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Lions Roar : January 2005
46 SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2005 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. 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 advo- cate 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. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” 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. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substi- tutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong. © From “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” published in Why We Can’t Wait (1963). Reprinted by arrangement with The Heirs to the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. c/o Writers House Inc. as agents for the proprietor. © 1963 by Martin Luther King, Jr. © renewed 1991 by Coretta Scott King. Washington, when he tossed aside the words he’d worked on until 4 a.m. that day, but rather “The Drum Major Instinct,” a powerful sermon his lifelong friend Rev. Ralph Abernathy played at King’s funeral. Taking his text from Mark 10:35, where James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approach Jesus with their desire to sit beside him in Glory, King said: “There is, deep down within all of us, an instinct. It’s a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs a whole gamut of life....We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade. Alfred Adler, the great psychoanalyst, contends that this is the dominant impulse...this desire for atten- tion.... Now in adult life, we still have it, and we really never get by it. We like to do something good. And you know, we like to be praised for it... . But there comes a time when the drum major instinct can become destructive. And that’s where I want to move now... . Do you know that a lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct? A need that some people have to feel superior. Nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. I must be first. I must be supreme. Our nation must rule the world...but let me rush on to my conclusion... . Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excel- lence. I want you to be first in generosity. That’s what I want you to do... .” If moral authority is based on moral consistency, then the above statement, which King felt encapsulated his life’s palmary work and vision, demonstrates why this liberal theologian became a leader admired by all Americans and world citizens of goodwill, for he lived his own advice in “The Drum Major Instinct,” from his childhood when Daddy King counseled Martin, who was born into the class of black Atlanta Brahmins, against feelings of class supe- riority, to the final days of his life when he was preparing the Poor People’s cam- paign for economic justice. If I read King’s life correctly, there are three discernible stages in the public evo- lution of this man who was both the cre- ator and creation of one of the most transformative moments in American his- tory. His early, pre-Montgomery years are, of course, fascinating in their own right. In her biography, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King speaks of how “If he ever did something a little wrong, or committed a selfish act, his conscience fairly devoured him. He would, through- out his life, really suffer if he felt there was some possibility that he had wronged any- one or acted thoughtlessly. He was a truly humble man and never felt he was ade- quate to his positions. This is why he wor- ried so much, worked so hard, studied constantly, long after he became a world figure.” Coretta was, we should note, a graduate of Antioch College, and says that she “took to my heart the words of Horace Mann, who founded Antioch. In his address to the first graduating class he had said, ‘Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.’ ” Her husband Martin believed as she did, and he says as much in “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” There, in one of his favorite sermons—the first he preached at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery—King described life’s essen- tials in terms of length, breadth and height. The first, length, concerns the develop- ment of the individual: “After we’ve dis- covered what God called us to do, after we’ve discovered our life’s work, we should set out to do that work so well that the living, the dead, or the unborn couldn’t do it better.” The second dimen- sion, breadth, highlights our social rela- tions: “Don’t forget in doing something for others that you have what you have because of others....We are tied together in life and in the world.” And finally, said