Martin Luther King on Unjust Laws

Letter from Birmingham Jail:

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 awful. 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.

Martin Luther King on the Vietnam War

A portion of a speech by Martin Luther King on the Vietnam war that still speaks to us today (read the whole thing here):

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out deperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…” We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.

We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world — a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world. This is the callling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.

Two Books on Christianity to Look Out For

Jesus: a 21st Century Biography

Edit: it just occurred to me that in addition to being terrible, the title of this post sounds negative. I did not intend it that way.

If the following two books are any indication, it looks like the spring is going to be an exciting time for Christian history. Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the History of the Church at Oxford and Paul Johnson, controversial historian and journalist, are both set to release major works on Jesus and the Church.

The first book is Jesus: a 21st Century Biography by Paul Johnson. Johnson, author of Modern Times and A History of Christianity attempts to prove the importance of Jesus in the 21st century by constructing a portrait of “Jesus of Nazareth, his life, death, resurrection, and ascent into heaven, as simply and factually as possible.”

From the History Book Club:

Accepting the historical fact of Jesus’ existence as given, including his divinity as asserted in the New Testament, the author provides a wealth of detail about the Roman world as a backdrop to Jesus’ life. He weaves the complementary accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John into an integrated chronicle—a base upon which he adds his own informed speculations and deductions about Jesus’ education, his acculturation, and his whereabouts and activities during the 18 “missing” years of his life. In the absence of contemporaneous accounts of Jesus’ physical appearance, Johnson uncovers clues within the texts. The historian’s facility for finding the humanizing detail parallels the habit of penetrating observation that he attributes to Jesus: “He missed nothing. …His all-seeing eyes were, almost certainly, the first thing that struck people about him.” The author’s perception extends even to the Messiah’s personal affinities: for example, his predilection for high elevations during momentous events.

Christianity by MacCullochThe second book is Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. This ambitious and magisterial work begins one thousand years before Jesus’ birth and continues on until the present day, showing the constant evolution and reformation of Christianity.

In this book:

We follow the Christian story to all corners of the globe, filling in often neglected accounts of conversions and confrontations in Africa and Asia. And we discover the roots of the faith that galvanized America, charting the rise of the evangelical movement from its origins in Germany and England. This book encompasses all of intellectual history-we meet monks and crusaders, heretics and saints, slave traders and abolitionists, and discover Christianity’s essential role in driving the enlightenment and the age of exploration, and shaping the course of World War I and World War II.

Look for reviews of these books soon, if I can get my hands on them.

Review: Soldiers in the Proletarian Dictatorship

Mark von Hagen, Soldiers in the Proletarian Dictatorship: The Red Army and the Soviet Socialist State, 1917-1930. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Mark von Hagen’s “Soldiers in the Proletarian Dictatorship” is a book that traces the history of the Red Army from its origins as the Red Guard in the revolutions of 1917 to a professional, strict traditional army during the collectivization pushes of the late 1920’s. It is not a work of military history, but rather von Hagen explores the connection between the development of a non-socialist army and the rise of the Stalinist national security state. The story this work tells is one of a military outside of power, and considered dangerous by many, that fights its way back into the center of power, succeeds at somewhat militarizing the nascent union, and creating a different kind of socialism.

In short, von Hagen’s thesis is that the Red Army helped shape the political culture of the Soviet state in what he refers to as militarized socialism. The army was not the only agent of change, but it certainly was at the forefront of the fusion of militarism and Marxism.

The Red Army, according to von Hagen, helped bring about militarized socialism, or Stalinism, in two ways. First, a professional army emerged from the Civil War, in spite of the radicals’ desire for a more egalitarian militia with a “democratic ethos.” After the defeat of the civilian militia in 1924, it was clear a more professional army was needed to secure the state, and that such an army was not a threat, as had long been thought, but would be an aid to further the the Communist Party’s program.

Second, the Red Army became an institution linked to citizenship and upward mobility, and as such became a powerful player in party politics. The army’s inclination against the NEP and collectivization while at the same time becoming what von Hagen calls a “school of socialism” effectively trained soldiers in the army’s version of socialism. The net result of this was a militarized socialism, an interweaving of militarist and socialist values in Soviet political culture.

