Monday, October 04, 2010

Are you already dead?

"I say to you this morning that if you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it then you aren’t fit to live. You may be thirty eight years old, as I happen to be, and one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause and you refuse to do it because you are afraid; you refuse to do it because you want to live longer; you’re afraid you will lose your job; or you’re afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity; or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you, shoot at you, or bomb your house and so you refuse to take a stand. Well you may go on and live until you’re ninety, but you’re just as dead at thirty eight as you would be at ninety. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right. You died when you refused to stand up for truth. You died when you refused to stand up for justice."

- Martin Luther King, from a 1967 speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta,
titled “But if Not“.

Check your pulse. Are you already dead? Are you largely occupied with expanding and protecting your goods, preserving your health and massaging your reputation?

There are things worse than death. And so there are things worth dying for. Would you know one if you saw it?
H/T Milan.


gbroughto said...

Yes a great quote and as prescient as ever. Interesting to remember the context as well... that after gaining some wins after more than a decade of toil in the civil rights campaign, that MLK has started speaking out against Vietnam and getting involved in the poor people campaign - on both of these he was widely opposed - from President Johnson right through to some of his closest supporter (they were afraid of losing some of the hard-won civil rights through MLK's speaking out against the 2 other evils of militarism & poverty).

That these 2 remain (as well as racism in new forms) - and that he only lived to see 39 not 90 makes the challenging words more so.

So Byron, what "hill" are you prepared to die / get crucified on?

byron smith said...

Thanks Geoff - some important historical context there that I hadn't mentioned. Of course, the really crucial context you allude to by mentioning his age at death was only 39. In case there are any readers who are unaware of it, Dr King was shot and killed for speaking out within about a year of giving this quote.

What hill am I prepared to die on? Plenty. I'm spoilt for choice, really.

More seriously, it comes down to the question of when witness to the truth becomes fatally compromised through doing anything other than standing by and for the truth. I am not sure that compiling a list of issues that are "important enough" to die for is what MLK was really saying here. I could do so and come up with a shopping list of critical things, but judging the historical situation requires careful discernment. It is about being open to the "great opportunity" so that you don't miss its call when it stands before you. How do we ensure that we are open to hearing this call?

Mike W said...

is that call there every time we meet another human being? Do we miss the 'big opportunities' because we miss the small opportunities, to really serve, to really lose, to really possibly die?

Thanks for the post Byron

byron smith said...

Ah, now that is profound. Sounds like someone has been reading some Levinas?

Mike W said...

no, but maybe I should...
I'm thinking about MLK's quote, most of us are too caught up with triviality to even notice big opportunities to stand up for what is right. It takes a whole lot of media bombardment to get us to notice, which means we dont practice justice very often. But for most of us, the opportunity to treat people as though they are infinitely valuable presents itself each day.

byron smith said...

Yes, you're entirely right. I didn't mean to belittle your contribution. I guess great minds think alike (yours and Levinas').

Mike W said...

thanks Byron, no sense of belittling taken. I've probably been getting Levinas third hand through people engaging with Derrida about hospitality.
Do you think King's 'heroic' status helps or hinders his message now? i assume he genuinely did inspire many people to suffer small and great losses for the sake of justice, yet most of those stories will never be told or lauded. In the quote, King plays on whether individuals are alive if cowered by fear, but I wonder if my attraction to his message has more to do with the public recognition of his martyrdom than with my desire to be truly alive.

byron smith said...

Mike - an interesting thought. Can you say more about the possible way(s) that King's martyrdom makes his message illegitimately attractive? If he was martyred for witnessing to the truth/justice/the(un)American way, doesn't the value of his action as witness lie in the perspective it gives us on the truth/justice/way? How does his death distract from his message?