Welcomed Heroes

A sermon for Marin Luther King Jr. Sunday

Jan Vickery Knost

First Parish in Norwell
January 20, 2002

"In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty."
Martin Luther King, Jr, Letter from Birmingham City Jail

Last year at this time I spoke to you about Dr. Kings dream of a land free of racial hatred and filled with compassion and justice. I titled it "Dreaming the Dream Alive." Given the events of the past four months, I want to enlarge on that vision and make some observations on the human propensity for violence that seems to plague civilization more and more.

George Lucas is the genius producer/director who brought the world the "Star Wars" trilogy. Then, more than a decade later he surprised us all by telling us that the three sagas we had seen were actually the middle portion of a nine part story. If that be true in fiction, it is certainly true in fact. And so I would invite you on a journey back in time to some of the events that set the stage for Dr. King's witness.

In the year 1856, the year, as a matter of fact, in which The Rev. Olympia Brown was the first woman ordained by a national religious denomination, that being the Universalist Church of America, there was a man named John Brown. He was an ardent abolitionist. Though he had been a failure in a number of life projects, he decided in his heart of hearts that vengeance must be secured for the continuance of slavery a sin on the conscience of the United States.

In Lawrence, Kansas, a mob had pillaged and murdered to call attention to the right of the states to be free and to continue slavery. John Brown, accompanied by four of his sons and two other men rode to a settlement on Pottawatomie Creek. They shot and hacked to death five men and boys who had spoken of their support for slavery.

The courts ignored this tragedy. The fear was that it would fan the fires on both sides of the holocaust that was to become "the War Between the States".

But things proved too hot for John Brown and he fled to New England where he gained a hearing from a sympathetic group of abolitionists who gave him money and support. Reports indicate that none of those New Englanders who came to be called "The Secret Six" really had any idea what John Brown was planning to do. One of the six was the Unitarian minister and reformer, the Reverend Theodore Parker.

John Brown's hope was to foment a slave uprising. He envisioned what he called an eventual "Negro Republic" that would come into being in the Appalachian Mountains. There the war would be waged against the slave states.

Brown's first objective was the ammunition arsenal at Harper's Ferry, a quaint little village that began in 1747 with a mill and a river crossing. Forty years later George Washington urged that a gun factory be established there.

But on the drizzily night of October 16, 1859, John Brown came there looking for arms for his slave rebellion. Eighteen men accompanied him. But his mission had been badly planned. It was almost suicidal. The conflict resulted not only with the death of two of his sons but of 8 other men and of Brown's capture. Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant Jeb Stuart led the charges that resulted in Brown's defeat.

John Brown was imprisoned, tried for treason and hanged on December 2, 1859. As he mounted the gallows he showed no fear or remorse for the blood that had been spilled in the pursuance of his cause. And, we are told, what he thought was his honorable intent and the fact of his death actually led to the tolling of bells in New England in his honor. Anger and outrage spread and soon was precipitated in what has been called the bloodiest war this country has ever known.

John Brown was not what one would call a "welcomed hero". Though he believed his intentions were honorable and even though his methods helped to set the stage for the war to follow, the ultimate question that emerges was whether his use of violence was justified.

We've all heard the familiar saying that "All's fair in Love and War." In such times people seem to develop a kind of "anything goes" atttitude. But every attempt to solve such disagreements through violent means has resulted in tragic losses for humanity. I need not go into it.

Even today in the Third World Countries, the lesson has not been learned. War and violence are a virtual way of life. In the various emerging countries of Africa, not to mention the drug and political wars of South America, a daily dose of violence is more common than a dose of vitamins. And it doesn't end there.

The next step, as we know through the constant efforts of the media, has been for people to resort to the most insidious form of violence which we call "terrorism".

