ByValerie Elverton Dixon
In November 2009, a group of clergy released the Manhattan Declaration, a document outlining, among other things, their opposition to abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and a determination to maintain freedom of religious conscience. The declaration defines marriage as:”a conjugal union of man and woman, ordained by God from the creation, and historically understood by believers and non believers alike, to be the most basic institution in society.”
The declaration speaks of the importance of religious conscience and the duty to engage in civil disobedience to affect public policy. It references Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and “The Letter from Birmingham Jail “to support its position:
Writing from an explicitly Christian perspective, and citing Christian writers such as Augustine and Aquinas, King taught that just laws elevate and ennoble human beings because they are rooted in the moral law whose ultimate source is God himself.
The declaration praises King for his “willingness to go to jail, rather than comply with legal injustice.”
However, in my opinion, the authors of the declaration misread King and “The Letter.” When I taught Christian Ethics, one of the courses that I taught was “The Letter from Birmingham Jail.” We read the “intertextuality” of the letter, including texts about African spirituality, political philosophy, and the history of the civil rights movement. It is difficult to see how the aims of the Manhattan Declaration square with the intent of “The Letter.” The authors of the declaration do not read “The Letter” in its entire explanation of what constitutes an unjust law.
First, some facts about “The Letter.”King wrote the letter in response to a public statement by eight Alabama clergy. The statement wanted local leadership to solve what they considered a local problem in Birmingham. They wanted an end to the demonstrations that King led. They considered them “extreme measures.” The clergy wanted to maintain order. They wrote: “When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”
King read this as an appeal to maintain the status quo. For him, this was unjust because the laws of segregation were contrary to the principle of equal protection. King writes in “The Letter”:
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. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.
Thus, an accurate reading of “The Letter” argues for a law on marriage that is the same for everyone. When marriage applies only to heterosexual people, this is difference made legal, and for King unjust. We celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday because he challenged an unjust status quo both in the United States and in the world. King was critical of religious leaders who wanted to maintain an order that made some people second-class citizens. In “The Letter”, he writes of his disappointment with a church that is “an arch defender of the status quo.” King refused to settle for anything less than brother hood and sisterhood.
If the authors and signers of the Manhattan Declaration want to take a stand against same sex marriage, that is their right. If they want to maintain the freedom of faith communities to teach against same-sex marriage and to refuse to consecrate and celebrate them, so be it. However, they ought not to use the voice of Martin Luther King Jr, to support their position.
We cannot know what King would have said or done in regard to this issue. However, we do have the text of “The Letter” and it argues against segregation and the oppression of a group of people. King lived and died for justice, equality and radical love. The Manhattan Declaration does not reflect these values.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder JustPeaceTheory.com. She taught Christian Ethics at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, MA and United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio