Dangerous Unselfishness: Winning the War Against the Unenlightened Self
By Maurice L. Harris
Many thanks to the people of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Brattleboro, Vermont, for participating in this Sunday’s Adult Forum — a celebration of Black History, the Rev. Dr. King’s legacy, and our continuing journey to the Beloved Community.
In his final speech, on April 3, 1968, famously titled “I’ve been to the Mountaintop,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. commended the audience to “develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness” (King, 1968). Using the story of the Good Samaritan as a backdrop, King went on to illustrate how fear for one’s own personal well-being, could convince even the best of people of to run away from a stranger lying bleeding to death on the roadside.
Passersby were thinking, “If I stop to help this person in need, what will happen to me? Will I, too, get robbed and beaten?” But King said the question they should have been asking was, “If I do not stop to help him, what will happen to him?”
Some of us would, in fact, stop to help. But why? Psychologists and philosophers might explain it as a case of Enlightened Self-interest. This is a brand of ethics that says there is an element of selfishness in everything we do. For example, we help the bleeding stranger on the roadside not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it makes us feel good inside. Enlightened Self-interest is sometimes used in conjunction with another of Dr. King’s famous quotes (or should I say misquotes?), “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” From this point of view, we might ask be asking ourselves “If I do not stop to help this bleeding stranger, what will happen to me? Do I become less of a human by not helping?”
Whether King supported the idea of Enlightened Self-interest, I do not know. Of this I am certain: An injustice anywhere is merely a threat to justice everywhere. History has proven that in the face of injustice, those in positions of privilege often use that privilege to exempt themselves from the scourge of injustice. So, in that sense, an injustice anywhere may be a threat to justice everywhere, but not a guarantee.
Recognizing that self-interest is categorically unenlightened, King challenges us to ask a very different question. That question is, “If I do not stop to help him, what will happen to him?” Dangerous unselfishness.
In that same speech, King suggests that accepting this call to dangerous unselfishness is what will “make America what it ought to be…to make America a better nation.”
Nonviolent resistance is certainly the trademark of King’s approach, but we tend to forget that King was a Baptist preacher as much as he was a social activist. He knew as Paul said in his letter to the Ephesians, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood” (Eph. 6:12 NET Bible). That meant while nonviolent resistance was going outside, a full-fledge war was raging inside. So it is for all of us. That is why today we’re going focus on winning the war against the soldiers of the unenlightened self:
One of the less-frequently discussed aspects of King’s background is the fact that he had earned his way into a small, privileged class of African-Americans. He was college educated, upwardly mobile, could’ve stayed north after completing his PhD at Boston University. King had written his ticket out of the Jim Crow south and out of poverty. The question is, how differently would history have been if instead of leading marches and boycotts, instead of risking his life in places like “Bombingham,” Alabama, King had used his position of privilege to focus primarily on lobbying Congress, lecturing in universities, and starting a movement up north and progressing down south? The problem—and King knew this—is that privilege can’t thwart privilege. This kind of social change has to happen from the bottom up.
I read a well-intentioned article urging people in positions of privilege to fight fire with fire, so to speak, leveraging their privilege in order to dismantle its institutions. This strategy is problematic on three fronts. First there is the matter of top-down change. A change in law, for example, forces a change in behavior, but does nothing to address attitudes or culture. We see examples of this in immigration, international trade, gender equality, and race relations. Specifically regarding the latter, as the Civil Rights Movement relaxed following King’s death, culture has never caught up with legislation. Any number of organizations and politicians have advocated for social justice by targeting the law first and expecting law to transform culture, which has left those whose privilege is being stripped away feeling marginalized themselves. Next there is the issue of self-demolition. One might think of this as the antithesis of self-preservation. Those in positions of privilege rarely concede it entirely even if they acknowledge that change is necessary. Then there is the issue of benevolent ignorance. Those who acknowledge their position of privilege may, in fact, be unaware of the full range of advantages they are being asked to forfeit—and may subtly resist change.
You can see how insidious this enemy, the unenlightened self, can be. It convinces us that we can hold onto privilege and at the same time use it to chip away at privilege—essentially, fighting injustice with injustice. So, in the war against the unenlightened self, King’s strategy was to give up his privilege and become a part of the community that he was called to serve.
Modern-day civil rights activist Jane Elliott talks about white privilege, specifically, but what she says is really true all forms of privilege, whether it be male privilege, heterosexual privilege, economic privilege, et cetera. Elliott says that privilege grants us two important freedoms: the freedom to be ignorant and the freedom to deny that we’re ignorant (Mukuka, 2015).
Some might argue that when privilege is the result of an immutable difference—such as race or lineage—one can only at best aspire to shed the conscious dimensions of privilege.
