Martin Luther King: What Does the Story of the Good Samaritan Teach Us?

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MLK

“Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.

One day a man came to Jesus; and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters in life. At points, he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew, and through this, throw him off base. Now his questions could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled his questions from mid-air, and placed them on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn’t stop to help him.

And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy.

Martin Luther King Jr. At Home With His FamilyJesus ended up saying that this was the good man because he had the capacity to project the ‘I’ into the ‘thou,’ and to be concerned about his brother. Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. At times we say they were busy going to a church meeting, an ecclesiastical gathering, and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that one who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony.And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jericho to organize a ‘Jericho Road Improvement Association’. That’s a possibility. Maybe they felt it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effect.

But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me: it’s possible that these men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road.

I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, ‘I can see why Jesus used this as a setting for his parable.’ It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing… In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the ‘Bloody Pass.’ And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around.

And so the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’

That’s the question before you tonight.”

Martin Luther King Jr. and His Wife

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Martin Luther King, preaching his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon on April 4th, 1968, the night before he was murdered.

The parable of the “Good Samaritan” is mentioned in only one gospel, Luke’s, the sole book of the Bible written by a Gentile.

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Martin Amis on Terror, Iraq, and His Father

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Jon Snow: Look at the war on Iraq – do you not think that would stir an urge in the Arab world when they see women and children ravaged by what we Westerners are doing?

Martin Amis: I’ve said in print that by far the greatest danger of terrorism is not what it inflicts, but what it provokes; and the Iraq war has been a disaster. I was against it at the time, and I’m against it now. Blowing up a London nightclub on lady’s night [as an uncovered terrorist plot had planned] doesn’t seem to me to be a proportionate act in response to that.

The other night, I asked an audience to put up its hands if it felt morally superior to the Taliban. To the Taliban – who have two-day massacres, slash the throats of children, not only subtract women from society, but black up the windows of the houses they’re confined to. And only a third of the audience raised its hands.

Jon Snow: But do you feel morally superior to Islam?

Martin Amis: I feel morally superior to Islamism, yes. By some distance.

Jeremy Paxman: Islam itself?

Martin Amis: Well, I feel an intellectual distance from it.

Jon Snow: What do you say to the charge that you are your father’s son?

Martin Amis: Well, he’s now being lazily and cornily defamed by his critics when he’s not around to defend himself. You have an argument with your father all your life – and he’s been dead for twelve years, and I’m still having that argument.

I was on most things to the left of him. But critics are accusing him of impulses he never had – he was never homophobic; he had a difficult time in his relations with women, but was not misogynistic; was not, in any sense, anti-semitic, except in the odd impulse. And why do we not admit to these odd impulses?

Do we cleanse ourselves? Do we pretend that we’re homogenous and pure and clean? Do we want to live with that kind of illusion?

The anti-semites, the psychotic misogynists and homophobics are the Islamists.

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Martin Amis in an interview with Jon Snow in 2007.

Martin Amis and Isabel Fonseca

H. L. Mencken on Capitalism

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H. L. Mencken

“What we confront is not the failure of capitalism, but simply the failure of democracy.

Capitalism has really been responsible for all the progress of the modern age. Better than any other system ever devised, it provides leisure for large numbers of superior men, and so fosters the arts and sciences. No other system ever heard of is so beneficial to invention. Its fundamental desire for gain may be far from glorious per se, but it at least furthers improvement in all the departments of life. We owe to it every innovation that makes life secure and comfortable.

Unfortunately, like any other human institution (for example, Holy Church), capitalism tends to run amuck when it is not restrained, and democracy provides inadequate means of keeping it in order. There is never any surety that democracy will throw up leaders competent to discern the true dangers of capitalism and able to remedy them in a prudent and rational manner. Thus we have vacillated between letting it run wild and trying to ruin it. Both courses are hazardous and ineffective, and it is hard to say which is more so.”

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Entry #310 in H. L. Mencken’s notebooks (collected and printed as Minority Report).

Read on:

The Question of Nostalgia

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Julian Barnes

“I’m not very interested in my schooldays, and don’t feel any nostalgia for them. But school is where it all began…

Back then, things were plainer: less money, no electronic devices, little fashion tyranny, no girlfriends. There was nothing to distract us from our human and filial duty which was to study, pass exams, use those qualifications to find a job, and then put together a way of life unthreateningly fuller than that of our parents, who would approve, while privately comparing it to their own earlier lives, which had been simpler, and therefore superior. None of this, of course, was ever stated.

