On this national Holiday, we are to reflect and celebrate one of the greatest Americans in our pantheon of Founding Fathers, Martin Luther King, Jr. One of his many contributions to our American way of life came at one of his darkest hours which produced one of his brightest writings in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In it, king gives us an insight to the truth behind his protests and a reflection in how far afield we, as a nation, have walked from justice which we derive out of our own understanding of the moral law.
Masonry speaks at many levels about the Moral Law, how it is a rule and guide to what ‘being’ a Freemason is all about.
In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Jail which was an answer to his criticism for his peaceful protests in the south in pursuit of equality between white and black Americans.
In his letter, King writes to address criticism made against his presence in the Alabama protests to southern religious leaders who, in their collective opinion, thought the American Negro should wait for their equality, which King says acts as a “tranquilizing thalidomide” which, in the African American ear rings as a justice “never” to be had.
If you’ve never taken the time to read his letter, I highly suggest you not only read it, but take some time to understand his meaning and intent behind it, especially on this day of remembrance.
But, my purpose here is to look at his teaching of the Moral Law and how that squares with the Masonic understanding as taught in the fraternity’s catechism. In his letter King, talking about the unjust laws of segregation, says that a just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. He says “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
At the time of his writing, segregation was a daily reality for black Americans, which “distorts the soul and damages the personality” giving the “…segregator a false sense of superiority, and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.”
So what does this have to do with the Moral Law of Masonry? First we need to understand how masonry sees the Moral Law, which is something I explored in 2010 in Whence came the Moral Law in Freemasonry? In that piece, the question asked was “Is the Moral Law from a religious perspective, as in given to man by the Great Architect, or a man made law constructed with religious ideas but applied in a humanistic manner so as to apply to our interaction with one another?” My conclusion, after looking at several sources, was that the idea of the Moral Law was best exemplified as being “…the virtues which we ought to cultivate, always tend to our own happiness, and that the best means of promoting them consists in living with men in that perfect union and charity which are cemented by mutual benefits.”
In essence, the Moral Law could be distilled down to living of the Golden Rule which, in the Christian faith, comes from Matthew 7:12 which says:
“In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law of the prophets.”
Interestingly this is a Rule, Law, or Code that is in nearly every faith system.
So, what lesson can we take away from Kings Injunction of the Moral Law and the Masonic application of it? Essentially, King and his peaceful protest to fight injustice in American society was a challenge to fight a law of segregation that was out of harmony with the moral law, even though many felt that it was. His example was to examine a just and unjust law saying “An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself…difference made legal” while “a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow that is willing to follow itself,” or “sameness” made legal.
The greatest stumbling block to this sameness is not the extremist of ideal but the “…moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” In other words, not going with the status quo and working to make things better for all.
Further in the letter King asks “…Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love?” He also writes about the role of religious institutions and their lethargy in the movement to end segregation as “…a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a taillight behind our community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.” which I believe could be applied to religiously concerned fraternities who hold so dearly to be upholders of the idea of a Moral Law.
Needless to say, King was angry at the position religious leaders of the south had taken and puts the challenge to them to aspire to justice and the upholding of the moral law saying “There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early church Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.” But he goes on to challenge the church saying “The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound…so often the arch-supporter of the status quo” that “…if the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant ‘Social Club’ with no meaning for the twentieth century (emphasis mine).”
Again, on this Martin Luther King Jr. National Holiday, I strongly recommend reading his letter so as to gain a better understanding of the past within which it was written and to apply that understanding to the injustice that remains to this day, now nearly 60 years since its writing. When you read it ask yourself if your institutions of association application put you in the headlights or the taillights leading to higher levels of justice. As you read it, reflect on the ideals of the Moral Law, in society and in Masonry, and what it means to you in your faith, practice, and understanding of justice, as without it no law could be truly just.