The Moral Universe – A Sermon for Bloody Sunday, March 8, 2015


I take as my text Exodus: The Ten Commandments

God of wilderness and water, your Son was baptized and tempted as we are. Guide us through this season, that we may not avoid struggle, but open ourselves to blessing, through the cleansing depths of repentance and the heaven-rending words of the Spirit. Amen.

“Heaven-rending words of the Spirit.” For Moses and the Israelites, God’s voice coming out of a thunderstorm saying, “YOU SHALL NOT MURDER,” must indeed have been heaven-rending. Down through the millennia since that literally earth-shaking event, we have been reminded again and again, “YOU SHALL NOT MURDER.” And the response of God’s people has been, of course we won’t murder, since you tell us not to. We believe in you and we want to follow your commandments.

Then Jesus came and turned the commandment upside down; “I give you a new commandment,” he told His disciples the night before His own murder, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone shall know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

And once again, for two thousand years followers of Jesus have said, of course we love one another because we believe in you and we want to follow your commandments.

Did we no longer murder? Did we, in fact, love one another, even as Jesus loves us? Or did we continue to murder, not only killing the physical bodies of others, but also killing the spiritual lives of those who didn’t fit into our society.

I hope that everyone knows that this weekend marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, when hundreds of African-Americans were savagely and with impunity beaten by law enforcement officials and their deputized racist thugs for trying to cross a bridge and walk to the state capital in Montgomery.

What irony that that bridge was named for a Confederate general who, during Reconstruction, became grand wizard of a Ku Klux Klan klavern.

Congressman John Lewis and Amelia Boynton, survivors of Bloody Sunday, were on that bridge yesterday with the President. Both were severely injured in 1965; the now 97-year-old Amelia Boynton left for dead until an unknown person carried her to safety and an aid station. Mr. Lewis, 25 years old at the time, was already a survivor of many beatings during efforts to integrate lunch counters and bus stations and then, on March 7, 1965, as a leader of the march, one of the first to be attacked, his skull was fractured.

Though set in the context of the struggle for voting rights for African Americans, the immediate motivation for the march was the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 27-year-old church deacon in Marion, Alabama, who was engaged in a peaceful protest when state troopers attacked. Jimmie and his mother and his grandfather ran in Mack’s Café, hoping to get out of the maelstrom. Two or three troopers stormed the café, threw Jimmie’s grandfather to the floor and started hitting his mother. Jimmie intervened. He was unarmed. He was shot. He died several days later.

Would that we were celebrating this weekend the end of such acts by those who call themselves Christians against people who do not fit into their idea of what society should be.

Would that the Voting Rights Act that came out of Bloody Sunday stood today in its original form instead of having every important nuance removed from it almost a year ago.

Would that Selma has not been reenacted again and again in the last 50 years, yet without liberating legislation arising out of it.

Would that people of faith really believed in the commandment, YOU SHALL NOT MURDER, and that white Christians really followed Jesus’ commandment to love one another even as Jesus loves us.

One hopes, no, I know that you don’t have to be a Christian to believe this is wrong. If we only believed this was wrong because we are Christians, we would be very weak Christians indeed. You don’t have to be a Christian to know right from wrong.

But, if we claim to be Christians, then we claim each and every day that we love one another. When we wake up and when we go to bed and every moment in between, we tacitly say that we believe that we should love one another; that we believe Jesus when He told us to heal, to feed, to cloth, to sustain, to nourish body and soul of all those whom society marginalizes.

Yet we have allowed the outrages of history to be committed in our Christian names. The first enslaved Africans were brought to this country in the early 17th century by white Christians. They were sold to white Christians. They were owned by white Christians. They were brutalized by white Christians. They tilled the soil of white Christian plantations and picked the cotton of white Christian fields. After Emancipation, they were tortured and lynched by white Christians, denied economic rights by white Christians, denied housing rights by white Christians and, ultimately, denied life by white Christians.

(At this point, I showed pictures of Jimmy Lee Jackson, George Stinney, Viola Liuzzo, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, and Trayvon Martin.)

The details in the report that came out of Ferguson this week are not peculiar just to Ferguson. Ferguson is a microcosm of cities and towns North and South, East and West, where such abuses are happening.

