The Hero -September 4, 2016
Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
It’s a classic scene in American history, and it was a defining episode for the Civil Rights movement. A black man—eminent and distinguished—a community organizer, a preacher sits in a jail cell for protesting segregation. Someone had smuggled a newspaper into the jail, and in the newspaper the man found a letter penned by several prominent white clergymen: two Episcopal bishops, two Methodist bishops, a Roman Catholic bishop, a Baptist minster, a Presbyterian minister and a rabbi. These white clergymen were respectable, thoughtful and moderate folk who cared clearly about the issues. “We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized,” they wrote. “But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.”
The man in the jail cell, the man we all know as Martin Luther King, Jr., took the letter in, gathered his thoughts, and began putting down on paper some words of his own. Halfway through his carefully considered, elegantly argued letter, he writes the following: “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”
Later in the letter, King defends his own actions and the actions of his colleagues against charges of extremism. “Was not Jesus an extremist for love,” he asks, quoting Jesus as saying “‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’” “Was not Amos an extremist for justice,” he adds, quoting from that prophetic book, “‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’” Then come more examples of famous figures who King believed could be fairly characterized as extremists: Paul, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson. Finally, King offers this charge: “the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”
I have read this letter many times and heard it quoted on many occasions, and I believe the man who wrote it to be a man of wisdom and integrity. Yet, I feel that it is necessary for me to admit that I have at times had trouble with some of the ideas that are propounded in this famous document. It’s not that I disagree with King’s eventual aim—to achieve racial justice and equality—or that I doubt King’s place as one of the most important leaders in this country’s history. It’s more that I have a basic discomfort with King’s encouragement of extremism—however loving or nonviolent that extremism may be. I’m an educated, privileged, professional person with a graduate degree. I try to see all sides of an issue and to carefully think things through. Extremism scares me. I’m not a huge fan of demonstrations or protests, and I’m not terribly interested in fundamentally upheaving the status quo. In more ways than one, I am the white moderate. I have a lot of power right now. I have a lot to lose in any changes to the way things are. I want the best for everyone, and I certainly don’t want anyone to suffer undue trouble or pain, but I also don’t want to upset the apple cart too much. I have a stake in the social order.
And then here at church I am confronted with another man—a man from yet another, far older age, a man also imprisoned and held hostage for standing up for what he believed was right and speaking the truth, a man who, like his brave follower so many years later, imagined a different way of doing things and was put to death for what he did. And this man says to me: “whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” And, in doing so, this man disarms any hope I may have had that I could be moderate and still follow him.
Now, let me be clear: even though Jesus goes as far as to tell us to give up all our possessions, Jesus is not advocating extremism in the sense of impulsive recklessness. After all, it is Jesus for whom reason and planning are so important. It is Jesus who says that we should figure out how much money we will need before starting to build a tower and it is Jesus who urges us to determine whether our army has what it takes before confronting a much larger power in battle. Far from asking us to surrender without question to a dangerous and intimidating unknown, Jesus is educating us on and showing us how to mindfully accept risk. Jesus is encouraging us and offering us the opportunity to acknowledge and come to terms with precisely what we are getting ourselves into. Jesus is trying to warn us that there may be a price for doing what is right, that there is often a cost to following him. He explains that walking his way involves embracing not just pain, but the particular pain of being willing to oppose the very things that one holds most dear. Following him, Jesus tells us, requires becoming at peace with the possibility that we could lose everything we have ever cared about.
This kind of risk is not something that many of us typically are able to stomach. We revere the risk-takers of the past, and assume that we would have joined them in their travails, but we forget the cost that is necessary in order to do so. Critic Kathryn Schultz recently wrote an article about the Underground Railroad, the clandestine operation that brought the slaves of the American South to freedom, and in it she notes how rare the kind of bravery displayed in the Underground Railroad actually was. Most white people of the time, she explains, even those in the North who in principle abhorred slavery, in practice complacently accepted the unjust system the way it was and knowingly benefited from the perpetuation of it. Schultz’s questioning of the true extent of anti-slavery activism in pre-Civil War America fuels a powerful reflection on moral heroism that appears at the end of her piece: “we should not confuse the fact that [the heroes of the past] took extraordinary actions with the notion that they lived in extraordinary times,” she writes. “One of the biases of retrospection is to believe that the moral crises of the past were clearer than our own—that, had we been alive at the time, we would have recognized them, known what to do about them, and known when the time had come how to do so. That is a fantasy. Iniquity is always coercive and insidious and intimidating, and lived reality is always a muddle, and the kind of clarity that leads to action comes not from without but from within.”
Schultz’s ultimate message is not too different from the message of every Disney movie or superhero comic that has ever been made: a hero is a special person. Heroes are not common folks who have followed the easy path, mindlessly acquiescing to everything they have been taught from birth. Heroes are not moderate, cautious people, who prize keeping everyone happy and always take the path of least resistance. No—heroes understand that life requires making hard decisions and sifting through the muddle of lived reality. Heroes know there is a cost to being brave and saving the world. Heroes are extremists. They realize they have a lot to lose—and they don’t shrink from the right opportunity to step up and give it their all.
So who are you? What stuff are you made of? Are you willing to surrender everything that was once important to you? Are you prepared to risk all that you have? How far will you go for the cause of good in this world? Will you do the right thing? Will you count the cost? Will you carry your cross? Will you choose life rather than death? Will you be an extremist for love and justice? Will you be a hero? Will you follow Jesus?