Von Hagen does warn, however, that this does not mean the Army imposed its will on the Soviet Union, nor that the Army is responsible for the horrors of the Stalin era. Rather, the militarization of the Soviet state was “the conscious aim of a political leadership that is difficult to characterize as either purely civilian or strictly military,” (334). It was never the military’s intention to create full-fledged militarism, and in this sense the Soviet state of the 1920s is not at all comparable to the German Nazi state, instead they sought to shape the political process, helping to create a new political culture.

Von Hagen’s book is a significant work of both social and political history. It sheds light on the Army as a political institution, the rise of Stalinism, and the Soviet national security state. It is a convincing work that represents a new perspective on a not altogether new thesis.

Despite his extensive bibliography of secondary sources, and primary sources that ranged from newspapers to party propaganda, however, the effectiveness of the Army’s education process remains somewhat murky. As the author admits, it is difficult to penetrate below the top level of officers to see what the peasant soldier truly believed.

Berlin Cabaret

Peter Jelavich. Berlin Cabaret. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Berlin CabaretIn Berlin Cabaret, Peter Jelavich traces the evolution of Berlin cabaret from its early stages in 1900 through its death at the hands of National Socialism in the 1930s and ‘40s. The book is both a narrative account of the history of the art form and a synthesis of the many themes (aesthetic, sexual, racial, fashion, and political) that were present in cabaret. In short, it is an examination of the triumphs and failures of popular entertainment in the modern city.

Despite the popular conception of cabaret as little more than a strip show, established by the film starring Liza Minelli and the career of Marlene Dietrich, Jelavich views cabaret as an “ephemeral art” that stood between sleazy nightclubs and vaudeville on the one hand and the higher art of opera on the other. Cabaret is, in its ideal type, a series of short numbers of differing genres on topical issues such as sex, fashion, fads, and politics performed intimately on a small stage in front of a small audience. While Jelavich acknowledges this “ideal type” was rare and short-lived, anything else was not cabaret proper.

The structure of the book is not in keeping with cabaret, which would have a series of disconnected numbers, but rather Jelavich follows revue, with central themes loosely woven into the various chapters. Satire, whether looking at politics, sex, fashion, or race, is the central theme of the book; its goal was “to shock, or to amuse, or to make someone or something look ridiculous,” (50). This satire, and the entire program of cabaret, would function as a safety-valve, allowing political and social pressures to be released in a theater and not in the streets.

The book’s structure follows a chronological order. The first chapter focuses on the environment of the subject: Berlin. A modern, or “world”, city, Berlin was in need of a new form of entertainment, one that stood between mindless variety shows and cryptic avant-garde art.

The subsequent three chapters examine pre-war cabaret. Wolzogen’s Motley Theater, the first Berlin cabaret, sought the “ennoblement” of vaudeville. Wolzogen, an artistic elitist, stressed the refinement of popular entertainment and the exclusivity of cabaret. Ultimately, however, his cabaret would fail, simply not being good enough for the public at large he catered to. Max Reinhardt’s Sound and Smoke took a different approach, opting instead for exuberant play. Over time, Reinhardt would abandon cabaret, looking more like a standard theater of classical and modernist productions. Finally, the pre-war years saw different types of cabaret, from the pub-cabarets modeled after Paris to Rudolph Nelson’s upper-class and Claire Waldoff’s lower-class cabarets.

Chapter five discusses cabaret during World War I and the early Weimar years. As censorship came under military control, most forms of entertainment turned nationalistic; cabaret was no exception. Left-leaning writers such as Kurt Tucholsky and Walter Mehring toned down their lyrics, opting for a more ambiguous political tone.

Chapter six explores the most popular form of entertainment in Berlin during the Weimar Republic, the revue. Unconcerned with most forms of censorship, revue revealed much about sexual and racial assumptions. For the first time, nude dancing was allowed onstage, although eventually there would be some restrictions. At the same time, jazz became popular in Berlin, its spontaneity and primitive qualities being praised, but its performers patronized at best and horribly mistreated at worst. Another form of Americanization, the kickline of “Girls,” was praised, but lead to many debates over gender, military, and industrial questions.

