Dangerous Unselfishness, Discuss Amongst Yourself…


Editors Note: here is the notes from an ongoing discussion of MLK’s call to living a life of “dangerous unselfishness” which is now occuring on Mattr’s Facebook page (enjoy):

Matt :  “Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.” — MLK (spoken on the night before his death)

Wayne: What exactly is ‘unselfish’ about participating in demonstrations in which one demands one’s rights be respected?? Don’t get me wrong; the cause was just. But this quote is nonsensical. I think the better example of ‘dangerous unselfishness’ was the one lived (and died!) by Jesus.
Matt:
And lived and died by the man known as the black ‘Jesus.’ Dr. King gave his life for the cause of his people. he could have been selfish and stayed back in Atlanta, preached to his flock there, and lived to a ripe old age as a well-loved shepherd. Yet his willingly laid down his life to improve the place of his people. That is a dangerous … See Moreunselfishness. Coretta could have insisted that he stay home and help her raise their 4 children, but she knew the calling on his husband and let him go out into the world (telling friends as he did that she knew he would be killed for doing it). That is a dangerous unselfishness. The men and women who followed King into the fires of Memphis, the waters of Birmingham, and the treacheries of Chicago also displayed this kind of unselfishness. Rather than give into the hate of Carmicheal or unprincipled exhibitionism of Jackson, they preached love and nonviolence, and demonstrated that same love in the face of tremendous loss. For that reason I have to say that Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, and Andrew Young showed what unselfishness means. To turn the other cheek when stuck, to walk an extra mile to carry your enemies’ cloak, or to preach love in the face of hate is a dangerous type of unselfishness that I can only hope to be able to which live up.

And what is interesting about both King, Mandela (and Tutu), and Gandhi is that if you listen their call is not give me what I deserve, but be what you are called to be. In his most famous speech King called America to live up the promise of its founding to be a place where all men would be viewed as equals and allowed a chance to find happiness. In South Africa in one of my alltime favorite speeches Tutu looked in the faces of his white oppressors and said ‘Your hate is killing you and the country you live. Stop giving in to the baser desires of your nature and be the best that you can be. Learn to love your brothers and become known as men of love who overcame their evil impulses.’ In refusing to give into the hate of his British overlords, Gandhi called his people to succeed by embracing unity and not individual purposes. This is a much harder argument to make than give me what is mine or I’ll take it. Tutu has said he made the speeches he did because when he looked at the white men, he felt compassion for the ways in which Apartheid was destroying not just black society but white Afrikaners as well.

This is unselfishness defined. Loving your enemy, praying for those who persecute you, and seeking unity above might. Each of these men could have turned to their base, stoked the fires of hate, and turned the engines of hate back on the power structures of their respective societies. Had they been weak and done so, none of their countries could have survived the blood bath. One participant of the silent march to memorialize King (after the three days of rioting that followed his death) has said that had Coretta shed a tear and called for blood, they would have gladly taken it. The DOJ chief watching the riots turned to Hoover’s right hand man and said, “What did you expect would happen. We have had on foots on their neck for three hundred years; of course, once they have some freedom they will arise and deck us.” But on that third day Coretta, Andrew, et al took to the stage and asked for all Americans to come together in unity of purpose and become the nation it was meant to be. The riots stopped. The nation healed. And now we even have elected man regardless of the color of his skin. Martin’s dream is being fulfullled.

I, for one, would rather see us as a nation stand by the ideals of Martin, and Nelson and call my brothers and sisters to contine working to bring into fruition that ideals and promises of our country rather than give into those like Malcom or Stokely who spoke to the hatred and fears of their constitutents and demanded grand power plays designed to bring power to their own kind at the expense of all those deemed their enemies. My biggest prayer is that those on both the left and right who call upon their followers to hate and war would soon find the peace that passes all understanding, would experience that type of love which would lay down it’s life for one’s own enemy, and the ever expanding joy of that Kingdom in which the lion would lay down with the lamb. Not because I want to be proven right. Not because I think that love is the only way. But because I grieve at the hurt and pain that hate inflicts (not just upon its victims) within the hearts of the haters. I pray that our God would continue His work writing his laws upon hearts of stone (just like mine).

Wayne:
Pursuing something that benefits *yourself*, no matter how noble the benefit may be to others in your same race/culture/status and no matter how much you may suffer personally to achieve that goal, cannot be considered ‘unselfish’. I would not compare the utterly unselfish sacrifice that Jesus made with any other seemingly similar human effort. … See MoreThere is no comparison.

