Martin Luther King on the Natural Law

One of the minor injustices of Martin Luther King’s legacy is that he was such a good speaker that he is often remembered more for moments of soaring oratory, (“I have a dream, today!”) than for the quality of his mind and the clarity of his arguments. The following excerpt from his April 16, 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” illustrates that he was not only a powerful speaker: he is also a first-rate thinker. Indeed, a case could be made (though I do not make it here) that King is the most significant figure in twentieth century American discourse about the Natural Law.

The central point of King’s argument, which he takes from Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, is that there is a law higher than human law, and that any human law which is at odds with this higher law is unjust. All human beings are bound to obey the higher law, and thus are bound to obey human laws which are in harmony with this higher law; but, for the same reason, they are bound to disobey laws which conflict with the higher law.

The letter was written in response to a “A Call for Unity” published April 12, 1963 by a group of white Birmingham clergy, criticizing the protests led by Rev. King and local African American leaders. 

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 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 advocate 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, substitutes 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.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

26 thoughts on “Martin Luther King on the Natural Law

  1. Oh what a pretty can of worms to open on a site of interest to the LGBT community.

    And I quote: “An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal.”

    Nicely expressed, Dr. King. Traditional marriage law is, by this definition, totally unjust. Opposite sex couples can marry but same sex couples cannot. A clear case difference made legal.

    Nice expressed, Dr King. “Natural law” stands firmly against tradition.

    • I should note that as an exercise in particulars, Stephen, your application, at least to the Catholic Church, is incorrect. As you note:

      “An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal.”

      The law, technically, in the canons of the Church concerning marriage, is that since marriage is ordered primarily to procreation and within this context is ordered to intimacy, a couple incapable of having children at the time of the marriage *for reasons of impotency* has an impediment and cannot validly marry. This is different from infertility; to be very technical, an infertile couple can consummate, but not conceive; an impotent couple is incapable even of consummation in principle. An infertile couple can marry because they are not prevented in principle from the act of conceiving a child, only from the actual conception itself; thus they can still have a life which derives intimacy from the physical symbolism of the sexual act as a channel of grace and a mode of intimate communication.

      Without getting into the nitty-gritty details, gay couples do not satisfy either the potency or fertility factors in principle, and therefore, by the same logic by which some (actually surprisingly many) straight couples cannot marry, they cannot marry. So instead of:

      “…a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself…”

      this is:

      “a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group (gay couples as a subset of impotent couples) to obey and makes binding on itself (when impotency is discovered among straight couples applying to marry.)”

      Now, I recognize that civil and Church marriages have different accounts today. But I would only note that this is entirely in keeping with the natural law as discussed by Augustine and Aquinas; minimally, it is no hypocrisy.

      • It is however a particularly Pharisaical type of legalism pushed to the extreme. I wonder how long it took the canon lawyers to dream up the entirely arbitrary difference between “infertility” and “impotence”?

        The entire concept of Catholic marriage seems to be built upon a legalistic Pharisaism clearly designed to punish and exclude anyone whose baby-making capacities are in doubt.

        Seems to me the Church is saying that if you can’t produce new souls for it to dominate, you have to be punished with solitary confinement for the rest of your life. You might be let out briefly if you promise to cross your legs and restrict your activities to good works and satisfying the whims of any breeders who need a convenient dogsbody to run errands for them, but as soon as you’re no longer needed, it’s back in your cell and don’t you dare complain about it.

        If that’s not a majority wishing to oppress a minority, I don’t know what is. You can play as many word games as you like with “infertility” and “impotence”, but Catholic marriage clearly falls into the category of a discriminatory practice and is, as such, an offense against Dr King’s version of “natural law”.

        Perhaps that’s why marriage now means something different in the secular world than the meaning the Church assigns to it. The Church’s arguments have been weighed against those of Dr King and other non-Catholic thinkers and been found wanting.

      • Mr Sundaram: I am a physician–my specialty is psychiatry. Perhaps because of my profession I see some “nitty-gritty” details, as you call them, to be quite important. Specifically, can you explain to me how homosexual people lack sexual potency?

      • Hypatia, I only just saw your comments, and I apologize for not getting back to you earlier.

        As I have noted a number of times here, for the Catholic Church, marriage, as an institution, is ordered primarily to the production and raising of children as a product of the marital union; secondarily, but indispensably, to the intimacy between spouses which serves that end and arises out of it. As such, anything which prevents the possibility of having children can be brought up as an impediment if it occurs at the time the marriage is contracted.

