oppress and enslave, whereas the sacred scriptures and ancient teachings of humanity (including those in the Bible) were actually intended uplift (and not oppress), to liberate (and not enslave). For further discussion of the likelihood that the concepts of both hell and heaven in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments relate to celestial metaphors connected to spiritual teachings about our incarnate condition, rather than to literal places of eternal punishment or reward as they have been interpreted by literalistic theologians (and then used as convenient tools to control thought and behavior), please see "No hell below us . . ." and "A land flowing with milk and honey."
- This aspect of Dr. King's sermon is very important, because the entire thrust of his sermon is to place the moral obligation of "doing right," including when necessary civil disobedience to immoral laws, upon an ancient scriptural foundation. Following other researchers, including Mark Passio, I have argued that widespread institutionalized violations of natural law must necessarily be accompanied by some form of mind control: those techniques which are used to "hypnotize" large numbers of people into (wrongly) believing that violations of natural law are actually right or good or moral or acceptable. Misinterpreted, the Biblical scriptures have in fact been used in the past -- and continue to be used -- as an instrument of mind control, to condone oppression of one group by another, for example, or to condone the use of force for reasons other than protection against violence. But, this does not mean that we should "throw out" the Biblical scriptures, or any of the other ancient scriptures and traditions of humanity, just because they have in the past been twisted around to try to support the opposite of what they really mean. On the contrary, these ancient teachings, properly interpreted, actually stand against mind control (I believe). Dr. King in the above sermon clearly evidences a high regard for the ancient scriptures -- in this case, the Book of Daniel from the Hebrew Scriptures (or the "Old Testament") -- and I believe he can be seen to be using them in a way that dispels mind control and promotes human freedom and natural law.
- Ultimately, I believe that open, non-violent civil disobedience itself is designed to call attention to ongoing violations of natural law (or, as Dr. King puts it, "human law out of harmony with eternal and divine law"), and to remove the "veil of legitimacy" which techniques of mind control attempt to throw over those violations of the natural law. By his willingness to face consequences while non-violently doing actions which do not violate natural law (but which may indeed break these "out of harmony human laws") -- the same willingness he connects back to Daniel chapter 3 and verse 18 -- Dr. King helped to "wake up" those who had previously been too hypnotized to notice that those human laws were actually profoundly immoral.
At the end of this famous sermon (beginning around 18:20), Dr. King declares that "if you have never found something so dear and so precious that you will to die for it," or if
"some great opportunity stands before you and CALLS upon you to stand for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause," and you refuse to do it because you are afraid, you refuse to "take the stand" as he puts it, then you will die inside. He prefaces these stirring words by saying "you may be 38 years old, as I happen to be" -- but those of us who are already older than that need not think that it is already too late for us to find such a cause, whether we are 48, or 68, or 88 or 108 years old! There is never a lack of need for the kind of willingness to stand up for justice that Dr. King proclaims in this sermon!
I would humbly suggest that, if we are unsure of what "great principle" that we ourselves might stand for, we could perhaps hardly go wrong if we decide to stand for natural law, which is the same as the universal law, the eternal law, the divine law, and the moral law.
From there, we can be alert to identify places in which human law is, as Dr. King puts it,
"out of harmony with the moral law of the universe,"
and then to stand against them and to show others how they are illegitimate and ultimately illegal. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of such human laws and actions going on today, any more than there was in 1967.
Martin Luther King, Jr. clearly understood natural law, and the fact that natural law is woven into the very fabric of our universe. He understood that, because of this fact, widespread institutionalized violations of such law actually require forms of mind control, to veil their illegitimacy. He clearly understood the importance of exposing this mind control, in order to dispel it, and he saw that nonviolent civil disobedience was a way to seize the moral high ground and expose the illegitimacy of actions which run counter to natural universal law.
He also understood the importance and power of the ancient scriptures, and held them in high esteem, and he saw that they teach resistance to illegitimate artificial laws, and that the scriptures actually illustrate non-violent civil disobedience, and provide a basis and foundation for it.
All of these lessons, and the sermons of Dr. King, are as vital today as they have ever been. And, they are vitally important for our own well-being as moral individuals.