Thursday, April 16, 2009

Birmingham Jail Tea Party

On this day in 1963, Martin Luther King penned his "Letter from Birmingham Jail." According to Wikipedia,

King's letter is a response to a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen on April 12, 1963, titled "A Call For Unity". The clergymen agreed that social injustices existed but argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts, not in the streets. King responded that without nonviolent forceful direct actions such as his, true civil rights could never be achieved. As he put it, "This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.'" He asserted that not only was civil disobedience justified in the face of unjust laws, but that "one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws."

I agree with the white clergymen. I have commented on King's letter here.

To my knowledge, King said nothing on the day before (April 15, "Tax Day,") about taxes. But King had more in common with the American Revolution than the participants in yesterday's "Tea Parties."

Yesterday's "Tea Parties" took their cue from the "Boston Tea Party" of December 16, 1773, which Wikipedia describes as "a direct action protest by colonists." Thus, the Boston colonists and the followers of Martin Luther King had this theory of "direct action" in common. "Direct action" means breaking a law to call attention to injustice.

I reject the idea of breaking laws as an instrument of propaganda. As a Christian, I believe the Bible says we should obey the government's laws -- unless the laws command us to sin or prohibit us from doing something God commands.

So on the one hand, it is not a sin to be robbed, therefore the Bible says "pay your taxes." It's not a sin to sit in the back of the bus.

On the other hand, if the State prohibits us from preaching the Gospel, "we must obey God rather than man" (Acts 5:29).

King's letter made the following claims:

"In any nonviolent campaign, there are four basic steps:
• collection of the facts to determine whether injustice exists;
• negotiations;
• self-purification; and
• direct action."

"Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored."

"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.'"

As I explain below, there is no such thing as a "just law." King was not an anarchist. I also reject King's claim that we should disobey all unjust laws.

The letter also contains the famous statement "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," as well as the words attributed to William E. Gladstone quoted by King: "[J]ustice too long delayed is justice denied."

In chapter 4 of Book IV of The City of God, St. Augustine writes about justice and "the State":

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor.

Augustine's line about "justice taken away" contains a false assumption. I believe governments are systematic robbery and injustice by their very nature. There is no justice to "take away." By their very definition, "governments" claim a right to do things which would rightly and appropriately be called "immoral" or "injustice" if perpetrated by "private" citizens. The processes by which "private citizens" are elevated to the status of "public servants" are pure charades which do not really transubstantiate injustice into justice.

Yesterday's Tea Party participants likely don't agree with much of this post. Most probably believe some taxation is moral. They also don't agree with the political philosophy of the "Sons of Liberty" and the Boston Tea Party. The royal tax on tea in 1773 was only 3 pence per pound, but that met the Founding Fathers' definition of a "tyranny" which must be overthrown. Yesterday's Tea Party participants pay ten times more in taxes on every gallon of gas they buy, without protests of any kind, much less "direct action."

Yesterday's Tea Parties were not "direct action." They were more like "tailgate parties" at football games. Nothing wrong with that, but a far cry from the original Boston Tea Party in 1773.


burnitup said...

So, are the founding fathers burning in hell for revolting against the proper authority of the crown of England?

Kevin Craig said...

No, they're burning in hell for revolting against the IMproper authority of the crown of England, that is, authority improperly claimed.

Kevin Craig said...

I thought you were being a little sarcastic, burnitup, so I returned a little.

If the Founding Fathers were Christians, then they had their sins -- including revolting against Caesar -- atoned for by Christ, and His perfect righteousness imputed to their account. So they won't be burning in hell.

Also, this.

burnitup said...

I was being a bit sarcastic, but I really wanted to know what folks who studied the bible thought.

Anyways, I agree that if the Founding Fathers were Christians then their sins were forgiven if asked of Him (repentance). However this assumes that they did commit sin in taking up arms against the crown. Which gets to the heart of the matter, was it a sin? It shouldn't be okay for Christians (Founding Fathers) to knowingly violate God's law with the expectation of later forgiveness through Christ's blood. eg charging my sin to the Jesus sin credit card.

You seem to be as good a person to ask since most church members will start wondering if you're planning on overthrowing the government if you ask too much about Romans 13.

Kevin Craig said...

However this assumes that they did commit sin in taking up arms against the crown. Which gets to the heart of the matter, was it a sin?I think taking up arms against Caesar is a sin, as I argued in this post, and specifically here.

It shouldn't be okay for Christians (Founding Fathers) to knowingly violate God's law with the expectation of later forgiveness"Knowingly" is a tricky word, and it's difficult to analyze the thinking of each individual Founding Father to know if they were "knowingly" violating what they believed the Bible commanded.

I'm willing to give most of them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they read the Bible differently than I do. I think men like Jonathan Mayhew could have been sincere in their belief that God permits rebellion against unGodly leaders. On the other hand, an argument could be made that many in that day were playing fast-and-loose with the Bible in order to harmonize it with the philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Another viewpoint.

My goal is to overthrow the government, but not with muskets.