        Only three causes always render a marriage invalid; two of them are from the natural law and one is from the Gospel – consanguinity, impotence, and prior valid marriage. “Impotence” here does not mean that, for example, the male spouse shoots blanks; that’s technically infertility. Impotency is more technically the incapacity to perform the sexual act in a natural way.

        Now, some people are absolutely impotent (like those castrated, as per my example) – they cannot make a child with anyone of the opposite sex. Some are relatively impotent with regard to their chosen spouse, like those who cannot become aroused for psychological reasons. The textbook case is if the male part and the female part don’t interface well due to a “gross disproportion of size.” Because of the connection of the sacramental union and the end of that union as procreative, one who is absolutely or relatively impotent cannot enter into marriage as a natural institution.

        I do not see what is medically mystifying about this, since I was hardly making a medical claim. This is rather a claim about the capacity to perform the act – for whatever reason. This is not the same as sterility, which is the capacity to perform the act but not in a way efficacious for producing a child; moreover, if there is any doubt that the spouse might not have been impotent at the time of marriage, the impediment is legally considered non-existent.

        The details you want can be found in this article:

        Now, of course, people might disagree that marriage is primarily ordered to procreation – fine, but then one does not mean the same thing as Catholics do when they say “marriage.” And if sex is involved, one is essentially arguing that premarital sex is not sinful, which in my own opinion is wishful thinking, but more to the point is a separate issue.

    • Stephen, I can’t shake the feeling that you walked into this just hoping that you could find some way to get into a fight about the teaching itself. I refuse to give you a fight, since that would be an occasion of pride and anger for me in all likelihood, and I must look to my own soul. Thus you will get this response and no more from me – an explanation of why the Church teaches what it teaches.

      First off, contrary to what you might think, there is nothing arbitrary about the difference between a man who has been violently castrated and a man who has a working penis but not working sperm. It is a psychological, physical, and often as a result spiritual difference which profoundly affects the human person. It is also not a difficult distinction to make; and if the Church did not make it, we would have to bar the merely infertile from marriage. If you do not see that such a distinction being made is really a work of mercy, you have no right to comment on the matter, because you are equating the case of the infertile person with the case of the legally impotent, as though they are the same thing. This is not love – what you are doing is what you mistakenly accuse the canonists of, namely, being Pharisaical. As a would-be canonist myself, I think you should know that your attitude is being awfully casual with the lives of people who already suffer as it is. I wish to become a canonist in order to help people – I am sorry your prejudice about my kind is so strong as to presume our wickedness.

      • I wouldn’t bar a “violently castrated” man from marriage because I don’t think it would be at all merciful. Do you honestly believe it’s merciful to force an already traumatized person to eke out the rest of his existence alone and uncared for? What about the “love and comfort that the one should have of the other”? Or do “violently castrated” men not need love and comfort? Or gay men either? Or lesbians? Or any couple that doesn’t have the regulation Ikea flatpack (place flange A in socket B…) sets of picture-perfect genitalia?

        In your world mercy is only extended to those who look the part. Infertility may render their acts of “consummation” utterly fruitless, but as long they can go through the motions, they can have all the love and comfort they require. Very merciful for them perhaps, less so for the “violently castrated”. And for anyone who happens to be gay. In Catholic theology love and comfort are commodities to be purchased via the coin of “consummation”. And if you can’t pay the price then you just have to “unite your sufferings to the Cross”, or grin and bear it, in other words.

        And yes, just for the record, I do believe that anyone who enforces a rigid set of rules in the face of human unhappiness and suffering is wicked. I also believe that this kind of wickedness is gaining ground in the Church as the truly merciful leave in droves and those who worship rules, regulations and callous rigidity are transforming the institution into a pretty good approximation of the Pharisee sects of the (real or alleged) time of Christ.

      • The mercy to which I was referring, Stephen, was the distinction on the side of the infertile. The position of the Church is that it is impossible to “bar” a castrated man from marriage because it is an impediment to the primary purpose of marriage and thus renders any such “union” impossible. This follows exactly from the character of the Sacrament of Marriage itself. Perhaps you are of the opinion that this developed purely as a way to subjugate gay people so that they cannot get married. If so, you must be feverishly conspiratorial, since gay marriage has not even been a discussion of note in the history of civilization until a few decades ago. Certainly, it postdates the Reformation. So unless you are positing that St. Paul had a time machine, you are simply imputing hate to a subject you truly do not understand.

        With that, I can safely say that you do not know my world. This is not an insult; I would not expect you to do so. The thing I would censure is your readiness to rhetorically pretend as though you understand me because of one out-of-context explanation of one canon. Like so many “bigoted” traditionalist Catholics, you aren’t looking for a discussion. You are looking for a punching bag. I’ll not be your huckleberry in your mission of rage.

