Free at Last

This week marks the forty-fifth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was shot and killed on April 4, 1968, while standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The year was 1969 and I was five years old when I first heard Dr. King’s name. I was sitting in a car listening to a radio report about James Earl Ray, the man who shot Dr. King. With the exception of three days in June of 1977, when he and six other inmates made an escape, Ray would spend the remainder of his life at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee, not far from where I grew up.

When the radio report was complete, an adult in the car said, “I would like to shake his hand.” I remember being uncertain about whose hand was in question, but the conversation that followed among the adults in the car made it clear that Ray’s hand was the one that deserved of a shake. This left me uncertain about what a man might have done that would cause someone to want to shake the hand of the man who had shot him. Up to that point in my life, all the indications I had received were that killing someone was not a good thing to do.

Slowly, but surely over the next several years, I would learn about slavery, race relations, civil rights and the strongly held opinions of people both inside and outside of my family. In college and seminary, I began to see the significance of the role that the church played in motivating Dr. King to do the things that he did. The civil rights movement for Dr. King was an expression of his understanding of the Bible and an outgrowth of his relationship with God. I do not recall many, if any, references to Dr. King’s faith during my growing up years. However, he was a product of the church.  What became the civil rights movement was for him merely doing what God had called him to do as a Baptist, as a preacher, and as a follower of Christ. He was sharing Christ’s love.  Not everyone understood the importance of Christian faith to participants in the civil rights struggle, but Dr. King made the point in a foundational way in his last speech given in Memphis, Tennessee the night before he was killed:

Bull Connor (Sheriff in Birmingham, Al) next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water. That couldn’t stop us.

More to the point of the importance of Dr. King’s faith, as he challenged our nation to live up to the ideals upon which it was founded, was the peace and the strength that he found in it in the face of bitter resistance and threats to his life. He obviously spoke out a deep trust in and complete reliance on God that night before he was shot.

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

And I don’t mind.

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. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I’m happy, tonight.

I’m not worried about anything.

I’m not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!

Let us always choose to love even when others, maybe many others, would choose to hate. Let us have eyes to see all the ways the Lord is coming to us and may the love we share with others be visible sign of the Lord’s coming to them.

Christian Rights?

In the midst of the debates around social issues of the day, hearing some Christians speak about their right to their viewpoint is quite common.  In listening to and reading various points of view, some Christians seem to think that they have certain rights because they are Christian.  They seem to think that being Christian gives them the right to express their opinion, hold their beliefs or stand up for what they think is right.

Ironically, the notion of individual rights or entitlements seems to be missing from the vocabulary of the New Testament.  In fact, something very different is expected of those who would be followers of and believers in Jesus Christ.  When Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” he was offering a choice, but no rights or privileges.  Denying self and letting go of claims to what one might be due is a starting point for being in relationship with Jesus.  He taught that holding onto life was a sure way to lose it, but not being afraid to lose it was a sure way to gain it.

Jesus offers a number of moral and ethical imperatives, the greatest of which is love — love of God and love of neighbor.  So central is this ethic of love to the life to which Jesus calls his followers, that some might conclude that following Jesus means giving up the right to retaliation and revenge, giving up the right to deny food to the hungry and shelter to the homeless, or giving up the right to bear animosity toward those who are different and treating others in a way one would not want to be treated oneself.  Jesus has a clear expectation of his followers to be salt and light.  Jesus expects his followers to act and to speak in ways that bring to life the values of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus does not expect that such words and actions will be well received by those in authority.  In fact, he expects just the opposite as he preemptively declares those followers blessed who are reviled, persecuted, and lied about on his account.  He admonishes his disciples to not be surprised if the world hates them, since the world has already hated him.  Jesus does not call people to follow him because they have a right to do so, without fearing consequences, he calls them to follow him because doing so is right regardless of the consequences.

Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus introduces the idea that being in relationship with Jesus is a new birth resulting in a new life.  The Apostle Paul goes further in that the old self is crucified with Christ, and the new self is brought to life in Christ.  The result is a follower whose will is yielded to God.  Paul says he is a slave of Christ.  Christians allude to this transformed status when they pray Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, “…not my will but yours be done,” as their own. Following Christ is more about surrendering status than claiming it.

Conversely, the height of rebellion for a follower of Christ would be to choose one’s own will over God’s will, and to assume that one’s life is one’s own rather than God’s.

The rights granted to followers of Christ in the New Testament are few and far between, namely to be obedient to the will of God.  Fortunately, for all the Bible does not say about rights, it says much about relationship and God’s continual desire to be in relationship with those whom God has created, and about God’s abundant grace that makes such relationships possible. While following Christ may not come with special rights, it does come as grace freely given.

The discussion of human rights has been, through the centuries, a much more human endeavor. Naturally, humans have a tendency to claim divine origins for matters of great importance.  Our own Declaration of Independence is a case in point.  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  Scholars and politicians can debate the source of these unalienable rights and what it means that human beings are created with them.  However, what we know to be true is that before there was a United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, before there was our present form of government, Baptists and others in this country who refused to adhere to the established religion were jailed, flogged and unfairly burdened with taxes that were collected for the benefit of state-sponsored churches.  The Creator has endowed men and women with the right to “. . . life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but without the resolve of a people and a government to secure those rights, what meaningful difference would it make?

People do follow Jesus even under governments that do not allow freedom of religion.  Today, some of the most passionate and devoted followers of Christ had their faith forged in what was the Soviet Union. They endured great suffering because of their commitment to Christ.  There are others who live in countries where it is illegal for them to convert from the religion of their birth to Christianity.  Yet, there are people in those countries who believe in Jesus even though they risk their lives to do so.  We are created by the same God with the same inalienable rights, but we worship in freedom and they worship in fear.  Whatever else, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” may mean, it surely means that person ought to be able to worship and believe according to the dictates of his or her own conscience without fear of reprisal from government or neighbor.

For Baptists, religious liberty is both our best contribution to America and a treasured freedom that America has given to us.  We treasure it best by remembering that we were once a minority sect on the fringes of society, and maintaining the resolve of our nation’s first president, “. . . to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.”

For many faith communities across America, religious liberty has been challenged with deadly and terrifying force in recent days:

A gunman opened fire at a Sikh gurdwara, killing six.

A mosque in Joplin, Mo. burned to the ground.

An Arab-Catholic church was vandalized in Dearborn, Michigan.

An Islamic school was hit with an acid bomb in the Chicago suburb of Lombard.

A Texas man was charged with threatening to bomb a mosque in Murfreesboro, TN.

Now is a good time for those in this country who profess to follow Christ to take hold of the rights they cherish, together with Jesus’ command to love our neighbor and strive to be the presence of Christ to those who long for the same freedom we cherish.  If everyone is not free to worship without fear of attack or persecution, then none of us are free to worship.  An attack on the religious freedom of my neighbor is an attack on the freedom of us all.    “And who is my neighbor?” said the lawyer to Jesus.

Seeing Others As We See Ourselves

There are times when fact can appear to be stranger than fiction.  The facts about a recent revelation regarding the ancestry of Csanad Szegedi are strange indeed.  Szegedi represents Hungary in the European Parliament and is a member of his country’s far right wing Jobbik Party.  To fuel his rapid rise to the upper echelon of his party, he has blamed the Jews for problems facing his country.  He has claimed that they were “buying up” the country, desecrating national symbols and having undue influence on the affairs of state.  Evidently blaming a small group of people or singling out a segment of the population for special derision pays political dividends in countries all over the world.

What is not clear is whether or not Szegedi really believed what he was saying about the Jews. In his heart, did he really hate them or was he just saying what he was saying because he knew that it would play well with the voters he was trying to reach? Politicians do that sort of thing from time to time. Whatever the case may be, the antisemitism of Szegedi and his party is no small matter.  This is especially true given the treatment of the Jewish People in Hungary and Eastern Europe in the last century.  Nonetheless, Szegedi, who is only 30 years old, has built his young career on such vile and hateful rhetoric.

That is, until the facts got to be stranger than the fiction. Rumors began to surface about Szegedi’s ancestry. Then there was a tape recorded conversation of Szegedi being confronted with the evidence that his grandmother was a Jew and him offering to pay money to suppress that information. Then he gets in trouble not only for being Jewish, but also for trying to bribe someone to keep that knowledge out of the public eye. When he realized that he would not be able to keep the information from the public, he did what any good politician would do. He shared the information with the public.

Can you image what that would be like? In the twinkling of an eye, you are that which you have blamed for all your problems. Just like that, you are that which you have always seen as being the source of your ills. Without any warning, thought or preparation, you are what you, just moments ago, could not tolerate, abide or stomach.

Charles Caleb Colton, 19th century British minister and writer, said, “We hate some persons because we do not know them; and we will not know them because we hate them.” As Szegedi was coming to terms with the new information about his family origins, he had a conversation with his grandmother. A conversation the likes of which they had never had. She told him about what it was like to be deported. She described for him being imprisoned at Dachau and Auschwitz.  As he learned about the brutal treatment and the deplorable conditions, he began to understand why it was that his grandmother was the only member of her generation of the family that had survived the atrocities of the concentration camps.  He was not only Jewish, but he was descended from a Jew who had endured and survived the very worst of humanity’s inhumanity to humanity.

Now he is changing. He has apologized for anything he said that was offensive to the Jewish People, he has promised to visit Auschwitz to pay his respect and he has visited with a rabbi to discuss his own need to understand what it means to be a Jew. The rabbi is hopeful even while he acknowledges the difficulty and stress of processing such a revelation.

How we see each other makes all the difference.  Csanad Szegedi can no longer look at another Jew and see someone who is all that different from himself.  When we can look at another person and see someone who is something completely other than what we are, that is the starting point for treating them in less than human ways. If we can look at a race of people as being completely other than what we are, then we can justify their enslavement and their status as second-class citizens. If we can look at a group of people and see nothing that we have in common with them, then we can more easily turn an indifferent eye to the treatment they receive from others and the rights and privileges that they are denied.

We miss out as well when we see another human being as someone completely different from ourselves and not as someone who bears the same image of God in which we have been created.  When we look at another and see a human being created and loved by God, then that person can be, just by being a human being, a wonderful gift to us.  In sharing life together with those who are not exactly like us, we open ourselves up to the possibility of receiving the unique giftedness possessed by everyone created in the image of God.  We impoverish ourselves when we fail or refuse to see one another as a person made by God’s hands and dear to God’s heart.