Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

January 16, 2011: “Martin Luther King, Jr Sunday, Evaluating the Dream-And The Arizona Shootings”

In the Christian Bible, the Gospel of Matthew has Jesus, the great spiritual teacher and Prophet say this well-known passage which has always resounded with me as one of the most important parts of his teachings about Christianity: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger, and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me…Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of those who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:35-40, and then in verse 45 and 46,) Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, did not do it to me.

        The great Indian prophet and pacifist, Gandhi, who was profoundly influenced by Unitarian Henry David Thoreau's essay on civil disobedience, and who was in turn a deep and powerful influence on Dr. King, said, "I can say without the slightest hesitation and yet in all humility, that those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means."

        One of the most influential figures in 20th century Unitarian Universalism, Professor James Luther Adams, says in his essay, "The Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism": "...religious liberalism affirms the moral obligation to direct one's efforts toward the establishment of a just and loving community. It is this role which makes the role of the prophet central and indispensable in liberalism...This faith in the freedom that creates the just community is the faith of the Old Testament prophets. They repudiate the idea that the meaning of life is to be achieved by exclusive devotion to ritual or by devotion to blood and soil, or by self-serving piety. The 'holy' thing in life is the participation in those processes that give body and form to universal justice."

        I believe Martin Luther King, Jr was one of the great religious prophets of our time and that he was assassinated because of hatred, selfishness, and intolerance. I don't mean he was a perfect man, but that he gave his life in service to his religious beliefs, to love and to trying to transform the world into a better more just and peaceful place for all.

        Yet when I was minister in San Antonio and we were planning an interfaith MLK service, I was pointing out the lack of interest from many of the white churches on the predominantly white SA Community of Churches, on whose board I served for all 16 years I was there. The Executive Director, a Southern Baptist former military chaplain, explained that I had to remember that it wasn't so many years ago for some ministers, that not everybody agreed with Dr. King and some thought him a troublemaker, and moving too fast. San Antonio had, after all been segregated until the Civil Rights movement. On the other hand, San Antonio today has one of the largest MLK Marches of any major city and the smallest black population, only about 8%. It does also hold an annual Interfaith MLK Service which I used to help plan for many years.

        So I was surprised to find that Cleveland has NO MLK march, nor could I find any information about a city wide Interfaith Service.

        MLK Day always reminds us of the Civil Rights era, especially as it seems to become more and more like ancient history to so many children. Yet how angry I get, how tearful I find myself, how ashamed I am for my country when I read of or watch our history of our treatment of minorities, and indeed, of our continued treatment in so many ways. Of our current governor having the first all white cabinet since pre-civil rights legislation in 1962!  What does that say about the progress of African Americans or other people of color?

        And the latest assassination of Congresswoman Giffords grieves the country though she may survive. Six others won't and many others wounded by a gunman who appears to be mentally ill, but the nation has been rocketed by a feeling by many of us that it was caused by the atmosphere of hatred, selfishness, and intolerance which seems to poison the airwaves and often the political scene. There seems to be little doubt that imagery like 'crosshairs' over Congresswoman Giffords' district and even the imagery of a 'Tea Party' that is after 

all, metaphorically, a precursor to revolution, that there is a militance in the air that frankly, scares me, as well as many others.

        Many of  us are shocked at the shootings whether it is ever proven that the gunman was influenced by the talk show hosts or some of the more militant hateful conservative political rhetoric. It seems to me, that the politician atmosphere has become less tolerant and that partisanship has gone to an extreme that I can't remember seeing. As a liberal, I am frankly worried, that I may be next. As we think about Martin Luther King, Jr, and his Dream, I worry that it may be going backwards.

        I have watched the news for the past week with tears in my eyes as I have listened to the stories of those who were killed and those who survived. The stories of bravery and of lives so well lived that were both republican and democrat as well as sweet child who was truly a uniter.

        I didn't get to hear President Obama's Memorial address, but was able to read the text and thought that it too, was like Martin's, 'I have a Dream Speech.' Oh, Martin would have been proud that a Black man was President, that this country could be color blind enough to elect who it thought was the best person for the job, and I have no doubt that soon we will have a woman President as well. Indeed, I find something of the prophet in Obama, his inspirational way of speaking, not quite the preaching cadence of Martin, but still a way of, yes, preaching even politically, compassion, and a challenge for us to live up to our dreams of a country united and strong, free and just, equal and everyone having the opportunity for three meals a day and a chance to work, to go to a decent school.

        I want to share part of his speech because I hear it as a sermon that this nation, that all of us need to hear and take to heart. I don't think it is a 'Democratic message'; I believe he was there in his capacity as not just the American president, but as a moral leader as well. In his speech, he mentions those who were killed at that 'quintessentially' American scene, that was the scene that was shattered by a gunman's bullets. And the six people who lost their lives on Saturday -- they, too, represented what is best in us, what is best in America.

