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On April 4, 1968, when Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been assassinated, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy was campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. He heard the news of King's murder just before reaching a scheduled rally in the African-American section of Indianapolis. The assembled crowd had not yet heard the news. Kennedy spoke extemporaneously.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, I am only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening because I have some very sad news for all of you. I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight.
Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black -- considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible -- you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization -- black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred for one another.
Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.
For those of you who are black and tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.
My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: 'In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.'
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.
So I shall ask you tonight to return home and say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King. But more importantly, say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love -- a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.
We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we've had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.
But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.
Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.
Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people."
It's amazing how we humans simply assume that time has within it deep continuity. WE expect that each moment will follow the next one smoothly and that everything will proceed just as it always does. The other morning I got up, I led all the animals downstairs just as I always do, I turned on the radio to NPR just as I always do. And I was expecting nothing much, nothing that was going to interrupt the continuous flow of time. Maybe there would be a news story of some interest, but most probably some long story about some Spanish guitar players or something. But as soon as the radio hit my ears, time was no longer continuous and nothing flowed as expected.
There are events which are so significant and horrible that they are not so much in time but they rupture time, they break its flow, and after these events which rupture time, time itself is different. Too many of us know this and have experienced this. Several years ago in the middle of the night the phone rang, and at that one moment my life and the life of all my family was ruptured, forever neatly divided into the time before my sister died and the time after. The same rupture has happened in some way to each of us in our community.
The events of this week ruptured in the most horrible ways the lives of so many people it is difficult even to contemplate it. 5000 innocent victims and all the thousands and ten thousands of others whose lives are ruptured, whose lives are now divided between the before and the after of these tragedies. We need to slow down and take some time and be quiet and contemplate and meditate on each one of these lives, on how these horrible events have ruptured so many lives. I hope we will in the future as a community have a quiet service where we do nothing but read the names of the victims who died and think of them and their loved ones who are also victims, and how all of them have had their lives so terribly ruptured.
But the events of this week are so momentous that they have not only ruptured thousands of individual lives, but literally the life of our country is ruptured. Many people will divide the life of America up this way, before America was attacked by terrorists in this way and after. We are ruptured. These events of this week are that significant. I think it is quite right to think of our country as divided into two times, before this happened and after it.
But then the most important question becomes: what understanding of ourselves as Americans, what understanding of our country, do we come to, do we choose after we have had our national life so violently ruptured? This is what worries me today. It seems our country is in a great hurry to declare, the president declares, the other politicians declare, the people declare, the whole country says: We are good. They are evil. We are democratic. We are peace loving. We value human life. We rouse ourselves in our righteous anger and are ready to strike, absolutely convinced that this is a battle between Good and Evil. I guess I'm still too Christian, still have too much Christianity in me, because all week while everyone, our whole culture, intones GOD BLESS AMERICA, I can see Jesus huddling us all together and saying: "You guys thinking of yourselves in this way, this is not what makes for peace."
Don't we all need to do the spiritual work of seeing ourselves as Americans through the eyes of others, and especially through the eyes of Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East? Do they see us in the same way we see ourselves? When we supplied advanced weapons to both sides during all the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war, quite content to see each side weaken the other to further our own interests in the area, would they have any reason to see in their American brothers a lover of peace? When we supported Sadam Hussein with military aid even when we knew he was practicing ethnic cleansing against an ethnic minority within his own country, did we show to our Arab and muslim brothers our love for peace and our moral superiority? Certainly we were happy to support Afghanistan in their long drawn-out war that weakened the Soviet Union, but when we did so, did we really show to the Arab world how much we valued human life? Most importantly, when we amassed unbelieveable force and technology in this glorious war which we like to call Dessert Storm and we suffered 150 casualties and inflicted how many? 30,000? 50,000? 70,000? 90,000? Did we show our Arab brothers how highly we value human life? Is there any reason why our Arab brothers and sisters would take us seriously when we assure them and the rest of the world that we Americans are Christians and civilized and so prize freedom and liberty and especially each individual human life beyond all things?
Thomas Merton loved the metaphor of seeds, just like Jesus did. If Merton were alive today, if he and not Billy Graham was the great spokesperson for American Christianity at our national memorial service, he would say to us: Don't you see? American foreign policy plants the seeds of violence and destruction around the world but especially in that part of the world. If America sows seeds of violence into the wind, why are you so surprised when you reap the whirlwind? Did The United States really think we could waltz in to the Persian Gulf, conduct an incredibly lopsided and devastating war, and not reap the whirlwind on its own citizens?
I'm not a pacifist. Military action in the near future needs to happen and I'm sure will happen. But let's not kid ourselves. Even with our incredible military, there's nothing we can do militarily that will win the war against terrorism. Our military will be effective, but we shouldn't think of what it does as planting the seeds of peace. That's a different activity, altogether. Perhaps we should make a start in that work-even as we act militarily to punish this tragedy-by reaching out to the world's people and saying what they have declared at the UN conference that they want us and expect us to say: that the African slave trade was a crime against humanity and that we participated in that evil ourselves and that we need to ask our non-white, non first-world, brothers and sisters for forgiveness. That action on our part may sow the seeds of peace in ways that smart bombs and guided missiles never will.
The events of Sept. 11 ruptured the lives of so many people it is difficult even to contemplate. But those events have not only ruptured thousands of individual lives, but the life of our country as well. Many people will divide the life of America up this way: before and after the terrorist attack. But then the most important question becomes what understanding of ourselves as Americans, of our country, do we come to after we have had our national life so violently ruptured?
It seems our country is in a great hurry to declare, the president declares, the other politicians declare, the people declare: "We are good. They are evil. We are democratic. We are peace loving." We are now roused in righteous anger and are ready to strike, convinced that this is "a spiritual battle between Good and Evil," as Billy Graham said about Vietnam.
While the culture intones God Bless America, I can see Jesus huddling us together and saying: "You Americans thinking of yourselves in this way, this is not what makes for peace."
Don't we all need to do the spiritual work of seeing ourselves through the eyes of others, and especially the eyes of Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East? When we supplied weapons to both sides during the Iran-Iraq war, content to see each side demolish the other to further our own interests, would our brothers and sisters in the Middle East have any reason to see in their American brothers a lover of peace?
When we supported Sadam Hussein with military aid even when we knew he was carrying out "ethnic cleansing" in his own country, did we show to our Arab and Muslim brothers our moral superiority? Certainly we were happy to provide weapons to Afghanistan in their long war that weakened the Soviet Union, but did we thereby show to the Arab world how much we valued the lives of the Afghan people?
Most importantly, when we amassed unbelieveable force and technology in this popular and glorious war we call "Desert Storm" and we suffered 150 casualties and inflicted how many? 50,000? 70,000? 90,000? Did we show our Arab brothers how highly we value human life?
Is there any reason why our Arab brothers and sisters would take us seriously when we assure the world that we are Christian and civilized and so prize freedom, liberty and human life beyond al things? Perhaps we in very Catholic Quincy should remember one of the past century's greatest Catholic thinkers, Thomas Merton.
If Merton were alive, he would say to us: Don't you see? American foreign policy plants the seeds of violence and destruction around the world but especially in the Middle East. If America sows seeds of violence into the wind, why are you so surprised when you reap the whirlwind?
The letter was signed:
Rev. Dr. Rob Manning,
Minister, Quincy Unitarian Church
Professor, philosophy and religious studies, Quincy University
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.
More Sermons from the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.