Why Does Religion Matter to MLK Day?

Posted On 16 Jan 2021 by religionmatters

Tim Hall, Ph.D.

In commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr Day, it would be good to examine Luther’s famous Letter from Birmingham Jail in relation to the importance of religious literacy. Written in longhand on April 16, 1963, King wrote this letter from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, after being arrested for nonviolent protests in the city. The letter itself was a response to public criticism by eight white church leaders who expressed their concern and need for caution in Birmingham. They labeled King an outsider and troublemaker since he was from Atlanta and from their perspective was extreme in his actions.

King addresses the criticisms and concerns with systematic clarity. To do so, he cites St. Augustine (354-430), who stated that “an unjust law is no law at all.” Moreover, King recounts St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) that wrote: “an unjust law a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.” Building upon these quotes, King incorporates the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” relationship and Christian philosopher Paul Tillich’s sin as separation from God into his argument. Collectively King uses these Judeo-Christian perspectives to argue that the illegal nonviolent protests of Birmingham are justified. He goes further by detailing the civil disobedience of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego against the law of King Nebuchadnezzar because “a moral high law was involved.” Later in response to the label of extremist, King refers to the actions and teachings of Jesus Christ, the apostle Paul, and Christian writer John Bunyan who made similar “extreme” responses based on their love for God and humanity.

By the end of the epistle, what becomes clear is that the reader would not be able to understand it entirely unless they have a distinct idea of how informed King’s thinking and writing is by his Christian background. King’s thought is rooted in the Judeo-Christian understanding of natural law and the human person. To not be able to recognize this connection is to not entirely understand Martin Luther King Jr. and his actions.

Based on this quick example, it becomes clear that learning about religious perspectives and faith traditions is essential to education. If students are ignorant of religious perspectives, they will only have a superficial understanding of cultures, including their own. Historically, religious traditions are the root of cultures as Christopher Dawson, 20th-century world historian, stated in text Progress & Religion: An Historical Inquiry: “It is the religious impulse which supplies the cohesive force which unifies society and culture.” (1) Moreover, Alasdair MacIntyre, philosopher, compares the knowledge of a culture’s religious traditions to an understanding of a culture’s language: “Learning its language and being initiated into their community’s tradition or traditions [including religious] is one and the same initiation.” (2)

If you want to learn more about religious literacy, you can read or follow my blog at Religion Matters.

(1) Christopher Dawson, Progress and Religion (Princeton: Doubleday Image, 1929), 167.

(2) Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 382.