And It Was Night

I was reading this morning from the Book of John, searching for an appropriate passage with which to frame my song selections for worship.  I was looking through Jesus’ great teachings on the night of his betrayal.  He delivered his “new” commandment that his disciples love one another.  John’s opening to the scene of that Last Supper in 13.1 included a statement that I have not heard discussed frequently, if at all.  There, he tells something about Jesus’ character when he says, “…having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

In the course of John’s writing, he mentions “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”  If John were speaking of himself, perhaps he was focusing on how that love felt to him, as if he were indeed special.  But here in 13.1, he says,” …he loved them to the end.”  Plural.  Jesus practiced what he preached.  He emphasized that further in his symbolic act of humility in washing the disciples’ feet.

But as I read through chapter 13, another phrase caught my eye, and it was as if I had never before read the verse, or at least not paid much attention to it.  The scene shifts to Jesus announcing that someone in the room would betray him, and that he would pass a morsel of bread to the one who would do it.  It would have been a scene of great suspense for the company reclining at table that night.  Perhaps they sat up straighter as he mentioned the traitor.  Perhaps each one was wondering if he would be the implicated party.  But only Jesus knew.  And Judas.

Judas had reached a point of no return.  He could have refused the bread.  But he didn’t.  He was locked on the target of turning over this dangerous man to the Jewish authorities. 

At that point, John reflects that Satan entered into Judas.  Whether literally or figuratively, it doesn’t matter.  He had colluded with Jesus’ enemies, and this night would bring the fruition of that dark collaboration.  Perhaps John means that Judas’ devilish scheme was no longer secret, and that was why Jesus then encouraged him to finish his task.

Judas took the bread, acknowledging that he was indeed the one.  He turned his back on Jesus and walked out.  In the first chapter of his gospel account, John had said of Jesus, “4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

He turned his back on the true light.  And in doing so, John says of Judas’ condition both temporally and spiritually, “And it was night.” 

Judas had entered the darkness.  He led the contingent of soldiers and representatives of the High Priest and council to the Garden where Jesus would be arrested.

In Matthew 27, as the next day dawned, so did the realization of what he had done.  Judas tried to return the blood money paid to him by the chief priests and elders because he was responsible for the condemnation of an innocent man.  They refused.   In his guilt and shame, Judas hanged himself.

Judas was not the first man to betray a friend, nor would he be the last.  But each time one turns on another, he enters the darkness, the night, where his shameful deeds may be hidden, but where there is also confusion and uncertainty.  A person in darkness can easily lose his way.  A person who has a sense of morality would have pangs of guilt, as apparently Judas showed.  But those sins were laid bare in the light of day. 

I had never noticed those four little words before, but they speak volumes about the events that would soon transpire and about the darkness that would consume a one-time friend and disciple of that teacher from Galilee.  In I John 1, the apostle writes, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”  Judas failed to appreciate the light of Jesus.  But the darkness did not satisfy in any way.  Those four little words teach a powerful lesson.

The Inescapable Forces of Politics and Religion

According to the old saw, it’s often pretty safe to talk about most subjects in polite conversation, with the exception of politics and religion.  That’s good advice, but hardly practicable.  Why?  Well, there are several reasons.

First, we are dealing with two important aspects of a person’s life.  Politics governs everyday affairs, religion governs spiritual affairs.  As multifaceted beings, we are dimensionally obligated to deal with matters in each realm.  Because we exist, we are influenced by—and may influence—conditions in each of those realms.

Second, for those who practice religion, it is hard to separate faith from politics, since faith informs every aspect of that person’s life, including political positions.  It is equally apparent that those who avoid anything dealing with faith may let their anti-religious leanings influence their political views.

Problems come, however, when we confuse the two, when we mistakenly construe rights granted by civil authorities as being matters of faith.  The recent photo of young woman clutching an assault rifle in her right hand and Bible in her left, while standing in front of a US flag is a case in point: the blending of nationalism, militarism and faith is a dangerous mix that is a breeding ground for conflict.

