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Martin Luther King: Apostle of Non-Violence

5 Apr

Today we mark the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in Memphis. King’s impact on our society was made through actions of militant nonviolent resistance in behalf of marginalized groups.  He said his movement was an expression of Jesus’s love, specifically as it was stated in the Sermon on the Mount, while the method of this love was provided by Gandhi.

Interestingly, all three of these non-violent leaders—Jesus, Gandhi, and King—evoked sharp disagreement over their strategies of non-violence. All three were killed by their opposition, Jesus and King before they reached forty years of age.

Non-violence rests on the audacious belief in a “double conversion”—(1) the conversion of the militant nonviolent confronters to a trust in the persons they are confronting. They take the risk that the opponents, the oppressors, will in turn (2) undergo a conversion that will enable them to respond in a reciprocal trust.  The nonviolent activists are converted to a desire to elicit the best from the ones they are confronting, while their opponents are converted to respond in ways that express own best selves. 

“Double conversion” is a risky strategy; it can fail.

King said that he wanted his opponents to be able to say after the confrontation, “I did what was right and good.” 

King had a keen sense that people need to be transformed. From the very beginning, the philosophy of nonviolent resistance
undergirded the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955-56. There was always the problem of getting this method over because it didn’t make sense to most of the people in the beginning.  He wrote, “We had to explain nonviolence to a community of people who had never heard of the philosophy and in many instances were not sympathetic with it. We had to make it clear that nonviolent resistance is not a method of cowardice.  It does resist.  It is not a method of stagnant passivity and deadening complacency. The nonviolent resister is just as opposed to the evil that he is standing against as the violent resister but he resists without violence.  This method is nonaggressive physically but strongly aggressive spiritually.”

He clearly set forth a spiritual basis for his movement:
“To meet hate with retaliatory hate would do nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe.  Hate begets hate, violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness.  We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love; we must meet physical force with soul force.  Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding.”

He enumerates six traits that the nonviolent resister must internalize.

First, the non-violent justice resister is spiritually aggressive, since “his mind and emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade his opponent that he is wrong.”

Second, militant nonviolence “does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding.  “The end is redemption and reconciliation.”

Third, the attack is directed against forces of evil, not persons. “We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may be unjust.”

Fourth, willingness to accept suffering without retaliation. “Things of fundamental importance to people are not secured by reason alone, but have to be purchased with their suffering.”

Fifth, internal violence of the spirit must be avoided as much as external physical violence.

Sixth, nonviolent resistance is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. In other words, a worldview is involved. Barack Obama frequently says, “The arc of history bends toward justice.”

The discussion goes on today—is non-violence the most viable strategy for overcoming oppression, injustice, and discrimination? Does the arc of history actually bend toward justice? Or will we meet hate with hate, violence with violence, and thereby intensify the evil?

(c) Phil Hefner April 4, 2018

Life as Passover

1 Apr

I’m posting  Holy Week sermon notes that I preached this week. I hope it strikes a note for you.

Maundy Thursday
March 29, 2018
Montgomery Place
Exodus 12:1-14; I Cor. 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35.

Passover in Christian Faith
Our first lesson sets the Passover theme of Maundy Thursday

6 moments—

1-God passes over the Israelites in Egypt.

2-Israel passes over the Red Sea and the desert wilderness.

3-Christ passes over from his life of passion/suffering to the resurrection.

4-We and all humanity share his resurrection, passing over from earthly life to eternity.

5-In the Eucharist, in this action we do now, Christ passes over from history to presence with us, and enables us to share his presence. Jesus is not simply a historical figure; he is with us, as intimately as the bread we eat and the wine we drink.


6-In the foot washing, we pass over from self-centeredness to service for others. “I have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. Love one another as I have loved you. By this all people will know you are my disciples, that you love one another.”

Passover is an overarching theme—it interprets our service today and indeed our entire faith and life. It is a way of depicting our lives as in the hands of God. The journey is rooted in history, and it passes through to the days when we, too, will pass  into eternity.

Phil Hefner 30 March 2018

Who is this re-invented person?

1 May

More of you responded to my last blog, on Sally Field’s spirituality of re-inventing ourselves, than to any of the previous thirty-two installments–it obviously struck a chord.

