Principled Voting

July 21, 2013

Would you vote for a politician running in an election if he/she agreed with your political beliefs in all respects except one, and that one exception was that he/she was in favor of, say, race-based slavery?

I pose this question because some media types say that Republicans should get away from the “social issues” which concern religious voters.  I’ve also heard Republicans refer to problematic “single issue voters” who would not vote for Republicans who were (for example) pro-choice.  Now, if you believe that abortion is in fact the killing of an innocent human being, these Republicans and media types are treating your views as subordinate, urging you to compromise.  But I’m going to ask again, with a different example:

If a politician espouses all of your views except one, the exception being his/her desire to initiate state-sponsored killing of the terminally ill and elderly (keep in mind, you will likely one day be elderly) because such people increase national healthcare costs, would you vote for that politician?  If your answer is “no,” perhaps you don’t think it’s such a bad thing to be a “single issue voter”.

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Just a thought experiment, roll with me…

What if, in the American Civil War era, it was the North that insisted upon permitting slavery whereas the South opposed slavery?  So, in that vein, let’s say that the northern states began to seek to impose pro-slavery or slavery-compromising legislation upon the southern states through the federal government and supreme court, and then the southern states seceded from the United States on the grounds that they would not permit the northern states to impose their unjust pro-slavery national laws upon them.  The southern states create a confederacy which will protect each state’s ability to outlaw slavery (or not) and no other state will be able to impose legalized slavery upon them.

First question: in this situation, would you prefer that the confederates (southerners) win the civil war rather than the union northerners?  In other words, would you root for the pro-slavery north or the anti-slavery south?

Second question: if we took away the issue of slavery altogether, would you prefer confederacy or our current federal government?  What’s better, each state left to decide its own fate, or a national government deciding once for all?

Now, in this hypothetical, keep in mind that if you said you prefer a strong federal government, someone listening might call you a “racist” for supporting a form of government that once supported slavery.

Just a thought…

Congratulations to Sandra Bullock, who last night received an Academy Award for her role in The Blind Side

I’ll admit that I was skeptical when I went to see it several months ago.  I hoped not to see a sappy, overused rags-to-riches story.  What I saw was indeed a holiday-style feel-good film, but with a twist.  It’s a true story of an under-educated high school kid from a bad part of town who is taken in by a family when the family mom sees the boy walking on the street on a cold night in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt.  The boy is given a place to stay, and eventually tutoring, educational opportunity, and an opportunity to capitalize on his natural athletic ability (but he can’t play football unless he improves his grades so that he can be academically eligible).  This Hollywood story might be unremarkable, except that it’s true, and the mother, Leigh Anne Tuohy, happens to be a white, wealthy suburban Christian woman in Memphis, Tennessee, and the boy, Michael Oher, is a black kid from the projects who didn’t know his father and whose mother’s life had been ruined by habitual drug use.

A rich white Christian helping a poor black boy reach success, just out of the goodness of her heart?  Not exactly the stuff Hollywood scripts are made of.  But it’s a true story, and the people who played out this drama are alive and well, because the movie ends with the 23rd overall pick of the 2009 NFL Draft.  Hard to dispute the facts. 

Even so, the movie is not without its critics.  In fact, I remarked to a family member shortly after the movie, “I bet this movie gets criticized for being racist, for suggesting that black people can succeed if they become like white people, even though that obviously was not the message of the movie.”  I described a law professor I had in law school years ago—he was a Jewish neo-Marxist that had been a member of the Black Panthers in college (no, I’m not kidding)—who decried that kind of “paternalism,” arguing that such integration erodes the valuable black culture. 

Indeed, the Dallas Observer published a piece entitled The Blind Side: What Would Black People Do Without Nice White Folks?, in which the writer argued that “Blind Side the movie peddles the most insidious kind of racism, one in which whiteys are virtuous saviors, coming to the rescue of blacks who become superfluous in narratives that are supposed to be about them.”  A commenter on Yahoo added, before even seeing the movie, “It’ll still probably be racist, though, because it’ll probably portray the young black boy Sandra Bullock adopts as being ‘better’ than other black people in the film in some disgustingly charming way, with all the other black people treating him badly and Sandra Bullock having to come running to his rescue.”  The same commenter argued, “This is a movie about white people, for white people, that lets white people feel good about themselves.”  (This movie did not make me feel good about myself, it humbled me because I find Ms. Tuohy’s actions to be so much more compassionate and loving than anything I’ve ever done.)