Third, there are those among the politically minded for whom politics is their religion.  They live and die by party platforms and positions.  It is sad to think that anyone could dedicate their all to such fickle masters but it apparently happens.  Similarly, there are those people of faith who have such disdain for political matters that they refuse to engage in the democratic process.  Unfortunately these people are frequently the first and loudest in their criticism of government leaders and policies.

Fourth, it is commonly observed among religious bodies of all faiths and persuasions that religion itself is often too political.  Within local congregations and among churches of a particular denomination, and among denominations political posturing and machinations are common.  This should not be.  People of faith should adopt the attitude expressed by God, when through the prophet Isaiah, he appealed to the erring children of Israel by saying, “Come, let us reason together.”

If I reflect upon myself and my own actions, interests and beliefs, I suppose I fall squarely into the second group in this non-exhaustive list.  I believe that faith must inform us, but that as the founding fathers so adamantly asserted, there must be a separation between church and state.

We may see and take exception to those instances where religion exerts influence in politics.  However, there are instances where politics, embodied in the form of governmental legislatures, executives, judges and agencies, impinges on religion.  This is equally dangerous, if not more so, since governments have geopolitical boundaries and are temporally restricted.  Religions are longer lived than governments, and may extend around the globe.  Should a local government affect the policies and practices of a religion, the effects may extend far beyond the jurisdiction of the political body.

I have no qualms about discussing either politics or religion.  They are integral parts of who I am.  Throughout my life, I have been on a journey of discovery.  I began with rather simple-minded acceptance of a position—in my case, conservatism in both politics and faith.  However, I neglected to enforce the usual conservative embargo on thought and reason.  In both realms, my views have expanded beyond their initial boundaries, not out of sheer exasperation with the confines of the ideology, but more out of seeking greater application and understanding.  In both realms, my changing views have been guided by principles that I read about constantly in scripture: justice, righteousness, mercy, faithfulness.  I have discovered that I can no more embrace the most conservative restrictions than I can the most liberal license.  My political views have paralleled or more accurately, they have been shaped by my spiritual awakening and understanding.

As one who believes that God is ultimately the artist who crafted a very good universe, my political positions reflect that in that I want to see that very good creation restored and celebrated for the beauty and awe that it is and inspires.  As one who believes that I am indeed my brother’s keeper, my political positions reflect support for social programs that help people, not because I approve of the abdication of individual responsibility in such matters—that still holds—but because government’s role in the distribution of such aid is the only workable paradigm we have, necessitated by the logistics involved in seeing to the needs and welfare of more than 300 million people.  As one who reads and takes to heart the repeated calls throughout the Bible for justice and helping the oppressed, my political views drive me to call attention to factions, policies, and ideologies that not only approve of continued oppression of the poor and hurting, but propose instituting oppressive policies as law.

I grew up influenced by a strict religious conservatism.  When I opened my eyes and my mind to seeing issues from different views and to reading more of scripture than had been stressed in my formative years, my conservative convictions gave way to something more.  Similarly, I grew up influenced by a political conservatism that suggested on one level or another, that liberal concerns are fundamentally wrong, without explanation of why that was so.  When my maturing faith informed my political views, I emerged as someone still conservative on some issues, far more moderate in some respects, and even quite liberal in others.  Dogmatism, whether religious or political, is nothing more than slavery of heart, mind and spirit.

I am not offering my own story as a model for others to follow, by any means, but rather to explain the experiences I have had on this journey, experiences that have shaped who I am today.  I encourage every person to open their minds in terms of both politics and religion, to examine their dogmas and philosophies in both realms and be willing to embrace change if indeed that change comes from substantiated reflection and reason.  Having just registered another birthday only yesterday, it occurs to me that life is too short to let another equally fallible human run it for me, define my motives and actions and views.  I choose to live by grace, love and mercy in all aspects of my life.