In those days, we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives. And when that moment came, our lives – and time itself – would speed up. How were we to know that our lives had in any case begun, that some advantage had already been gained, some damage already inflicted? Also, that our release would only be into a larger holding pen, whose boundaries would be at first undiscernible. […]

But I’ve ben turning over in my mind the question of nostalgia, and whether I suffer from it. I certainly don’t get soggy at the memory of some childhood knickknack; nor do I want to deceive myself sentimentally about something that wasn’t even true at the time — love of the old school, and so on. But if nostalgia means the powerful recollection of strong emotions — and a regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives — then I plead guilty… And if we’re talking about strong feelings that will never come again, I suppose it’s possible to be nostalgic about remembered pain as well as remembered pleasure.”

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Julian Barnes, writing in his Booker Prize winning novella The Sense of an Ending.

Go on:

Julian Barnes and Kavanaugh

The Hero Sleeps

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Roman Bust

‘You’re a hard man, Odysseus, stronger
Than other men, and you never wear out,
A real-iron man.’ […]

Then Odysseus
Stood up and placed a two-handled cup
In Arete’s hands, and his words rose on wings:

“Be well, my queen, all of your days, until age
And death come to you, as they come to all.
I am leaving now. But you, Lady — enjoy this house,
Your children, your people, and Lord Alcinous.”

And godlike Odysseus stepped over the threshold.
Alcinous sent a herald along
To guide him to the shore and the swift ship there,
And Arete sent serving women with him,
One carrying a cloak and laundered shirt,
And another to bring the strong sea-chest.
A third brought alone bread and red wine.
They came down to the sea, and the ship’s crew
Stowed all these things away in the hold,
The food and drink, too. Then they spread out
A rug and a linen sheet on the stern deck
For Odysseus to sleep upon undisturbed.
He climbed on board and lay down in silence
While they took their places upon the benches
And untied the cable from the anchor stone.
As soon as they dipped their oars in the sea,
A deep sleep fell on his eyelids, a sleep
Sound, and sweet, and very much like death.

And as four yoked stallions spring all together
Beneath the lash, leaping high,
And then eat up the dusty road on the plain,

So lifted the keel of that ship, and in her wake
An indigo wave hissed and roiled
As she ran straight ahead. Not even a falcon,
Lord of the skies, could have matched her pace,
So light her course as she cut through the waves,
Bearing a man with a mind like god’s,
A man who had suffered deep in his heart,
Enduring men’s wars and the bitter sea —
But now he slept, his sorrows forgotten.

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Odysseus’s departure from the island of Scheria in books 12 and 13 of Homer’s Odyssey (Lombardo translation).

Read on:

“A Fable” by Louise Glück

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Louise Glück

Two women with
the same claim
came to the feet of
the wise king. Two women,
but only one baby.
The king knew
someone was lying.
What he said was
Let the child be
cut in half; that way
no one will go
empty-handed. He
drew his sword.
Then, of the two
women, one
renounced her share:
this was
the sign, the lesson.
Suppose
you saw your mother
torn between two daughters:
what could you do
to save her but be
willing to destroy
yourself— she would know
who was the rightful child,
the one who couldn’t bear
to divide the mother.

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“A Fable” by Louise Glück.

‘We Are the People Who Sanctify Life': Jonathan Sacks on Israel

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“Let me tell you, friends, what Israel is.

Elaine and I have just come back… We saw the Laniado Hospital in the Netanya, a place I always visit because it moves me beyond words. Many of you know the Laniado Hospital was built by an Auschwitz survivor who during the Holocaust lost his wife and all 11 children. And there in the camps of death made an oath that if he should ever survive he would dedicate the rest of his life to saving life.

Israel is the sustained defiance of hatred and power in the name of life because we are the people who sanctify life.

Israel has been surrounded by enemies and yet it has shown that even so you can still be a democracy, still have a free press, still have an independent judiciary. Israel is the only country in the Middle East where a Palestinian can stand up on national television and criticize the government and the next day still be a free human being.

Israel is an inspiration to the world… On one of my visits to Hong Kong, I went to see Mr. Tung Chee Hwa, the Beijing appointment as head of Hong Kong. And I tell you this man, this Chinese appointment, is a lover of Jews and Judaism and Israel. He said to me, ‘You know, your people and my people are very old people. You’ve been around 6,000 years; we’ve been around 5,000 years. Tell me, I always wanted to know, what did you do for the first thousand years before you had Chinese takeaway?’ [Laughter.]