      • Violent castration is, thankfully, rare. Impotence due to medical conditions (eg.diabetes) is increasingly common (as the population ages, among other reasons). Are such persons barred from marrying? Could a spouse get an annulment when his/her partner became impotent? Or does the “impotence” issue apply only to men, so it would be “her” partner. Again, medically, I am mystified by your position.

  2. Are you actually arguing that people who think, for instance, that homosexual sex (or same-sex marriage, or any number of other laws created over the past 40 years) is “against Natural Law” are “bound to disobey” laws which make it legal? And are you actually using the Civil Rights movement in order to argue against freedom for gay people to form intimate relationships?

    Because that’s sure what it sounds like. You seem to be using a movement dedicated to freedom as a means to argue for the denial freedom – and in favor of “civil disobedience” as a means of enforcing that denial of freedom! I frankly don’t think Dr. King would be amused, either – and I know his wife wouldn’t; she was a supporter of gay rights. Talk about “turning history on its head”!

    Even Aquinas, as I understand it, never offered any reasoning in support of his position requiring “generativity” in marital relations – the “rule” out of which the prohibition of gay sex arises. And “Natural Law” is, in fact, a flimsy, invented case all the way through, full of unsupported assumptions and hand-waving – and “opinion” put forward as “argument.”

    The Catholic Catechism is, in fact, provably and demonstrably wrong in much of it what it says about homosexuality and about gay people. Why should anybody even trust it, let alone follow it?

    • I’m a philosopher. If I try to argue something, I will state my thesis clearly and provide reasons to support my thesis.

      I was not trying to argue any of the things you are freaking out about. I was trying to honor Martin Luther King by calling attention to a passage I admire.

      • Strange that you should choose to quote an interpretation of “natural law” that conflicts with the Church’s treatment of LGBT individuals.

        So who’s right, the Church or Dr. King?

      • This quote neither supports nor contradicts anything in Catholic teaching on homosexuality. Some themes in it could be used to support a conservative stance, some could support a progressive stance. I’m not making either of those arguments. I’m honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.

        Not everything in the world, or even on this blog, revolves around homosexuality.

        As I already pointed out, if I want to make an argument, I will state clearly what I am arguing for, and provide reasons to support my conclusions. If I make an argument, I will defend it. But I have not made either a conservative or progressive argument about homosexuality here.

      • You introduced Dr. King’s words with some of your own (as far as I can tell). These are the ones I was referring to, which seem to be a very clear “statement of thesis”:

        The central point of King’s argument, which he takes from Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, is that there is a law higher than human law, and that any human law which is at odds with this higher law is unjust. All human beings are bound to obey the higher law, and thus are bound to obey human laws which are in harmony with this higher law; but, for the same reason, they are bound to disobey laws which conflict with the higher law.

        So: does this “civil disobedience” argument from “the Natural Law” apply in the case of same-sex marriage and the other gay-rights laws that have been passed over the past 40 years, or not?

        And if not, why not?

        Perhaps I should have avoided the second person singular form of address; I certainly wasn’t talking about you, personally, but about the ideas you’re presenting here. Since you also use “the Natural Law” in your argument about same-sex relations – and since this blog is in fact about that very topic – it seems a natural question to ask.

  3. From what I am given to understand about the blog to which I am a contributor, SF is pretty prominent in that it endorses celibacy. Since in the Catholic understanding, this is pretty much antithetical to most instances of the married vocation, I find it incredibly strange that the commenters are assuming that this is an endorsement of gay marriage. You may take it to be an invitation to disobey laws that command a moral injustice, but in context that has no bearing on the gay marriage question here.

    Moreover, he’s quoting Aquinas and Augustine, so even in the context of the quote, that would be an odd interpretation, since both of them were against homosexual action. Since I and many other contributors here are in the habit of quoting them, and have made them our study, I hope our readers are not so conspiratorially inclined as to assume the worst. That would, after all, be no way to treat one’s brother or sister in Christ. I choose to believe, for the purposes of charity, that there is some misunderstanding of the context here, and hope that people will be judicious in agreeing too unconditionally with the comments.

    Of course, our readers are free to conclude however they wish; we cannot coerce their intellects. But I would hope that they read this as part of a hermeneutic of continuity with the rest of the contributions to this blog, as reason and charity, reason’s perfection, both demand.

    • I don’t think there’s any conscious endorsement of gay marriage taking place in Ron Belgau’s initial post on this page. Just a failure to analyze the full ramifications of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s thoughts and beliefs and their application to the struggle for freedom and equality for ALL minority groups.

