MLK – live blog-ish, part 4.

Here’s the story behind this quirky project; here are the previous installments.

Chapter three – On being a good neighbor

“I should like to talk with you about a good man,” Dr. King opens, “whose exemplary life will always be a flashing light to plague the dozing conscience of mankind.”

And so, a reminder, first of all, that these chapters were originally sermons. That Dr. King may have written the words in quiet isolation (or not — he was a father, after all), but he wrote them knowing that he would speak them to people — people he knew. He could probably look out into his church and know who most needed to hear about the example of a “good man,” and who most reflected that good man’s example.

The good man, of course, was the Good Samaritan. Few people know this, but the Samaritans are not a dead community. Not entirely, at any rate. A few hundred of them still live in the hills outside of Nablus, on the West Bank, with an even smaller number living in a small community outside of Tel Aviv. I smoked nargila with some Samaritan women once, and drank tea with some Samaritan men. I watched Samaritan kids run up and down their hilly roads, and felt very welcome, indeed (occasionally, it really kind of rocks to be a reporter). As they did back in Jesus’ day, modern-day Samaritans believe that they got God’s message to Moses right, and the Jews got it wrong. And that in the fullness of time, they will be vindicated.

But when Jesus was walking the hills of Galilee, the Samaritan-to-Jew ratio was a significantly more even than it is now, and the effect was to create an enmity not unlike that experienced between Israelis and Palestinians today: mutual hatred, mutual distrust, mutual distaste, mutual demonization. The people to whom Jesus was speaking heard implications and nuance that we can only guess at, 2000 years later. (If you’re unfamiliar with the story, or want a refresher, you’ll find it here).

So when Dr. King talks about the three different kinds of altruism that the Good Samaritan displayed — universal, dangerous, and excessive — I have a feeling that it was the “dangerous” kind that was most apparent to the first hearers of the story.

The Samaritan possessed the capacity for a dangerous altruism. He risked his life to save a brother…. We so often ask, “What will happen to my job, my prestige, or my status if I take a stand on this issue? Will my home be bombed, will my life be threatened, or will I be jailed?” The good man always reverses the question…. Abraham Lincoln did not ask, “What will happen to me if I issue the Emancipation Proclamation and bring an end to chattel slavery?” but he asked “What will happen to the Union and to millions of Negro people, if I fail to do it?”

But Dr. King clarifies that the altruism of which he speaks must be more than mere pity:

An expression of pity devoid of genuine sympathy, leads to a new form of paternalism…. Dollars possess the potential for helping wounded children of God on life’s Jericho Road, but unless those dollars are distributed by compassionate fingers, they will enrich neither the giver nor the receiver….  The Peace Corps will fail if it seeks to do something for the underprivileged peoples of the world; it will succeed if it seeks creatively to do something with them.

In a later chapter (yes, this isn’t really a “live” blog in any sense at this point. I’m reading ahead…), Dr. King will say “All life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” True altruism, it seems, recognizes this network, and understands that altruism can only truly help — which is to say, it can only change and repair the world — if those practicing it understand that we share the garment of destiny. That none of us is free, until all of us are free.

So of course, I think of Haiti now. I think of all the helping hands today, and all the efforts that will be made in the future.

But I also think of Afghanistan and Palestine and the kids growing up in poverty not six blocks from my house. I need to keep in my mind not the question “What will happen to me if I act?”, but “what will happen to them if I don’t?”

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