Your responses express a range of perspectives. They raise the question for me–just who (or what) is this “self” that may be re-invented? But I’ll return to that question after I describe the range of responses.

Some people have been reinventing themselves throughout their adult lives. For some, this means a frequent change in jobs, but more than that. A woman who has moved around in her lifetime, writes: “I reinvented myself every time I moved. The people I met in the new place had no idea who I was in the old place. I moved to different neighborhoods or different states at least eight times in my adult years. You can tell the new people about who you were in the former place, but they still don’t know you “that way”. So the moving reinvention is both a challenge/opportunity to be someone new and a disappointment that you do not have the reputation/expectations that you had with the people of the old place.”

An independent business man follows a calling to theology, while maintaining the business. After receiving his doctorate, he moves for some years into college and university teaching, only to find his way blocked by several factors. He then turned to law, specializing in civil rights cases. He recently began cutting back on his law practice to take on teaching online courses. He writes: “I’m in the process of reinventing the next phase. Life is full of possibilities still–an adventure as Whitehead reminded us all.”

There’s excitement in these words. Others feel pain and uncertainty in reinvention–they find it demoralizing. For example, reinvention hits with a jolt when a spouse dies–there’s no alternative. The close interaction, the symbiosis, comes to an end–sometimes unexpectedly–and life has to be reinvented–from scratch for many people, traumatic especially for many older people. People experience the same kind of loss when a partner falls to dementia.

Some are cautious about the idea of reinventing. Two women, both high-achieving women and over 70, responded with impressive accounts of the activities they carry on–the same activities they’ve been doing for years. I know others–men as well–for whom re-invention is not on the agenda. I was one of these until a very few years ago. I recall attending a retirement workshop 20 years ago, at which a counselor said to me, “If you aren’t prepared to create a new life for yourself, you will have a difficult retirement. I scoffed at this advice then–“What’s wrong with carrying on with the interests and activities that have been central for so many years–at least as long as you are able?”

“As long as you are able”–that may be the key. Things happen–good things and bad things–over which we may have no control; we simply must adjust. The world around us is key to our re-invention.

In her new book, Barbara Bradley Hagerty waxes eloquent about re-imagining life, as the title indicates, Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife. From a recent interview, I concluded that she is unrealistic when she speaks of midlife as a time to drop everything and simply reorient one’s life. She finished by saying, “I think my book may apply only to upper middle class persons.” Dropping everything and reorienting require a level of luxury–time and money–that most of us do not enjoy.

The world around us and our health prod re-invention. Re-inventing is adapting to what happens in us and around us. If it is true, as one of you suggests, that re-invention will be a way of life for millennials–as it has been for the theologian/businessman-become-lawyer I referred to earlier–it is caused by the changing nature of jobs and employment as much as anything else. Shakespeare caught this over four hundred years ago, his play As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts.”

For me, as I said earlier, the big question that emerges is: Just who is this me, this self that re-invents? Philosophers have written a good deal about how difficult it really is draw connections between our various stages of being ourselves. Twenty years ago, I had a few free days by myself in Denver, my hometown. I rented a car and visited every house I had lived in, every school I attended. I walked the neighborhood that I lived in for fifteen years–the alley where we played Kick the Can, the vacant lot where my dad and I had a huge vegetable garden during the Second World War, the drug store that had a soda fountain where I enjoyed cherry phosphates, and many other childhood and teenage haunts.

I was amazed, that I felt no real connection with the boy whose life was shaped by those places. I still see no continuity, except the connections I create in my mind, with that boy and the man who traveled to other parts of the world and spent half his life in Chicago, earning a doctorate, teaching in a Lutheran seminary, and retiring–still in Chicago–on the shore of Lake Michigan. I’ve been re-invented so many times that continuity is blurred. I’d be interested to know if others share this experience.

Sally Field, whose comments prompted these blogs, said that since her new, 70 year-old, self has not yet appeared, she awaits the revelation who she will be. In his response, Rick Busse speaks in terms of his process of re-invention. One of you asked, “Does reinvention or the need for it cause depression–a sadness for what is lost? Can reinvention give new motivation and enthusiasm? What determines how a person reacts to this need to reinvent?”

