Theodore Parker and the “Higher Law”

I did my MA thesis on the Boston Unitarian pastor and abolitionist, Theodore Parker. He was an avid proponent of “civil disobedience,” the idea that men must disobey human laws that conflict with the “Higher Law” of God. Opposing the law requiring the return of fugitive slaves to their masters, he said those who passed and enforced the law were legislating atheism. Here’s a quote from Henry Steele Commager, “Theodore Parker,” page. 209:

“The magistrates went for atheism, making an idol of the law and asking people to bow down and worship it. A new philosophy of government was announced (new for America, new for Massachusetts), and it was the philosophy of materialism. “Here is the first maxim,” said Parker — “‘There is no Higher Law.’ That is the proclamation of objective atheism; it is the selfish materialism of Hobbes, De la Mettrie and Helve this, gone to seed. You have nothing to rely on above the politicians and their statutes; if you suffer, nothing to appeal to but the ballot-box. Here is the next maxim — ‘Religion has nothing to do with politics.’ That is subjective atheism, with a political application. If there be no law inherent in mind and matter above any wicked statute of a tyrant, still the instinctive religious sense of man looks up with reverence, faith and love, and thinks there is a God and a higher law.” 

All tyrants insist their law is absolute. All who love true freedom see human law as but a dim reflection of the transcendental divine law. That was true of the founding fathers, who appealed to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” against absolutist monarchs. It was true of Transcendentalists such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Parker, who inspired abolitionism, and Gandhi, and King.

The state is not absolute. Human laws are not absolute. And no one, regardless of what oaths they have taken, can be forced to disobey conscience and surrender to tyranny. That is a basic principle I as a military chaplain have to teach soldiers–you cannot appeal to the Nuremberg defense (“I was just obeying orders”). You must know for yourself what is right, and what is just, and what is true. You must say no when asked to violate the laws of war, or of human decency. You must say no at Abu Ghraib, at My Lai, at Gitmo. You may pay a price. But what is the price of violating conscience? Of surrendering to a tyrant? Of making decrees of men absolute?