For those who consider the disputed 2000 Presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore to have been controversial, the story that takes place just before the opening of Sophocles’ Antigone must seem downright barbaric. If you consider the chaos that the previous year or so had brought down on Thebes, Antigone’s wrath could just as well be considered the bellowing of an entire city, weary of its rulers’ drama. Oedipus had died after blinding and exiling himself, on the heels of discovering that he actually had fulfilled the Oracle’s prophecy of killing his father and marrying his mother; upon the death of Oedipus, his sons had agreed to alternate years on the throne, in a high unstable arrangement. Sure enough, the older brother, who got to go first, wouldn’t go quietly when his first year was up; the younger brother attacked with an army. In the ensuing hand-to-hand duel, the brothers slew each other. The older brother, who had held onto power too long, was given an honored burial by their uncle, Creon. The younger brother, branded a treasonous rebel, was ordered to be left unburied as a sign to others. One of the brothers’ sisters, Antigone, found this decree to be against the laws of the gods and buried the body anyway. As a result, she was sentenced to death. This event is just one of many throughout history that featured a conflict between religious principles and the laws of the land. The question becomes this: was Creon right to enforce the laws, or was the prophet Tiresias right to argue that Creon’s actions actually violated the spirit of those laws, leading to an even more grievous misdeed against the gods? Creon answers this question himself by revoking his death sentence on Antigone; unfortunately, Antigone was dead before she could learn about this commutation. At other points in history, laws have been shown to go against the principles of the primary religion of the culture in which they were passed; in those instances, the laws have usually been repealed, or superseded with more appropriate ones.
Even though his dissidence took place thousands of years after Antigone was laid to rest, the case of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s religious dissent against the racism that was prevalent in the American South, well into the 1960’s, was no less controversial a case of laws that violated the actual ethical dictates of the religious faith with which the proponents of those laws aligned themselves. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is Dr. King’s open letter, written on newspaper while in confinement, to his religious colleagues in the city. He explains that his leadership role with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had brought him to the city. He begins his appeal by referring to the same Scriptures that the ministers who are his audience use when teaching from the pulpit: “just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so [was Dr. King] compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond [his] home town. Like Paul, [Dr. King] must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid” (King, Jr.). By making a parallel between the cause of St. Paul and his own, Dr. King placed perhaps the ultimate moral imperative on the outcome of the struggle throughout the South – in this case, in the outcome of the struggle against codified injustice in Birmingham.
Dr. King refers to the fact that Birmingham is “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.” The “Jim Crow” laws which swept across the South after President Hayes, and the rest of the Republican Party, sold out the aims of Reconstruction to gain the 1876 Presidential election – the last one that went to the House of Representatives for resolution – put the injustices of racism into official law books (Election of 1876). The laws of this time period are the reasons why water fountains and restrooms were labeled “White” and “Colored.” They are the reasons behind the legal requirement that African-Americans had to sit in the back of city buses. They served as justification for the brutal tactics that law enforcement took, in those days, to quell dissent, such as turning fire hoses on unarmed protesters. When the law was not expressly on the side of white Birmingham, African-Americans would receive “grossly unjust treatment in the courts” (King, Jr.).
Whereas Antigone quickly took matters into her own hands and buried her brother, Polyneices, though, the African-American community in Birmingham tried a peaceful course of action at first. Pursuing negotiations with the leadership of Birmingham, they received false promises that the merchants in Birmingham would take down the signs mandating separate facilities. As Dr. King describes it, “our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action.” After training themselves in the ways of nonviolent protest, knowing that the racist eyes of much of the rest of the nation would look unfavorably upon them if rioting, looting or other manifestations of anger blazed forth from African-Americans in the South, the African-American community had prepared itself for nonviolent dissent.
However, just as Antigone was imprisoned for her act of protest, so were all of the nonviolent demonstrators that poured into Birmingham. Dr. King points out that, by 1963, African-Americans had “waited for more than 340 years for [their] constitutional and God given rights,” referring to the history of the institution of slavery in the colonies and, later, the states of the South. In one sentence, Dr. King highlights the ludicrous nature of continuing to exist as a Christian society while some members are treated as a different, subordinate, unacceptable species alongside their white counterparts. While there were slaves in the Bible, the enslavement was not made on the basis of race, and the promises found in the Old Testament book of Amos rang forth more clearly than many other verses, to the former slaves: “Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice, and endless river of righteous livingBut let justice flow like a river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:21, 24 NIV). It is difficult to read words like that in the Bible and then walk down a road past churches in which one would not be welcome, simply on the basis of the color of one’s skin. In situations like this, when a set of laws contradicts that culture’s religious precepts so blatantly, action is absolutely necessary – and such was Dr. King’s argument to his colleagues in ministry.
The difference between Antigone and the African-American community is that, while Antigone’s cause was personal, the African-American cause was institutional. For this reason, it was one thing for Antigone to die for her cause; her death made the true rationale behind the requirements for a burial of honor clear to everyone. In the cause of segregation in the American South, the arrival of Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was a clear sign that change needed to happen. Segregationist incidents in Little Rock, Arkansas, and at the University of Alabama demonstrated the need for outside forces to intervene in the cause, on the side of justice.
In the play A Man for all Seasons, in which Sir Thomas More refuses to endorse King Henry VIII’s most recent divorce, because he feels that it violates the law of God, More defines the law as “a causeway upon which, so long as he keeps to it, a citizen may walk safely.” Laws that are morally correct do give their citizens that safety and protection. However, laws that are designed to sanction prejudice or to tilt playing fields out of the square of fairness may exist for a short time without protest; ultimately, though, the ethical sensibilities so central to authentic religious belief will simmer beneath them, until they drive them out into the public view – and out of the law books.
Bolt, Robert. A Man for all Seasons. London: Vintage, c1990.
“Election of 1876.” Web. Retrieved 1 December 2011 from http://www.u-s-
King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Web. Retrieved 1 December
2011 from http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html
The Book of Amos. Web. Retrieved 1 December 2011 from