I said, ‘Mr. Tung, you want to know what we did for the first thousand years? We complained about the food.’ [Laughter.]

Jonathan Sacks

And Mr. Tung said to me, I want to go and visit Israel because I see that as the model of development for us. And he did go two or three months later and came back absolutely inspired. And I went straight to the Israeli ambassador in London and said, ‘Look how the world has changed. There was a time when Israel dreamed about being the Hong Kong of the Middle East; today Hong Kong dreams of being the Israel of the Far East.’

Think about the Jewish people. How probable is it that one man, Abraham, who commanded no empire, ordered no army, performed no miracle, delivered no prophecy, should today be perhaps the most influential man who ever lived, who’s claimed as the spiritual ancestor by 2.4 billion Christians and most of you in the room today? [Laughter]

How probable is it that this tiny people, the Jewish people, numbering less than one-fifth of 1 percent of the population of the world, should have outlived the world’s greatest empires — the Egyptians, the Syrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans — every empire that ever stood up to destroy us? They are being consigned to history, and still we stand and sing Am Yisrael Chai.

How likely is it that after 2,000 years of exile our people should have come back to our land — having stood in Auschwitz a mere three years earlier, eyeball to eyeball with the Angel of Death — and therein say lo amut kiechyeh: I will not die but I will live? Israel is the greatest collective affirmation of life in the whole of modern history.

Friends, the Jews represent the defeat of probability by the power of possibility. And nowhere will you see the power of possibility more than in the state of Israel today. Israel has taken a barren land and made it bloom again. Israel has taken an ancient language, the language of the Bible, and make it speak again. Israel has taken the West’s oldest faith and made it young again. Israel has taken a shattered nation and made it live again.”

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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaking at the 2013 AIPAC Policy Conference.

To get the full effect, listen to Sacks give the talk in his impeccable voice.

Chief Rabbi

Where Was Man?

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William Styron 324

Someday I will understand Auschwitz. This was a brave statement but innocently absurd. No one will ever understand Auschwitz. What I might have set down with more accuracy would have been: Someday I will write about Sophie’s life and death, and thereby help demonstrate how absolute evil is never extinguished from the world. Auschwitz itself remains inexplicable. The most profound statement yet made about Auschwitz was not a statement at all, but a response.

The query: ‘At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?’

And the answer: ‘Where was man?’”

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From the epilogue of Sophie’s Choice by William Styron.

“What the Pencil Writes” by James Laughlin

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John- February 2005 203

Often when I go out I
put in my coat pocket

some paper and a pen-
cil in case I want to

write something down
well there they are

wherever I go and as
my coat moves the pen-

cil writes by itself
a kind of gibberish

hieroglyphic which I
often think as I un-

dress at night & take
out those papers with

nothing written on
them but strange and

meaningless marks is
the story of my life.

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“What the Pencil Writes” by James Laughlin.

Alexander’s Horse

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Ranch - Thanksgiving 3

“There came a day when Philoneicus the Thessalian brought Philip (Alexander’s father) a horse named Bucephalus. The king and his friends went down to the plain to watch the horse’s trials, and came to the conclusion that he was wild and unmanageable, for he would allow no one to mount him. The king became angry at being offered such a vicious animal unbroken, and ordered it to be led away.

But Alexander, who was standing close by, remarked, ‘What a horse they are losing, and all because they don’t know how to handle him, or dare not try.’…

Alexander went quickly up to Bucephalus, took hold of his bridle, and turned him towards the sun, for he had noticed that the horse was shying at the sight of his own shadow, as it fell in front of him and constantly moved whenever he did. He ran alongside the animal for a little way, calming him down by stroking him, and then, when he saw he was full of spirit and courage, he quietly threw aside his cloak with a light spring vaulted safely on to his back… Finally, when he saw that the horse was free of his fears and impatient to show his speed, he gave him his reigns and urged him forward.

At First Philip and his friends held their breath until they saw Alexander reach the end of his gallop, turn in full control, and ride back triumphant. Thereupon the rest of the company broke into loud applause, while his father, we are told, actually wept for joy, and when Alexander had dismounted he kissed him and said, ‘My boy, you must find a kingdom big enough for your ambitions. Macedonia is too small for you.'”

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A modern translation of the semi-mythic story “Alexander Tames Bucephalus” by Plutarch. This event would have occurred in 344 BC, when Alexander was 13.

Bucephalus, which means “ox head,” is the most famous horse of antiquity. According to his extensive wiki, he was black with a white star; his massive head, which would have been the foremost point of the charging Grecian army, was cast into busts and adorned some of the currency of the Greek empire in the century following his death.

