Moral vs. Immoral Resistance Part I: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Non-Violent Direct Action
Eighty years ago, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned by the Nazis. He was later hung for his participation in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Sixty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. led Civil Rights marches, resulting in his jailing in Birmingham, Alabama. He, too, was soon to be a martyr for his cause. How can we differentiate between moral and immoral acts of saying “no,” particularly when force and violence are involved? We live in a time of ethical equivocations, when some have suggested that one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. Others cannot tell the difference between the American War for Independence and the rebellion of the Confederacy, or contrast the moral legitimacy of Ukraine vs. Russia in the 2022-2023 war.
This essay is part of a four-part series that uses the principles of just war statecraft to help us make moral distinctions on matters of force and justice. Some of the material is adapted from previous work in Providence as well as my forthcoming book, A Basic Guide to The Just War Tradition: Christian Foundations and Practices (Baker Academic, forthcoming 2023). We will look at movements for reform, acts of resistance, and then violent revolution from the standpoint of three just statecraft principles: legitimate authority, just cause, and right intention.
For instance, we will look at the way a mass movement of citizens focused on exercising their fundamental political rights within a political system may be forced to break unjust laws and suffer repression by unjust authorities. This is a critical issue of how the principles of authority, just cause, and right intentions come together within an oppressive system. In this vein, we will examine the inspiring ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his pragmatic approach to “non-violent direct action” within a democracy. The U.S. Civil Rights Movement demonstrates that the just statecraft principles are applicable to domestic political authorities, the legal system, and law enforcement. In contrast to King, we will also look at those who lived in non-democratic, totalitarian situations. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one such individual, as a German Christian pastor who refused to support the Nazis. Ultimately, Bonhoeffer was executed for his participation in a failed plot to knock Germany out of the war by assassinating Adolf Hitler — the head of the Third Reich’s war machine.
Just statecraft principles are vital to help us make important distinctions. We need to differentiate ethical resistance from armedrebellion that degrades not just the human person but also societal flourishing. This will help us evaluate the moral depravity of terrorism revolutionary violence, such as the Communist Revolutions of the twentieth century. Finally, we will take a look at elements of the American War for Independence and how it demonstrates the just statecraft principles of intermediate authority, just cause, and right intention that are so important before a society makes a collective decision to engage in armed self-defense. These principles apply to contemporary situations, such as the self-defense of Rwandan Tutsis and Bosniak Muslims in 1994 or the people of Ukraine today.
Making Right Distinctions on Force, Violence, and Criminality
The use of force is traditionally reserved for legitimate public authorities acting within the rule of law. This brings us to two important distinctions: force vs. violence, and, individual violence vs. force at the hands of public authorities.
First, in the just war tradition, violence is unlawful, excessive, and vindictive. In contrast, force is applied within the boundaries of the law, it is restrained, it is motivated by legitimate concerns for order and justice, and it is wielded by proper authorities. We have terms for hateful, vengeful violence, even if it is at the hands of proper authorities: child abuse, police brutality, and the like. Soldiers should fight with restraint and honor and if they do not, for instance if they engage in unnecessary killing, torture, rapine, and plunder, they have crossed the line from legitimate force to illegitimate and illegal violence. Thus, when we consider specific acts of force or violence, it will be important for us to consider this distinction and look at the elements of authority, just cause, and right intention when we consider courses of action.
The second important distinction has to do with proper, or legitimate, authority. Individuals and collectives must respect the limitations of their appropriate sphere of authority. This is what differentiates criminal behavior from legitimate uses of force. There is never a moral justification for the criminal use of violence — i.e. using violence for one’s private ends. Individual criminal activity such as murder and theft violates all three principles of just statecraft by rejecting the authority of law, acting unjustly, and doing so with nefarious intent. In domestic law and customary international law, we recognize such criminals, including pirates, brigands, marauders, outlaws, and the like. Terrorists are similar in rejecting political authority and behaving unjustly, but their intentions are to terrify a population and thus move a government to some preferred political end.
Similarly, there exist criminal collectives who reject the rule of law, disrupt society, and perpetrate violence for their private ends. Today we typically label these groups under the umbrella phrase “organized crime.” Examples include criminal cartels, the Mafia, human trafficking networks, and some mercenary outfits. This is collective criminal violence because it does not recognize proper authority and uses violence illicitly, usually for financial gain.
Distinguishing force from violence, and setting aside obviously criminal violence, allows us to make appropriate distinctions in this series when we look at different ways that individuals have said “no” to unjust laws and tyranny. Christians have long repudiated the idea that the individual may self-authorize the use of hateful, unrestrained violence for his own purposes or against governing authority. However, there are other types of actions and cases to be considered. The first of which is the appropriate response from citizens in a representative form of government when the government is behaving unjustly.
In a republican system like those in most Western countries, there are many ways for citizens to seek change or demonstrate their displeasure with existing government policies. Citizens can vote, write letters, support political campaigns, organize like-minded people, set up non-profit organizations and political parties, engage their elected officials, and run for office. Many Western societies enjoy the fruits of earlier generations establishing the rule of law and high levels of freedom and equality. At the opposite end of the spectrum is revolution, which in effect means the overthrow or destruction of an old system and the forcible establishment of an entirely new system of government. In a later essay we will look at revolution.
