The strong men keep coming on
They go down shot, hanged, sick
They live on fighting, singing,
lucky as plungers.
The strong mothers pulling them
The strong mothers pulling them
from a dark sea, a great prairie,
a long mountain.
Call hallelujah, call amen, call
The strong men keep coming on.
Two strong men, two giants of the soul, who cast long shadows of deeds and dreams that we remember and have forgotten, and remember again. An outsider and a white man in a black man's land that was not his own, an insider and a black man in a white man's land that was nonetheless his home--we remember and pay tribute in white and black.
We remember Albert Schweitzer's personal decision made when only 21 years of age to devote his life beginning at age 30 in some direct service to humanity. We recall the stunned expressions of his friends and colleagues when he announced in his 30th year that he would take up the study of medicine in preparation for a life of healing and service to the natives in Africa. Why would a man with so many gifts--a brilliant scholar, philosopher, historian, theologian, musician--give up an already established career in one field to take up an altogether different study in another field for the sake of a vague humanitarian cause in a strange and primitive land among a strange and unknown people that most of his contemporaries considered to be savages and less than fully human? These were the questions that people were asking and Schweitzer's only answer was that he wanted to make his life his argument for a Christian ethics of service that he had come to believe in as a theologian and philosopher. He wanted not only to think and speak the truth, but to do the truth in terms of service to humanity.
Albert Schweitzer had resolved to go to Africa during a time when it was not popular to do so for reasons other than to take from the land and resources of the native population and while doing so to convert them from their so-called pagan and primitive ways to orthodox Christianity under white colonial rule. Schweitzer went not to take but to give, not to convert but to serve, not to change the native Africans' native culture or way of life, but to bring the healing balm of modern medicine to where the people lived. And so he built his hospital in the bush and jungle of Lamberene where the people were, with animals and children and families all part of the healing community of care and concern. It was a primitive hospital by modern standards, but it was clearly the people's hospital. In his own lifetime Albert Schweitzer became a moral legend for his example of dedication and service to humanity in the face of great obstacles and hardships for more than 50 years of his own life, through two world wars and the birth of the atomic age, and through tumultuous changes in the land which he had come to love as his home though it was not his own.
While in the jungle Schweitzer tried to keep up with his Biblical scholarship. He wrote and published what was to become a famous study, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, that remains the benchmark for Jesus studies to this day. Schweitzer held that we cannot transpose the thinking and apocalyptic world-view of Jesus' times into our own because they do not fit. What we can do is draw strength and inspiration from the ethical mysticism of Jesus' teachings rather than their historical context. Schweitzer was a Unitarian at heart and in the latter part of his life he did in fact join the UU Church of the Larger Fellowship. Schweitzer also used his great musical talents as an interpreter of the music of Bach to raise money for his medical mission in Africa through organ concerts throughout Europe. During the World Wars Schweitzer became a virtual prisoner of war because he, a German citizen, was a medical missionary in a French African colony. This was a man who was a pacifist and who held to a belief in reverence for all life, human life and animal life, who would not willfully hurt or harm another human being, much less take the life of another living creature without cause.
In some small way Albert Schweitzer hoped to atone for the sins of white Europeans against the land the land and people of Africa. Schweitzer was reacting against a form of colonialism and paternalism that for the most part he felt exploited the natives for economic gain and political power without truly appreciating the land and the people for themselves and without giving anything back in return for what was taken. In his response Schweitzer was also partly a victim of the paternalism and colonialism he condemned in his white brothers and sisters.
In the twilight of his career, when he was in his eighties, carping critics, black as well as white, accused him of authoritarianism, paternalism and racism in his attitudes and relations with the natives. Why didn't he help blacks to be nurses and doctors? Why didn't he encourage African political independence? Why didn't he establish a modern, sanitary hospital and train Africans to staff and run it? Some of the criticisms were not without foundation--he was paternalistic and even racist in some of his views and attitudes--he was a child of his times--but the critics and their criticism were in essence moral pygmies swatting at an ethical giant, made by those who spent a week or no time at all in Lamberene, in comparison to nearly a lifetime of service by the aged doctor, and whose own lives were singularly lacking in the kind of renunciation and dedicated service to humanity that Schweitzer hoped would be an inspiration and example for others to follow in their own way.
Schweitzer was indeed a strong and authoritative personality with an independent and sometimes stubborn will--as men of genius often are--and he had to be such, at least in part, in order to accomplish the Herculean task which he had set for himself. He was gifted with enormous reserves of physical and spiritual energies which he used to the uttermost for the cause of alleviating human suffering and pain. He never claimed to be perfect nor devoid of human faults. But he did hold that all of us are called to serve our fellow human beings in some manner commensurate with our abilities and talents, however modest or insignificant our contribution to that end.
Schweitzer once wrote:
"I must forgive lies directed against me because so many times my own conduct has been blotted by lies. I must forgive the lovelessness, the hatred, the slander, the fraud, the arrogance which I encounter, since I myself have so often lacked love, and have hated, slandered, defrauded, and been arrogant, and I must forgive without noise or fuss. In general, I do not succeed in forgiving fully; I do not even get as far as being always just. But he who tries to live by this principle, simple and hard as it is, will know the real adventures and triumphs of the soul."
