King was the son, grandson, and great-grandson of preachers; such intensely religious language was normal for him. But King didn't write only about God and theology. "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is also a powerful message about the law, and about the dangerous temptation to venerate law and the legal process as ends in themselves.
King's response to the Alabama clergymen is justly renowned as a defense of civil disobedience. He depicted the casual cruelties of Jim Crow in language so affecting that even white Americans would understand why black civil rights could no longer wait. At the same time he insisted that civil disobedience was not a license for anarchy: "One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty." He had been arrested for doing something illegal – parading without a permit – but that didn't mean he had no respect for the law. Far from it: One who disobeys a law on a matter of conscience and freely pays the penalty for doing so "is in reality expressing the highest respect for law."
Yet it shouldn't only be in the context of civil disobedience or the civil rights movement that we take to heart King's caution about bowing to the law merely because it is the law. Too often the law is treated as a seal of approval or as a fetish or as a conversation-stopper: If that's what the law says, that settles it.
Think of immigration restrictionists on the right who have insisted for years that nothing is more salient on the issue of illegal immigrants than the fact of their unlawful status. "When something is illegal, it's illegal," the late congressman Sonny Bono famously said. "Enforce the law." Think, to take an opposite example, of the glee on the left when the Clinton administration tore the young Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez from the home of his Miami relatives at gunpoint and forcibly sent him back to Cuba. The picture of that raid "warmed my heart," Thomas Friedman exulted in his New York Times column. "This picture illustrates what happens to those who defy the rule of law."
Law is indispensable to a civilized society. But the mindless enforcement of bad laws is not a substitute for decency or justice. Neither is mindless deference to those with political power ("When the president does it, that means it is not illegal," Richard Nixon believed). Against such thinking, which is more common than many of us like to think, "Letter from Birmingham Jail" remains a powerful inoculation.
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