Monday, January 17, 2005

“What will happen if I don’t help?”

Listening to Dr. King’s speech on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated, I heard him exegete the story of the Good Samaritan, something I’d never heard before. He pointed out that the priest and the Levite who pass the man by, lying beaten on the Jericho road, asked themselves the question: what will happen to me, if I help that man? He pointed out that the road from Jerusalem to Jericho is a treacherous one, falling as it does from 1200 feet above sea level in Jerusalem, to 2200 feet below sea level, and winding all the way down to Jericho. But the Samaritan, he said, turned the question around. The Samaritan didn’t ask “What will happen to me if I help,” but: “What will happen to that man if I don’t help?”

The application to the civil rights and economic justice struggle that Dr. King led, is obvious (we overlook the fact that this speech was made in support of a quest for better treatment of sanitation workers). It’s not a call to sacrifice we hear anymore. It’s not a call to shared responsibility that we hear anymore; not from our churches or religious leaders; certainly not from our politicians. Here in Houston, there is a “mega-church” that puts up billboard proclaiming: “We believe in you!” And yet it purports to be a Christian church. My personal experience with that church was that it gave away turkeys at Christmas to a HUD low-income apartment complex that our denomination owned, until the year they decided the people should come to the church (a few miles away), rather than the church deliver the turkeys. At that point I knew they were no longer asking: “What will happen if we don’t help?”

Its pastor has published a best-selling book, Your Best Life Now. A pastor in my denomination once urged the rest of us to learn from this pastor's style, because he preaches to packed houses every Sunday morning, and heads a huge church. Of course, there is nothing in this man's preaching regarding sacrifice, or humility, or asking: “What will happen if I don’t help?” It's all about how he, and his church, and his god, believe in you!

I use this church as an example, not as a particular scourge. This is the public face of religion in America today. Either it seeks power and self-aggrandizement and wealth, as in the case of Dr. Dobson or Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson, or it seeks to sugar coat everything in the vague but compelling notion that “This God’s for you!”

To listen to anything Dr. King had to say, whose every message was as grounded in the stories of sacrifice of the Hebrew Scriptures (Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego were put in the furnace in Babylon, for refusing to pray to Babylonian gods; their salvation was not assured when the furnace doors opened) as it was in the stories of the civil rights struggle. Dr. King, could freely discourse on Biblical history and Christian theology and the parts of American history we still wish to ignore.

That is who we remember today. The man who publicly asked us to think about the question: “What will happen if I don’t help?”

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