Schweitzer's effort and endeavor was indeed a triumph of the soul.
We remember also this day, another servant of humanity, Martin Luther King, Jr., who shared a January birthday with Albert Schweitzer--Schweitzer on the 14th of January, King on the 15th. Like Schweitzer, King turned down the opportunity to pursue the life of a professor of theology and ethics to become minister to his people where they lived in the midst of segregation and discrimination in the American south. He thought he could make a difference. He was a dreamer.
A bus strike in Montgomery projected him into the leadership of the civil rights movement in America that overturned the segregated social structures of the South and transformed the moral and political thinking of the nation. In his own lifetime he too became a moral legend to his people, to the nation, and the world. He taught and he preached and he practiced the Gospel of love and nonviolence as he wrought mightily for justice and human dignity for whites as well as blacks, for Vietnamese as well as Americans. And he continued to preach love and nonviolence in the face of the most inhuman acts committed against his people. Even when white racists bombed and murdered little black children in Sunday School in Birmingham, Alabama he continued to preach a Gospel of love and forgiveness and nonviolence. Who among us could do that?
Who can forget the weeks and months and years of tramps of days and nights of nonviolent protest all over the South and into the North to gain for black people in this nation simple human rights that we have always taken for granted--the right to sit on a bus or a train or a plane wherever we please whether across town or in interstate travel--the right to be served at a lunch counter regardless of the color of your skin--the right for public accommodation wherever we travel--the right to use public rest rooms and water fountains without the indignity of separate facilities marked "colored"--the right to vote and to register to vote without discriminatory statutes that obstruct that right--the right to equal educational opportunities without enforced segregation.
Think of the number of people, black and white, who were beaten, cajoled, threatened, jailed and murdered simply to win those rights for black people in our nation. It staggers the imagination that so much had to be sacrificed for what today seems so little, and yet can anyone doubt that those gains could ever have been won without the sacrifices involved? Sheriff Clark said NEVER to voter registration of blacks in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, but blacks did eventually register and now vote largely because of the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which he headed.
Through all the hate and slander and jailings and beatings and killings Martin Luther King never once yielded to the human impulse of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, of unreasoning rage and murder and revenge. He continued to seek the higher road of love and nonviolence in the spirit of Jesus and Gandhi though there were black leaders arising who were beginning to preach a harsher and more strident gospel. To the end he remained a man of peace in a world without peace, ever longing for the day when "the radiant stars of love and brotherhood would shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty." He was a dreamer. The dreamer is gone. But the dream lives on.
In the year of Martin Luther King's birth, 1929, Mahatma Gandhi of India sent a message to American Negroes. The message said:
"Let not the 12 million Negroes be ashamed of the fact that they are the grandchildren of slaves. There is no dishonor in being slaves. There is dishonor in being slave owners. But let us not think of honor dishonor in connection with the past. Let us realize that the future is with those who would be truthful, pure and loving. For, as old wise men have said, truth ever is, untruth never was. Love alone binds, and truth and love accrue only to the truly humble."
It is an irony of history that Gandhi was to become King's spiritual and moral mentor because both men were murdered by an assassin's hand following which a wave of riots and violence and killings swept the land thus negating the Gospel of nonviolence for which both men had lived and died. Both no doubt overestimated the capacity of the common people to endure oppression and frustration and change without yielding to the impulse to violence. Few are the women and men who are able to do so, and those who do become moral exemplars for others to follow. Today more than ever we need the love and nonviolence and reverence for life of a Martin Luther King, Jr. and an Albert Schweitzer. It is a coincidence that both Schweitzer and King were strongly influenced by the Hindu religious tradition of "ahimsa", the doctrine of nonviolence and nonharm toward all life. Both men eventually received the Nobel Peace Prize for the application and expression of this ethical principle in their own lives.
Both had a concept of religion that was large and all embracing. Schweitzer's ethical religion was ecological in reference to nature, King's ethical religion was ecological in reference to society on a global scale. King once wrote: "It has been my conviction that any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the social, political, and economic conditions that scar the soul is a spiritually dead religion....A religion that ends with the individual ends." And both Schweitzer and King had to contend with detractors of their character and accomplishments in life and even after death. During his lifetime King was accused of being a communist sympathizer and outside agitator. After his death his sexual infidelities were revealed and his doctoral thesis was criticized because he failed to give credit and cite sources of quotations, as if these human sins and shortcomings could somehow detract from the causes of love and justice for which he gave his life. Whatever sins Martin Luther King , Jr. may have committed he never deliberately harmed or wrought violence against the life of another person, and in this he stands above all his detractors.
The legacy of Schweitzer and King belongs to the ages, two strong men, two giants of the soul, who cast long shadows of deeds and dreams we remember and have forgotten and remember again--an outsider and white man in a black man's land not his own--an insider and a black man in a predominantly white man's land nonetheless his home. We remember and pay tribute in white and in black.