By Marian Wright Edelman
“I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means—except by getting off his back.”
–Leo Tolstoy, from What Then Must We Do?
“Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice.”
“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke these words on April 4, 1967, at New York City’s Riverside Church—a year to the day before his assassination in Memphis—he was describing something my friend Dr. David Hilfiker shared in a thoughtful Sunday sermon at The Church of the Saviour called “Justice and the Limits of Charity.”
In his speech the night before his murder, Dr. King repeated the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan who stopped and helped the desperate traveler who had been beaten, robbed, and left half-dead as he journeyed along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The Good Samaritan is traditionally considered a model of charity for his willingness to treat a stranger as a neighbor and friend. Dr. King agreed that we are all called to follow his example and serve those around us who need help. But he reminded us that true compassion—true justice—requires also attacking the forces that leave others in need in the first place.