24 Questions for Advent: Five
Koenig, Peter. Road to Emmaus, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN
Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?' - Martin Luther King, Jr.
The danger in posing such a question, as valid as it is from one of our greatest examples of living for others, is that there are many of us who can misinterpret such as motivation to remain in co-dependent relationships, trying to satisfy our “need to be needed.”
I don’t think that kind of response is what Dr. King is after in raising the question. Rather, it is a challenge to truly love our neighbor.
I remember an old Peanuts comic strip, where Charlie Brown & Schroeder notice that Snoopy is shivering in the cold. They come up to him and remark, “Be of good cheer, Snoopy” before walking away and leaving Snoopy, still cold and in bewilderment. Much like the apostle James’ admonition that “faith without works is dead,” it is easy to love our neighbor from a safe distance instead of really getting involved.
Dr. King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail is a powerful and heartfelt rebuke of the Church, which often preaches about loving our neighbor while turning a blind eye to real injustice:
In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
Dr. King notes earlier in the Letter that “it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.” I submit that the question “What are you doing for others?” is best understood, and needs to be responded to, in that context. We are tribal in nature, needing one another to spur us on, and this can be for good or for ill. We can help each other to move toward justice, or to avoid it. The realities we create as groups are powerful, and it is hard to swim against the tide of those whom we most identify.
Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi made a powerful impression on me this past year, as did his conclusion that, while speaking to the moral conscience of individuals is good, real progress toward racial justice in this country happens most effectively when changes in policy force groups to alter their behavior.
Shortly after the 2016 election, comedian Jon Stewart was interviewed on CBS This Morning:
This is the fight that we wage against ourselves and each other, because America is not natural. Natural is tribal. We’re fighting against thousands of years of human behavior in history to create something that no one’s ever (done), and that’s what’s exceptional about America, and that’s what...this ain’t easy...it’s an incredible thing.
This ain’t easy. Jesus warned us that it would be difficult indeed. We must do it together, with Him:
For him who burns with a creed and a flame Words are as smoke on the wind Some kind of volatile helplessness reigns And can't fill the hearts of his kin To go and enlighten the doomed and unwashed Seized with the art of sacrifice To carry the weight of a martyr-at-large Is easier than giving your life And it's a lonely road, it's a lonely road, it's a lonely road That the Son of Man walks down
Mark Heard, Lonely Road