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Friday, August 10, 2012

Martin Luther King's Review Of The Good Samaritan

In his last speech, Martin Luther King spoke in Memphis in support of the striking sanitation workers. Conservatives should note here that King's presence in Memphis was to promote economic justice. Toward the end of his speech, King referenced the parable on the Good Samaritan (read here for parable, read here for King's speech).  This parable tells a story about a man who was  beaten, robbed, and left for dead on a dangerous road. He was then ignored by two religious leaders but was helped by a religiously unclean Samaritan. This parable was told by Jesus to a man intent on proving his own righteousness.

King began his explanation by giving the traditional interpretation of the parable. This understanding says that the Levite and the priest had religious reasons for not stopping to help. These reasons might have included wanting to get to the "church" on time or desiring to keep ceremonially clean.

But then King decided to use his imagination to fill in the blanks. He first noted that the road Jesus used in the parable was a dangerous road and was filled with robbers. So when the Levite and the priest came upon the man, King thought that they had asked themselves the question, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" They wondered if they would be robbed or was the man who was beaten merely trying to trick them so he could rob whoever stopped to help. King summarized the attitude of these two religious leaders by asking, "What would happen to me?"

Then King noted that the Good Samaritan reversed the question that the Levite and priest had asked. The Good Samaritan asked the question, "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?" King went on to say that the reason why they were in Memphis was not because of what would happen to them; rather, the question that made King go to Memphis was one that asked what would happen to the sanitation workers if he did not join them.

The question King attributes to the Good Samaritan delivers a knockout punch to the solar plexus of Conservative Christianity. Why? It is because this question challenges us to become other-directed while Conservative Christianity, with its focus on the individual, pressures us to stay self-directed. American Conservative Christianity funnels our attention to the individual by putting the emphasis it does on both where we will go after we die and on keeping oneself personally pure. Unfortunately, this stress on the self stops us from caring for many people. Therefore, the question that is most often asked by conservative Christians with regard to helping others is, "What will happen to me if I stop to help another person?" A variation of this question is also asked by conservative Christians. That question is "What will happen to me if I don't stop to help this person?" The subject of the latter question is whether one would be punished by God if one does not stop to do something one does not want to do.

But the demands of God's law, as partially illustrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the needs of our time require that we ask the altruistic question. Both the law and the times require that we place concern for others over self. And in the parable of the Good Samaritan, as in the parable of the sheep and the goats (read sheep and goats parable), the other person is one who is oppressed or neglected. Thus, when we meet someone in need, we should be asking, "What will happen to this person if I do not stop to help them?"

The next question becomes will Conservative Christianity remain on the road paved by the question of "what will happen to me" and its variation or will it turn onto the street that asks, "what will happen to the other person." We should note that care for where one will go after death and one's own personal righteousness does not necessarily free the believer from sin. However, being other-directed can help. The believer who is self-directed regardless of how religious the believer is holding on to an idolatrous self-interest. The believer who is other-directed has an advantage in battling sin.

As Conservative Christianity remains on its current road, it sanctifies self-centeredness. It tells us to become preoccupied with ourselves in a holy way. It teaches us that faith in Christ can help us get what we want in life. It teaches us to be righteously selfish. That means Conservative Christianity tells the sinner that their self-centeredness only needs to be tweaked, not removed. With Conservative Christianity, one can be as self-centered as before as long as what one desires is not taboo. With today's Conservative Christianity, the believer becomes a consumer, the Gospel a commodity, and the exercise of faith in Christ the adding of the Gospel to one's shopping cart.

We should also ask why Conservative Christianity teaches its adherents to remain so preoccupied with themselves when their Savior did just the opposite. One reason has to do with what the believer would have to do if they were other-directed. Certainly they would have to help some as individuals such as by helping with chores, giving money to those who are poor, tutoring, and such. But other activities would require the believer to be an activist and speak out against those with wealth and power. In Biblical language, this is called being a prophet.

Does the Conservative Church want to change course and challenge the status quo by teaching its members to be prophet-activists? After all, the Conservative Church depends on the status quo for both numbers and funds. Calling on believers to challenge the hand that feeds them may cause them to leave since many individual conservative Christians depend on and admire the wealthy and are loyal to power. In addition, calling on believers to be activists on more than just the abortion issue will lead to believers working with and reading unbelievers. This idea frightens the American Conservative Church both on an institutional and individual level. On an institutional level, encouraging believers to read nonbelievers could result in having less control of the flock as its members read non-approved material. At the same time, many individual Christians are afraid of reading non-approved material less they be corrupted by nonChristian world views.

So far, the American Conservative Church has opted to keep faith and the Christian life as a self-directed endeavor. And this is despite the fact that a greater concern for others than for self does not prevents one from believing or from being concerned about personal righteousness. In fact, being other-directed is more consistent with saving faith than is being righteously selfish.

In the meantime, the question that King imagined the Good Samaritan asking challenges those outside of the Conservative Church as well. With all of the factions and issues tearing at our society and world today, it is safe to say that unless we imitate the Good Samaritan as King saw him and tried to do himself, we will implode and lose all that we have. Not only will we lose, but so will all of our loved ones. Such a statement seems incredulous to those who are content. That is because contentment releases a hallucinogen that causes us to see our current state as existing forever. And it is only when that state of contentment is interrupted that are we motivated to see and react to reality. If this is the case, our hope can only come too late.


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