That reflects the grace, love, and mercy I have received.

And for that grace, love and mercy I continue to be temporally amazed and eternally grateful.

Beware the Sin of Sodom

Sin is a tricky thing.  It is always easier to see it in someone else than in ourselves.  A case in point is found in the Genesis story of Abram/Abraham and Lot.  You recall in the Abraham story that Abraham split the land with Lot.  Lot took the best, well-watered ground and Abraham was left with less desirable holdings.  Lot wound up living in the city of Sodom, whose rather prophetic name may be translated as “flaming” or “burnt.”

Sodom was indeed a wicked place.  God told Abraham that if he found 50 righteous men in all of Sodom, he would not destroy it as he had planned.  Abraham knew that was unlikely, and immediate set out to lower the required number.  To his credit, Abraham was trying to save his nephew and his family.  Perhaps the thought of so much death was frightening to Abraham.  God finally agreed to withhold his judgment against Sodom for the sake of 10 righteous people.

But that didn’t happen.

Most conservative Christians will point to a single issue as the trigger point of Sodom’s downfall: the apparent call for homosexual rape against Lot’s angelic visitors.  But that was merely one facet of Sodom’s sin.  Since not even 10 righteous people were found within its walls, it was a sin–or a suite of sins–shared by a population.  In Ezekiel 16 the prophet relates the words of God, “48 As I live, declares the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done.  49  Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.  50  They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.”

Of all the pertinent applicable lessons that could be learned from these three verses, I offer this:  Beware the sin of Sodom.  Today more than ever, we need to examine ourselves individually and as a nation.  Are we following in the ways of Sodom?  I am not speaking about the misplaced emphasis on homosexuality.  I am talking specifically about what God said through Ezekiel.

Having only the experience of being born in this country and living here all my life, I can only address my perception of this nation.  From our popular music to our bumper stickers, we are proud of our nation.  “I’m proud to be an American…”  And I can agree with some of that.  But when that pride prevents us from examining our faults and flaws, our policies and laws, our pride has become our downfall.  We are not perfect.  To declare ourselves perfect arrogates perfection: we claim what can never be reality in a fallen universe.

We have excess of food—or at least some do.  We are so careless and uncaring toward the needs of others that we have made food into sport.  We have eating contests where the object is nothing but thinly veiled gluttony.  We support all you can eat buffets, and the majority of the super-sized patrons of those establishments do not need to be there.  (As a person who has struggled with weight all my life, I’m talking to myself.)  We throw phenomenal amounts of food away.  When we have the means and opportunity to help feed a child or a destitute neighbor, our lawmakers opt to save money and cut aid to the needy.

While our people may work a lot, some say more than other industrialized countries, we do still have an enormous amount of leisure time.  The leisure industry spans electronics to motion pictures to sports, to recreational vehicles and travel resorts.  We focus more on our own leisure than on the survival of the less fortunate.

Sodom was prosperous, “but did not aid the poor and needy.”  God’s words.  They were haughty, and in their prideful arrogance, did “an abomination”, which was unspecified in the passage in Ezekiel.

God’s solution: “I removed them.”

That is a chillingly understated comment, if we take the Genesis account as true.  Sodom, and its sister city on the plain, Gomorrah, were utterly destroyed.

When we consider where we are, how we live, what we do, it is so important that we wake up and realize that as a nation, we are precariously close to Sodom.  But there is an answer to this condition.  God told Israel through the prophet Isaiah in the first chapter if his message, “16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”

When we cling to our perceived rights to things like firearms and fail to feed a hungry child, we are guilty of the sin of Sodom.  When we allow the sick to suffer because we are reluctant to regulate skyrocketing costs or pay for care, we are guilty of the sin of Sodom.  When we support an economic system that entrenches the poor in abject poverty and sends the vast majority of all of the wealth to a privileged few, we are guilty of the sin of Sodom.

The sin of Sodom was not merely sexual.  It was the systematic, predatory oppression of those without power.

