Martin Luther King – On Civil Disobedience
[The following is an excerpt of the transcript of the sermon "But If Not".]
O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king.
But if not, even if he does not preserve us, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the images of gold you have set up and commanded us to worship.” Daniel 3:16-18
Now I want you to notice first, here, that these young men practiced civil disobedience.
Civil disobedience is the refusal to abide by an order of the government or of the state or even of the court that your conscience tells you is unjust. Civil disobedience is based on a commitment to conscience. In other words, one who practices civil disobedience is obedient to what he considers a higher law.
And there comes a time when a moral man can’t obey a law which his conscience tells him is unjust. And I tell you this morning, my friends, that history has moved on, and great moments have often come forth because there were those individuals, in every age and in every generation, who were willing to say “I will be obedient to a higher law.” These men were saying “I must be disobedient to a king in order to be obedient to the king.”
And those people who so often criticize those of us who come to those moments when we must practice civil disobedience never remember that even right here in America, in order to get free from the oppression and the colonialism of the British Empire, our nation practiced civil disobedience. For what represented civil disobedience more than the Boston Tea Party.
And never forget that everything that Hitler did in Germany was legal. It was legal to do everything that Hitler did to the Jews. It was a law in Germany that Hitler issued himself that it was wrong and illegal to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. But I tell you if I had lived in Hitler’s Germany with my attitude, I would have openly broken that law. I would have practiced civil disobedience.
And so it is important to see that there are times when a man-made law is out of harmony with the moral law of the universe, there are times when human law is out of harmony with eternal and divine laws. And when that happens, you have an obligation to break it.
And I’m happy that in breaking it, I have some good company. I have Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. I have Jesus and Socrates. And I have all of the early Christians who refused to bow…
And this is what I want to say finally, that there is a reward if you do right for righteousness’ sake…Don’t ever think you’re by yourself. Go on to jail if necessary but you’ll never go alone.
Take a stand for that which is right, and the world may misunderstand you and criticize you, but you never go alone, for somewhere I read that “One with God is a majority,” and God has a way of transforming a minority into a majority.
Walk with him this morning and believe in him and do what is right and he’ll be with you even until the consummation of the ages. Yes, I’ve seen the lightning flash, I’ve heard the thunder roll, I’ve felt sin breakers dashing trying to conquer my soul but I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on, he promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone; no, never alone, no, never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.
Where you going this morning, my friends, tell the world that you’re going with truth. You’re going with justice, you’re going with goodness, and you will have an eternal companionship. And the world will look at you and they won’t understand you, for your fiery furnace will be around you, but you’ll go on anyhow.
But if not, I will not bow, and God grant that we will never bow before the gods of evil.
For a more complete transcription -
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