Audio Podcast available here.
MLK Service 1/15/17 “Harden Not Your Heart”
You might remember a few weeks ago I spoke about my momentary anxiety around how you all would react to the signs that we put out on Drake. I braced myself for someone to feel anxious about the particular adjectives and groups we identified there. But then, I got nothing. Nothing except positive affirmation and pride that we would make such a clear statement of solidarity.
It was only in this past week, when we changed out one of the signs, that suddenly I got a flurry of comments in person, over email and on texts. Republicans?!
Let me be clear that just as we have representatives from all of the other signs in our congregation, we also have republicans in our congregation. Also like the others, they tend to be in the minority. And yet unlike the others, this one caused people to question. One person semi-joked….”Republicans?! We love Republicans?!”
This is the crux of the challenge of Universalism today, it seems to me. It is the tension that especially in the few weeks after the election I knew so many were wrestling with,
and many still are – does compassion for all and love for all mean endorsing all? How do we imagine that our call for Universal Love can be put together with the need to resist injustice – naming clearly and transforming forces of evil and oppression?
The topic of evil deserves its own sermon – and in fact that IS Sean’s sermon topic next week, which I confess gives me some relief….thanks for tackling that Sean.
For today, I am starting with the assumption that there is evil in this world. There is injustice. And there is a brokenness that exists both within each of us and among us all that we are called to resist and transform. Universal Love, and our commitment that “no one is indispensable” as Sean talked about last Sunday does not mean that we are not also fiercely drawing lines of right and wrong. Because the other part of that mantra he spoke about last week is equally, “no more victims.”
Since November I have been traveling back and forth to my home with this book – it’s the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. MLK wrote so much more than just his I have a dream speech, or his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Each essay and sermon, interview and book excerpt is so powerful, and filled with so many layers of theology and political and social analysis – so much of it relevant for our times.
Early on I was struck by just how Universalist King seemed to me in his theology and practice – I wasn’t exactly surprised – King attended UU churches here and there and considered seriously becoming a Unitarian Universalist – except felt that he wouldn’t reach the size of audience he had in mind through Unitarian Universalism.
And then, he also came to some struggles with some of the liberal insistence on a high regard for humanity….but his core philosophies, especially that of non-violence come across as if he was reading a 19th century Universalist as he was shaping them….
Which in some ways, he was. As Eleanor shared, and as Richard Trudeau writes in his book Universalism 101, “King was inspired by the freedom fighter Mohandas Ghandi, who was inspired by the religious writings of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, with whom Ghandi corresponded, at the end of Tolstoy’s life.
Tolstoy consulted with Ballou about his thoughts on and experiences with pacifism as he wrote his master work on non-violent theory, [The Kingdom of God is Within You].
Adin Ballou – not to be confused with his distant cousin Hosea Ballou who Sean spoke about last week- served Universalist congregations for 56 years, beginning in the early 19th century. He was a leading theorist of non-violent resistance and pacifism, and had a keen sense of optimism and faith for the possibilities of the future – ever-hopeful that the message of love that he felt in his heart would prevail and transform the world.
As he said in one of his most influential works, “A great transition of the human mind has commenced and the reign of military and penal violence must ultimately give place to that of forbearance, forgiveness, and mercy.”
A hundred years later, as Martin Luther King Jr turned to non-violence as a way to address injustice and brokenness, this message and these ideas were still struggling to gain traction – because still there was this idea that Love was not compatible with resistance –
that if we are to meet the forces of evil and injustice with Love it must mean – like the Cobra, we let the forces destroy us, and continue, indefinitely.
MLK talks about this as one state of how African Americans had been before the Civil Rights movement in fact – that they had been accepting of their oppression in a certain way, not making unrest. Referencing the Hebrew prophets, he calls this a peace where there is no peace. “True peace,” he says, “is not merely the absence of some negative force – tension, confusion, or war; it is the presence of some positive force – justice, good will, and brotherhood.”
As the Civil Rights movement grew, however, African Americans and oppressed people everywhere started to push and lead towards this positive presence – for true justice – and as MLK said, “privileged groups rarely give up their privileges without a strong resistance,” and for MLK and his Universalist theology, that resistance had to be non-violent, grounded in Agape Love.
We don’t hear King’s own words on this subject enough – and because I have so appreciated reading these with more depth, I wanted to spend some time this morning reading to you from one of King’s articles on non-violence, this from an article that ran in the Christian Century called “Nonviolence and Racial Justice.”
It was published in 1957, so it was a relatively early piece of writing – he was 28.
About six months before, the Montgomery Bus Boycott had concluded, and offered a living example of how to resist injustice with love.