But regardless whether privilege is voluntary, connate, or a little of both, we must take the time to listen to marginalized voices and understand how we might leave our positions of privilege—whatever those may be—to stand with them.
One of my favorite photos is an image of King leading a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965. The image depicts a unified front of African Americans, Jews, and whites. This, I think, is how we leave our positions of privilege. So, maybe I can’t be a woman, or a Muslim, or a Syrian refugee, but even if I can’t be you, I can show up and march with you.
My closing thought on privilege comes from political theorist Judith Shklar, who writes that there are two kinds of injustice.
“The normally unjust man is guilty of unfairness and of actively violating law and custom. The passively unjust man, however, does something else. He is simply indifferent to what goes on around him, especially when he sees fraud and violence.” (Shklar, 1989, p. 1142)
We know what Jesus had to say about this. “I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me.” (Matt. 25:40 NET Bible)
There are a couple of myths that I wouldlike to dispel: (1) King always had a clear vision for civil rights and how to attain them, and (2) he was always a staunch pacifist. Not quite true. As Stewart burns, acclaimed biographers, reveals:
..not even King’s closest associates were irrevocably committed to nonviolent action….The truth is that neither was MLK so committed, at first, until the Montgomery bus boycott and his seasoned teachers taught him a different way.
Bayard Rustin, MLK’s tutor-in-chief on nonviolent methods and strategy, had been a longtime nonviolent activist, based in New York…
Rustin recalled that when he arrived in Montgomery in February 1956…the protest leader “had very limited notions about how a nonviolent protest should be carried out.” Contrary to what King reported later, he knew little about Gandhi and the liberation struggle in India. (Burns, 2013, Kindle Location 458)
It’s important that we mention Bayard Rustin not only because he was he King’s tutor-in-chief, which has been reported over the years but largely overlooked, but also because Rustin was openly gay in a fiercely homophobic era, which is largely why his association with King and involvement in the Civil Rights Movement has been diminished. There’s a wonderful documentary called Brother Outsider that tells Rustin’s story, and illustrates just how important it is to win the battle against the unenlightened self in the fight for others. Imagine spending your entire career training for a certain role, only to watch someone with less experience get elevated to that position, and those who promoted him asked you to train him because you have all the experience. Then imagine that you put self aside. This is precisely what Rustin did.
King also had to go to war against self. One of the earliest efforts of the Civil Rights Movement under his watch, the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956, was at risk of failing from the inside out. King could dig in his heels and potentially run it into the ground, or he could accept help. The problem is we live and work in a world that tells us strong leaders make decisions, they don’t ask for direction.
When it comes to team and organizational leadership, one of the biggest lies that the unenlightened self likes to tell a leader is that he or she alone is uniquely qualified to lead in every context. But in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul reminds us that Christ “gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, … all to the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11 NET Bible). And there’s a similar theme in his letter to the Corinthians when he says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you! If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (1 Cor. 12:21,26 NET Bible)
Rustin and King both got this even before Harvard came up with a theory to describe it. What they both exhibit is a strong combination of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. These four domains are parts of a larger construct called Emotional Intelligence (Goleman & Boyatzis, 2017). This is a relatively new concept that came about in the 1990s and has since led to a greater understanding of what makes good leaders tick. Research published by Harvard Business Review, for example, says that EQ (a measure of emotional intelligence) counts more than intellect and technical skills combined in predicting a leader’s effectiveness (Ovans, 2015).
The best part about Emotional Intelligence is that it can be measured and improved. Here are links to four interesting helpful pieces from Harvard Business Review:
- How Emotional Intelligence Became a Key Leadership Skill
- Emotional Intelligence Has 12 Elements. Which Do You Need to Work On?
- Quiz Yourself: Do You Lead with Emotional Intelligence?
- How to Help Someone Develop Emotional Intelligence
Returning to the parable of the Good Samartian, we are faced with a fearful question. What will happen to me if I forfeit privilege, set aside ego, and go over to that stranger bleeding on the roadside?
As I was preparing for this forum, I was surprised at the dearth of empirical research into fear-based decision-making in leadership. Perhaps this is because we’re conditioned to believe that a little fear can be a good thing. After all, fear tells us when we’re in danger. Of course, fear is instinctual. It’s reflexive. And it’s imperfect.
In his book called, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, author Malcolm Galdwell (2007) uses a combination of scientific research and interviews with police who have been involved in violent encounters to illustrate how the arousal of fear causes a kind of temporary autism. The brain loses its ability to process empathy. Faces and bodies simply become objects. In a state of heightened fear, it’s been shown that people “have difficulty interpreting nonverbal cues, such as gestures and facial expressions or putting themselves inside someone else’s head or drawing understanding from anything other than the literal meaning of words” (Kindle Location 2524). And that’s if they even hear the words because most often, in a state of fear, the brain blocks out surrounding sounds.
