King, Gandhi and Aquinas on Civil Disobedience

We are turning to the thirteenth century spiritual and scientific genius, Thomas Aquinas, as a wisdom guide for our troubled times.  Yesterday we meditated on why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. invoked Aquinas’s teachings on civil disobedience from his jail in Birmingham. 

Books of law. Photo by Woody Hibbard on Flickr.

We explored a few of those teachings yesterday; we continue with further teachings today. Aquinas wrote:

In some cases, it is bad to follow the law, and it is good to set aside the letter of the law and to follow the dictates of justice and the common good. 

To follow the letter of the law when it ought not to be followed is sinful.

Human law cannot repeal any part of divine law or natural law.  All law is directed to the common well-being.  For this it draws its force and meaning, and to the extent that it falls short of this it does not oblige in conscience.

Rosa Parks is fingerprinted at a police station after her arrest in Montgomery, Alabama,December 1, 1955, posted to Flickr by U.S. Embassy The Hague

King invokes Aquinas for exactly this reason when he writes in his Birmingham jail letter:

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 and  natural law. 

Any law that uplifts human personality is just.  And law that degrades human personality is unjust.  All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.* 

Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi. Photographer unknown; on Wikimedia Commons.

So too obviously does bad policing that leads to murder.  This is what people recognize, this is moving them to march and plan for a more sustainable and just future.

It is not only King who drew wisdom from Aquinas.  Gandhian scholar Cf. Gandhi scholar Raghaven Iyer observes in his study on Gandhi’s Moral and Political Thought:

Aquinas, unlike Augustine, stressed the vital role of the political order as necessary for the attainment of the highest earthly good…For Augustine the political order could never be elevated, but could only be endured.

As Iyer recognizes, it is because Aquinas saw all of creation as sacred and as part of the divine goodness, that he celebrated human work and human progress.  This Gandhi did also.  

“(Mahatma Gandhi leading) the Salt March to the remote seaside village of Dandi, and the Civil Disobedience campaign it launched was the greatest nonviolent battle by history’s greatest nonviolent campaigner.” Photo by Jyoti Prakash Bhattacharjee on Flickr.

Aquinas recognized human effort to preserve the goodness of creation as primary.  In fact, for him this is the very meaning of “salvation” (which he also called “liberation”): “To preserve things in the good.”  Here lies a basis for an eco theology.

But here too lies the basis for a healthy society, one built on justice and just laws that humans create, as Aquinas says, to further the cause of goodness in humanity.

Humans create just laws that “prevent evil” happening to oneself or others and that “promote virtue” or our capacity for goodness.  Such creativity gives birth to a just society.  This is why people are marching.

Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr., p. 225.

See Matthew Fox, Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality, pp. 480f.

Banner Image: Picketing the separate and unequal D.C. schools: 1947: Gardner Bishop walks a picket line to protest the inferior, segregated education that black children were receiving. Photographer unknown; posted to Flickr by Washington Area Spark

Queries for Contemplation

What follows from Iyer’s observation that for Augustine humans “endure work” (as a punishment for Adam’s sin no doubt) whereas for Aquinas human work is part of the beauty and goodness of the universe?

Do you celebrate the “just laws” and other creations that humans can give birth to?

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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