In a favorite passage in Micah 6, the prophet speaks for God, saying, “8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Justice is equivalent to righteousness in much of the Old Testament writings.  Are we practicing true righteous justice in seeing that the needs of all are met before any take more?  Kindness as rendered here is also seen as mercy, elsewhere.  How merciful is it to allow money to take precedence over people, whittling away at safety nets and forcing the most vulnerable into the darker indignity of poverty?  The humility of walking with God is far from the pride we exude on a daily basis.

God defined the sin of Sodom for us.  And all we have to do to see it is look in the mirror, collectively speaking.

But sin is a tricky thing.  It is always easier to see it in someone else than in ourselves.

Exceptionalism

It’s hard not to think about patriotism from Memorial Day through Labor Day.  The central holiday of the patriotic season, Independence Day, brings on the most patriotic of presentations and songs.

I love this country.  I love the freedoms we enjoy, as guaranteed by the organizing document of our Republic.  I love the land, and its people, from so many nations and backgrounds, yet all united in their admiration, their respect and their love for the great American experiment.

I love my country.

But I wonder if some of my fellow citizens have taken that love to a level that might be just a little beyond where it ought to be.  I’m not talking about patriotic pride.  I’m talking about a concept that has been around for a long time, but appears to be crystallizing into a divisive philosophy: American exceptionalism.

American exceptionalism is the idea that the United States is fundamentally different from and even superior to other nations.  I don’t quite get that, since people from other nations are people, too.  Certainly, there are repressive and oppressive regimes across the globe.  But there are also very democratic nations, as well.

Perhaps much of this came from the great immigrant influx of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when so many people made the United States their destination, seeking a better life with more opportunities for success.  Many of those people were fleeing from antiquated systems of government, like the oppressive monarchies of many of the western European countries, with their class structures and aristocracy, or like Russian feudalism.  Some were fleeing economic conditions brought about by natural disasters, like the Irish Potato Famine.  Whatever the reason, they were coming to America, to borrow a phrase from Neil Diamond.

I’ve also wondered if some people might have misconstrued some of the lyrics to the wonderful patriotic anthem, America the Beautiful.  According to stories, the poem on which the song was based was written by Katherine Lee Bates in the late 1800’s, based on imagery she captured during a cross country excursion.  It became popular soon after it was written, was modified a few times, and was finally woven into the fabric of the national tapestry around 1913.  The 1913 lyrics are the ones best known by most people.  But most people only know the first stanza. Some may know the last.  But few know the two in between.

Here are the words to this wonderful song.

America the Beautiful 

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

America! America! God shed His grace on thee,

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet,

Whose stern impassion’d stress

A thoroughfare for freedom beat

Across the wilderness!

America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife,

Who more than self their country loved,

And mercy more than life!

America! America! May God thy gold refine

Till all success be nobleness,

And ev’ry gain divine!

O Beautiful for patriot dream

That sees beyond the years

Thine alabaster cities gleam,

Undimmed by human tears!

America! America! God shed His grace on thee,

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

I wonder how many people construe the phrase “God shed his grace on thee” as past tense, that God had already done it, given the United States his stamp of approval.  But if taken in parallel to the next line, “God shed” is not talking about history, but is rather a prayer, a plea for God to bestow his grace on the nation.

In the second stanza, where some people have put forth the idea that the United States is (or more likely was) perfect in its form and function, Miss Bates pleads to God to “mend thine every flaw.” She doesn’t declare it to be flawless.  Apparently, she understood that as a nation, we are not perfect.

In the third verse, she again pleads, “May God thy gold refine.”  Apparently, she still considered America a work in progress.

On what can a person base the notion that the United States is better than any or all other nations?  Certainly not on educational performance or attainment.  In a study reported by Pearson in 2012, the US ranked 17th among a field of industrialized nations.  Finland was number one, South Korea number two.  The UK, Canada, Switzerland, Belgium, Australia, Germany, New Zealand, Ireland, Japan, Denmark and the Netherlands were among the countries that outranked us.

