A dangerous unselfishness

By Dr. Jeffrey Haggray

Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. … That’s the question before you tonight. 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?” 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. … Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really 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 so 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.
— The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Annually, we observe the life and legacy of a great American, great Baptist minister and 20th century prophet, born 89 years ago on Jan. 15 in Atlanta: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The poignancy of his prophetic words coupled with the soul-wrenching tenor of his spiritual reflections may cause us to imagine that King was a much older man when he rendered his powerful sermons. King was only 39 years old on the eve of his assassination when he delivered the “Mountaintop” sermon.

In some respects, King eulogized himself in that stirring sermon, wherein he appeared to forecast his own death. He began the sermon by supposing that he was taking a panoramic view of the whole human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?”

King culminated his ruminations on a series of possibilities for his life by positing himself in the United States of America during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. With all of the glorious options in history that King considered, he might have opted out of his particular socio-political circumstances. Nevertheless, he determined that the ultimate value and meaning of his own life were inseparable from the human and civil rights struggles of the 1960s.

By the time King reached his climactic words above, he had already established rhetorically and biographically that his brief life was dedicated to making dangerous sacrifices for the sake of causes bigger than his own interests. King’s admonition — “Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness” — causes shivers up and down the spine of persons of conscience to this day.

Still we find ourselves inhabiting a nation and world in which the denial of human rights, injustice, violence, racial discrimination and a host of other evils that existed in 1968 persists to this day.

Still we find the all-too-human temptation on the part of “good” people to look the other way, not get involved, limit our exposure, mind our own business, or to avoid becoming political or controversial in the face of gross injustices and incivility.

Taking action or speaking up on behalf of others who are suffering indignities, persecution, oppression or any form of human evil is increasingly risky. We can delude ourselves into thinking that if we simply limit our issues, close our eyes, look the other way, focus on self-preservation or “simply pray for all those people suffering” that we have fulfilled our Christian duty. However, the young King set a high bar for all people for generations to come by taking a principled stand for justice on behalf of others, even when doing so increased the risks to his own life. In doing so, said King, he patterned his own life on Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, who risked his life to rescue a complete stranger on the Jericho Road.

As we observe King’s legacy during this season of immense social, moral and political unrest in America, the well-being of persons representing a broad spectrum — including immigrants, persons living in poverty, the uninsured, unemployed, homeless, addicted, incarcerated, marginalized, stigmatized, and so on ad infinitum — is threatened daily. The bell of freedom and righteousness continues to summon men and women of conscience and moral concern to sacrifice personal comforts, resources and conventional respectability for the sake of justice, advocacy and protections for all those who are too weak to defend themselves.

What sacrifices are we prepared to make in our time for the sake of others who are defenseless? What might dangerous unselfishness look like for you and me?

Dr. Jeffrey Haggray is executive director and CEO of American Baptist Home Mission Societies and Judson Press.

Excerpts above from “I See the Promised Land,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last sermon, delivered on April 3, 1968, the eve of his assassination, at Mason Temple, Memphis, Tenn. Printed in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., pp. 279–287. Edited by James M. Washington. Harper Collins, San Francisco, 1986.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.