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St. Thomas' Parish at Dupont Circle – Washington, DC

Choosing Nonviolence

Posted by WayneFloyd

Sermon preached at St. Thomas’ Parish
Sunday, January 15, 2012
Dr. Wayne Whitson Floyd
Audio Podcast Available

“You yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will thank you because I am marvelously made; your works are wonderful, and I know it well.” (Psalm 139)

Of all the ways in which human beings are indeed so marvelously made, one of the most wonderful is our capacity for memory. It is in the process of remembrance that we assemble the pattern of the formative moments of our personal identity. Anamnesis Plato called it – reminiscence, remembrance. Anamnesis is at the core of our Eucharistic theology; Holy Communion isn’t considered valid without invoking the Holy Spirit (epiklesis) to transform the bread and wine to bear the presence of Christ, first comes anamnesis, remembrance, of the deeds that give significance to the communion elements. “On the night before he died,” the Celebrant reminds us. So “Do this in remembrance.”

Our own memories, likewise, and those of the communities to which we belong, that give significance to all that we have become over a lifetime. In my own memory, the spring and summer of 1968 left an indelible mark. I graduated from high school that spring and left home for the first time to begin college late that summer. All of my classmates who shared those experiences would forever remember the first half of 1968, but unfortunately not for any of the reasons we might have imagined when the year began.

Through our parents and grandparents, our lives already had been shaped by the turmoil and terror of World War II, and then Korea, and now Viet Nam. Closer to home, violence had slashed through our junior high years, when just before Thanksgiving of 1963, President Kennedy had been cut down by gunfire in Dallas. Now just five years later, our high school graduation was bracketed in time by two other assassinations by gunfire, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis on April 4th and JFK’s brother Robert Kennedy on June 5th.

Barely a year later other dramatic events for a while overcame the notoriety of these deaths with equally graphic and iconic cultural images: the first manned moon landing on July 20th, 1969; Woodstock that August; and between them the Stonewall Riots in New York on June 28th that began the modern gay rights movement. And then just a year after that, arson struck St. Thomas’ Parish church in the summer of 1970. There was only one Woodstock; and decades have passed since the last person walked the face of the moon, leaving us with but fading memories of those glory days. But we are still playing out the consequences of the violence of the 1960s and the ways we have learned, or refused to learn, how to deal with it.

The commemoration tomorrow of the birthday of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an act of remembrance celebrating a remarkable life and recalling a painful and transformative period of our national history, a time when the effectiveness of his strategy of resistance through non-violence could seem like a pipe-dream when surrounded by the smoke of arson and the brutality of war and racial and social upheaval. Who could have imagined Barak Obama in the White House less than fifty years later, or that incessant war would still consume so much of our country’s resources across so much of the globe.

With Dr. King and the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, however, world history took a turn towards the possibility of a more redemptive future. The pains of social dislocation were the birth pangs of the culture of radical hospitality and inclusion that have now a half-century later come to define St. Thomas’ Parish. We in this very room are heirs to the legacy of the riots at Stonewall, NY, as well as those on 14th Street just blocks from here, and those that left Columbia Heights and the U Street Corridor that lay in ruins. And Dr. King’s commitment to non-violence needs to be remembered as the essential backdrop for the dream we currently explore with Bishop Gene Robinson to establish a Center for Non-Violent Communication in the new church we are building. In looking back, we frame our future, with gratitude to those who have shown us the way, however painful those memories often are.

Dr. King came from a time when it might have been said, as the Hebrew Bible speaks of the era of the ancient prophet Samuel — perhaps with a bit of tongue in cheek: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” People still went to church in large numbers, and plenty of preachers proclaimed what they understood to be “the word of the Lord”. But what Dr. King brought back into our national conversation was the prophetic word that, as the Book of Samuel put it, God was “about to do something … that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” And tingle they did.

For Dr. King not only denounced what he called “the triple evils” of racism, and poverty, and war. But he dared step out of the chains of the victim and dream of the freedom and reconciliation that lay on the other side. In his words, “I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.” Dr. King was bringing into the twentieth century the three thousand year old Jewish understanding of peace, Shalom, the audacious word that speaks not just of the end of violence, but of the cultivation of what Dr. King called “the beloved community,” a social reality in which redemption reigns.

Shalom, like non-violence, is primarily a relational, social concept. It is about how we live together. As King wrote in “Chaos or Community: Where Do We Go From Here?”: “This way of … injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.” We must learn, King believed, how to “wage peace” with as much art and fervor as we “wage war.” Yet today VA Hospitals and newspaper headlines continually remind us how little we have yet learned, how much we still need to cultivate a culture of non-violence.