We can’t claim the best medical care, either.  The author of a 2010 New England Journal of Medicine opinion piece discussing the United States’ 37th place in the World Health Organization’s ranking of health care systems wrote, “It is hard to ignore that in 2006, the United States was number 1 in terms of health care spending per capita but ranked 39th for infant mortality, 43rd for adult female mortality, 42nd for adult male mortality, and 36th for life expectancy. These facts have fueled a question now being discussed in academic circles, as well as by government and the public: Why do we spend so much to get so little?”

The US ranked 6th in a field of more developed countries in terms of lowest unemployment rates in 2015.

I believe in the greatness of America.  I know we have accomplished much: we have defended other nations from tyranny as in the Second World War; we are usually the first people to respond to disasters in other parts of the world; we send tremendous amounts of aid to needy people all over the world; we have been the incubator for many of the greatest inventions in modern history.

But people in other countries love their countries, too.  The idea that we are so far superior to so many other nations is divisive and counterproductive to global relations.  When people think that Americans look down on them, the conversation will not be a discussion among equals.  It starts with defensiveness and degenerates from there.

I always chafe when I hear people decry someone who is a realist, who is accused of “apologizing for America.”  That is perhaps the utmost expression of my issue with exceptionalism.  The honest to God truth, though, is that we have made mistakes that have hurt other people.  We would be far better served to admit it and make amends like good neighbors.  Taken as a lesson from the realm of faith, there is no forgiveness without repentance.

God has not placed his stamp of approval on any nation, because all nations have their faults.  But that means that we should all the more adjure God not to forget us, but to mend our flaws, refine our gold, and shed his grace upon us.  We are a great nation among many great nations.  Among nations it is much like it is among citizens of any country: our greatest strength can only be experienced when we join together in purpose.  Leadership is not about dictating our terms to everyone else, but working together for a common good, or as Katherine Lee Bates expressed, “and crown thy good with brotherhood.”  If America can become better at extending the hand of fellowship and brotherhood within our borders as well as beyond them, then that is one measure of exceptionalism that will fill me with pride.  God knows we need a renewed spirit of brotherhood in these troubled times.

God bless America…

…please.

Beyond Stone Tablets

As I read about the uproar in Oklahoma over the State Supreme Court’s ruling to remove the Ten Commandments monument at the State House, I couldn’t help but think that those who are or are about to get bent out of shape over this may be doing something wrong.  Here is one of three instances of the same idea, first from Jeremiah in the OT and twice in Hebrews in the NT: “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds…” –Heb 10.16

No, that doesn’t remove the sting of the ruling.  But what it says to me is that there would come a time when stone tablets would not be necessary.  We don’t just live in fear of violating the Ten Commandments.  We live by a new command, at once easier to remember but in many cases harder to enact: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” John 13.34.

And it is important to also remember that while some in government may be pressing for people of faith to change their beliefs, the faith supported by those laws written in our hearts and minds is not subject to government approval or regulation.

I can’t help but think of the old hymn, “Faith of Our Fathers.”  In a verse added to Frederick Faber’s original lyrics, we are reminded, “Our fathers, chained in prisons dark, / Were still in heart and conscience free.”  As of this writing, I am unaware of any Christian believer who has been imprisoned and is under threat of death in this country for his or her beliefs.  To predict such is easy, but unfruitful.  Hand-wringing and anxiety engender nothing but more hand-wringing and anxiety.

The last verse of Faber’s hymn concludes

“Faith of our fathers, we will love

Both friend and foe in all our strife;

And preach Thee, too, as love knows how

By kindly words and virtuous life.”

I can think of no better resolution than this.