Did you know that right here in Berkshire County, confederate flag decals are appearing on trucks? Someone is putting them on children’s lockers at Monument Mountain and in other schools in the county.

All of my church life, I have been told that Lent is a time to resist temptation, as Jesus resisted temptation in the wilderness. But what, I have to ask myself, does my not having potato chips for 40 days do for the good of the world? I was also told, in my early catechism, that every time I lied or did not obey my parents or fought with my siblings (these were the stock sins) that Jesus’ cross became heavier. I was never taught to think of myself as a part of history, about collective guilt and collective responsibility and being part of atonement and repentance for the sins of all mankind. Shouldn’t this be as important a part of Lent as giving up meat or not watching TV. Would it not be more worth our while to think of our collective roles in the oppression of a huge population of our country, to ask God for forgiveness for the collective sins of the white race, and to show true repentance by take an active part in righting the wrongs of history?

Implied with the commandment YOU SHALL NOT MURDER is the commandment to do what one can to prevent murder. Implicit with the commandment to love one another as Jesus love us is the commandment to fight against whatever denies that love to another. We cannot obey one commandment without obeying the other.

If we are Christians, then we simply MUST be part of the Beloved Community that early civil rights leaders envisioned. We MUST join hands with everyone who would work to undo the systemic, institutionalized racism that still exists in our country and walk where we have to again and again and again until we do, truly, show that we are Christians by our love.

I chose the Battle Hymn of the Republic as the song of the day because before Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics we know today, the hymn was an homage to John Brown. Frederick Douglass called John Brown the only white man he’d ever met who really saw no difference between himself and a black man. During the Civil War, African-American contrabands who sought the safely of Union regiments starting humming a song about John Brown. The lyrics were made up as they went along, but the melody and the sentiment spread like wildfire among the African-Americans and then to Union soldiers. “His truth” referred to John Brown’s truth that a nation that enslaved people was a nation without a soul. Julia Ward Howe transformed the informal homage into a hymn that captures the thunderstorm out of which God spoke to the Israelites. YOU SHALL NOT MURDER. Amen.


The Moral Universe – Random Reflections 1


Sometimes I have to let ideas percolate, sift them around in my mind, and let them come to maturity in their own time. In an area as fraught as civil rights, and the lack thereof, this is especially true. The stories have to be told, I believe, especially when there is such a danger of them happening again. Indeed, some have happened again. Yet there is a toll too in chronicling the worst side of human nature. And so I need to let some of these stories percolate a bit more and offer for a while some random reflections that have come to me during my reading and research.

Abraham Lincoln says, in the first debate with Stephen Douglas at Ottawa, Illinois, in 1858: “Before proceeding, let me say I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up. This I believe of the masses north and south. Doubtless there are individuals, on both sides, who would not hold slaves under any circumstances; and others who would gladly introduce slavery anew, if it were out of existence. We know that some southern men do free their slaves, go north, and become tip-top abolitionists; while some northern ones go south, and become most cruel slave-masters.”

I have tortured myself, and I know how neurotic it is, by asking myself whether I would have been one of the people calling for the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus. Would I have been a German who somehow allowed myself to ignore the sounds and smells coming from the concentration camp nearby? Would I have stood by and watched slaves being bought and sold, or relied for my creature comforts on a slave and thought that was a fine way to live?

Since time began there have been people who thought that slavery was a positive institution and that the wholesale extinction of a group of people from different backgrounds was allowable. But there have also been people, since time began, who thought differently and who acted on it. It cannot be a matter of opinion, but something deep in the genetic makeup or psyche or soul of a human being that first says, “No, owning other human beings is wrong.” “No, annihilating all Jews and Armenians and gypsies is wrong.” “No, crucifying a man who has only sought to heal people is wrong.”

There are lovely pictures on Facebook of black and white children hugging: a caption reads, “People aren’t born racists; racism has to be taught.” My gut reaction is to agree, but I do wonder sometimes. Who taught all the Tea Party members from traditionally liberal states to hate so much? Where did they learn to have a horror of not only people of color but poor people, immigrants, homosexuals, and Democrats?I have no answers here, only questions. And the biggest question, how do we overcome this?