Two more excerpts:

When Alexander’s sarcophagus was brought from its shrine, Augustus gazed at the body, then laid a crown of gold on its glass case and scattered some flowers to pay his respects. When they asked if he would like to see Ptolemy too, ‘I wished to see a king,’ he replied, ‘I did not wish to see corpses.’
Suetonius, Life of Augustus (121 AD)

As for the exact thoughts in Alexander’s mind, I am neither able nor concerned to guess them, but this I think I can state, that nothing common or mean would have been his intention; he would not have remained content with any of his conquests, not even if he had added the British Isles to Europe; he would always have searched beyond for something unknown, and if there had been no other competition, he would have competed against himself.
Arrian, History of Alexander’s Expeditions (140 AD)

One more post:

Shostakovich and Music as a Protest against Death

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Dmitri Shostakovich

“Shostakovich knew that death — unless it came in the form of heroic martyrdom — was not an appropriate subject for Soviet art, that it was ‘tantamount to wiping your nose on your sleeve in company.’ He could not have the Dies Irae blaze from his scores; he had to be musically covert. But increasingly, the cautious composer found the courage to draw his sleeve across his nostrils, especially in his chamber music. His last works often contain long, slow, meditative invocations of mortality. The violist of the Beethoven Quartet was once given the following advice about the first movement of the fifteenth quartet by its composer: ‘Play it so that the flies drop dead in mid-air.'”

“At the premiere, Shostakovich overcame his usual shyness to explain to the audience that, ‘Life is man’s dearest possession. It is given to him only once and he should live so as not to experience acute pain at the thought of the years wasted aimlessly or feel searing shame for his petty and inglorious past, but be able to say, at the moment of death, that he has given all his life and energies to the noblest cause in the world – to fight for the liberation of humanity. I want listeners to this symphony to realize that ‘life’ is truly beautiful. My symphony is an impassioned protest against death, a reminder to the living that they should live honestly, conscientiously, nobly, never committing a base act. This is very important for much time will pass before scientists have succeeded in ensuring immortality. Death is in store for all of us and I for one do not see any good in the end of our lives. Death is terrifying. There is nothing beyond it.’ … [Shostakovich] disagreed with all the composers who had portrayed death with music that was beautiful, radiant and ecstatic. For him, death really was the end and he took that as an inspiration to make sure that he lived his life to its full.”

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Paragraphs excerpted from Julian Barnes’s Nothing to Be Frightened Of and the meticulous notes of composer Mark Wigglesworth. A fly-stunning version of Shostakovich’s fifteenth quartet is here.

Both writers cite a further, clarifying reflection from Shostakovich, which MW describes, “In the disputed memoirs… [Shostakovich] talks revealingly about death:

Fear of death may be the most intense emotion of all. I sometimes think that there is no deeper feeling. The irony lies in the fact that under the influence of that fear people create poetry, prose and music; that is they try to strengthen their ties with the living and increase their influence on them. How can you not fear death? […] We should think more about it and accustom ourselves to it. We can’t allow the fear of death to creep up on us unexpectedly. I think that if people began thinking about death sooner, they would make fewer mistakes.

Shostakovich makes the common though deeply misguided assumption that death serves no purpose — that there is not “any good in the end of our lives.” Of course there are individual tragedies which aren’t, in any sense, “good.” But death does the essential business of lending life a clarity and urgency it otherwise would not have. Saul Bellow’s brilliant metaphor, that death is “the dark backing a mirror needs before we can see ourselves,” sets the idea in place: without an ending, albeit an opague one, there is no way to focus on ourselves.

In case that metaphor hasn’t fully absorbed, Alan Lightman’s short story collection Einstein’s Dreams features a fictional world in which people live forever. He characterizes the tragedy of these immortal inhabitants:

[T]hey can do all they can imagine. They will have an infinite number of careers, they will marry an infinite number of times, they will change their politics infinitely. Each person will be a lawyer, a bricklayer, a writer, an accountant, a painter, a physician, a farmer…

With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives. Grandparents never die, nor do great-grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles, great-great-aunts, and so on, back through the generations, all alive and offering advice. Sons never escape from the shadows of their father. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own.

Such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.

More:

  • Barnes looks at how his understanding of mortality changed as he entered adulthood
  • Sam Harris puts a fine point on the tragedy of wasted time
  • Neurologist David Eagleman explains how consciousness may transcend the physical brain

Dmitri Shostakovich

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