We’ve all seen the videos and heard the 911 calls where the victim, or the people nearby, are yelling, “Stop! No one’s resisting you! There is no danger!” Still, an unarmed suspect—who may be fully cooperating with police—is killed in broad daylight.
This is precisely the reason that many police departments in recent years have banned high-speed chases… pursuing a suspect at high speed is precisely the kind of activity that pushes police officers into this dangerous state of high arousal. (Gladwell, 2007, Kindle Locations 2671-2672)
Nevertheless, the unenlightened self says that a little fear is a good thing. It keeps you safe. Yeah, right. And we’ve seen the kinds of decisions we make when we let fear take the helm. I’m not convinced that we’re ever thinking straight when even a little fear is involved. And we certainly have no idea how quickly a little fear can grow violently beyond control.
Here’s the good news: “For God did not give us a Spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (2 Tim. 1:6 NET Bible) This means that fear may be an instinct, but—at least from Paul’s perspective—we have power over fear, and we can control it.
This, too, has been proven. Whenever people are in fear-driven scenarios, whether it be an emergency landing, a fire-rescue, or yes, even an incident of police brutality, the one thing the pilot, the fire fighter, and the police officer say with consistency is, “My training kicked in.”
King knew this too. You see, we marvel at the pictures of civil rights activists who stayed their course even when they were being spit on at lunch counters, attacked by dogs, drowned with firehoses, beaten, and forced into paddy wagons. But what we tend not to see is that they trained for it. In fact, most of the major organizations associated with nonviolent demonstrations in the 1950s and 60s— CORE, N-VAC, SNCC, and SCLC—provided nonviolent training so that in those fearful situations, when the unenlightened self was screaming, “Run away! Or “Hit back!” the training kicked in.
We must do the same. Even if we’re not at the forefront of social change movements, the leaders of nations, or the CEOs of corporations, we must train our minds to respond to fear with power, love, and self-control.
At the time of Jesus’ arrest, “one of those with Jesus grabbed his sword, drew it out, and struck the high priest’s slave, cutting off his ear.” (Matt. 26:51 NET Bible)
Fear at its finest. We all know this story.
Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back in its place! For all who take hold of the sword will die by the sword.” (Matt. 26:52 NET Bible)
Power, love, and self-control in a moment of fear.
As King concluded his final speech, he said, “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop… I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”
I’d offer to you that we still don’t know what will happen. We’ve all got some difficult days ahead. For example, our elected leaders are forcing us to think, more critically than ever before, about who the bleeding stranger on the roadside really is—and how we might use our positions of leadership to make a difference—whether through the choices we make for ourselves or the influence we have with others.
Will we become like the passively unjunst, who hides behind a wall privilege to block out the cries for help and the sight of blood on the other side? Will we become like the ego-driven fool, who refuses to stop for directions even when all the signs are pointing to certain doom? Will become like the fearful, so possessed in the moment that we can no longer discern enemy from friend, so possessed by fear that we ourselves become the actively unjust—destroying the very lives that we are called to serve? Or will we win the war against privilege, ego, and fear, and reverse the question:
“If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
“Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.” (King, 1968)
May it be so in Jesus name, Amen.
Burns, S. (2013). “We will stand here till we die”: Freedom movement shakes America, shapes Martin Luther King, Jr. (Kindle). Stewart Burns.
Gladwell, M. (2007). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking (Kindle). New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
Goleman, D., & Boyatzis, R. E. (2017, February 6). Emotional Intelligence has 12 elements. Which do you need to work on? Retrieved February 11, 2017, from https://hbr.org
King, M. L. (1968, April 3). I’ve been to the mountaintop. Retrieved February 11, 2017, from http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu
Mukuka, P. (2015). brown eye blue eye, Jane Elliott [YouTube]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jPZEJHJPwIw&feature=youtu.be
Ovans, A. (2015, April 28). How Emotional Intelligence became a key leadership skill. Retrieved February 12, 2017, from https://hbr.org
Shklar, J. (1989). Giving injustice its due. The Yale Law Journal, 98(6), 1135–1151. https://doi.org/10.2307/796574
Photo Credit: By Minnesota Historical Society -http://www.flickr.com/photos/minnesotahistoricalsociety/5355384180/sizes/o/in/photostream/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19183908
This article was originally published in the author's blog, PITObread: A spiritual perspective on Personal, Interpersonal, Team and Organizational Leadership. Read more at http://pitobread.com.
Maurice L. Harris has served in various leadership capacities at large corporations and small businesses across several industries, as well as in community organizations dedicated to social change. He is presently the Diocesan Communications Minister for the Episcopal Church in Vermont. Harris earned his Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership from Mount Saint Joseph University and is currently working on a PhD in Ethical & Creative Leadership at the Union Institute & University. He and his husband reside in Brattleboro, Vermont, and are members of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church.