      • And the biggest irony of all was MLK’s March of Washington was organized by an openly gay man which MLK was fully aware of. His wife Coretta became a great ally to the gay community and said her husband would have supported full equal rights for gay people.

    • For myself, I certainly haven’t “assumed an endorsement of gay marriage,” but am asking about the implications of the “Natural Law” argument presented above. I’m wondering why “civil disobedience” might be called for in the case of one violation of “the Natural Law,” but not in the case of another. And if it’s not actually called for in every case, why no disclaimers about this? It was certainly made to sound like a hard-and-fast rule in the post.

      Celibacy is a fine vocation that anybody can choose, and many do. I don’t really think it has much to do with sexual orientation, though; celibacy really is a “lifestyle choice.”

  4. 1. One of the things I notice is that no one is paying attention to what King is saying in the context that he said it. The point of this post was honoring King for his defense of civil rights. The lack of attention to King and the point that he was actually making is disappointing. There is more in the world than gay issues.

    2. I wrote, “All human beings are bound to obey the higher law, and thus are bound to obey human laws which are in harmony with this higher law; but, for the same reason, they are bound to disobey laws which conflict with the higher law.” When obedience to a human law requires disobedience to the natural law, then I am required to disobey the human law.

    Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that gay sex is contrary to the natural law. Aquinas argues that it is not the job of the human law to prohibit everything that is contrary to the natural law. And so one is not obligated by natural law to “disobey” (whatever that would mean) a human law which allows something forbidden by the natural law (Summa Theologiae Ia-IIae 96.2).

    Because of this, I don’t think that my beliefs about gay sex mean I have a moral obligation to discriminate against gay people in employment or a moral obligation to throw them in jail. So I don’t see how a law forbidding employment discrimination or tossing out sodomy laws would violate the natural law.

    Regarding marriage, many oppose laws that grant legal recognition to same-sex relationships using natural law arguments. But supposing one lives in a state that has passed gay marriage laws, one has a duty to obey properly promulgated human laws, unless doing so requires you to violate the natural law.

    I’m not sure how legal recognition of same-sex relationships, by itself, forces me to to anything contrary to my conscience. If a marriage law does force those who believe gay sex is wrong to violate their conscience (for example, if it required churches that opposed same-sex marriage to perform same-sex unions), then the natural law would require disobeying the law. But this is more complicated than just disobeying any piece of gay rights legislation because gay sex is contrary to the natural law.

    Consider a different example. The natural law commands respect for life. Suppose a law is passed requiring a 5 mph speed limit in school zones. I might think that this speed limit is silly–a 15 or 20 mph speed limit is plenty for safety, and would satisfy the requirements of the natural law. But if such a law is passed, obeying it would not force me to do anything in conflict with the natural law. I would thus be bound to obey the law, even thought I disagreed with its wisdom. It’s only if the law actually requires me to do something contrary to the natural law that it conflicts with the natural law in a way that justifies civil disobedience.

    3. Despite Barbara’s claim, as far as I can tell from the archives, this article is the first time I have talked about natural law on Spiritual Friendship, and nothing in the context of this post has anything to do with natural law teaching on homosexuality (I did mention the subject in passing in an essay on GCN over 10 years ago, but other than that, as far as I know, I haven’t really weighed in on natural law arguments.).

    If I wanted to talk about natural law and gay sex, I would have started with a text that referred to homosexuality. I’m not interested in getting into what is a relatively complex argument in a comment on a post that has nothing to do with that question.


    As far as I’m concerned, this is the end of the conversation. This post is not about homosexuality. It’s about MLK’s justification of civil disobedience to unjust laws. I’ve addressed how that might apply to gay rights laws. The other questions asked wander far afield from the point of the post, and require a lot of background which is not present in this post or any other posts I’ve written for this blog. I’m not going to try to answer complex questions that are far off-topic in blog comments. If I decide to address natural law and homosexuality directly at some point in the future, these questions will be fair game, because I will have built the foundation required to answer them. Until then, I’ve said as much about these questions as I plan to say here.

    I also do not plan to reply to further questions about this comment because, as I said, the whole thing was off-topic, and if I wanted to address questions of natural law and homosexuality, there is a lot of background I would want to address first.

    • So in other words you refuse to address a hole in your argument so wide you could drive a bus through it and instead prefer to fold your arms and stamp your feet and declare testily that you set the terms of the debate here and how dare anyone take a statement of yours and draw conclusions from it that you yourself were blind to when you wrote it?

