April 3, 2018, marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered the night before his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. That night, with thunder rumbling in the distance, King carefully reflected on some of the most significant biblical themes of the entire civil-rights movement.
One important yet easily overlooked theme is the interrelatedness of human life. This was the fundamental idea that brought King to Memphis. Despite mounting pressures, including credible threats against his life, King refused to ignore the plight of the 1,300 poor sanitation workers in Memphis. As he often said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” This was King’s way of affirming that as God’s image-bearers, we have a significant responsibility to care for each other and a significant stake in each other’s wellbeing.
Toward the end of his speech, King appealed to interrelatedness in order to shore up ongoing commitment to the sanitation workers’ cause. With television cameras rolling, he urged the crowd:
Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together. Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.
With this, King reminded all Memphians of their personal stake in the fortunes of the sanitation workers, and he called people of all races and socio-political persuasions to stand with them as brothers.
Selective Social Ethic
Sin tempts us to deny our fundamental interrelatedness. Biblical texts like the Table of Nations (Gen. 10) reveal something to God’s people that virtually every other ancient society denied—namely, that all humans are related, descended from the same man (Noah), cut from a single cloth. In a world in which every nation and ethnic group claimed its own innate superiority, God’s people uniquely understood that we all have equal value and a real responsibility for one another.
Yet God’s people have often forgotten this truth, and asked with the lawyer of Luke 10, “Who is my neighbor?” The lawyer had no problem with the command to love his own churchgoing kinsfolk. However, he found an especially religious way of sidestepping his responsibility to care for people outside his own nationality, race, class, and gender.
We aren’t so different. Most churches are willing to address certain social issues. If you don’t think so, just ask yourself whether your church addresses the culture’s attitudes around sexuality, money, education, and abortion. Most churches apply the claims of the gospel to social issues, and rightly so. The problem is that we have a highly selective social ethic that recognizes and addresses the sufferings of certain people while conspicuously ignoring the sufferings of others.
We have a highly selective social ethic that recognizes and addresses the sufferings of certain people while conspicuously ignoring the sufferings of others.
Again, in his parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus tells of a man who crossed socio-political, racial, and even religious boundaries to help a suffering neighbor. Despite being outside the bounds of the covenant community, this man had enough decency to recognize his responsibility to his fellow human being. Jesus is challenging us to consider whether we have enough basic decency to do the same. Regardless of how gospel-minded we claim to be, if our theology leads us to ignore suffering people or accommodate injustice (whether through denial, minimization, or support), then it is more secular than sacred.
The great mark of this sinful age has been to ask, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Meanwhile, Jesus gives us the gospel grace to say with our lives, “I am my brother’s keeper.”
Identify with the Oppressed
This is precisely where King’s reminder of human interrelatedness is especially helpful. The sanitation workers were among the poorest and most despised folks in town. Their working conditions were so dehumanizing that their rallying cry became “I am a man.” Most well-to-do Memphians didn’t dare risk their reputation to help a bunch of poor black garbage men. But King explained they weren’t just garbage workers; they were “God’s children” and “your brother.” He was calling on rich white Memphians to intervene on behalf of the poor black sanitation workers just as they would for their own family members.
Whether or not we feel personally responsible for knocking our neighbor down, we’re all responsible for picking our neighbor up, as if our own brother or sister were down.
The doctrine of human interrelatedness stretches our compassion beyond the narrow confines of our own socio-political interests and calls us to address human suffering wherever we find it, because we are brothers. We’re most likely to empathize with and help those we most identify with. So if we don’t identify with poor and marginalized people, we’re not likely to help them. The doctrine of human interrelatedness is powerful, then, because it broadens the scope of whom we identify with to include all people.
The Lord set this pattern in Isaiah 58 when he declared to his hardened people, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? . . . and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” The gospel calls us to identify with oppressed people as “our own flesh.” Whether or not we feel personally responsible for knocking our neighbor down, we’re all responsible for picking our neighbor up, as if our own brother or sister were down.
Selfless Love Is Dangerous
When we cross society’s well-established boundaries in order to help pick up our neighbor, the world takes notice, and things can become dangerous for us. In a sinful world marked by greed, oppression, and cultural separatism, cross-cultural unselfishness often comes at a high cost. But King insisted that the cost of inaction is much higher. “Either we go up together or we go down together,” he said. Our gospel witness, our integrity and obedience to Christ, the cause of justice in our land, and a proper perspective of ourselves in relation to our neighbor are all on the line.
If we refuse to see God’s image and our own flesh in all our suffering neighbors—including our undocumented neighbor, unjustly criminalized and incarcerated neighbor, economically crushed neighbor, Muslim neighbor, sexually assaulted neighbor, unborn neighbor—we compromise our witness and risk causing others to stumble. May we hear in King’s words the old commandment to love one another with new and fresh application today.
- Martin Luther King Jr. and the Gospel’s Social Demands (Mika Edmondson)