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.”

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