In the shadow of our celebration of one of America's greatest civil rights heroes, one cannot escape the irony that the predominant national controversy of the moment has found the president defending himself to reporters as "the least racist person you will ever interview."
Exactly what "tough" language -- to use his own characterization -- President Donald Trump used to refer to people from nations he considers less desirable than others can be a semantic exercise, more influenced by politics than public welfare. But 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.
And 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 nation in which the qualities of his children would be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. These are, of course, important considerations; but, King also raised in that speech the simpler specter of how we all should interact with each other, taking his inspiration from the biblical parable that has come to be known as "the good Samaritan."
In a notably 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 that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked," King said, "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 distinction seems particularly apt in the context of the portion of President Trump's remarks that no one disputes -- his question of why one would care about immigrants from downtrodden countries rather than a prosperous nation like Norway. Should we be asking what will happen to us when we help certain immigrants, or what will happen to certain immigrants if we don't help them?
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. It's what will happen if we don't act?
There is no excusing the president if he used the language he is claimed to have used in an important meeting on public policy. But amid the claims and denials that have followed in the wake of news reports about them, 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?