The Ultimate Weakness of Violence

 What follows is a text version of Sunday’s sermon. You can hear it here. Apologies for the stuffed up nose…)

I try to pay attention to morning “ear worms.” I find that they are almost always some kind of message I should be paying attention to.

This week, on two separate mornings, the “ear worm” I woke to was Jackson Browne’s classic “Doctor My Eyes.”

“Doctor, my eyes have seen the years
And the slow parade of fears without crying
Now I want to understand
I have done all that I could
To see the evil and the good without hiding
You must help me if you can?
Doctor, my eyes, tell me what is wrong
Was I unwise to leave them open for so long?”

I didn’t have to think too long about why this song was given to me as a message. It was clear to me that it’s all about the rampant violent rhetoric and speech of our culture right now.

This week, I looked head on at some of the facts of violent speech and action in our country. First, I read a chilling report from the Southern Poverty Law Association about the skyrocketing rise in violent fringe groups. I also found some other facts about violence against government offices.

Several facts:

  • Anti-immigrant groups have soared by over 80 percent in recent years. (above link)
  • “Nativist Extremist Groups” –organizations that go beyond mere advocacy of restrictive immigration policy to actually confront or harass suspected immigrants — jumped from 173 groups in 2008 to 309 last year. (above link)
  • Patriot movement and its paramilitary wing, the militias, have also skyrocketed. An astonishing 363 new Patriot groups appeared in 2009, with the totals going from 149 groups (including 42 militias) to 512 (127 of them militias) — a 244% jump. (above link)
  • The US Marshall service has released a study showing that threats to the judiciary have more than doubled in the past six years.
  • Reports from Secret Service sources claim that threats against President Obama are more than 400 percent HIGHER than threats against President Bush.

“Doctor, my eyes, tell me what is wrong
Was I unwise to leave them open for so long?”

Much of this, I found in one long and deeply disturbing report, called an “Insurrectionist Timeline.” You can find it here. Yes, I was indeed compiled by those wishing to reduce handgun violence. But, even if you factor out the incidents simply dealing with that issue, and just read the other threats and actions against government officials in the past two years, you will find this to be a shocking list.

“Doctor, my eyes, tell me what is wrong
Was I unwise to leave them open for so long?”

Despite this overwhelming statistical evidence that there is a clear and convincing growing threat from fringe groups on the far right of our country, I know many out there would be quick to point out that hate speech and action comes from the left too. And it most assuredly does.

Just this week, I read on Facebook this week about disturbing death threats that are coming to Sarah Palin after her vlog about the Tuscon shootings. Things got especially horrible on Twitter, where someone created a four-minute montage of truly horrendous things people have said about her.

Here are just four of the dozens, possible hundreds, out there:

“My hatred for Sarah Palin continues to grow… I think this woman should be assassinated.”
“I hope she dies, gnashing her teeth.”
“Can somebody shoot Sarah Palin?”
“I wish no violence upon her….just an inoperable tumor is all.”

If you can stomach it, here is a link to the whole four minute video. I found it deeply disturbing.

And while horrid tweets are clearly several steps away from organized hate groups plotting rebellion, it’s also clearly out there and must be condemned by all.

“Doctor, my eyes, tell me what is wrong
Was I unwise to leave them open for so long?”

As I said last week, it doesn’t really matter to me which “side” is doing it more, it’s clear that it’s pervasive in the culture right now. And it’s clear that in our age of instant communication, incidences that used to take months, maybe years, to filter out into the culture (or maybe never….) are how broadcast world wide in a matter of seconds.

Nor does it matter to me whether you agree with my assertion of last week that the violent rhetoric of our culture –that stew of hate boiling out there in so many places– had a connection to the shooting in Tuscon.

I continue to maintain that the two are related, through the issue of who we are as a culture. Not who the shooter is/was, but who we are….what kind of people…what kind of nation we have become.

But even if you don’t agree with that assertion, I still believe talking about, and confronting, the violent rhetoric of our culture is something we can all do something about. In fact, it’s really the only thing we can all individually do something about.

We cannot, on our own, change handgun laws.
We cannot, on our own, increase services for the mentally ill.

But we CAN, all of us, control what we say, and consider how our words can affect others. Which makes it the most important thing we can all individually do.

Along these lines, I so appreciated what the President said to the nation this week, calling us to consider whether or not our our speech and actions are worthy of those who have been killed; and asking us whether our speech or actions are worthy of the nine-year-old girl. That’s a pretty decent moral barometer for our political speech, really.