It seems hard to believe that while we were running around talking about making love, not war in the Sixties, young children were being togged out for Ku Klux Klan rallies.

I do think that anyone who puts their child in a Ku Klux Klan outfit and brings them to a rally ought to be charged with child abuse. But by whom? Most likely their local law enforcement officials will be at the same rally.

I think that Abraham Lincoln’s statement is legitimate on one level. I also think that changing the minds and hearts of people who hold so firmly to racist ideas is not just a matter of tradition and geography.

Another piece of historic trivia: This comes from famous trial lawyer Alan Dershowitz on the CD “Great Trials of the 20th Century,” which is one of the Great Courses series.

According to Dershowitz, who has read all the case records, the “Scopes Monkey Trial” was about more than teaching evolution in public schools and it was a good thing that John Scopes and Clarence Darrow lost. William Jennings Bryan was portrayed in the play and film as a conservative, ultra-religious buffoon who was prosecuting the case because he was a denier of the theory of evolution.

In fact, says Dershowitz, this wasn’t the case at all. Bryan had seen the textbook that Scopes was teaching from. It was written by a group that was subtly pushing eugenics by way of teaching evolution. In other words, they saw the advantage of might be called “unnatural” selection and a way to breed for only the whitest traits. Again, genetics.

darrow and bryan

Clarence Darrow, left, and William Jennings Bryan.

Since Tennessee did not have integrated schools at the time, the textbook would have been used only in white classrooms and would have been another way of teaching that “white” is good and “black” is bad. This horrified Bryan and motivated him to prosecute the case.

The Moral Universe – Mississippi Burning, Part 3


When Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price let Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman out of jail at 10:30 pm on Father’s Day, 1964, the Meridian CORE office had been trying to find out where they were for several hours. That was protocol; if a field worker didn’t check in on a regular basis, start the phone tree going. So the first thing Mickey Schwerner should have done after being released was to have found a phone and called the office to report what had happened.

Price had not let the trio use a phone while they were in jail. Perhaps there wasn’t a pay phone nearby. Perhaps the three just wanted to get out of Philadelphia as quickly as possible. They hadn’t reached the city limits before Price caught up with them again along with several other Klansmen. According to Klansman James Jordan’s confession, they were put in Price’s car and driven to an isolated road. Schwerner and Goodman were killed with one bullet each. James Chaney was tortured before being shot. The bodies were dumped in an earth dam already picked out by the organizers.

Bob Moses was correct in believing that something happening to young white people in Mississippi would bring action from the federal government. On June 22, the FBI swarmed to the area, ordered there by Attorney General Robert Kennedy. The car Schwerner had been driving was found by Choctaw Indians on a swampy river on their property. It took another 44 days before the FBI’s efforts to turn Klansmen against each other took them to the burial site.

“Mississippi Burning,” or “MIBURN,” was the name of the FBI’s file on the case. It is also, of course, the name of the movie made in the 1990s about the aftermath of the murders and the hunt for the bodies. At the time the movie came out, I was doing film reviews for the newspaper I worked for. I don’t have the clipping, but I’m sure I gave it a very good review. I watched it again recently to see whether my younger self had been too kind to the movie. It hadn’t.

Despite cinematic flourishes and changing the protagonists’ names, the movie still opens a window onto a tragic, shameful piece of US history that many might not know about otherwise. It opens with a scene of the car carrying Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman on a lonely country road, driving up one hill and down another, like some kind of a roller coaster. And suddenly at the rise of a hill behind them, there is a truck that then disappears into the dip. Then there’s another truck on the hill behind the first, and so on. And you know these young men are doomed.

Instead of focusing on the actual FBI agent who led the investigation, the movie casts two characters that are really metaphors. A Kennedy-esque looking Willem Dafoe is the straight arrow who does everything by the book and brings his Northern sensibilities to Mississippi with him. Gene Hackman is a former cop turned agent who is a native of Mississippi and understands the games one has to play to get at the truth.

A love story is thrown in that could probably have been left out, but it does serve to show that not everyone in Philadelphia was a racist and that there were people born there who would abhor what happened to the three civil rights workers.

One detail in the movie that was true was the hiring of mob enforcers by the FBI to intimidate members of the Klan or people close to the Klan to get information.

