Acton Institute Powerblog

MLK and the Natural Law

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mlkjailMartin Luther King, Jr. was fond of saying that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This was no thin, pragmatic account of rights-based egalitarian liberalism, says Derek Rishmawy, but rather a philosophically and theologically thick appeal to a divinely ordered and sustained cosmos.

As Rishmawy notes, it is simply impossible to separate King’s denunciation of racism and segregation from his Christian confession and theological convictions about the nature of the universe:

For King, segregation is not only sociologically suicidal but morally sinful. It violates our created nature and the eternal law of God. But where there is no law, there is no sin.

Despite the best efforts of secular admirers (see Christopher Hitchens), it is simply impossible to separate King’s denunciation of racism and segregation from his Christian confession and theological convictions about the nature of the universe. Absent a creator God who ordered the moral universe, the “arc” is no more than a sort of elevated survival instinct, our inevitably shifting social conscience, or some Platonic abstract ideal (a toothless law without a lawgiver).

By common grace some people will be motivated by these alternate principles, at least for a time. Eventually philosophical incoherence catches up. Then these moral foundations simply cannot sustain the needed, long-term struggle for justice that King and his associates engaged in. For peaceful, passionate, and determined protest, we need to be persuaded that we are tapping into moral bedrock of reality—one subject to the vindication and redemption of its Creator.

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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