Chapters seven and eight describe the end of cabaret in Berlin. While politics had always been a part of cabaret, it was not a primary focus. The movement failed to see the dangers of National Socialism, and Hitler himself, choosing to simply make fun of him. In the end, most cabaretists would flee the country, practice a form acceptable to, and even supportive of, the Nazis, or face labor camps where they would perform for Jewish captives.

Berlin Cabaret, in the end, is an important study of a movement that swept through Germany for a brief time, had a few triumphs, but ultimately failed to live up to its promise. Cabaret never achieved a high level of social satire, whether politically, sexually, or racially; it usually ended up looking like other forms of popular entertainment. The book is a good study, one that well proves its thesis, using the best available primary and secondary sources. The only difficulties are the inherent problems in translating German humor into English and the lack of a cohesive movement, none of which are the author’s faults.

On the Origins of Halloween

It would serve no purpose to pretend Halloween does not have at least some basis in pagan religious festivals. The ancient Scottish Gaelics did have a harvest/end of the year celebration that we as Christians would not be too keen to participate in. In this celebration there were, no doubt, a lot of themes of death and rebirth, of the end of the light world and beginning of the dark world and stories of the otherworld coming into contact with our own. It is doubtful there were human sacrifices, but some historians and anthropologists attempt to argue there were.

But that really doesn’t matter. Assigning evil to the modern pop culture celebration of Halloween because a long time ago there were pagan people who celebrated something similar around the same time makes no sense. In fact, it’s closer to the genetic fallacy than to any logical argument. Simply stated, just because the Gaelics celebrated Samhain does not mean when kids go trick-or-treating that they are worshiping the devil, or taking their eyes off of the glories of the cross of Christ.

Now, let me take the argument a bit further. While I would not equate Halloween (or even All Saints/Souls Day) with Christmas and Easter, it is true they all share common origins. The date we celebrate Christmas is closely related to multiple winter feasts of the ancient world. In fact, the word Yule, which is forever connected to Christmas, was originally a Germanic festival that may be connected to an even more ancient worship of Saturn in the Roman world.

Easter, as is well known, is connected not only to the Jewish celebration of Passover, but also to Anglo Saxon celebrations in honor of Eostre. In both of these cases, does the origin ruin the holiday? While the Puritans may have had problems with these holy days, and while there are modern fundamentalists who refuse to celebrate, most of the Christian world for the past 1200 years has celebrated Easter and Christmas at (roughly) the same time. The pagan origins do not denigrate what the celebration is actually all about.

And this brings me to my final point: that even though Halloween may be celebrated in a completely secular way, and even though it may owe some of its origins to pagan festivals, it owes at least as much or more to the Christian celebration of All Saints Day. The name Halloween, of course, comes from All Hallows Eve, the Western Christian holy day set apart to celebrate the victory of the Church in this world. On this day, which has connotations of darkness overcoming the light, we celebrate the triumph of light over darkness through Jesus Christ. This is no small matter.

Whether one celebrates this cultural holiday is up to the individual; I don’t mind either way. But if you choose not to celebrate, do it for reasons other than “pagan people a long time ago had something like this.”

Benjamin Franklin on the Governing and the Governed

… as all history informs us, there has been in every State & Kingdom a constant kind of warfare between the governing & governed: the one striving to obtain more for its support, and the other to pay less. And this has alone occasioned great convulsions, actual civil wars, ending either in dethroning of the Princes, or enslaving of the people. Generally indeed the ruling power carries its point, the revenues of princes constantly increasing, and we see that they are never satisfied, but always in want of more. The more the people are discontented with the oppression of taxes; the greater need the prince has of money to distribute among his partisans and pay the troops that are to suppress all resistance, and enable him to plunder at pleasure. There is scarce a king in a hundred who would not, if he could, follow the example of Pharaoh, get first all the peoples money, then all their lands, and then make them and their children servants for ever …

Benjamin Franklin before the Constitutional Convention, (June 2, 1787)