Turns out that such criticisms reached the ears of the movie’s director and prominent star Sandra Bullock.  They had some rather positive things to say.  Director John Lee Hancock remarked:

“There will always be a certain camp that will say, ‘Oh it’s paternalism; its white guilt; its another one of those stories that says an African-American can’t make it on his own.’ I think its all balderdash,” said Hancock. “Even though there is a racial component, I looked at this story as more of a discussion of haves and have-nots and nature versus nurture. This is a kid who been discarded by society, especially from an educational standpoint. And his story goes to prove what having a safe bed to sleep in, having a family unit, having loving, interested parents can do. Lo and behold, this kid who was falling through the cracks is on the dean’s list at college. It’s like a miracle, and I think that’s a far more interesting element than any racial aspect of it. Leigh Anne Tuohy didn’t stop that car to pick up that kid because he was African-American. She stopped that car to pick up that kid because he was cold.”

Sandra Bullock added:

“One of my biggest issues has always been people who use their faith and their religion as a banner but don’t do the right things, yet still go, ‘I’m a good Christian and I go to church and this is the way you should live your life,'” said Bullock. “And I’m like, you know, do not give me a lecture about how to live my life when you go to church every week but I know you are still sneaking around on your wife. And I told Leigh Anne in a live interview, one of my largest concerns getting involved with this project was that whole banner-waving thing because it scares me, and I’ve had experiences that haven’t been great with people like that. I don’t buy a lot of people who use that banner as their shield. But she was so open and honest and forthright with me I thought, wow, I’ve finally met someone who practices but doesn’t preach.”
 
Bullock’s next comment suggested that the Tuohy’s newfound fame has provided them fresh opportunities to impact others with the hope that they have. “I now have faith in those who say they represent a faith,” Bullock commented. “I finally met people who walk the walk.”

The kerfluffle does raise an interesting question.  Let’s say that the Tuohy’s “white culture,” whatever that is, actually did have more wealthy yet responsible and philanthropic individuals than Oher’s “black culture,” whatever that is.  And let’s say that the “black culture” had more child abandonment, drug use, crime, and poverty.  If that were true, would it be wrong to encourage the “black culture” to be more like the “white culture” in that respect?  Is the “black culture” equally valuable as the “white culture” if the “black culture” turns a blind eye to such atrocities?  Not to say American “white culture” doesn’t have plenty to work on itself, or that it is the standard against which other cultures must be measured.  But, as I wish I had asked my law professor, can one culture be more valuable—more right—than another?  I’m inclined to say yes, and it only takes pointing a lazy finger toward Nazi and Stalinist “cultures” to demonstrate that some cultures must be erradicated, or at least radically broken and rebuilt, to rise to the level of other more valuable cultures. 

But in any event, The Blind Side really attempts no such cultural commentary.  It’s just a true story of a rich white Christian woman coming to the aid of a homeless black kid, and the resulting interracial family.  Had that kid been white, the critics would have no basis for labeling the movie “racist.”  So in an odd way, the critics would apparently prefer either that (a) rich white Christian ladies not help black kids, but to stick to their own kind, or (b) the stories of rich white Christian ladies helping black kids not be told, because they might foster (perhaps accurate) stereotypes about blacks, or (c) that stories that challenge (perhaps inaccurate) stereotypes about rich white Christians not be told.  None of the critics make any effort to demonstrate that a large segment (but not all) of the black community is not afflicted with the problems depicted in the film.  But the critics would rather rest comfortably in willful blindness of the truth than be forced to admit the less-than-politically-correct problem.

