Thursday, January 18, 2007

IC Column: The Pro-Life Dr. King

The pro-life Dr. King

Patrick Beeman

Posted: 1/18/07

Challenges to the legacies of so many influential men have not come from lack of great ideas but from those ideas falling into the wrong hands or otherwise being misconstrued or used for suspect ideological purposes. Such is the case with Martin Luther King, Jr.

Because I am a student, I have yet another reason to be thankful for the life, ministry (for his life's work was anything but "a job" as some of my medical student colleagues erroneously view the medical profession), and martyrdom of King. Because the celebration of his life grants us a day off, each year I re-read his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in thanksgiving for what he did for our country.

It still frightens and amazes me that not too long ago, King was waging war against one of the most facile fallacies ever committed by the mind of man: racism, which is simply taking an accidental attribute (skin color) of a human being as something essential to his personhood (which would make people with different skin colors different kinds of things, which is absurd according to all but the most base of men such as Adolf Hitler, Margaret Sanger, or David Duke). It is no wonder that Richard John Neuhaus, the present editor of the journal "First Things" and King's one-time associate, called the civil rights era an "epic moral drama." Strange words, those.

You see, King's efforts were not about politics. They were not about being Democrat or Republican, Left or Right; they were about moral truth, right and wrong and who was right (desegregationists) and who was wrong (segregationists).

In his "Letter," King gave the simplest reason for his activism. He wrote that he was in the Birmingham jail (after being arrested during a peaceful protest) because "injustice is here." The broadest category to which the sin of racism could be applied is injustice: not giving to people what is due to them by right. King goes on to outline his personal reasons for being involved in the civil rights movement and proves himself quite the intellectual by drawing on Thomas Aquinas, Saint Augustine, Paul Tillich and others.

King speaks of a person's moral obligation to oppose unjust laws. In this connection, he approvingly cites Saint Augustine, "An unjust law is no law at all." But the problem that King recognized is distinguishing just laws from unjust laws. And in this respect, King draws on Thomas's theory of law, and wrote, "A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God … Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality."

And so it goes with a very similar moral crisis in our own day: abortion. Racist laws and abortion laws have one thing in common, they "distort the soul" (both of the woman and the child killed) and degrade human personality on so many levels. One could very easily say that the Roe v. Wade decision (remember, that was the Jan. 23, 1973 event in which the American people voted for more liberal abortion laws? Or wait, no we didn't) presents an even greater epic moral drama, for by it we have not only discriminated against but have slain a large portion of human beings simply because they are smaller than we, don't quite look like we think they should, act like we think they should or because they inconvenience us by demanding equality, justice and the right to live.

So, what was I saying about King's legacy? I agree with Neuhaus' analysis of the "two liberalisms." The first is that of King, "inclusive of the vulnerable and driven by a transcendent order of justice" but the second liberalism is that of today, "exclusive and recognizing no law higher than individual willfulness." Too many self-styled liberals have followed the second, claiming King as their inspiration. The problem is that it doesn't work. King was, it is ever to be remembered, a Christian, even if an imperfect one, who wanted to establish an order of justice and equality for all people: black, white, Catholic, Protestant and - had his life not been taken so cruelly in April 1968 - he would probably now add "unborn and born alike."
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