By Dr. Emily Speller
Last week I had the good fortune of discussing Anti- gone with my Great Works class just as HBU was prepar- ing to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Rereading these texts together brought to light certain shared ideas concerning civil disobedience.
In Sophocles’ play, King Creon orders the citizens of Thebes to not bury the body of Polyneices, a Theban prince. Antigone breaks Creon’s law and buries her broth- er openly performing the sacred funeral rites when nobody dares speak up against the law which is perceived to be unjust. Consequent- ly, Antigone is condemned to die.
In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King defends his methods of confronting racism with nonvio- lent action. The demonstrations he led and supported were considered illegal by local political and reli- gious authorities, but King rejected any civic law opposed to eternal or natural law. He, like Antigone, suffered for his decision to oppose injustice.
Antigone’s heroic suffering is perhaps best represented in contrast to four excuses her sister Ismene gives for inaction: their family has already suffered enough; they’re not strong enough to face the op- position; they ought to obey the au- thorities; and “extravagant action is not sensible.”
Antigone scorns excuses, her words and actions suggesting three motives: love for her brother; deep concern for her city; and respect for the god who demand burial of the dead and whose laws are primordial and eternal.
Some of the tragedy’s most moving passages occur when Anti- gone laments not her own fate, but the fate of Thebes.
We can compare her motives for civil disobedience to those of King’s. As Ismene’s complacency provides a foil to Antigone’s hero- ism, the courage in King’s actions is highlighted by his opposition to the “Call for Unity.” This public state- ment by eight Alabama clergymen advised inaction and obedience to civil laws, even unjust ones. The clergymen rejected King’s methods as “unwise” and “untimely.” In re- sponse, King first described his po- sition as a virtuous mean between the extremes of complacency and hatred. He praised the extremism of great historical figures from Jesus to Abraham Lincoln, and then asks, “Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Injustice or justice?”
King expresses his disappoint- ment in the contemporary church, which should be acting more like the body of Christ and less like an arm of the law.
Adapting a paraphrase from 1 Corinthians 13, King recommends “the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest.” He warns his readers, “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lov- ingly, and with a willingness to ac- cept the penalty.”
But King also argues that do- ing this “to arouse the conscience of the community… is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.” He concludes with a pow- erful affirmation of those who, through opposing racism, stand for “what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heri- tage.”
No analogy is exact, and key differences exist between Anti- gone and MLK Jr. I’ll leave you to discover them and close with this thought: Both Antigone and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” suggest that nonviolent civil dis- obedience is sometimes the best way to demonstrate reverence for God, respect for our fellow hu- mans and love of our country.