My conclusion: there is mystery at the heart of who we are, always changing and growing, defying prediction, always deeper than we can fathom.

Who I am
where I’m going
only I can say
I form the image
draw the map
paint the picture
from the scraps
and puzzle bits
that surround me
no one can put them
together for me

(c) Phil Hefner. 30 April 2016

Beyond Seeing, to Beholding

5 Feb

In the King James Bible, Jesus’ words are, “Behold, the lilies of the field…” Joe Sittler reminded us that it could have been “Look at the flowers.” But that wasn’t what Jesus meant. “Behold” points deeper; it means to take in the image we see, inwardly meditate on it, and let it resonate.

My last posting–about killing and transformation–is about seeing and beholding. It was a hard message–focusing on the epidemic of killings today in our own nation, in my city, and beyond our borders. I closed with the words of local journalist Jamie Kalven that we must keep the images of killing in our minds–not let them go, because in an unexpected way they open up a possibility for transforming our killing culture. Kalven is saying that we must behold the killings, as difficult as that might be.

A reader responded “I found this one distressing! It’s a truth that digs but does it transform?” I don’t claim to have the final answer, but it’s a question that must be explored.

What do we behold when we see people being killed? When we look at the bodies–or the faces–of the victims? When marchers protesting the shooting of Black men appeared on Chicago’s elite Magnificent Mile, journalists interviewed shoppers. One woman said: “Why don’t they stay on the South Side–that’s where the violence is!” From another: “Are these people lost? Don’t they know where Englewood (a south side neighborhood that is wracked with shootings) is?”

These comments are a clue as to what we behold far too often when we look at people being killed. We behold someone we have no relation to–somebody “other” from us.

No relationship–that is the key.

Jesus told a story: A man from the wrong side of the tracks crosses social boundaries to care for a man who has been mugged in the street and left for dead. If we read the story in its full New Testament context–Luke 10: 29-37–we see that Jesus told this story as the answer to a question. He was asked,”The law says, Love your neighbor as yourself, but how do you define the “neighbor”? The courageous man and the mugging victim provide the definition.

I am referring, of course, to the New Testament Parable of the Good Samaritan. The victim was a Jew; his rescuer was a Samaritan, a member of a group despised and marginalized by Jews. To make the point even clearer, the story has two respectable Jewish figures, a priest and a Levite, look past the victim and leave him behind.

A look at the language of the story helps us probe more deeply. “Neighbor” translates the Greek, plesion, which means the “one who is next to us.” The German Bible mirrors the Greek, in using the term, “der Naechste,” the one who is next to us. A German dictionary defines the term as “Mitmensch,” literally, a “with-person,” a fellow human. The Mitmensch involves community–all of us are in community with all our fellow humans.

We begin to see how radical Jesus’ story is. The shoppers on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile do not recognize the black victims of shooting as members of their community–and these shoppers reflect all of us. Every nation has a clear sense of who does not belong: from the Japanese gaijin to the “you’re not really American” that is heard so often in the U. S. The many refugees from the Middle East hear this in nearly country to which they flee. Hostility and violence toward those from another group are ancient, going back to prehistoric times.

In his story, Jesus is asking us to rewrite the script of human history. The protestors on North Michigan Avenue, representing the Black Lives Matter movement, are asking for the same thing. They are asking us to reverse thousands of years of human evolution–little wonder it is so difficult.

Some of the most moving and beautiful stories of recent weeks have been about those ordinary people who left their every day tasks to care for the refugees who crossed into their countries and who were in very great need. One friend of mine, a pastor originally from Hungary, took leave to spend several weeks there to aid the refugees. She had expected that she would offer them spiritual consolation, but when she got there, she spent most of her time giving shoes and socks and dry clothes to the desperate people who came across. She and her coworkers went against the tide in a country that has since erected a border fence to keep refugees out.

Transformation is our focus–it happens when we truly behold, when we take into ourselves what we see and let it resonate, reverberate within our souls. We must not relegate the killings of Chicago and Columbine and San Bernardino and Aleppo to the fading drift of the news cycle. Only when we behold these dead as Mitmenschen–members of our own community–only then, will we be able to purify our culture of killing and redirect the vicious substrate of our long human history.
(c) Phil Hefner. 2/4/2016