The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King faced many death threats throughout his life. In the spring of 1968, as he planned a Poor People's March on Washington, D.C., to support economic rights for America's poor, he decided to stop in Memphis to help striking sanitation workers, who were paid very little and also mostly black. On April 3rd, the night before he was assassinated, Dr. King spoke these prophetic words:
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop... And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land... I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
He reached the courageous milestone where he could openly declare "I'm not fearing any man" and thus he found his spiritual freedom. In the book of Psalms, King David wrote, "G-d is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?" (27:1) In this devotional poem we are encouraged to invest our energies in serving above, fearing the Eternal rather than temporal, carnal man. With such a short lease on life, why should we fear the judgment of mere mortals?
Laurence Kohlberg, the founder of the modern field of moral development, taught that stage six in moral development (the highest stage) is achieved when one lives by universal principles, as opposed to being motivated by fear, reward, convention, or law. Few achieved Kohlberg's level six aside from the great heroes, like Dr. King and others, who rejected societal norms in the pursuit of justice.
The other way to avoid fear of man is to come to see the good essence in every human being. Nelson Mandela, a Nobel laureate like Dr. King, endured 27 years in prison and then, upon winning the Presidency of South Africa, embarked on a post-apartheid campaign of reconciliation between South Africa's white and black citizens instead of vengeance, achieved this spiritual height during one of the most challenging periods of his life. He wrote in his autobiography:
Because of the courage of the ordinary men and women of my country, I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going. Man's goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished. (457)
Mandela released his fear of man by learning to see the spark of humanity in each person (even his oppressor). Perhaps even more than among religious and social leaders, military living and leadership is typically associated with moral courage, but interestingly, that world and this quality do not always map one onto the other cleanly. Five-star General and presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower had conflicting interests during the Korean War in 1952, when his Republican colleague in the Senate (and famous Communist hunter), Joseph McCarthy, attacked George C. Marshall (father of the eponymous plan for Western Europe's economic recovery after World War II and winner of the 1953 Nobel Peace Prize), who had worked closely and productively with Eisenhower both in and out of the military, calling him "a man steeped in falsehood."
During the campaign, when Eisenhower went to McCarthy's home state of Wisconsin, he was prepared to defend his old Army friend and denounce the senator's slanderous tactics. However, when he actually gave the speech, he refrained from defending Marshall or denouncing McCarthy. In doing so, he showed that he feared his scurrilous political colleague and valued votes over the reputation of a friend and an honorable man. He later regretted this decision, but the damage had been done. His fear of the political consequences of criticizing a political ally, even one as despicable as McCarthy, overrode any consideration for moral courage. When fear of the judgment of others trumps our commitment to doing what is right we have lost our way.
Fear is a natural emotion in the face of opposition and challenge. But Judaism asks us to do our best not to fear humans when making value choices. We must live by principle even when presented with threats. This is no easy task but no one ever said living committed to truth and authenticity was easy.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."