      Hmmm, I’d love to be a fly on the wall at your next thesis defense. Wonder how “I didn’t mean that so ask me questions I want to hear or I’ll just refuse to answer them” will fly with a panel whose task it is to determine whether your ideas are worthy of academic recognition?

      • In your first post here, you argue that there is a conflict between Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement about just and unjust laws, and traditional marriage laws. As far as I can recall, I have never published an argument for or against traditional marriage laws. So even if you are right about Martin Luther King’s argument and traditional marriage laws (and I don’t think that you are), this is not a hole in any argument of mine.

        I’ve taught both Martin Luther King’s natural law and more traditional natural law theories for several years now. I have also, in various academic settings, discussed natural law arguments as they apply to homosexuality. But I have not chosen to publish on this topic at this time, because in academia, you are not rewarded for publishing arguments on complex topics without adequately addressing the complexities of the issue. I suspect I know the area better than you do, and recognize several complexities which you are missing.

        However, one of the worst things you can do in a thesis defense is make sweeping claims with inadequate preparation and support. A good thesis candidate will therefore learn, when confronted with a question, to judge which questions he or she ought to be able to answer, given the argument he or she has made, and which questions go too far afield of the topic at hand, and need to be deferred.

        I have not entered political debates over same-sex marriage, and my arguments against the morality (not legality) of same-sex relationships have, for the most part, been rooted in Scripture and the Christian tradition. Even when I’ve referenced natural law in my much older writings, it’s been as a comment on the exegesis of Romans 1, not an effort to establish an argument against gay sex based on natural reason apart from the authority of Scripture.

        Most academic presentations are supposed to be focused on a particular subject. This post was focused on Martin Luther King’s arguments for why civil disobedience is justified when faced with an unjust law. In response to Barbara’s question, I gave a fairly careful response about how King’s principle of civil disobedience would apply to Christian beliefs about natural law and civil laws regarding homosexuality and same-sex marriage. In responding to Barbara, I did not provide an argument that gay sex is contrary to the natural law. Instead, I showed that even if we assumed, for the sake of argument that that were the case, Aquinas’s view of the relationship between the natural law and the human law would not require Christians to disobey gay rights laws, unless those laws forced Christians to violate Christian teaching.

        In so far as Barbara’s question was related to the topic I had raised in the post, I took the time to answer it. However, in doing so, I bracketed the question of whether there is a natural law argument against gay sex, and simply showed how the argument would go if there was.

        Your question, however, was rather farther removed from the argument in this post. Moreover, it alleged a conflict between what King had written and a traditional understanding of civil marriage. Since I have not written a natural law defense of traditional civil marriage law, I could also reasonably argue that this is not only removed from this post, but that it focuses on a subject I have never made part of my intellectual project.

        Answering your question would require a significant explanation of natural law in general, with an emphasis on the similarities and differences in the natural law theory of Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther King, Jr.; an account of natural law as it applies to homosexual acts; and an outline of how these natural law arguments should inform the civil law on marriage. Given all of this required background, I quite reasonably said that, if I decide to take up these questions at some point in the future, I will need to answer your objection. But that building such an account is beyond the scope of a blog comment.

        I can assure you that, if this were a thesis defense, I would be much more likely to pass by dodging a large tangent like this by providing a reasonable explanation of why it was beyond the scope of the argument shared in this post. In an actual thesis defense, attempting to tackle a topic this large within the space constraints of a blog comment or answer in a thesis defense would result in a sloppy answer that made large leaps, and would be much more likely to jeopardize my academic future.

        I am sorry to play these pedantic academic games with you, but you are the one who called my academic competence into question. Since your comment seemed to imply a more or less complete ignorance of academic argument, it seemed necessary to both explain some aspects of how thesis defenses work, and to explain why my response was, in fact, a legitimate academic exercise.

        The more accurate criticism of my original answer would be that I was being far too pedantic for a blog comment, not that I was being insufficiently academic for a thesis defense.

        In any case, having wasted another hour responding to this off-topic question, the discussion is now, from my perspective, closed.

  5. You know, if I were casting around for further reasons to question the sincerity and integrity of the Christian right, this site and the attitudes and beliefs displayed here would provide rich pickings. But there comes a point at which new evidence can teach you nothing more than you already know.

    My final comment on this topic is this: as far as I can see, it’s more than a little disingenuous to quote MLK Jr. on justice and then refuse to address the very, very, VERY obvious implications of his words given the core issues under discussion in this blog.

  6. Pingback: On Moral Fictions | Spiritual Friendship

  7. Pingback: Awe and Wonder: A Preliminary Comment on Laudato Si’ | Spiritual Friendship

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