I make it a habit to remind people of Marting Luther King, Jr.’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail whenever I can. It is a masterpiece on the moral obligations of government, based on the natural law.  Today I would like to also call attention to the memories of the late Richard John Neuhaus regarding the civil rights leader.  To be sure, that article includes sordid details about King’s misdeeds, but it also includes:

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Christian. Despite all. As we are all, in the final analysis, Christians despite all. Many of his biographers, and the public school texts, tend to downplay that. Much is made of his having been enlightened by reading Gandhi, and he is frequently depicted as a forerunner of New Ageish spirituality. But King was emphatic in asserting, “This business of passive resistance and nonviolence is the gospel of Jesus. I went to Gandhi through Jesus.”

. . . .

[I]t was in those latter years, especially the last two years, that I came to know him personally. Not on a day by day basis, to be sure, but enough to form a firm judgment of the man. From the first day I met him, I was impressed not by any morbid preoccupation with failure and mortality but by what appeared to be his inner peace, an almost triumphant tranquillity. Surrounded as world-class celebrities are by groupies and sycophants, he seemed not to be taken in by it all. I most clearly remember thinking, “Here is a man who has his ego under control. He knows who he is, and who he is not.” I admired, and I envied, that. And that, despite all, is the way I remember him to this day.

Marshall Frady and others are right: If everything was known then that is known now, Dr. King would early have been brought to public ruin, and there would almost certainly be no national holiday in his honor. But God writes straight with crooked lines, and he used his most unworthy servant Martin to create in our public life a luminous moment of moral truth about what Gunnar Myrdal rightly called “the America dilemma,” racial justice. It seems a long time ago now, but there is no decline in the frequency of my thanking God for his witness and for having been touched, however briefly, by his friendship, praying that he may rest in peace, and that his cause may yet be vindicated.

I haven’t posted about MLK in a while (click here to see some of my earlier posts in this series).  But continuing that series…this part of the Letter includes a somewhat provocative idea:

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality.  . . . .

But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I find those last sentences most interesting.  It appears that MLK is criticizing the religious leaders of invoking a type of “separation of church and state” as an excuse for inaction and deference to unjust laws.  In other words, the religious leaders were suspending their moral sense and blindly following the human law without evaluating the (im)moral force of that law. 

It is indeed interesting that MLK impliedly blasted the supposed “separation of church and state”, as it is popularly (though not constitutionally) conceived, noting that it serves as a convenient excuse for covering up injustice and immorality. 

I won’t get into the legal problem of the “separation of church and state” here (but I will note that if you think the phrase is in the United States Constitution, or if you think the popular idea by the same name was invoked by the framers of the United States Constitution, further investigation might be warranted on your part).  Nevertheless, the divorce of moral truth and civil law has occurred on various occasions over the years, and it is a common theme in our current societal discourse on morally controversial topics.  When someone invokes the phrase, look to see if there is a moral question being swept under the rug, and think about whether that question deserves an answer before political decisions are made.

This is one of my favorite parts of the Letter:

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. . . . Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. . . .

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. . . .

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

Compare this with the rhetoric tossed around by California liberals who probably fancy themselves part of Dr. King’s legacy.  Specifically, one pro-choice women’s group describes Tony Strickland and Tom McClintock, two California Republicans, as “too extreme for California”, noting “There is no other candidate more extreme than Tom McClintock, bar none”.  This was tried in a California attorney general race as well.  Aside from the fact that those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones and all that, I find it remarkable that throwing out a phrase like “too extreme for California” has any persuasive effect at all. 

And it’s not as though liberals are the only ones who try this.  The same rhetoric was tossed around by a California Republican back in 1998 against none other than Barbara Boxer (shocking, eh?).  But the problem with Ms. Boxer isn’t that she’s “extreme.”  It’s that she is, among other things, extremely pro-abortion (not pro-choice, mind you, but pro-abortion).  [As an aside, I loved reading this transcript of her dodging the question whether it would be ok to kill a child with one foot still in the mother while the rest of the child is outside; she obviously couldn’t say that you can kill that child, but she refused to admit when a child is “born” because she supports partial-birth abortion.  The transcript is pure comedy.]

