Recent Nobel winners echo King’s wise words
Fresno Bee, January 14, 2012
Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. In December of 2011, the Peace Prize was awarded to three women: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia; Leyma Gbowee, a peace activist from Liberia; and Tawakkol Karman, a leader of the Yemeni version of the Arab Spring. These women represent the power of women’s movements for peace in Africa and the Middle East. In their Nobel Prize speeches, they each cited Martin Luther King as a source of hope and inspiration.
Gbowee’s speech recounted the terror of war in Liberia, which included rape and sexual abuse. Despite the horrors she had witnessed, she remained hopeful that nonviolence can improve things. She quoted King’s words: “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem; it merely creates new and more complicated ones.”
Sirleaf spoke of the need for continued expansion of democracy and women’s rights. She said, “I urge my sisters, and my brothers, not to be afraid. Be not afraid to denounce injustice, though you may be outnumbered. Be not afraid to seek peace, even if your voice may be small. Be not afraid to demand peace.” And she cited King’s optimistic idea that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Karman is the youngest person, and the first Arab woman, to be awarded the Peace Prize. In her speech she said that King’s idea of “the art of living in harmony” remains the most important thing we need to master. She expressed her hope as follow: “Mankind’s feeling of responsibility to create a decent life and make it worth living with dignity has always been stronger than the will to kill life. Despite great battles, the survival of the human race is the clearest expression of mankind’s yearning for reconstruction, not for destruction, for progress, not for regression and death.” Despite obstacles in Yemen and elsewhere, she foresees “a humane, prosperous and generous history full of love and fraternity.”
The spirit of hope in the face of violence and injustice is central to King’s message. In his last sermon in Memphis on April 3, 1968, he acknowledged the threats against him. But he explained that the struggle for justice was more important than his own life. King concluded: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.” He was killed the next day at age 39.
In that last sermon, he explained how moral courage works by retelling the story of the Good Samaritan. In Jesus’ original parable, two people—a priest and a Levite—walk past a wounded man on the road to Jericho. Only the Samaritan stops and helps.
King suggests that the first two men were too afraid to stop. The road to Jericho was dangerous—a prime place to be ambushed. The priest and the Levite may have been concerned about their own safety, possibly worrying that the injured man was faking it in order to take advantage.
King explains that they may have thought, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But the Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
This reversal is the key. When we stop asking, “what will happen to me?” and start asking, “what will happen to him?” our perspective is changed. Suspicion is replaced by care. Fear is transformed into hope. And self-interest becomes compassion.
It is hazardous to help others and to speak out against injustice. Evil dictators crush resistance; and bad guys do take advantage. But people who risk doing good, tend to experience the world in a hopeful, optimistic way.
In his own Nobel Prize speech, King admitted that “those who pioneer in the struggle for peace and freedom will still face uncomfortable jail terms and painful threats of death.” But in the end King says that it is possible to see “a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of despair.” The fact that this message is being shared in places like Yemen and Liberia is good reason to remain hopeful.