I don’t dispute the achievements of MLK. In fact, I honor them. But to call his mission unselfish, even on a continuum between the absolute unselfishness of Jesus and the self-absorption of Satan, is not an accurate use of the language.

I advocate for freedom in my blog libertywatchman.com. But my advocacy, when achieved, benefits myself as well as the nation. It cannot be considered unselfish advocacy and I do not present it as such.

I think if we could have this dialog with King today, he might agree that in an effort to achieve soaring oratory, he misused the term.

A nit? Perhaps. But words have meaning and the loss of accurate meaning in our age is damaging to civil discourse. The manipulators of our time (perhaps throughout all time) know that if a lie is repeated often enough, it will be accepted as the truth. A word repeatedly misused, eventually means what the misuse intended. Neither you nor Dr King are intentional manipulators, but I think you understand my point.

To be unselfish is to have no personal interest in the matter. That cannot be accurately said of MLK or by MLK if for no other reason than that he was himself a member of the oppressed class.

Kathleen:
Personally, I think Matt hit the nail on the head:
The acts of ML King, Gandhi, Tutu are “unselfishness defined. Loving your enemy, praying for those who persecute you, and seeking unity above might”.

Wayne, you seem to be implying in your first paragraph that since no human being can ever emulate Christ, there is no point in trying! I’ve been … See Moreraised to believe that is the whole point of being a Christian. We are all miserable sinners. If we go by what you are saying (all good must be done only when there is absolutely no personal gain of any kind involved) all leaders of all kinds would be out of a job–there are very few people in this world who are truly altruistic, but that doesn’t mean good cannot be achieved by those willing to sacrifice some part (or all ) of their lives.

Matt:
It is not about personal interest, or the lack thereof. There may be positive gains for a person in an act, but if that is not neccessarily the driving motivator for the act is that a selfish act.

Take for instance the fact that I am (and Kathleen can vouch for this) one of the go-to people for picking up extra shifts, and/or swapping shifts at … See Morework. There is some personal interest for me to this. A) Helping out management by picking up shifts puts me in good standing with management which in turn makes it easiler to get consideration from them when needed. B) Doing favors for others provides good will which can be turned into favors when I need them. Both these things are positives that I consciously know and will use for myself.

However, there are also negatives to swapping shifts: having to adjust my own plans, exhaustion, and well the fact that others don’t always return the favors. I often factor in these negatives when thinking about picking up an extra shift. When I agree to come in, I do so not knowing if the positives will occur, much less outweigh the negatives; yet I often come in anyway (unless there is some other commitment that could not be broken). I do so because I believe that helping others is the appropriate behavior. I believe that being a good employee and peer means being a team player, and means that if i can hep out I should help out. it means working when I don’t feel like it, or simply put will not be negatively affected by refusing to do so. My focus, then, is not on myself , but on the others in the workplace.

It is in this sense that this type of action( I would argue) constitutes an unselfish act. Despite the perceived benefits and/or negatives to my behavior I am acting with what I perceive to be the best interest of another. The primary motivator is one of desire to help another.

I would argue that even in the example of Christ one can see benefits in His actions. By acting as He has, God has created a community for himself to be populated with many people who love and serve Him. Though He is God and has no intrinsic need for this,He has by his good actions created a mutually beneficial outcome. When He acts out of His love and goodness, He receives goodness and love. One of the best illustrations is C.S. Lewis’ example of the sixpence. I cannot do it justice on facebook, but look it up. Is God selfish for receiving the love and admiration of His people, by no means.

Last of all, let me say that in your cynicism about the human race, you actually make Martin’s point all the more vibrant and important. We live in a world of unbridled selfishness. One in which many people shout about their unselfishness while raking in benefits left and right. We live in a world of hate, fear, and anger where it is often said that might makes right, and the strangest arm rules. And it is in this very world that people of unselfishness are desparately needed, and chances are that unselfishness may easily be turned against them (that is why it is dangerous). A people who care more about others than themselves stand out, and in their standing out may often gain something for it. Yet the outcome of the event is not what solely determines the definition of it. The definition is provided by the careful balancing of motives going into an action, the action itself, and the desired outcome with a careful accounting of the actual outcome itself. When most of these come together in the perfection of love, a dangerous unselfishness shows forth itself.

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