Ever notice that those who accuse someone of being “extreme” on some issue are usually equally “extreme” on the other end of the political spectrum on that same issue?  Those who have run out of intelligent arguments usually resort to name-calling…

In any event, there is no such thing as “too extreme for California”, or “too extreme” for any sort of political office.  I want extremely dedicated, extremely virtuous, extremely wise, extremely effective government leaders.  I’d like to avoid the extremely lazy, evil, stupid, and/or ineffective ones, but it’s not because they’re “extreme”, it’s because of the rest of the attributes listed.  I would hope that the extremely dedicated, virtuous, wise, effective government leaders revel in being labeled “extremist” by their opponents, for it is their “extremism” in these attributes, and a refusal to compromise on foundational principles, that make them great leaders. 

The following section of the Letter makes the case that we should not be terribly worried that our ideas may precipitate violence (as long as we don’t engage in violence), and that there is no time to waste in spreading the message:

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

It is indeed a “tragic misconception of time” that prevents a lot of needed change from happening.  “[T]he appalling silence of the good people” often enables many important issues to go unnoticed, though the “good people” of course get to live their comfortable lives in peace.  And as one who believes that Christian values and truths are the ideal, I note that too often the excuses proffered by the inactive Christians are particularly lame

Additionally, as an aside, note that the people who criticized MLK for “precipitating violence” have a kinship with the authors of various university campus speech codes (examples of which are provided here), all of whom prefer to avoid offending sensibilities notwithstanding the need to discuss public issues.  The fact that someone might react to a message improperly is certainly no reason to censor the message.

This part of the Letter probably describes how a lot of us have felt when others don’t share our sense of moral outrage over some particular issue:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white 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; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

Who among us has not felt such frustration?  It is truly difficult when dealing with complacent, like-minded people who don’t seem to care about injustice.  Disagreement about whether some such circumstance is an injustice is acceptable.  But when someone agrees with you that some circumstance is unjust, but then does nothing to oppose it, or even aids and abets such unjust circumstances, it can be quite discouraging.  It helps to know that MLK experienced that same frustration, and yet also overcame it (in part by writing this outstanding letter).

Here is part four of the letter, again abridged to keep focus:

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. . . .  One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

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. . . .

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. . . . By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. . . .

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so 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 who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

. . . .

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.

This is the real heart of MLK’s defense of his actions.  Here, MLK sets forth a philosophical justification for violating human law and the social customs of his day.  In short, he was a reformer. 

What is the justification of this behavior?  MLK says that his justification comes from God, who has instituted a higher law than the human law.  Thus, a law that violates this higher law is not a law in the fullest sense, and may be violated. 

This raises an interesting question: if morality comes solely from society, and not “from above”, then does that make MLK immoral for violating the human law applicable in his day?  What justification would he otherwise have for violating human laws? 

On the other hand, if one believes that there is a higher, transcendent source of law, to which all human laws owe homage, then one has ample justification for holding human law to that standard.  When the Nazi asks, “who are you to tell me my actions were immoral or illegal?  Are you German?”, the answer may be, “you violated a higher, universal standard that applies to you whether you acknowledge it or not.” 

The second-to-last paragraph quoted above is my favorite.  One who violates a law “openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. . . is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”  That is how you make a statement on social policy. 

In that vein, it is particularly troubling when someone violates a law from a position of privilege, immune to “a willingness to accept the penalty.”  We see this when judges “twist” the law to fit their own ends, contrary to the intent and meaning of the words they interpret.  This is a form of flouting the law, but it comes from behind the protection of the robe, with immunity from any penalty.  In other words, it’s the most cowardly form of civil disobedience.

This letter is pretty long, so I’m abridging it a bit, skipping the specifics about particular people and incidents in Birmingham (I prefer to discuss the theoretical points)…

My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. . . .  [W]hen you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

Interesting observation, that those in power to oppress others rarely voluntarily give up that power.  That is the danger of putting too much power into the hands of a few.  They are quick to assure the rest of us that they have our good in mind, and they might mean it, but the power often proves too great a temptation (see Supreme Court, USA).  And it is rare that one turns back and releases the power to allow the disenfranchised to seek justice or govern themselves.  (I cannot help but recall The Lord of the Rings here on the tempting power-grab issue.)