A Network of Mutuality

by Rev. Audette Fulbright Fulson

originally delivered January 16, 2011

 

I've decided today, in the hopes of greatest clarity, to be particularly transparent in the structure of today's sermon. There's an important axiom in public speaking, as true in homiletics as it is in any other teaching, and that is: to tell people what you're going to tell them, tell them what you're telling them, and then tell them what you've told them. I'm going  by that formula today.

 

So I want to tell you three things. The first is that in a violent world, we – you and I – must take responsibility for creating peace. Actively, not passively. Literally, not poetically. We have some mentors on that path. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of them.

 

The second is that we are the living heirs of the tradition of non-violence which so impassioned Dr. King. Not symbolically, not tangentially: the line of non-violent theology to which Dr. King subscribed came from our own tradition, from our forefathers Henry David Thoreau, William Lloyd Garrison, and Adin Ballou. We must not now casually lay aside our inheritance of non-violence and peace-making simply because others have adopted it and perhaps expressed it even better or more visibly.

 

The last is to raise a lamp once again, in the hopes of better revealing the shadow that is racism, a shadow that still infects the body politic of the United States, one which also causes spiritual and literal bleeding every day in this country.

 

I don't know how it is for you, but I find it pretty difficult to read the news. I agree with those who have grown concerned over our public discourse. It isn't even so much that we're incivil – that's been a staple of democracy since the beginning – but the violent rhetoric is frightening, and there's no time nor good framework for actual ideas and full discussion. In a soundbite environment and a 24-hour news cycle, we seem to be losing our capacity for sifting the grain of truth from the chaff of opinion and lies. Another aspect is what has me going for this part of the sermon, and that's the way many folks seem to feel completely entitled to co-opt the leaders of the past and re-interpret them to suit their own objectives in the moment. To whit, the Department of Defense's general counsel, Jeh Johnson, said Thursday that he believed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr would support our ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: “"I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our nation's military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack”.

 

Let me disagree with Mr. Johnson. I believe that, like his grave opposition to the Vietnam war, Dr. King would have viewed the direction we are taking as a nation with regard to war and “hard power” as fundamentally wrong, and spiritually deadly. My opinion is frankly not important. In 1967, Dr. King delivered a speech which ties all of our themes together today. In this speech, he accused the United States government of being “the biggest purveyor of violence in the world today,” and spoke eloquently and unfortunately, timelessly to the way a commitment to war and violence precludes all the other possibilities of a free nation. So to Mr. Johnson, I offer this from Dr. King's speech, “Beyond Vietnam – a Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam”:

 

“Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. ...It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over.

As if the weight of ... commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission, a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for the "brotherhood of man." This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant or all men, for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and white, for revolutionary and conservative?

      I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. When machines and computers, profit and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look easily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: " This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

...we in the churches and synagogues have a continuing task while we urge our government to disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment. We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative means of protest possible.”

 

I chose to end this excerpt with the line that Dr. King directed specifically to us, to those of us who attempt to live lives of faith and who hope, in communities like ours with commissions such as our own, to love, learn, and serve. If you and I are not actively pursuing peace-making, then who will? This is what we are for – to every week, again and again, come together to gather strength and be encouraged in our efforts to live and act in accordance with our shared visions of peace, of justice, of seeing one another with eyes of love and respect for our shared human worth and dignity. It's not a passive “let's be nice to one another,” not a liking – Dr. King also said “It is pretty difficult to like some people. Like is sentimental and it is pretty difficult to like someone bombing your home; it is pretty difficult to like someone threatening your children; it is difficult to like congressmen who spend all their time trying to defeat civil rights. But Jesus said to love them, and love is greater than like.” (see The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr., Newmarket Press, NY. Selections chosen by Coretta Scott King)

 

Our love should move us to be patient with one another, to remember that each person has bad days and ideas we don't care for – and yet we each are still worthy of love. Our love should also move us to take action – if a month passes and we have not been in touch with an elected leader, if we have not served where there is sorrow, hunger, fear or despair, then our love is not transforming the world. There is time enough for everything: to raise up children, keep a home, have meaningful work, and to also love and serve the greater good. One letter or phone call on a subject you care about. One afternoon of service. One prayer each day. There is time for each of these things to be a part of our full and whole-hearted living.

 

I wanted to share with you again the brief story of why Dr. King's non-violence stance came directly from our tradition, from two paths. The first is that both King and Gandhi read and were transformed by Henry David Thoreau, from whom they learned both the notion of defiance of the state in the face of laws one feels are illegal and immoral. One must accept the consequences of such a defiance, and indeed, Thoreau served time in prison for not paying taxes, which he felt were supporting the illegal institution of slavery. Thoreau also preached non-violence in the essays which impacted Gandhi and King, though later he would support violent resistance to slavery.

