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Our view: MLK and a question we must not lose sight of

By the Editorial Board
updated: 1/20/2018 2:29 PM

In the shadow of our celebration of one of America's greatest civil rights heroes, one cannot escape the irony that the national controversy of the moment has found the president defending himself as "the least racist person you will ever interview."

There is a response to the controversy that has specific bearing on the immigration debate out of which the comments grew and that deserves reflection by all of us, regardless of our political impulses. It comes from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

King's famous address a day before he was assassinated is known for his vision of racial justice as seen from "the mountaintop" and his hopes for a day when all of us would be judged by the content of our character and not by the color of our skin.

But also in that speech King raised the simpler specter of how we all should interact with each other, taking his inspiration from the biblical parable of the good Samaritan.

In a nuanced retelling of that famous story, King took pains to acknowledge legitimate fears and interests of the priest and Levite who passed by a man who had been stripped, robbed, beaten and left near death on the dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The two passers-by may have had political, religious or even practical constraints to deal with, King said. They may also have had reason to fear for their own personal safety or to believe they were being set up for attack themselves.

But the Samaritan -- the native of a country that the President Trump of his day might have referred to with a disparaging vulgarity -- had a different consideration.

The first question the priest and Levite asked, King related, 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?'"

The distinction seems apt in the context of President Trump's other remarks, questioning why one would care about immigrants from downtrodden countries rather than a prosperous nation like Norway.

In the political blowback over Trump's statement and the pit-and-pendulum brinkmanship over debt authorization, it's hard to know exactly what is on the table regarding immigration policy today, which side is holding up a solution and who has the moral high ground.

But we do know the question all sides should be asking. What will happen if we don't act?

Amid the claims and denials that have followed the president's comments, let's not lose sight of two more important ideas. One, there's a better way for all of us to interact than the use of that kind of language and the expression of that kind of sentiment.

And, two, we should always keep foremost the key question regarding a fundamental policy affecting human beings: What will happen to others if we don't act?

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