We are living through upheavals in our souls and society brought on by the triple emergencies I call the “3 C’s”: coronavirus; climate change; and the crack in the Liberty Bell, i.e., 500 years of colonialism and racism in America. 

Clearly today’s awakening can prove to be a turning point for American culture and democracy if we respond with wisdom—and not just America as Floyd’s murder seems to be igniting awareness of colonial racism in many places around the world.

Martin Luther King, Jr. in Birmingham Jail. Photographer unknown.

Our times demand much of us and one source of strength is to take a hard look at our ancestors for the wisdom they can offer.  For me, one of our greatest ancestors who speaks directly to the passions of our time is Thomas Aquinas, a pre-modern thinker, mystic and prophet who addresses issues of justice and injustice in such bold terms that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself, invoked Aquinas’ teachings in a key part of his iconic “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”

What did King see in Aquinas that spoke to his soul and times?   (I might add that Aquinas is especially on my mind because my major work on him called Sheer Joy was just reprinted.) My most recent book, The Tao of Thomas Aquinas: Fierce Wisdom for Hard Times is meant to provide activists for justice—which seem to be many people today–portable “spiritual handbook.”

St. Thomas Aquinas is flanked by Aristotle and Plato in “The Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas” by Lippo Memmi (1323) On Wikimedia Commons.

First, Aquinas is a champion of the common good, a concept which he invokes on numerous occasions.   He says: “The common good of many is more godlike than the good of an individual.”  

When I looked up the history of the term “common good,” the first entry on Google  said this:

The common good as a philosophical concept appeared in the thirteenth century through the writings of Thomas Aquinas.*

Nonviolent resistance during the No NATO protests, Chicago, May 20, 2012. Photo by Bartosz Brzezinski on Flickr.

Aquinas brought forth this concept from his studying Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics.  Clearly he brought this important concept to the fore in the West.  Surely today’s crises involve a search for the common good—as did King’s battles.

Secondly, King invoked Aquinas in his iconic letter because Aquinas is fully on board with non-violent disobedience.  King and many of his movement were in Birmingham jail for daring to disobey Jim Crow laws and it was here that King found common cause with Aquinas who says: If rulers command unjust things, their subjects are not obliged to obey them….

“Works of Mercy: I was Hungry and You Fed Me” Print by Ade Bethune in the Catholic Worker newspaper. Uploaded to Flickr by Jim Forest

Thirdly, King insisted on the priority of justice and a God of Justice—indeed that is the bottom line to his vision of a “beloved community.”  Aquinas concurs that justice is the way that the common good is maintained and that “God is Justice.” 

Fourth, King writes that he is appealing to conscience.  Aquinas spoke out often and loudly about the priority of conscience as we shall see.

Each of these four pillars for a healthy community laid down by King and Aquinas we will develop further in subsequent Daily Meditations.

See Matthew Fox, Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality, pp. 397, 410-418.

Banner Image: “Justice 4 George: Latino tagger IDO helps Muslim members of the Islamic Center of Claremont, Southern California, finish their “Justice 4 George” protest signs in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.” Photo by Russ Allison Loar on Flicker

Queries for Contemplation

What is your understanding of “the common good”?  Is the common good something you believe in?  And work for? And protest for?

Recommended Reading

Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality

Matthew Fox renders Thomas Aquinas accessible by interviewing him and thus descholasticizing him.  He also translated many of his works such as Biblical commentaries never before in English (or Italian or German of French).  He  gives Aquinas a forum so that he can be heard in our own time. He presents Thomas Aquinas entirely in his own words, but in a form designed to allow late 20th-century minds and hearts to hear him in a fresh way. 
“The teaching of Aquinas comes through will a fullness and an insight that has never been present in English before and [with] a vital message for the world today.” ~ Fr. Bede Griffiths (Afterword).
Foreword by Rupert Sheldrake

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6 thoughts on “Aquinas and King on Justice and the Common Good”

  1. Avatar
    David Joseph Jackson

    A quote attributed to Augustine: “Hope has two lovely daughters, anger and courage. Anger so that what should not be is not, and courage so that what should be is.” Seems to me the processions on our streets were first an expression of anger (hope) and now they have become courage, as people organize.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      David, I too see that though in the streets we first saw expressions of anger, now we see expressions of courage as people organize. Thank you for your thoughts.

  2. Avatar

    “Is the common good something you believe in? ”
    Yes, we should be good to all people and stress our commonality rather than our differences. Unfortunately, what some people consider good may be considered bad by others. Goodness is relative.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Thank you for your comment, Ron. I agree there are problems with the concept of “the common good” when you think about it relativistically, but if some things are considered good by some, that are considered bad by others, then those things are not, by definition, for the “common good,” they are only good for some…

  3. Avatar

    “the common good”?
    It is imperative in the name of the gospel to make the underdeveloped masses aware of their human dignity,of their rights to a better life, one which is worthy of the human person.

    “the common good”?

    The second point is to stir the consciousness of the rich at home and abroad
    – Dom Helda Camera
    Quote from Matthew book original blessing “theme 23”
    Stay safe

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Billy, please refer to my response to Ron Krumpos concerning the idea of “the common good…”

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