My longtime friend and colleague, The Rev. Dr.Rhys Williams has just recently retired as Minister Emeritus of First and Second Church in Boston. Rhy's father was Albert Rhys Wiliams who wrote the definitive history of the Bolshevik Revolution. William's closest friend was the journalist, Jack Reed who wrote Ten Days That Shook The World. Some of you would remember him as Warren Beatty in the movie, "Reds".

As one studies the arguments that emerged out of that cataclysmic struggle in Russia the question of whether there is a higher good in the use of violence against innocent people comes up again and again. Are atrocities and war crimes permissible in terms of an ultimate goal?

Return to the story of John Brown. In the North he became a martyr. His death helped to galvanize abolitionists to more radical efforts to achieve their goal of ending slavery. In the South his actions were deemed treacherous and treasonous. They set a majority of the south on the edge of paranoia for fear of a slave rebellion.

In the last analysis, then, John Brown's raid and subsequent death raised the issue of slavery and its possible abolition and it radicalized men and women. It hardened the positions on both sides of the argument and insured the failure of the Missouri Compromise, a last-ditch effort to settle the slavery issue without violence.

Again, was such violence justified? What would Dr. King, most certainly a "Welcomed Hero" in our time, have said? Many times he said there are causes "worth dying for". I wonder what he would have replied to the question of whether or not there was a cause worth KILLING for?

I have heard it said that that heroic effort on the part of New England patriots that came to be known as the Boston Tea Party may have been party to terrorism in their day. What of other measures to gain a political goal? The Olympic terrorists in Munich? The terrorist measures in Somalia and Sierra Leone? The bombing of countless American targets throughout the middle east.

Then go another step: Puerto Rican terrorists, Irish terrorists, Basque terrorists, and during the Viet Nam War, the Weather Underground. Sara Jane Olsen and the Symbionese Liberation Army.What about them? Were the goals they pursued important enough to do what they did?

Let me remind you that in those days no one was willing to sacrifice their lives for their ideals. Today, the Arab terrorists do. A vision of heaven and the love of 70 virgins grips their minds in the same way that the young Japanese Kamikaze pilots mounted their fragile aircrafts in the War in the Pacific.

Having posed such uncomfortable questions, let me reverse the process. Consider some truly "WELCOMED HEROES". What of those who claimed a philosophy of revolution but REFUSED to resort to violence? Dr. King? Yes. But what about one of his "welcomed heroes"? What about Mohandas K. Gandhi? Both of them were revolutionaries. But they insisted that their doctrine of non-violent persuasion would be the only way to change the minds and hearts of their oppressors. And they knew that with the use of scores of thousands of followers they could change the course of history. And they did.

The theory of non-violent persuasion does not always avoid or prevent violence. Dr. King would have agreed with Gandhi insisting that non-violent behavior actually goes about the process of creating situations in which violence CAN occur! They would have stated that violence needs to be drawn out in the form of the repressed anger that rests in the persons or groups blinded by the true goal of brotherhood and peace.

This past week I rented the movie, Gandhi. The vivid depiction of his march to the sea for the simple act of making salt - which was against British law - was a powerful, almost devastating event for the lofty British Empire. In another scene, British soldiers clubbed scores of Indian men trying to enter a factory, one after another, giving witness to their non-violent beliefs. It was a scene that demonstrated why it takes masses of people to show the world the hatred and brutality of others.

During the days I spent in Selma, Alabama we were instructed in the same principles. We were taught ways of protecting ourselves from the truncheons of the police. But if we had NOT gone there to create such situations, many people would not have followed us in order to insist that racial equality was a goal founded in the Constitution.

You and I probably do not possess the fortitude to use non-violent methods to achieve social change as did Gandhi and King. But we do have the potential courage to be followers; to act in a manner that changes hearts rather than violently killing foes.

In essence, non-violence DEFUSES conflict. The record is replete with examples of disobedience and non-cooperation and boycotts that worked. But how do we apply non-violent methods to terrorists willing to sacrifice their lives for their goals?