Marriage and the Complementary Interdependence of Humanity

Friday, June 26, 2015 is a date that will be remembered.  Not for events like massive attacks by a terrorist army in Syria, or a bloody killing spree in Tunisia, or dozens dying at the hand of a suicide bomber in Kuwait.  It will be remembered as the date that the government effectively “liberated” a minority of the American population by declaring same-sex marriage to be a constitutionally protected right.

In no way do I hope to offend anyone with my opinion on this matter.  I have known many homosexual men and women throughout my life, and I do not wish to offend any of them.  Likewise, I do not wish to offend any of my conservative Christian friends or family.  In fact, it is never my intention to offend anyone.

That said, I respectfully disagree with the decision of the Supreme Court as passed down on Friday.  I do so not out of spite for any person, but out of respect for an institution that predates constitutional governments.  It is within the government’s purview to grant rights to citizens, and as such they may establish civil unions for any two parties of any sex (including heterosexuals) that wish to contractually form a legally binding “domestic partnership.”

But as others have pointed out, the government did not define marriage, and therefore has no right to redefine it.  Yes, I approach this issue from a Christian perspective because I am a Christian, based on principles found in Biblical texts that predate current governments.

My own view is based largely on the reading of the creation story in Genesis, which forms the basis of Judeo-Christian understanding of marriage.  Genesis 2.18 is pivotal in my assessment and understanding of marriage: “Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”

This defines in my mind and heart the reason for marriage.  Because being alone is not good, man needs a helper suitable for him.  This proposes the concept of complementarity, that man needs a counter-balance to remain upright.  The divine solution is not just camaraderie or companionship.  It means much more.

I believe that man, alone, is incomplete.  While the biological and anatomical differences between male and female are obvious, the psychological differences are of great importance.  Men and women think differently.  They have different approaches to problem solving.  They are tuned-in to different aspects of their environments.  Since these things are evident, males and females complement each other in far more ways than just reproductive parts.

God’s answer to aloneness was to provide a helper suitable to the lone man.  This defines the complementary nature of the relationship.  The intimacy of that relationship is defined by more than sex.  The depth of that complementarity is seen in Genesis 2.24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”  The shifting from the subordinate role of child in a family to the completeness of a pair bonded partnership is emphasized.   I do not believe two people of the same sex can experience that same kind of deeply complementary relationship, more than physical, deeper than emotional, right down to the very essence of being.

This concept of the interdependence of male and female appears to be broadly understood across many cultures, and appears to be deeply ingrained in our collective human psyche.  For example, in Taoist philosophy, the yin and yang evoke the complementary nature of male and female, with these interdependent forces needed to engender the five elements that constitute reality, according to the Tao.

I am offended and saddened by memes and internet videos that belittle and make fun of Biblical references to marriage.  Because something is mentioned in scripture does not mean that it was the original intent and merely indicates that a person is capable of reading, but not critically assessing a text.  As for the memes and videos that describe at least eight forms of Biblical marriage, from monogamy, to polygamy, to levirate marriage, and so on, they miss the point that Jesus makes in Matthew 19.8, in his discussion of divorce.  He was asked about whether or not it is permissible for a man to divorce his wife for any cause.  He replied, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”  This then points back to his comment in verses 4 through 6 of the same chapter, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female,  and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?  So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

Some people limit this concept of “one flesh” to be only sexual in nature.  But I would ask, if a person seeks a sexual experience with someone besides his wedded partner, is he sharing the completeness of that “one flesh” experience with her?  He has broken the bond of complementarity and has driven a wedge between himself and the one he had pledged faithfulness to.  He has broken trust, broken faith, broken a vow of loyalty.  He has consciously made himself incomplete by breaking the bond of physical intimacy, and in so doing, he has forced his wife to be incomplete as well.  The “one flesh” has been sundered, and the wound shakes the foundation of humanity for both parties in the broken relationship.

I believe that the purest, deepest, most complementary connection can only be experienced by those interdependent elemental forces of male and female.  This view of marriage, then, is more than a contract.  It is acknowledging the fundamental fulfillment of human potential.  And for this reason, I respectfully disagree with the majority decision of the highest court in the nation.

