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God, Natural Law and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from the Birmingham Jail"

01/21/2013 07:57 am ET | Updated Mar 23, 2013

"Letter from the Birmingham Jail," the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 1963 essay, appeals to his fellow clergymen to uphold Brown vs. the Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision of 1954 which ruled segregation unconstitutional. With the arrival of another Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I wonder, should I teach this essay yet again this year?

I teach it in my freshman rhetoric courses; I teach it in my introduction to social and political philosophy courses; I teach it in my ethics courses of all flavors--intro, comparative religious, and biomedical ethics. Many of my students arrive at the university already having read this famous document. Sometimes they read it in a different course at my university. Surely, other MLKJr essays rival this one. Just as certainly, there are many important, though less famous texts that I might include in my syllabi instead.

But "Letter from the Birmingham jail" is just too valuable, rich as it is with too many important rhetorical and ethical ideas to drop.

I claim such pedagogical urgency for the "Letter," knowing well that I often alternate between other great canonical pieces. For example, I sometimes choose Antigone for the opening of my political philosophy courses, other times Plato's "Apology." Once in a while I begin a course with Confucius' Analects or Ibn Rushd's The Incoherence of the Incoherence--a piece about nothing less important than the problems of God, knowledge, friendship and borrowing from another culture. Like many great texts, these confront students with burning issues of human understanding, divine law, state law, justice, individual experience, family and love. Still, they never tempt me to replace the "Letter."

Some people wonder whether I tire of the "Letter."

No, of course not.

What if students object?

Once in a while some groan "not again!" But they correct themselves when they see not everyone has read it yet, and in the end students only benefit from familiarity with this text.

Don't I ever feel the need for newer texts?

Yes, and I always pick something new to teach every quarter, but I retain the "Letter to the Birmingham Jail" as well. It's my all-purpose pedagogical warhorse: my best text to address the issues of rhetoric, law, justice, equality, and race in one piece. Very quickly, students identify which parts of the essay deploy the three argumentative appeals of the rhetorical triangle. The opening offers one of the most forceful ethos appeals of character and credentials. When King answers the question why African Americans can no longer wait for their "constitutional and God given rights" in a paragraph-long series of examples of suffering the "stinging darts of segregation," no student has trouble understanding the pathos of this appeal. Students also readily grasp the logos of King's distinction between a "just law" as one that applies equally to majority and minorities and an unjust law.

The "Letter" is controversial as well in some of King's rhetorical moves and claims, and there are many equally revered or at least contested competitors, for sure. Malcolm X's "The Ballot or the Bullet" for one. But no other text also so clearly, so poetically, so movingly invites students to debate the thorny issues of natural law and social justice.

In addition to King's nimble language and complex arguments about non-violence, the "airtight cage of poverty," Christianity, "various black nationalist groups" and the hypocrisy of the "white moderates," who eschew justice for order, the "Letter from the Birmingham Jail" confronts its readers with a quintessentially American appeal to natural law.

Natural law, at least the version to which King refers, is that law which encounters the glory of divine creation in nature. It is old, troublesome, and informs the ideals of America. It is present in other great documents of American political thought, especially the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, which Abraham Lincoln reprises in his "Gettysburg Address" when he repeats the national credo that "all men are created equal."

The very law which describes how I can perceive the hand of God in my fellow human, in my children's sun-freckled faces, in my cat's dainty white paw, also refers to a highly subjective experience, one, which many find inappropriate for politics or pedagogy in secular America's public sphere. Irrecoverably volatile, natural law may equally encompass King's appeal to God given rights and natural born equality as well as various scriptural illiberalisms, including the notion that marriage is "naturally" about one man and one woman.

Some of my students express discomfort with the idea that King's assertion: "A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God." They tell me this idea conflicts with the separation of church and state in American law. Many ask whose God? Which laws? Laws made by whom? These are good questions, ones that drive at the heart of public experience in America.

Natural law leaves us late-born followers of the American founders and of MLKJr, one of the greatest civil rights leaders America has ever known, to debate who we are as Americans, which men and women are included, and which God, if any, may have granted us equality.

So, this week after Martin Luther King Jr .Day, I will once again teach the "Letter from the Birmingham Jail."