And look at the groups we encounter willing to take such measures: Hamas, Pflp, The Phalange, Islamic Jihad, the IRA, Shining Path and of course, Al Queda.

History is a record of many such groups. It's a semester course beginning with the Jewish Masada in the beginning years of Israel's founding right down to the Jewish terrorist organization which called itself The Irgund which savaged Jerusalem during the British rule in that struggling young country.

The ancient saying of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" continue strong in Israel. Are the Palestinians justified in asking that they be given the right to be a recogized country? Do the Israelis rely too heavily on "big brother America" as they carry out what they call the defense of their land? Is Yassar Arafat really a terrorist? Is Sharon really a bully?

Woudn't it be wonderful if we could count on people to conduct themselves according to the higher codes of behavior in settling differences? It seems, though, that violence will always "out". But, too, any kind of victory using violence is an uncertain one given the retaliation that most generally follows.

When one drops a pebble in a pond, the circles go out and out Ôtil they reach the shore. Then, too, they return, like boomerangs. Eventually violence comes back to strike the one who uses it with even more force.

The old "genie in the bottle" story, right? Once let out, it is not easily put back.

What I have asked is whether violence is ever justified when the cause is just. As a possible assist in answering this vexed question let me turn to a classic novel of the 19th century. Dostioveski's The Brothers Karamazov creates the same question in an exchange between two of the protagonists.

"If you could end all the suffering in the world by killing one insignicant, but innocent person, would it be justified?"

"Yes!" we say so very quickly. One person.

Then we are presented with the other more disturbing possibilities. How about ten? Or twenty? Or a hundred? Or a thousand? Or a million? To end all suffering? Forever.

Spectators watched the Battle of Bunker Hill while eating picnic lunches. The American Civil War was relatively civil toward civilians. Even World War I, if you read the stories of the pilots over Great Britain and Europe, were depicted as being relatively gallant and civil - even with each other in their dogfights.

But with World War II things changed. From Hitler's ordering of the Holocaust to Joseph Stalin's pogroms against millions in Siberian slave camps, to the Japanese slaughter of the Chinese to our fire-bombing of Dresden to our bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we have learned that there are NO CIVILIANS.

As the 9 / 11 tragedy continues to painfully remind us, we are all potential hostages to terror. Even the concept called "M.A.D." or "Mutually Assured Destruction" (which India and Palestine rattle at each other even now), is terror.

So what is the religious view?

Well, it may shock you. But certain brands of orthodox religion are all FOR terrorism and hostage-taking. How, after all, according to their belief, does God deal with sin? In Sodom and Gomorrah he blows the places up. In Noah's time he drowns the world and promises fire the next time. In the Book of Exodus the death of the firstborn of each Egyptian family is justified because people belonged to groups.

There were no innocent civilians. Group guilt and group hatred precluded that. And this continues to exist today. Terrorists do not see PEOPLE. They see Americans or Jews or Arabs or Protestant/Catholics.

In Scripture redemption is given with Jesus being the Lamb of God. He is the ransom for the people.

Today "Right To Lifers" kill and bomb doctors and clinics for their goals. And they are satisfied that their cause is just.

Years ago there was a television commercial for Coca-Cola that showed thousands of people gathering on this hill. They were raging against each other and formed a circle. In the middle of that circle emerged two elderly men - obviously the leaders of the two sides. The commercial concluded with the two of them foolishly sweating and struggling to defeat each other. The words "Wouldn't that be a better way?" than appeared on to the screen.

Folks, there are no groups. There is only one group. Humanity. We will learn to live together or face our doom together. There IS no righteous violence. There is no blessing by God for killing others. If we fight; if we take a human life, it should not be with the holy fervor or arrogant certainty but with trembling and tears .

Religion makes God the ultimate terrorist and demeans a meaningful concept of the universe and the Gods we worship are written on our hearts.

There ARE "welcomed heroes" in our midst. Why does humanity continue to reject their examples?