Between the Scylla of Charity and the Charybdis of Economic Oppression: Waiting for the Rising Tide of Dr. King’s “Dangerous Unselfishness”

I have been reading some of the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The transcripts can only hint at the fervor with which he delivered these messages, but the words in written form are powerful if for nothing more than their permanence.

On April 3, 1968, the evening before he was murdered, Dr. King delivered a stirring speech, one that was eerily prophetic. He must have known his life was in danger. Surely he had seen and heard the threats. But danger notwithstanding, he pressed on in the Poor People’s Campaign with his show of solidarity with the Memphis sanitation workers.

In that speech, the “I Have Been to the Mountain Top” speech, he revisited a familiar theme, not only with him, but with so many who strive to teach the core value of compassion: the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Here is a transcript of that portion of the speech.

“One day a man came to Jesus and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus (That’s right), and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base. [Recording interrupted] Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from midair and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. (Yeah) And he talked about a certain man who fell among thieves. (Sure) You remember that a Levite (Sure) and a priest passed by on the other side; they didn’t stop to help him. Finally, a man of another race came by. (Yes sir) He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But he got down with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying this was the good man, this was the great man because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his brother.

“Now, you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. At times we say they were busy going to a church meeting, an ecclesiastical gathering, and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting. (Yeah) At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that one who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony. (All right) And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem, or down to Jericho, rather, to organize a Jericho Road Improvement Association. [Laughter] That’s a possibility. Maybe they felt it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effect. [Laughter]

“But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho Road is a dangerous road. (That’s right) I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. (Yeah) And as soon as we got on that road I said to my wife, “I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road. (Yes) It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about twelve hundred miles, or rather, twelve hundred feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about twenty-two feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. (Yes) In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. (Go ahead) Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking (Yeah), and he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. (Oh yeah) And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” (All right)

“But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” That’s the question before you tonight. (Yes) Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?” Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” (Yes) The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question. [Applause]”

In another speech, he used the Good Samaritan example even more broadly.

“On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

That is crux of the matter: where some see the immediate (if protracted) benefit of direct aid, they fail to effectively move toward restructuring the faulty social edifice. They may give lip service to “teaching a man to fish,” but the follow through has been dismally lacking.

It has been said that some in politics like to maintain a “dependent class” to solidify their power base, while those of a different political stripe appear to want to eliminate them altogether by amassing as much wealth to themselves as possible by whatever means possible, and scorning any measures to aid even the most vulnerable.

We must be better than that. Neither of these extremes puts forth the best of human qualities.  Neither of these addresses the central importance of human dignity.  One gives a handout to keep the poor pacified, which effectively keeps them down. The other more dispassionately holds them down with designer shoes. The better way is neither to pacify nor to suppress by economic pressure or by buying and selling political power like a commodity.  One of my heroes, a true giant among journalists, the late Tim Russert, used to say, “The best exercise for the human heart is reaching down to lift someone else up.” I believe that. It is moral. It is ethical. As a rising tide lifts all boats, investing in people will lead to a better future for all.  That is the better way.

But the greatest impediments to that are the twin vices of selfishness and greed. As long as money and power are more precious than people, we will not see the dawn of that brighter day. But every candle we light pushes back the darkness of oppression.  Dr. King segued into the Good Samaritan piece of his last great speech by telling his followers, “Either we go up together or we go down together. Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”  We need that dangerous unselfishness to disrupt the status quo.  We need that dangerous unselfishness to spur us into constructive action, not maintain the destructive inertia of socioeconomic classism, or worse yet, the catastrophically cataclysmic acceleration toward oligarchy or plutocracy.

Again, Dr. King’s words are far wiser than mine:

“As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people in this world cannot expect to live more than twenty-eight or thirty years, I can never be totally healthy even if I just got a good checkup at Mayo Clinic. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made. No individual or nation can stand out boasting of being independent. We are interdependent.”

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.