Blessed are the Peacemakers and Firemen

by William J. Jackson

Edward Hicks, “The Peaceable Kingdom: The Leopard and the Kid”, courtesy

When the 9/11 terrorist attack happened, I recalled an observation which Martin Luther King, Jr. had made when visiting singer-actor-activist Harry Belafonte in 1968:  “I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply,” he said. “We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.” (italics added)

When Belafonte asked Dr. King to explain further, he said “I’m afraid that America may be losing what moral vision she may have had. And I’m afraid that even as we integrate, we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears at the soul of this nation.”

Belafonte asked him, “What should we do?” and Dr. King told him, “Become the firemen. Let us not stand by and let the house burn.” (italics added) (1) Fifty years later, the sense that there is a present danger from which humanity needs to be rescued and protected is probably felt by more people than a half century ago, when King was contemplating the situation.

King’s emotions were strong, and his concern articulated a vivid image of America’s plight, and the situation in many parts of the world. The danger of a house afire is dramatically urgent, and the need for rescue and safety is self-evident. There are still fiery conflicts and wars needing to be extinguished for cool peace to prevail.

As a student of comparative religion I can’t help but think of a Buddhist parable about a man who returns home from a journey to find that his home is on fire, and to see his children waving from the upstairs windows—they do not know about the fire. The man’s actions are meant as a symbolic example. Not wanting to cause a panic, the father says nothing about the flames, but calls up: “Look at these toys and gifts I’ve brought back for you—come down here right away and I’ll give them to you.” Thus he led his kids to safety through “skillful means,” for which Mahayana Buddhism is famous. (2)

Buddha is said to have taught a deep lesson with his “Fire Sermon”—an extended meditation explaining that those seeking liberation should look upon themselves, the world, and all in it as if it is all on fire, burning with flames of desire, ego, lust, greed, hate, fear, anger, envy, and violence. Buddha spoke of those fires, and told seekers how to find the cool state of Nirvana—the “extinction” of the flames. Bodhisattvas devote their intelligence and energies to relieving the suffering caused by all those fires.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was in today’s parlance “woke,” dedicated to social uplift with Bodhisattva-like diligence, helping others in their suffering. Near the end of his life, King felt “the real issue to be faced” was “the radical reconstruction of society itself” free from the causes of suffering such as institutional racism and economic injustice.

The present time-period of political polarities has produced a wealth of energy in active people’s drives. Energy wells up, stirred by dissatisfaction and frustrations, thirst for change and betterment. There is a great divergence between one’s hopes, aspirations, and sense of right, on the one hand, and one’s awareness of injustices and mean-spirited ignorance which allows callousness and other wrongs, on the other hand. We experience a growing feeling that we need to set things right, to make a difference.

To become a “fireman” is a noble and demanding endeavor. But it is work, work done one step at a time, involving practical tasks of various kinds—tasks needing to be performed by dedicated people with varying abilities, day by day.

Many factors are involved in helping others, besides the initial urge of wanting to help. Understanding and training and discipline form a good foundation. Once one is involved in nonviolent activism in a volatile situation, one needs inner focus, and ways to nurture and maintain a calm mind, to pace oneself and share inspiration. In the excitement of public demonstrations, inexperienced participants can be tempted to get caught up in moods which could add more violence, pouring more fuel on fires.

Turning the other cheek is not always easy. The inner work of patience involves deepening self-understanding, keeping focus, learning to let go of matters which cannot be controlled, practicing detachment, cultivating the calm which can be fostered by meditative practices, mantra or prayer, steadying centering practices. Energy-renewal through cycles of withdrawal-and-return in activism is necessary to avoid burn-out. “When we are walking through life staring at the ground, it is nice to remind ourselves about the sky,” as a prominent activist recently tweeted.  (3)

We are called upon in our diversity and our differing talents to care about the plight of humanity. All that the fires of destructive forces (like fear and racism, violence and ignorance) need in order to reduce victims to hopelessness is for would-be firemen to do nothing.

No one else can come to our rescue. “If not us, who? If not now when?” The response of women to current social ills and political bullying and abuse is very heartening. With marches, nonviolent protests, running for political office and local volunteering, women fearlessly lead the resistance, repairing the social fabric.

We are the species with the science and technology skills to do incredible things, things which only a century ago seemed impossible. With such potential for good, it would be tragic to see our species create horrors instead of working for a better life. Blessed are the peacemakers and firemen, the honest public servants, the healers and the tirelessly dedicated, for they are exemplars of human potential at its best.


(1) accessed November 6, 2017.

(2) Mahayana means “the large raft,” a form of Buddhism which is adaptive, able to convey teachings by flexibly communicating principles through translating, using stories and symbols to point to depths beyond.

(3) Yoko Ono, in a tweet on Twitter, October 2017.

EDITOR’S NOTE: William J. Jackson is our Literary Editor, and a frequent contributor to this site. Please click on his byline to access his Author’s page, for an index of his articles posted here, and biographical information. His page may also be accessed via the Author Archives link at the top of the page.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi