I’m always proud of the congregation at St. John’s Lutheran Church, and never more so than on a day like today, Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.
The day has become a big deal at our church. We have breakfast, we’re joined by the Lady Vols Softball Team (Coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly are church members), someone reads a devotion, we have communion, and then we walk together in our city’s MLK Day Parade.
I was honored to write and read the devotion for this morning’s celebration, and I wanted to share what I wrote:
On this day when we honor the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, I want to talk about love.
Listen to these words of John Lewis, a member of the United State Congress from Georgia who was a core leader in the Civil Rights movement.
“Love is strong. Love is powerful. The movement created what I liked to call a nonviolent revolution. It was love at its best. It’s one of the highest forms of love. That you beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me … but in spite of that I’m gonna still love you.”
Activists in the Civil Rights Movement were trained to behave in ways that, in some ways, may be unfathomable today. Activists were taught to dress well, to smile, to be polite and, even as billy clubs and other weapons were being used to beat them, to look their aggressors in the eyes in the hope that some recognition of their mutual humanity would break through.
On March 7, 1965, Congressman Lewis led the first of three marches over 54 miles of highway from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery in support of voting rights. That first march is now known as Bloody Sunday because the 600 unarmed marchers were attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma. State troopers and a sheriff’s posse wielded billy clubs and tear gas. Lewis and many others were beaten unconscious.
Despite every act of violence perpetrated against him and other marchers, not just on Bloody Sunday but during other nonviolent protests, and despite being jailed for his actions more than forty times, Lewis says the core of the movement remained love.
In his book, Across that Bridge, Lewis writes:
“Love is the willingness to sacrifice, to be beaten, to go to jail, to be killed for the betterment of society rather than live out your life in silence. The Civil Rights Movement, above all, was a work of love. Yet, even fifty years later, it is rare to find anyone who would use the word love to describe what we did.”
The Civil Rights Movement took its cues, in many ways, from the nonviolent Indian Independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi said the centerpiece of his movement was also love. He said:
“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it – always.”
We live still — all these years later — in a world of injustice and inequality. It’s difficult to see or feel love in a world where Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and countless others get no justice. Likewise, it is difficult to see or feel love when angry people, frustrated by a system that certainly seems stacked against them, burn their own communities to the ground.
#BlackLivesMatter was the hashtag and, really, the movement of the year in 2014. Black lives do matter, as do the lives of police officers, as do the lives of the protestors for equality and justice in all corners of our country.
We want injustices corrected and inequalities equalized. We want change and we want it now. But we have to be patient. Love demands it.
Recall the words of First Corinthians, Chapter 13:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
Of course this doesn’t mean we stop demanding justice and equality. There is much work to do, whether we fight for racial equality, marriage equality, economic equality or some other cause. Change is coming and, I pray, will continue, but the inequities we see in the world today may not be corrected in this, our lifetime. And whether change happens in our lifetime is, in fact, not the point.
John Lewis says: “There may be setbacks, there may be some disappointments, there may be some interruptions but we have to take the long, hard look. If it failed to happen during your lifetime, it will happen during somebody’s lifetime. But you must do all you can do while you occupy this space, during your lifetime.”
Are you doing all you can while you occupy this space? And, more importantly, are you doing it in love? Think about that while we’re marching today.