The night before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, he spoke to a crowd of striking sanitation workers gathered at a local church. His message, remembered today as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, was delivered with a sense of urgency, as King seemed to have come to terms with the prospect of his own impending death. Speaking to a weary but energized crowd, he appealed to a “dangerous unselfishness” that he felt was key to the struggle for justice and equality in Memphis and throughout a racially divided nation. To make his point, King drew upon the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan. Here’s the parable as recorded in Luke 10:25-37:
25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
As a way of helping his audience perceive the contemporary import of this parable, Dr. King asked why the priest and Levite, both devoutly religious individuals, elected to not stop to assist the injured traveler. After surveying several possibilities that might explain their thoughtlessness, he suggested that, more than anything else, the priest and Levite were wary about their own safety and well-being as they were traveling on a road that was notorious as a haven for robbers. King imagined the priest and Levite pausing momentarily to ask themselves, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me,?” before quickly scurrying to the safety of the other side of the road.
But, to King, that was the wrong question and no doubt the wrong response. He astutely observes that the Good Samaritan’s compassion was a response to having reversed the question to the benefit of the injured traveler: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” The Good Samaritan’s actions demonstrated a “dangerous unselfishness” that King wanted his hearers to emulate by supporting their striking brothers in Memphis and that he himself would model in his own tragic death in just a few hours.
I’d like to think that Dr. King would heartily approve of me using his insights from this parable to make the case for protecting the lives of unborn babies, especially black babies who are being targeted for abortion. Yes, it’s true that King was the first recipient of the Margaret Sanger (the founder of Planned Parenthood) Award and that Planned Parenthood claims him as a supporter of abortion rights. However, as I observe in my book, Breaking the Silence: A Biblical Response to the Abortion Crisis in Black America,
Although Dr. King spoke approvingly of Planned Parenthood, it is important to note that the organization was not in the abortion business during his lifetime. At that time, Planned Parenthood did not endorse abortion, at least publicly. Abortion advocates were making headway, but abortion on demand would not become legal until 1973. Therefore, Dr. King’s unwise endorsement of Planned Parenthood’s birth control measures should not be construed as support for abortion. As his niece Dr. Alveda King clarifies, her uncle was included among a group of prominent African-American leaders who were misled by the family planning rhetoric of Planned Parenthood. But, according to Alveda King, Dr. King was clearly pro-life in his ideology and would never have given his blessing to a procedure that would eventually result in the slaughter of millions of black babies. As Charles Marsh observes similarly, Dr. King’s “comprehensive devotion to the sacredness of life would have surely included the unborn, or risked grave inconsistency.”
I think efforts today to protect unborn babies, especially black babies, are consistent with the spirit of Dr. King’s treatment of this parable. As Dr. King observed, the Good Samaritan’s compassionate response turned on the question “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?" I can't think of a better way to frame the abortion debate than by focusing attention on the precarious plight of the victims of abortion, the risks of advocating on their behalf, and what will happen if we don't.
It's probably safe to assume, however, that both sides of the abortion debate identify their actions with the Good Samaritan. Abortion rights advocates believe that a Good Samaritan-like response to abortion is to protect a woman’s legal right to the procedure, which is to safeguard her privacy, health, and decision- making powers over the trajectory of her pregnancy. Abortion advocates see these women as victims of the moral judgments of people who want to deny them these basic rights. However, pro-life supporters are certainly right in pointing out that the direct victims of an abortion culture are the unborn, defenseless children, who are being denied the most basic human right: life. As I make the case in my book referenced above, evidence today overwhelmingly supports the personhood of the unborn from conception on, which means that aborting a fetus is taking the life of an innocent child. Advocating for the unborn, therefore, is demonstrating the kind of "dangerous unselfishness" Dr. King spoke of that comes to the defense of people who are helpless and vulnerable.
Please don't misunderstand me: I'm not saying that women who get abortions are never victims and that they should be treated any way other than compassionately. As Pope Francis observed in a letter published by the Vatican in September 2015, often women who have aborted a child "bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision." For many women, choosing abortion is a desperate act of survival prompted by fear, pressure from others, confusion, shame, etc. Indeed, these women are often victims of racial disparities (that limit their options), greedy abortion providers, misinformation, unsupportive family systems, changing cultural norms, ignorance, and, sadly, incest and rape. As we demonstrate selfless compassion for unwanted, unborn babies, let's not pass by dispassionately "on the other side" and dismiss the concerns of mothers of unwanted pregnancies.