The Ethic of Gratuity and MLK

The path of peace without violence is not an easy one. But when it is done well, it is a jewel to behold.

A striking passage in pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical– Charity in Truth (June 29, 2009)— made the following point: even if justice constitutes the basis of all society, it needs the “ethic of gratuity” in order to function well. Justice is to give another his due; charity compels us to give what’s ours to another. So charity goes beyond justice. Justice is “the minimum measure”. Charity demands justice. That means intrinsic to charity there is some form of justice. Here is the point– society is built according to law and justice, both commutative and distributive, but charity transcends justice and completes it in the logic of giving and forgiving. Society flourishes not merely by relationships of rights and duties, but fundamentally by relationships of gratuitousness, mercy, and communion (Caritas in Veritate, 6).


As we remember Martin Luther King today, it is worth pointing out how well he brought about this ethic of gratuity in the civil right movement in the 1960s. He commenced that movement in order to put a final end to slavery, oppression, discrimination, segregation, and injustice suffered by the black community. He chose the path of non-violence although in all justice, he would have been right to have recourse to revenge. Despite the many deaths, burning of churches, police brutality he and his people endured, he remained firm in the conviction that darkness couldn’t drive out darkness. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love and reconciliation can do that. Unlike his predecessors Malcom X and co., he preferred peace because he knows unarmed truth and unconditional love always have the final word in reality. After the movement, he could have asked for restitution and justice from the US for all the many years of violence and injustice the blacks have suffered, but he chose to move on. he was moved by Charity.

bby1dal-imgCharity ennobles the act of the human person. Because he was acting in charity, even those who had no particular interest in the movement joined him. Charity moves the heart of others. So, because of his choice and vision and the principle of gratuity from which he acted, his dream of seeing black and white forming one community was realized. Had he chosen to do otherwise would his dream ever become true? Where would America be today? Would America ever rule the world? While we will never know, what we do know is that he will remain a model to follow for generations.

After WWII, Germany was in dire need of the principle of gratuity. The world chose and rightly so not to punish the German nation despite the many atrocities they had caused and so allowed them to build itself up and embrace its dignity again. The world works so hard to unite West and East Germany after the war, and in 1989, it became a reality. Had the world applied strict justice on the Germans, where would they be today? Because of this gratuity, there are no grudges between Germany and world today. I would say it is this principle that drives the ‘welfare system’ in America. So, clearly many don’t deserve food, housing, social security benefit, free Medicare etc., but is it justice to let them wallow in their misery? If it is, is it charitable to do so? So while justice must always be preferred to injustice, we need to leaven of charity to give savor to the common good. otherwise, the society cannot function well.

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