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There are two facts of my life that my grandchildren used to tell their friends with pride. One is that in the year 2000, as part of my application to become a Canadian citizen, I secured a letter from the sheriff of Henrico County, Virginia, attesting that I did not have a criminal record. My grandchildren could thus avow that their grandfather had never been a criminal, and he could prove it.

The second fact, which my grandchildren used to tell with far greater pride, is that in 1964 I shook the hand of Martin Luther King Jr. The occasion was the June convocation of the Jewish Theological Seminary, at which King received an honorary doctorate and my class of rabbinical students received our Master of Hebrew Literature degrees. King was so honored due to his friendship and collaboration with the great Jewish theologian, our teacher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

For some of us, the connection with King went beyond this occasion. Heschel had enlisted some of his students to work in the Civil Rights Movement, in which he and King were generals and we were mere foot soldiers. My colleagues and I, alongside Catholic seminarians, had marched in Washington, D.C., where we were cheered by some, and had beer bottles thrown at us by others.

It happened that our demonstration in Washington stayed on the right side of local law—hence my clean record, attested by the Sheriff of Henrico County. As for King, in April 1963 he had been arrested in Birmingham, Alabama for participating in a non-violent demonstration that, according to local law, was illegal. During his incarceration, King wrote what is now a classic text of political theology: “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” It is a powerful statement of universal morality or “natural law,” all the more significant to me given my relation to King through Heschel, both of whom taught me and many other Christians and Jews the real meaning of natural law, and not only in theory. King’s witness forced many in his time to recognize the sinfulness of racial segregation. His “Letter” now hangs on the wall of the federal courthouse in Montgomery.

In his own eyes, and in the eyes of his supporters, King was not a criminal; therefore, his incarceration in Birmingham Jail was unjust. The true criminals were the political officials of Birmingham, who had violated what King called “our God-given and constitutional rights.” It is these God-given rights that mere human-made constitutions codify and enforce. As King put it, “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God.” Conversely, “[a]n unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” Invoking Thomas Aquinas, King wrote: “An unjust law is a law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.” He therefore urged us to “disobey segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong.”

Four questions come to mind: (1) Why must there be a higher moral law by which we decide which human-made law is to be obeyed and which human-­made law is to be disobeyed? (2) Why should we call this higher moral law “the law of God”? (3) Why should we call this higher moral law “natural law”? (4) How might we know this “higher moral law,” and why are we obligated by it?

Regarding the first question, there are many people who consider themselves “­secular” who would say that immoral, ­unjust practices are self-evidently wrong because they are irrational. Why appeal to vague “metaphysical” and “theological” realities, such as a “higher law,” when all one needs is the common sense of the Golden Rule? Is it not obvious that we should “treat others as we would like to be treated,” or at least “not do unto others what we would not have them do unto us”? This viewpoint assumes that humans are by nature decent, rational, and empathetic; indecent, irrational, non-empathetic individuals must be unnatural exceptions. The latter stand in need of education or psychotherapy to rehabilitate them, to turn them into normal members of the human community.

But King claimed, in the spirit of Reinhold Niebuhr, that “groups are more immoral than individuals.” Thus the crime or sin of discriminatory segregation was not the activity of lone criminals, but the work of normal persons doing the bidding of their society. Instead of curbing their tendencies to evil, society enabled them to do more evil than they would have done alone. In the eyes of their society, the enforcers of segregation were not merely innocent of wrongdoing, they were upholding the common good. If the common good is whatever a community considers the good that is to be ­done by its citizens in common, then appeals to the common good will be an insufficient basis on which to criticize socially approved practices, such as segregation in the American South. The segregationists protested that these discriminatory policies were their “traditional way of life,” which they had a moral duty to uphold. When any objection was made by those outside this tradition—such as the so-called “out-of-state agitators” of the 1950s—the local discriminators would often demand, “Who are you to impose your morality on us?” (Today, those who consider all standards, whether scientific or moral, to be “socially constructed” have no answer to this kind of relativistic retort.)

Socially endorsed activities such as racial discrimination can be judged evil only by reference to a higher moral law, by which all persons and all societies are judged. Those doing the judging affirm that they, too, will be judged for their violations of this higher or transcendent law. I am reminded of the Talmud’s admonition: “Correct yourself first, then go correct others.”

But why call this higher moral law the law “of God”? Why not appeal to something like the “ideal” of full political and economic equality? Surely, King was right to insist that such a higher, transcendent law justifies the human-made law that “squares” with it, and provides a basis for condemning the human-made law that is “out of harmony” with it. By contrast, ideals are devised by human ideologues; they are projections of the reality some humans would like to see in the world. Like human-made laws, they can be unmade by their makers as easily as they were made. How can an ideal function as the justification or condemnation of man-made laws when, in fact, it is not superior to them? Moreover, since an ideal admits of no argument for its validity, how is the egalitarian ideal of full equality any more justifiable than the segregationists’ ideal of a racially “pure” society? How is an ideal anything more than a prejudice one group of people wants to project onto the world?