Judge John Roll served our legal system for nearly 40 years. Judge Roll was recommended for the federal bench by John McCain 20 years ago appointed by President George H.W. Bush and rose to become Arizona’s chief federal judge.

His colleagues described him as the hardest-working judge within the Ninth Circuit. He was on his way back from attending Mass, as he did every day, when he decided to stop by and say hi to his representative. ..

George and Dorothy Morris — “Dot” to her friends — were high school sweethearts who got married and had two daughters. They did everything together — traveling the open road in their RV, enjoying what their friends called a 50-year honeymoon. Saturday morning, they went by the Safeway to hear what their congresswoman had to say. When gunfire rang out, George, a former Marine, instinctively tried to shield his wife. Both were shot. Dot passed away.

A New Jersey native, Phyllis Schneck retired to Tucson to beat the snow. But in the summer, she would return East, where her world revolved around her three children, her seven grandchildren and 2-year-old great-granddaughter. A gifted quilter, she’d often work under a favorite tree, or sometimes she’d sew aprons with the logos of the Jets and the Giants – to give out at the church where she volunteered. A Republican, she took a liking to Gabby, and wanted to get to know her better.

Dorwan and Mavy Stoddard grew up in Tucson together — about 70 years ago. They moved apart and started their own respective families. But after both were widowed they found their way back here, to, as one of Mavy’s daughters put it, “be boyfriend and girlfriend again.”

When they weren’t out on the road in their motor home, you could find them just up the road, helping folks in need at the Mountain Avenue Church of Christ. A retired construction worker, Dorwan spent his spare time fixing up the church along with his dog, Tux. His final act of selflessness was to dive on top of his wife, sacrificing his life for hers.

Everything — everything — Gabe Zimmerman did, he did with passion. But his true passion was helping people. As Gabby’s outreach director, he made the cares of thousands of her constituents his own, seeing to it that seniors got the Medicare benefits that they had earned, that veterans got the medals and the care that they deserved, that government was working for ordinary folks. He died doing what he loved — talking with people and seeing how he could help. And Gabe is survived by his parents, Ross and Emily, his brother, Ben, and his fianc’e, Kelly, who he planned to marry next year.

And then there is nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green. Christina was an A student; she was a dancer; she was a gymnast; she was a swimmer. She decided that she wanted to be the first woman to play in the Major Leagues, and as the only girl on her Little League team, no one put it past her. She showed an appreciation for life uncommon for a girl her age. She’d remind her mother, “We are so blessed. We have the best life.” And she’d pay those blessings back by participating in a charity that helped children who were less fortunate…

… sudden loss causes us to look backward — but it also forces us to look forward; to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us.

We may ask ourselves if we’ve shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to the people in our lives. Perhaps we question whether we’re doing right by our children, or our community, whether our priorities are in order.

We recognize our own mortality, and we are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this Earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame — but rather, how well we have loved – and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better.

And that process — that process of reflection, of making sure we align our values with our actions — that, I believe, is what a tragedy like this requires.

The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better. To be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors and coworkers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy — it did not — but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud.

We should be civil because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other’s ideas without questioning each other’s love of country and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American Dream to future generations.

They believed — they believed, and I believe that we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved life here — they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that’s entirely up to us.

And I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.

That’s what I believe, in part because that’s what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed.

..I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us — we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.’

        That would do any preacher proud. What great and inspirational words.

        I think the gunman was influenced by the so called 'recent harsh political tone,' and I would have loved to see those who have been harsh apologize, like Keith Overman did, in a way that might have said something like, 'If I have in any way contributed to the hatred and intolerance or the violence, I apologize, that was not my intention.'  

We have to watch our words, for they are like poisonous serpents sent out from our mouths, whether we are individuals talking to one another or radio commentators or politicians or yea, ministers from the pulpit. By asking people to ‘watch their words,’ I am not demanding censorship, but instead begging for compassion. Jesus says, in part addressing the Jewish dietary laws, but also about watching our words, that it is what comes out of our mouths, not what goes into our mouths that is what we must be concerned about in religious life.

        I hope that I can be clear I, too want, my message to be one of love and compassion, one of uniting us and calling for civil language as well as civil rights for all as we evaluate Martin's dream almost 50 years after he was killed by hatred and intolerance. He preached for justice and peace and was killed for it. He preached nonviolence as a way of life towards even those people who would hurt him; can you imagine the bloodshed if he had preached the opposite, and who could have blamed him?

        'An individual has not started living,' wrote Martin Luther King, Jr., 'until one can rise above the narrow confines of one's individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity...  Every one must decide whether we will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness.'

        Let us take our words that we say each Sunday to wider world, 'we don't have to think alike to walk together' in Martin's 'light of creative altruism .' Let us overcome hatred by love and intolerance by welcoming all.  Let us truly share with one another; there is enough to go around!