When, as Jesus said in today’s Gospel to Philip and Nathaniel, “follow me,” he was inviting them onto the path of Shalom, of non-violence. “It means,” in the words of the Benedictine writer Joan Chittester, “that every day we have to learn to curb our
own urge for power and to resist the propaganda designed to make enemies of strangers.”

Non-violence is the firm “No!” to degrading others simply because we can, ranging from personal bullying to international terrorism. And yet non-violence is, equally, the way we give flesh to our conviction that there are principles and people worth putting ourselves at risk for. Like Gandhi before him, and Fannie Lou Hamer after him, Martin Luther King, Jr. chose nonviolence born of the conviction that our human future depends not on the success of vengeance, but on reconciliation among enemies. Nonviolence recognizes in action our Christian conviction that beyond all our attempts at exclusion lies God’s eternal embrace.

On the Sunday before he was gunned down in Memphis, Dr. King stood in the pulpit of the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, otherwise known as Washington National Cathedral, to preach what no one there could have imagined would be his final Sunday sermon, entitled: “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” The title comes from his opening musings on Washington Irving’s classic American fictional story of Rip Van Winkle, who went to sleep one day in the Catskill Mountains and awoke twenty years later to a completely changed world.

As King said that morning, “When Rip Van Winkle went up into the mountain, [he saw a sign that] had a picture of King George the Third of England. When he came down twenty years later the sign had a picture of George Washington, the first president of the United States. [Rip Van Winkle] slept through a revolution. While he was peacefully snoring up in the mountain a revolution was taking place that … would change the course of history—and Rip knew nothing about it. … One of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.”

In a time when our technological advances have shrunk our world into a neighborhood, King said, “we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. … But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made.”

King spoke eloquently that day of the ways in which “racial injustice is still the black man’s burden and the white man’s shame. … We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing “In Christ there is no East or West,” we stand in the most segregated hour of America.”

King recognized, too, that racism is intimately linked to our acceptance of the inevitability of poverty, whether in the slums of Calcutta or in Southeast DC or the homeless men and women whose presence in our parks and on our streets vexes us still. He spoke prophetically of the parable of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man who passed him by daily giving him not even a drop of water. In King’s words the rich man went to hell not because he was rich, but because “he passed by Lazarus every day and he never really saw him. He went to hell because he allowed his brother to become invisible.”

Warfare, violence, and terrorism only further demean the humanity we all share. Speaking in the midst of the cold war’s threat of mutually assured destruction, King was clear: “It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”

And yet, he concluded on that fateful Sunday morning, “however dark it is, however deep the angry feelings are, and however violent explosions are, I can still sing “We Shall Overcome,” the great protest song inspired by our Epistle reading today: “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up.” We shall overcome, King preached, “because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” “We will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up.” Our challenge, Dr. King concluded, is in his words to “be participants in this newness and this magnificent development. If we will but do it, we will bring about a new day of justice and brotherhood and peace. And that day the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy.” Our challenge meantime is “Staying Awake Through a Great Revolution”.

In Washington, DC, as across our land, race still divides us; the gap between rich and poor only widens; women still struggle to move beyond the advances of the previous generation; and rights for LGBT persons are not by any means universal. Our challenge at St. Thomas’ Parish is to discover how to give flesh to our own deep conviction that, despite the scars that we bear from the past — evidence of the violence inflicted on us — our future is shaped by a strong confidence that “We Shall Overcome.” Our own vision of a Center for Non-Violent Communication is another way of extending King’s legacy. His approach to non-violence challenges us to “walk the walk” that matches how we “talk the talk” of radical hospitality. Our parish retreat on January 28th with Canon Charles LaFond from the Diocese of New Hampshire will provide our first opportunity to venture as a parish community into a more intentional embrace of the practice of non-violence that we dream will one day be shared with our neighbors close and far.

Our history as a parish has without doubt been altered by the violence in our past. May our future be shaped by individual and community conversion into the way of Shalom, as we take our place among all those many others who have led lives committed to the radical alternative of non-violence.

When we leave this building today, we will do so singing that great African American spiritual, “We shall overcome”. And we will be sent out with the words: “Go in peace – Shalom – to love and serve the Lord.” Then I invite you to take your song sheet away with you so you can read on the back when you get home – if you’re not one of those doing so right now — the history of this great hymn.

In these small but symbolic ways the “we” of St. Thomas’ Parish can join in solidarity with the “beloved community” of those before us who like Dr. King risked and gave so much. And we can take upon ourselves the mantle of responsibility for cultivating a culture of reconciliation in the present, and discovering “another way” into the future where coming generations in this church will still find beloved community here, still “walk hand in hand” and still find sanctuary that allows them to say with conviction, “We are not afraid.” For like those on whose shoulders we stand – one of whom, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., our nation honors this weekend — “We, too, shall overcome.”

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