There are two types of laws: there are just laws and there are unjust laws… What is the difference between the two?…An unjust law is a man-made code that is out of harmony with the moral law.
– Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963
The path of mankind towards the goal of a just state and a truly just rule of law has been long, full of many wrong turnings and indeed, strewn with multiple miseries. Yet we keep going in spite of all that. King’s simple definition of an unjust law, and by implication, a just one, is governed by its adherence – or otherwise – to the moral law. But how hard it has been for us to agree on what that latter law is and how to know it. It was not so hard in earlier ages when there was a surer guide to help us know right from wrong. This was an age when there was a clearer consciousness of the foundations of such a law. That was an age when men and women allowed their consciences to be formed by that consciousness – the consciousness of God.
Among the leaders and rulers of our age, Martin Luther King was one such man. There are others but not many. They are, sadly, exceptions to the flawed rule governing our age – the law of self-interested pragmatism. If an action produces the desired result it is a good act. If not, forget it. That is about as far as our moral compass of choice takes us in the high-tech world of today. The pragmatic rulers to whom we entrust the management of our fragile societies now leave their consciences on the hat-stand when they enter our legislative chambers – and indeed boast of doing so..
At the very dawn of parliamentary government – in the troubled environment of the Plantagenet monarchy of England – we find a golden moment when that furtive search for justice was guided tentatively by a ruler who was guided by his acceptance of a divinely inspired moral universe.
The events are recounted by the historian, David Carpenter, in his masterful biography of King Henry III. He tells of how, after the king’s wedding and subsequent coronation of his youthful bride, the happy celebrations at Westminster on 20 January had to be cut short. “Fear that the Thames, swollen by rain, would flood the palace, drove the court to Merton priory, eight miles away in Surrey. It was there, on 23 January, that the king, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund of Abingdon, the bishops ‘and the greater part of the earls and barons of England’ agreed a series of provisions ‘for the common utility of all the kingdom’.”
The ‘statute of Merton’, as it became known, did not stand alone. Between 1234 and 1237 the king issued around a dozen provisions dealing with the law and government of the realm. They were very much the product of the cooperation between the king and the political community.
This was the aftermath of the reluctant signing of Magna Carta in 1215 by Henry’s somewhat vicious father, King John. Reluctant is a euphemism, for in truth John had, if not a gun to his head, certainly a knife at his throat. The barons had already landed a French army with a ready replacement for John at its head. On John’s death the following year, Henry, a nine-year-old child, succeeded to a throne shaken by civil war. But with the help of skillful guardians he made it to maturity and assumed personal rule of the kingdom in 1228. Gradually he asserted his authority and by this enactment of a series of provisions through his ‘great council’, the institution which in these years was for the first time recorded as a ‘parliament’, very significantly advanced the cause of true justice in the realm.
The ‘statute of Merton’ and subsequent provisions enacted in the few years following, dealt with the protection of widows and orphans, regulating the composition and frequency of local courts, devising new legal rules and actions related to succession and possession of property, remedying the abuses of royal officials and restricting the king’s rights of compulsory purchase. The legislation covered a whole range of issues and impacted on many sections of society. The statement at Merton that the legislation was conceived ‘for the common utility of all the kingdom’, was an explicit acceptance of the concept of ‘the common good’ in political morality.
“For Henry”, Carpenter tells us, “the legislation was closely linked to his religion.” According to the great recorder of events of that time, Matthew Paris, he promulgated the statute of Merton ‘for the salvation of his soul and the improvement of his kingdom, influenced by a spirit of justice and piety’. “Henry himself,” Carpenter adds, “on another occasion, wrote of abolishing evil customs ‘for the health of our soul and the souls of our ancestors and heirs’. (This was all) in the spirit of his coronation oath to abolish bad laws and introduce good ones. He may well have been influenced by the example of Edward the Confessor, a legislator, so it was thought, deeply concerned with the welfare of his people.”
Henry III, although not always wise or faultless in what he did, was profoundly motivated in these enactments. Paris also affirmed that he was inspired by his marriage to Eleanor, his young Provencal bride, doing good in the hope that ‘God would consummate a joyous beginning with a happy end by conferring the gift of children’. The legislation reflected Henry’s pious concern to protect widows, help the poor and bring the position of the Jews into line with the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council. In England this provision ameliorated an existing law which had laid down that Jews were not to remain in the kingdom unless they could be of service to the king.
Undoubtedly, the path to justice is a long and winding one – as such a small step illustrates. However, such small steps for man – if I can be allowed a rather clumsy allusion – are necessary ones if we are to continue to make our way to better rather than worse conditions for mankind. But to those who might cry out ‘foul’ for the assertion that the true foundation of morality is consciousness of God, as it was for King Henry III as much as it was for Martin Luther King Jnr., we have only to recall what history shows us are the fruits of so many regimes which denied this and made man the ultimate arbiter of what is just and unjust.