Love Them into Life | June 5, 2022 by Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
- Viktor Frankl
There was a sadness that accompanied me during the final day of class a couple of weeks ago. I had become accustomed to our weekly time together where we – the students, technical assistant, and I – would share our lives with each other in a safe, vulnerable space as we embraced the challenges and commitment of being transformative leaders. This was a rich and moving experience for me to sit with and hear the longing of the hearts of companions of the spirit who are in or will go into various manifestations of ministry. These are people who for a period have devoted their lives to deepening their understanding of ministry through theological education. Serious they were yet open to the joy and awe of life.
While reading one of the final papers/projects for the course, I read something that I had read before and even taught before. But this time it opened me to a deeper understanding of the text – the common or familiar becoming uncommon and leading into vistas of understanding and appreciation not sensed before.
That is what happened to Moses when he encountered the “burning bush” that was afire while not being consumed. It called his spirit to attention. It was not something that he could ignore. Certainly, there had been some preparation for this, something that allowed him to be open to this new dimension of awareness. In the pause he unveiled dimensions he had never allowed before to re-imagine who he was and could be. I think that religion should lift the veil of what is possible in life. In religious consciousness there should always be an understanding of self as part of a whole and curiosity about the beyond within.
I imagine that many of you have had a similar experience to the one I shall describe. This incident occurred while I was campus minister at The Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. I drove to the United Campus Ministry building each day although the drive was only five minutes. One day my car was being repaired and I decided to walk to work. What an amazing world I discovered while walking! Prior to the walk, I was not really conscious of the fabulous handiwork of God. I had not noticed how the universe had been organized by the people living in the houses I passed – beautiful flowers, creative landscaping, houses personalized by various shapes, colors, designs, and artifacts. How glorious the walk was! How it allowed me to experience the glory of creation! It was a creative encounter that changed my perspective on the short journey from house to working place.
This is or should be an ongoing gift of our various religions, faith traditions, spirituality, mingling the outside with the inside, melding the external with the internal, experiencing the eternal in the contemporary. It is what Dr. Howard Thurman would consider creative encounter. And he says that
. . . to KNOW
Rather consists in opening out a way
Whence the imprisoned splendour may escape,
Than in effecting entry for a light
Supposed to be without.
The light is already within us. The glory is already there. For we have been made a little lower than the angels and crowned with glory and honor. However, much of the time, we fail to own and express that glory or honor.
A profound gift parked in my consciousness this week while reading one of the final papers for my class: Transformative Leadership: Prophets, Heretics, and Social Entrepreneurs. There was a statement in the paper that I had read several times and in fact had spoken about it. Yet it seemed new, arresting, and amazing. The statement was from Fannie Lou Hamer:
We are not … fighting to save these people because we hate 'em, but we are fighting these people because we love ‘em, and we are the only thing that can save 'em now. We are fighting to save these people from their hate and from all the things that would be so bad against them. We want them to see the right way.
This from a woman who was severely beaten by two Black prisoners whose own bodies and lives had been threatened if they refused to comply with the order. She was assaulted so badly that she was unsure of being able to get up from the bunk bed of torture when commanded to do so.
At first it didn’t seem like I could get up because at this point my hands was navy blue, and I couldn’t even bend my fingers. And he (the white state patrol officer) kept telling me to “get up bitch.” You can walk, get up, fatso!” They carried me back to my cell . . . and just to bend my knees forward, you could hear me screaming I don’t know how far.
Hamer lived the rest of her life with kidney damage and a blood clot on a nerve in her left eye, permanent consequences of her assault. What was in her, her spirit, her religion to bring such magnificence and magnanimity of love to her oppressors? She was not saying to like oppressors. Such would be out of order and inhumane. No one should like their torturers. For the torturer has denied the humanity of the one being tormented. This would also not allow the torturer to deal with their sin and crime against humanity. I know that Gandhi had stated that when one makes one’s enemy one’s friend that person is no longer enemy. I hear Dr. Thurman reminding me that love necessitates removing one from the station of enemy. I understand that.
When Fannie Lou Hamer speaks of loving the people who are causing such harm, exploitation, degradation, she is talking about creating a world where they can have self-esteem, where they will not feel broken, where they will not dwell on scarcity, where they can have abundant life. And strangely they had beaten her because she was devoted to creating a world where these conditions would exist, where they could be loved. She was saying in the words of Dr. Thurman that the contradictions of life are neither final nor ultimate. The civil rights movement was not about rights for Black people only. It carried within it the seeds for a new inclusive society where I got shoes, you got shoes, all of God’s children got shoes, and food, and clothing, and housing, and clean air and water, and respect, and power, including Green Power. No one is replaced but welcomed into a new fellowship of love.
Having farmed, she knew that the seeds that she and others were sowing would bear fruit if the conditions were right and ripe. Participation of all in the socio-political-economic process that benefits all and meet the needs of the torturers as well as the people dedicated to this new way and socio-political-economic landscape was a goal of the movement. When we love someone, we care for them. We need them in our lives for we are intricately connected.
Prior to her profound statement about loving those who oppressed, she presented to the gathered assembly the blessings from the Sermon on the Mount for those who are persecuted for representing Jesus (The Christ), the one who challenged the existing system so that other could have abundant life. She challenged her audience to do something about the strangling system they experienced each day.
Clarence Jordan considered the Sermon on the Mount not as a sermon but as a lesson. Jesus too was a teacher and benefitted from the presence of students. Just as my students were given a final paper/project final, his students were also given an assignment to memorize and live. Jordan said that the purpose of the lesson was not to provide inspiration but to cause perspiration. It was the gospel in working clothes.
There are differing and sometimes contradictory ideas about any subject and certainly about the meaning of one’s life. Some of these ideas had been circulating for centuries. Some were good and some were bad. This lesson is Jesus’ bringing together what he determined to be the essence of the human journey, the guidelines along which the people needed to live their lives, guidelines vastly different from those of empire and religious orthodoxy.
The Sermon on the Mount was the platform on which he would put his ideas forth as representative of God’s platform. That platform does not mention dealing with a physical structure but with the façade of our lives and the need to get beyond that into our essence.
Hamer pointed to the verse: Blessed are you when men shall revile you and prosecute [persecuted] you and shall set almighty evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven. For, so they prosecuted [persecuted]the prophets which were before you.
Jordan says the essence of this verse is: They who have endured much for what is right are God’s people. You all are God’s people when others call you names and harass you and tell all kinds of false tales on you just because you follow me. Be cheerful and good-humored, because your spiritual advantage is great, for that’s the way they treated people of conscience in the past.
I often criticize the founders of this nation for their slave holding and sanctioning policies, for their exclusion of rights to the Indigenous population, women, and whites without land. Despite this they took a tremendous risk and stand in forming a new nation. The last sentence of the Declaration gives hint of the situation: And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
This was quite a pledge. For the signers were aware that they were breaking away from the British Empire, the mightiest empire in the world at the time. The statement talks about divine Providence having their backs even as they were aware of the possibility of losing all – lives, fortunes, honor to achieve this new nation. By the time Fannie Lou Hamer gave her “love speech” she had already sacrificed her life for the new nation she knew had to come into being. She did this without reservation. Her religion and commitment dictated that she had no recourse but to let her light shine.
It isn't the past which holds us back, it's the future; and how we undermine it, today.