As I read this I invite you to consider the theological convictions he is exploring, and how they sit with your understandings of Universalism and what it means to love courageously.
“The alternative to violence is non-violent resistance. This method was made famous in our generation by Mohandas K. Gandhi, who used it to free India from the domination of the British empire. Five points can be made concerning non-violence as a method in bringing about better racial conditions.
First, this is not a method for cowards; it does resist. The non-violent resister is just as strongly opposed to the evil against which he protests as is the person who uses violence.
His method is passive or non-aggressive in the sense that he is not physically aggressive toward his opponent. But his mind and emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade the opponent that he is mistaken. This method is passive physically but strongly active spiritually; it is non-aggressive physically but dynamically aggressive spiritually.”
(Side note – in other works MLK talked about the need to cultivate a tough mind, but a tender heart, and I think that’s a little of what he’s getting at here…..)
“A second point is that nonviolent resistance does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through non-cooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that these are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.
“A third characteristic of this method is that the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil. It is the evil that we are seeking to defeat, not the persons victimized by evil. Those of us who struggle against racial injustice must come to see that the basic tension is not between races. As I like to say to the people in Montgomery Alabama: The tension in this city is not between white people and Negro people. The tension is at bottom between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And if there is a victory it will be a victory not merely for fifty thousand Negroes but a victory for justice and the forces of light. We are out to defeat injustice, and not white persons who may happen to be unjust.
“A fourth point that must be brought out concerning nonviolent resistance is that it avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. In struggling for human dignity the oppressed people of the world must not allow themselves to become bitter or indulge in hate campaigns.
“To retaliate with hate and bitterness would do nothing but intensify hate in the world.
Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethics of love to the center of our lives.”
(Let me pause in reading King’s words for a minute to share a story from our colleague Andy Burnette, who serves the UU congregation in Chandler Arizona. Andy tells about a member of his congregation who is a Holocaust survivor who came to tell his story at his church. He says, “I think I will never forget him sitting with his arms crossed in a way that made visible the numbers tattooed on his forearm, saying he wanted children to know that if you let hatred for one person or group of people get into your heart, it makes it easier for you to hate others.
“Then the hate is in you,” he said. “And it’s hard to get it out.” Don’t let it in, friends. No matter what. It takes work, but don’t let it in.”
King is talking about the ways that letting your heart become bitter or hateful corrupts the world, but this story from Andy reminds us that it also corrupts you.)
The title of today’s service – Harden Not Your Heart – is a phrase that appears in both the Hebrew bible and the Christian Scriptures – but when I was thinking of it for today, I was thinking of the Pharoah in the story of Moses and the Israelites as they escape from Egypt.
It’s a really complicated thing that happens in this story because God is helping Moses to appeal to the Pharoah, but then also God hardens Pharoah’s heart and makes him unwilling to concede – over and over this happens, and each time, the Egyptians are hit with more violence and death – it’s terrible. Pain and suffering, and the Israelites still are enslaved. It is only when finally Pharoah’s heart is not hardened, that he releases the Israelites – and his own people stop suffering.
Last week Sean described Universalism as a profoundly difficult faith to hold. Because it asks us to find that path where we are seeking true liberation and justice – staying that line – even while we manage not to harden our hearts. It is a faith that asks us, even when we read the headlines about an action we find morally reprehensible – or the many actions piling up – we remember the humanity, the love that connects and has the power to heal us all ,and that we not lose faith in that love.
Which brings me back to King, for just a few moments to conclude – he says
“In speaking of love, at this point, we are not referring to some sentimental emotion.
It would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense. “Love” in this context means understanding good will. There are three words for love in the Greek New Testament. First, there is eros, which has come to mean a sort of romantic love.
Second there is philia, which denotes a sort of reciprocal love: the person loves because he is loved. When we speak of loving those who oppose us we refer to neither eros nor philia; we speak of a love which is expressed in the Greek word agape. Agape means nothing sentimental or basically affectionate; it means understanding, redeeming good will for all, an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in human life. When we love on the agape level, we love people not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but because God loves them”
(Because they are a part of us in a greater sense – held in love as we are)
“Here we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed he does.”
Love like this is not a simple endorsement – of Republican ideas or every GLBTQ person, or every immigrant – that’s not what our signs mean. Love like this asks exactly the opposite of such an easy acceptance – requiring instead that we hold those we love accountable, call them to their better selves.
Ultimately King’s vision of love, the Universalist vision of love, courageous love asks us to find that difficult practice that offers compassion, with boundaries; radical acceptance with an unfaltering call for justice. It does not stand for a peace that is no peace, but requires the disruptive presence of a Love that keeps rising up, until the great promise and dream of liberty and justice for all might finally ring true.