Martin Luther King, Jr. on Civil Disobedience
On April 16, 1963, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was detained in Birmingham, Alabama. King had been involved in civil rights since the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and served as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from its founding in 1957. King knew firsthand just how dangerous it was to advocate for equal rights for all citizens: he had not just received death threats and jail time, but as early as 1956 his home had been bombed.
In order to challenge Birmingham’s draconian Jim Crow environment, King and others led a disciplined, nonviolent protest campaign that included boycotts, marches, and sit-ins. King was quickly arrested and wrote a famous essay that we know today as Letter from Birmingham Jail. In his letter, King responds to an open letter signed by white Christian and Jewish religious leaders in Birmingham who suggested that he and other civil rights activists were “outsiders” bringing discord to their fair city. He responds by nodding to John Donne: there is injustice in Birmingham and no man, no community, is an island unto itself. We are a part of the whole. We are the United States of America. Injustice in Birmingham is injustice in America.
King goes on to define the four steps of his nonviolent campaign. The campaign begins with the careful collection of facts which are then presented to civil authorities. Every effort should be made at negotiation before confrontation. The third step catches most people off-guard: self-purification. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, King writes, “We were not unmindful of the difficulties involved. So, we decided to go through a process of self-purification.”1
How does one do self-purification? This is clearly a Christian idea: The Bible starts with: “let a man examine himself.” From the just statecraft perspective, King is saying that a just cause is not enough. Right intentions are necessary. As King says, civil rights activists had to ensure that they could “accept the blows without retaliating.” They met, usually in churches, and talked through what was going to happen. They prayed and sang hymns and civil rights leaders admonished them to vigilant, loving action. King’s Letter stresses neighbor-love as the basis for righteous indignation. Righteous anger, whether the anger of Jesus driving illicit moneychangers from the Temple or the righteous anger of bystanders who witnessed the murder of Emmett Till, can be motivated by love. King calls them “extremists for love,” and labels Jesus, St. Paul, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, and Abraham Lincoln as “creative extremists.”2
King admonished his movement not to fall into hate. Hatred is evil. Hatred is destructive. Hatred, as King well understood, is counter-productive to justice.3
King’s fourth step is action, what he labeled “nonviolent direct action” such as sit-ins and marches. “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” He concludes this section, “My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure.”4
King always spoke out against retaliatory vengeance and lawlessness. Why? Because lawlessness leads to anarchy: “In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law . . . that would lead to anarchy.” If the goal of a protest event is for all people to have equalrights and equal protection under the law, then burning, breaking, vandalism, or looting can never be equated with nonviolent direct action that King advocated. He goes on, “Nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. So I have tried to make it clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or even more, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.”5
Yet, King recognizes that his nonviolent direct action often was a form of law-breaking. This law-breaking took one of two forms—either breaking an unjust law or breaking a just law that was being unjustly applied. ‘Jim Crow laws’ that made it impossible for black Southerners to participate in elections were unjust laws. At the same time, many mundane laws, such as the requirement to apply to city hall to receive permits for marches and large-scale events, were implemented in unjust ways to bar black Americans from exercising their First Amendment rights. Whites could hold a parade. Blacks could not. Whites could gather in a public place like a park, but black Americans could not. These laws were enforced, notoriously, by the officers of the law in a way that mocked the blindness of justice.
King bases his argument upon Augustine’s declaration that “an unjust law is no law at all.” In a moving passage on natural law, King asserts,
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 . . . Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful.
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.6
King concludes, “One who breaks an unjust law must do it 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 willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for the law.”7
King was an unsatisfactory prophet to some. As he said in his Birmingham letter, some white “moderates” wanted him to wait until the “right time,”8 but King knew that without action, justice would never come. He dissatisfied those he called “black nationalists” for his measured, people-power approach. He left many dissatisfied, at least at the time, with his methods.
Yet, King was the prophet who united an unwieldy movement against injustice and for justice. His Letter from Birmingham Jail made common-good arguments that freedom and justice be the lived experience for all citizens, regardless of race or class. He put the struggle of his day in the context of biblical figures such as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as well as others from history such as the American War for Independence Boston Tea Party’s patriots and Hungary’s freedom fighters against Communism (1956).
In conclusion, King’s movement did use a type of “force” to shut down businesses and challenge unjust legal regimes. In a sense, people were harmed through lost wages and business on both sides of the divide. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr observed that Gandhi’s marches and boycotts were similarly forceful because they shut down factories and businesses, harming the economy and forcing children to go to bed hungry at night. Both examples, Gandhi and King, were facing democratic governments that had rich traditions of civil rights and civil liberties, at least for some. The force of injustice, tyranny by the majority, had to be countered with a countervailing force on behalf of justice. People cooperated, motivated by a just cause, disciplined by right motives. What they were seeking was equality for all under the law, to be protected by government authorities without regard to race or class. This is not revolution and it is not terrorism. King’s courageous example and his nonviolent action model provides a framework for evaluating the moral foundation of protest movements in our own time. King was firmly opposed to criminally destructive behavior, such as attacks on citizens, churches, government buildings, and private businesses. Too often vengeful criminality takes advantage of legitimate civil disobedience.
King hoped that “the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away, and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” (April 16, 1963). Rev. King’s letter was also published as part of an article in the same year in The Atlantic Monthly under a different title, “The Negro Is Your Brother,” Vol. 212, Issue 2 (August 1963), 78–88.