As Jacques Maritain proclaimed during his exile from Nazi-occupied France, societies that have no higher purpose than the perpetuation of their own racial identity need a “negative other” against which to define themselves. Acknowledging no one above them, they know only who is “out,” without knowing why anybody is “in.” For the Nazis, those negative others were the Jews. For American racists, they are the blacks. That structural similarity explains why this ideological racism, not theologically motivated anti-Judaism, was the predominant influence on Hitler and his followers. The ideology that motivated King’s persecutors could have been constructed by Joseph Goebbels.

The law of God is the only criterion by which a man-made law can be judged just or unjust, right or wrong. And only laws, rather than ideals, command us to act. Yet a law does not make itself. To speak of a higher law, one must speak of a higher lawgiver, and a higher judge of whether that law has been kept or transgressed. And that lawgiver, that “judge of all the earth” (Gen. 18:25), could only be the creator of heaven and earth. Anyone else posing as such is an imposter. Yet you might ask: If human-made laws and ideals are just as easily unmade by humans as made by them, is not God-­given law just as easily unmade by God?

To answer this formidable question, we have to remember that King was explicitly addressing “my Christian and Jewish brothers,” who would have known God’s promise never to undo his law. For the law of God, God’s Torah, is “the word of our God that will stand forever” (Isa. 40:8). This covenantal promise can be believed by Jews and Christians because we are already living under the law of God and experiencing its unchanging, permanent character. Faithful Jews and Christians will resist the efforts of any in their own communities who would attempt to change the unchangeable law of God. To be sure, Jews and Christian differ as to what exactly constitutes the unchangeable law of God. These differences, though, are almost always in the area of the God-human relationship, especially as it is enacted in worship. Jewish and Christian sacramental practices are significantly different. But in the area of interpersonal relationships, what could be called the “moral realm,” the differences are quite minor. The moral teaching of the Hebrew Bible is foundational for both Judaism and Christianity.

When Martin Luther King castigated “the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South” for “commit[ting] themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between bodies and souls, the sacred and the secular,” he reiterated the ancient Jewish teaching that there is no aspect of the God-human relationship that does not touch the relationships among humans. The church or the synagogue must not be the place where a Christian or Jew seeks intimacy with God apart from human community. Rather, it must be the place from which God sends us out into the broader human community to sanctify it by our advocacy and practice of justice. When King spoke of “men willing to be coworkers with God,” he may have been consciously paraphrasing the Talmud: “Every judge who judges honestly, as it were, becomes God’s partner in the work of ­creation.” Jews are, in the words of Pope John Paul II, “the elder brothers” of Christians.

Yet the higher moral law of God does not pertain only to Jews and Christians. It applies to all humankind, universally. That is why King, ­influenced by Thomas Aquinas, calls this law “natural.” Identifying with the tradition of natural law theory and practice, King invokes Thomas Jefferson’s famous words “that all men are created equal.” Who created all humans equal? For Jefferson (who was neither a Christian nor a Jew), this “Creator” is “Nature’s God.” Thus “nature” means the whole world that God has created intelligently. Indeed, without nature’s being taken as God’s intelligible creation, what reason is there for affirming that human rights and human duties are equally shared by all those who make up humankind? What the Talmud calls “the dignity due humans” (kvod ha-­beriyot) makes sense only when every human being is considered a “creature,” created equally in the image and likeness of God. In any other view of the human condition, the inequality of human beings seems much more “self-evident.”

Even though natural law is ­universally applicable, is it nevertheless a law that ­only Jews and Christians can actually know, ­actually teach, actually enforce, and actually judge by? How may Jews and Christians answer the charge of secularists that we are religious ­imperialists, imposing our morality on those who do not accept its premises?

The answer is that natural law has not been invented by Judaism or Christianity. The recognition of essential human dignity is minimally rational insofar as arguing against it would lead one to the absurd demand to be treated well when one has no intention of treating others well. One need not be religious to appreciate this moral rationality. But if moral rationality suffices, who needs Judaism or Christianity, with all the theological baggage? Could not King’s Sunday sermons be seen as at best superfluous to his political activities during the rest of the week, or at worst a deviation?

No one lives by natural law alone. Whatever law or moral norms we live by will be mediated through our communal traditions. It is within these communal traditions that we see how natural law provides a criterion for confirming the justice of old laws, for guiding the making of new laws, for rejecting new laws that are unjust, and for understanding old laws that may now seem unjust. Though in principle King was speaking to all who were either segregators or victims of segregation, in fact he was calling his fellow Christians and Jews to “clean up your act.” He did this by invoking principles of natural law on which our religious traditions have built, which always accompany their development, and which must never be superseded. As the Jewish theologian Aharon Lichtenstein taught, universal justice (his equivalent of natural law) is a “bottom line,” which even divinely revealed commandments must not transgress. It is what gives our religious traditions universal moral credence.

Reflection on the natural law principles proclaimed by King remains necessary in our time, in which injustice prevails no less than in 1963, when the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was written. It was this injustice that Martin Luther King battled throughout his life, and for which he paid with his death. As we Jews say: yehi zikhro barukh—“May his memory continue to be a blessing”—and may it ever enlighten our darkness! As Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, we are to conquer evils one by one, ­until the One comes and conquers all evil.

David Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.

Image by CTJ via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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