dangerous unselfishness

In a new book by University of Washington, Tacoma, professor Michael Honey, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign, one of the 1300 sanitation workers on whose behalf Dr. King was there in Memphis, says of him: "King was like Moses. You can't keep treating people wrong, you gotta do right some time."

It was in Memphis on the eve of his assasination that he gave the prophetic "I've been to the mountaintop" speech, in which he declared, "Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness." He explored the parable of the good Samaritan who helped the man along the road between Jerusalem and Jericho:

But I'm going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It's possible that these men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, "I can see why Jesus used this as a setting for his parable." It's a winding, meandering road. It's really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1200 miles, or rather 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you're about 2200 feet below sea level. That's a dangerous road. In the day of Jesus it came to be known as the 'Bloody Pass.'

…And so the first question that the Levite asked was, 'If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?' 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. 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?' The question is not, 'If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?' 'If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?' That's the question."

That speech, his last, ends like this:

"…Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

Though the words are powerful to read (find the complete transcript here), it is immeasurably more powerful to actually hear him, which you can do from here, or hear and see him, which you can do here or here; to feel his deep, slow, deliberate, rhythmic voice, and his message, and his force of spirit, roll through you and carry you and hold you up.

"But Moses never got to the Promised Land, and I just couldn't understand it...Moses only got to see the Promised Land and to watch the others go there. Everyone else had been given their dream. It didn't seem fair to me.
"When I told this to my grandfather, he smiled. 'But Moses did get his dream,' he said. 'Moses was a leader, Neshume-le, and a leader always has a different dream from the others.'
"He reminded me of mitzvot, those human actions that help move things in the direction in which God is trying to move them. When a person does such an action, they become God's hands in the world. 'There are many mitzvot, but the greatest mitzvah of all is said to be the freeing of captives,' he told me. 'Moses's dream was for his people to be free. And so his reward was that he got to see that happen. Because he was a leader, his dream was different from the dreams of the people, Neshume-le.

"A real leader has the same dream that God has.'"

~My Grandfather's Blessings, Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.