MLK, Social Justice, and Saving Lives

In the civil realm of American society, Martin Luther King Jr. is certainly an important person to remember. He had a positive influence upon our country and the mindset of its citizens. It’s good for us all to recognize this. If I have been irritated that some Lutherans know more about MLK Jr. (because of the emphasis at school) than they know about Martin Luther, his prototypical namesake, that irritation does not diminish my respect for the good that MLK Jr. accomplished for our country and this civil society, despite his theological weaknesses.

Rev. Paul McCain posted a nice little summary about the significance of MLK Jr. on his blog. I agree with what he says there, but I’d like to point out a niggling problem in the way some have described the Civil Rights Movement. It’s become somewhat common to describe its cause as “social justice.” I deny that emphatically, because that term is a lie. It’s an attempt to dress up what we would otherwise call “injustice” as its opposite, and pollute the ideal of civil society with unjust discrimination founded upon race- or behavior-based classifications of people.

MLK Jr. was not a crusader for social justice, but simply for justice. Is it not a plain injustice to segregate a society arbitrarily based upon the pigmentation of our skin, or any arbitrary physical characteristic? Does not the evil of racism manifest itself in straight-out injustice? Is it not the human sense of justice that is violated when perpetrators of violence and murder are allowed to go unpunished on the basis of their skin-color, social standing, wealth, religion, or any other difference between human beings? Attempting to narrow our concept of justice to describe the importance the Civil Rights Movement may sound articulate, but it subverts our understanding of justice itself, and therefore actually robs men like MLK Jr. of their true importance.

If we were to admit the concept of “social justice” as a valid virtue of civil society, we would eventually find ourselves accepting arbitrary preferences in both law enforcement and in the courtroom. “The defendant has certainly robbed, raped, and killed his fellow citizens, including killing a law enforcement officer, but on account of his underprivileged upbringing, and because of his skin color, and even because some of his ancestors were deprived of their human dignity as slaves, this court finds that the circumstances mitigate his guilt in these matters. He is hereby recommended for one year of vocational counseling, and the arresting officers for one year of sensitivity training.” That would be an extreme example of “social justice,” showing that it’s really injustice behind a mask.

The ideal of justice being blind should remain our society’s ideal. She knows nothing of rich or poor, male or female, black or white, Christian or Jew, Catholic or Protestant. She knows only the law, and judges on the basis of our actions under the law. She doesn’t care what we think or believe, because she is is not God. She doesn’t care what we say (with certain exceptions, like “fire” in a crowded theater), because we have freedom of speech. She only cares whether we break the law. Also for this reason, the concept of “hate crimes” is unjust, wrong-headed, and tyrannical. If the deed was a crime, then justice already demands that the doer must be judged guilty. When we add or subtract to plain justice, we foster injustice.

So much for that. The other thing I’ve heard about recently is this justification for eliminating the law-abiding citizens’ right to be armed: “If it only saves the life of one person, it would be worth the loss of freedom for the rest.” This argument is also deceptive, and not limited the subject of arms control. The same argument is often applied to justify the loss of many other kinds of freedom. Allow me to point out that eventual death is certain for us all, but freedom is not. Besides that, I can easily use that argument against the gun-control advocate who makes it by pointing out that weapons carried by law-abiding citizens save lives daily. Therefore, to deprive those citizens of their freedom is to turn the tables and cause a daily loss of life. Who would want that on his conscience? If we err in the civil realm, it should be on the side of freedom and the protection of human life (and of private property, but that’s another blog post).

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