 

Gandhi also listed Leo Tolstoy's work, The Kingdom of God is Within You, as one of the three greatest impacts on his spiritual life. Tolstoy, in turn, had been transformed by the work of William Lloyd Garrison and Adin Ballou. In The Kingdom of God, Tolstoy begins by building heavily on their work. Tolstoy quotes at length from his correspondence with Ballou. To give a quite minor excerpt from the long and remarkable work, Ballou said: “ True non-resistance (Ballou uses “non-resistance” as we would “non-violence” - he means, offering no resistance to those who would practice evil upon us) is the only real resistance to evil. It is crushing the serpent's head. It destroys and in the end extirpates the evil feeling. Question: But if that is the true meaning of the rule of non-resistance, can it always be put into practice? A: It can always be put into practice like every virtue enjoined by the law of God. A virtue cannot be practiced in all circumstances without self-sacrifice, privation, suffering, and in extreme cases, loss of life itself. But he who esteems life more than fulfilling the will of God is already dead to the only true life. Trying to save his life, he loses it. Besides, generally speaking, where non-resistance costs the sacrifice of a single life or of some material welfare, resistance costs a thousand such sacrifices.” (pp.14-15, The Kingdom of God is Within You)

 

Both Gandhi and King learned their political and social power from us. While both also had rich – and very different – religious traditions to draw strength from, what bound them both was the teachings of three Unitarian or Universalist leaders: Thoreau, Garrison and Ballou. Why, then, should we not occupy our own sphere of influence in the public discourse? Why should we not be living examples of our own faith traditions' profound teachings, teachings which have literally changed the world time and again? We are inheritors of a transformative grace. It is now our turn to live into it, to shape it and reveal it further, to show how our message of peace and respect and the hard, difficult, challenging, even infuriating work of love can change the world.

 

It could not be more timely. These really are again watershed days in the life of the United States. I don't mean so much the literal place, the United States, the space we occupy. I mean, in the idea of the United States. In the spirit of what it means to be a free country, a “melting pot,” a place where anyone can make it if they work hard and make a place for themselves. The dominant voices are again raised in fear, and this time the target is those who come from Southern nations. It is their turn, as it was, before them, time for Jews and Blacks and Italians and Germans and Asians and Native Americans ..as it will always be someone until we change, as Dr. King put it, “our blithe lip service to the guarantees of life, liberty, and the pursuit of justice. These fine sentiments are embodied in the declaration of Independence, but that document was always a declaration of intent rather than of reality.” (The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr) In every speech he ever gave, Dr. King reminded us that it is our intent that matters now, our efforts, large and small, which contribute to justice and an end to fear and war, or lend it a compliant hand. One of the most profound things he ever said, and one that needles me when I begin to get too lazy and complacent, is this: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

 

With the election of Barack Obama, we have an extraordinary opportunity. Many of us celebrated his election as a milestone of progress in terms of how we relate to one another on the basis of race – we hoped that it was a real turned corner in what I would call the spiritual life or the deep character of our nation. Since that election, with regard to racism, we have seen the backlash of overt racism, both against those of us who are African-American, but also against Spanish-language speakers. We've seen the shocking appropriation just this week of the horrifically loaded terms “blood libel” and “pogroms” to describe criticism against political conservatives. As painful as such overt racism is, it is still a chance to see it, name it, defy it, and tame it. Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” We will win against hatred and racism and fear. We will win by not returning hatred with hatred, but by loving one another, including our “enemies,” better. We will win by example. We will win by simply shining as much light of truth as possible on lies and bigotry. We will win because there are far more people of common sense, love, and decency in this country than not. We will win if we each take personal responsibility and communal action.

 

So let us close with two more reflections from King, and with a powerful heart for engaging in the work of the world and of our own faith which demands that we show up, again and again, in the public square and in the quiet corners of our private lives, as examples of love. First, from another speech by Dr. King:

 

  “A religion true to its nature must also be concerned about...social conditions. Religion deals with both earth and heaven, both time and eternity. Religion operates not only on the vertical plane but also on the horizontal. It seeks not only to integrate [us] with God, but to integrate [us with one another and with ourselves.]...it seeks to change the environmental conditions ...so that the soul will have a chance after it is changed. Any religion that professes to be concerned with...souls...and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic social conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion. Such a religion is the kind the Marxists like to see – merely an opiate of the people.” (The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr.)

 

Will you turn with me now in your hymnals to reading #584, “A Network of Mutuality?”

 

 

© 2011 Rev. Audette Fulbright Fulson, Roanoke VA.
All rights reserved.