Howard Ball, in Murder in Mississippi, goes into quite a bit of legal detail about the effort to bring 18 Klansmen to trial for “conspiracy to violate the civil rights” of Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. It took three years of legal wrangling, including a trip to the US Supreme Court, to get to trial. Seven of the 18 were found guilty, including Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers and Deputy Sheriff Ray Price. Preacher Ray Killen, who spent the eight hours of June 21, 1964, organizing the killing party, was not convicted because of a hung jury; a female juror said she could never convict a man of the cloth.

Most of the seven men were out of jail within six years, but Sam Bowers would return to a penitentiary for life for the 1965 murder of NAACP field worker Vernon Dahmer Jr. Wayne Roberts, who was fingered as the actual shooter, served the full ten years of his sentence.

Both Mr. Ball and the authors of We Are Not Afraid relate the anecdote that Roberts was unable to understand or appreciate the last words Mickey Schwerner ever said. Just before shooting him, Roberts said to him, “Are you that nigger-lover?” Schwerner replied, “Sir, I know just how you feel.”

As a well-trained CORE employee, Schwerner was trying to engage the enemy right up to the end.

The Moral Universe – Mississippi Burning Part 1


By Cynthia Pease

Mississippi was said to be the hardest nut to crack in the movement to register black voters. If a voter registration drive could succeed there, it could succeed anywhere.

Of course, this also meant that the resistance there would be fiercer than resistance elsewhere. Indeed, the Freedom Summer project of 1964 led to the re-formation of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi, which was responsible for numerous murders, fire bombings, beatings, and other forms of intimidation in a short period of time and making it difficult for blacks to register to vote. Literacy tests were required for blacks but not for whites, with often ridiculous questions that no one could have answered. The tests were obviously structured so that blacks would not be able to pass them. Poll taxes were also part of registering to vote, which kept poor blacks from even attempting to register.

White Citizens Councils had been the main “nonviolent” force for enforcing Jim Crow practices of segregation and denial of voting rights to blacks in Mississippi. But when word of the Freedom Summer Project to send thousands of white students (or “nigger-loving Jews and Commies” to the WCCs) to Mississippi to hold Freedom Schools and teach blacks what they needed to know to register to vote came to the ears of the white supremacists, they knew something stronger was needed.

The portrait of Sam Bowers drawn in Murder in Mississippi by Howard Ball is chilling. It may not be surprising that the name of his jukebox and vending machine business was Sambo Amusement Company. He thought of himself as a pure Christian, yet his hatred of Jews as well as blacks indicates that he never understood that Jesus was a Jew and most certainly not white as Bowers understood whiteness. Infidels were to be murdered, according to Ball, not forgiven or converted. “If it is necessary to eliminate someone, it is to be done with no malice, in complete silence, and in the manner of a Christian act,” he is quoted by Ball as saying.

Bowers’ intolerance was rewarded with being named Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Mississippi KKK in February 1964. Between February and June, membership in the KKK grew to between 5,000 and 6,000.

Whether calling themselves the White Citizens Council or the Ku Klux Klan, white Mississippians had never been averse to using violence. Emmett Till died in Mississippi in 1955; Medger Evers of the NAACP was assassinated in 1963; Vernon Dahmer, also an NAACP official, would be burned to death by the Klan in 1965. James Meredith survived being shot in 1966 several years after he was the first black student to be enrolled at “Ole Miss”; his enrollment necessitated heavy federal protection from mobs of angry whites.

Charges have been made that the only reason the FBI investigated these murders so tirelessly was because two of the victims were white. And that may well be, but the black activists who started the Freedom Summer project were very clear that they wanted white students to go south because they knew that would draw attention to the situation. Black people had been dying left and right trying to work for civil rights, but little attention had been paid by the rest of the country. They needed leverage, and white was the leverage.

The White Citizens Council knew all about, and indeed had infiltrated, the Freedom Summer training camp in Oxford, Ohio. With the revitalized Klan growing every day, by June 1964 the time was ripe for the murders that drew the most attention in that bloody season, those of three young voter registration workers, two white and one black. Ironically, the fates of Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman played out in a Mississippi town called Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love.