But it seems to me an even better reminder for our “way forward” as a nation comes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who the nation celebrates this very weekend.

It’s no doubt true that Dr. King would have many things to say about what’s happening in our world today. One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King is on this very subject of violence and hate. It came near the end of his life, in a piece called “Where Do We Go From Here?”

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. … Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

As you know, Dr. King was deeply committed to the principles of non-violent resistance in his speech and his action. But did you know that even he struggled with principles of non-violence early in his public life? In fact, some argue that it was not Martin Luther King Jr. who should be properly credited with fostering non-violence within the Civil Rights movement, but someone else entirely: an African American man named Bayard Rustin.

Bayard Rustin was considered by many to be “the Socrates of the Civil Rights movement.” He was a committed pacifist who went to jail for that belief, an act that inspired later Civil Rights leaders to be willing to go to jail for their beliefs.

By 1963, Bayard Rustin was one of the key advisors to Dr. King, and one of the driving forces behind the March on Washington. People have called him the architect of the march. But it’s something that happened in February of 1956 that perhaps set the future course for the Civil Rights movement and the work of Martin Luther King Jr. It was during the bus boycott of Montgomery, and event that did not seem to be going well. People had invited Rustin to come and meet with Dr. King and discuss how to reinvigorate the action.

Bayard Rustin arrived to meet with King and was horrified to find both armed guards at the front door of the place King was staying, and guns throughout the house as well. Rustin pushed hard on Martin Luther King and those around him on the following concept: that IF they were to truly be people of non-violence, then they must live it in all facets of life, including getting rid of armed guards and handguns.

There was a great bit of discussion in the movement about this. As you might imagine, some considered it to be quite dangerous. But King agreed, and it apparently deeply changed the movement. Non-violence was now not just WORDS, but deeply embedded in their day-to-day actions.

By the way, one more fact about Bayard Rustin that probably many of you already know: he was gay. He was gay in a time when it could often be dangerous to be open about that. And he was open about that. It often put him at odds with other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, who feared that he could compromise their work. He was openly denounced and harassed for his orientation during this period.

Later in life Bayard Rustin was very clear that the movement for LGBT rights was an extension of the movement for African-American Civil Rights.

How far we have come since that day that Bayard Rustin convinced King to live without guns! Today, as you can see from the “Insurrectionist Timeline,” all too often groups and individual pulls out the threats of violence early on. People flaunt side arms at presidential rallies and politicians talk about “second amendment solutions.”

Can we be clear on this next sentence? (I’ve bolded it)

“Second amendment solutions” and Dr. King’s vision of a non-violent social change, are not compatible visions.

They may both be “American” visions. But they are different visions. One puts ultimate trust in politics through violence. Because, whether this is ever acknowledged by the advocates of any “gun-related” solutions or any “second amendment” solutions,  they are, by definition, social change built on an ideal of violence.

The other, Dr. King’s vision of non-violent social change is built on the radical idea of God’s love for all people, and of God’s justice for all. It comes through a radical trust in both God’s love and the power of non-violent behavior and action itself…not on bullets or violent speech. In fact, please note the passion King has for pointing out that hate cannot drive out hate…only love can. He radically lived this in his life. He called us all to this life too.

In last Sunday’s Gospel lesson, John points toward Jesus, and proclaiming him as the coming Messiah. And twice in the text, John uses the same phrase:

“Behold the Lamb of God….”

It’s an interesting phrase for John to using so early into Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has hardly begun preaching or teaching anything. But right here, in some of the first acclamations of Jesus in the Gospels, is a hint of Jesus’ role as the one who gave himself non-violently, who gave himself without precondition.

Jesus is the one who told his friends, “put away your swords….those who live by the sword shall died by the sword.”

Or, as Martin Luther King said centuries later:

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Living by such radical non-violence is not without cost. As we have seen in King’s case (or in Jesus’)  it can get you killed.

But the message of the Gospel is that no hate can ever finally overcome love. No death can finally overcome God’s new life. No despair is stronger than God’s sense of hope. In a world of fear, anger, mistrust, and recrimination, there IS another Way…

Despite the anger, despite the endless “you do it more that I do” accusations, there IS a different Way. And my fervent hope and prayer that precisely because this is something we can all work on as individuals, that this is something we will all work on as individuals.

On your own, you may never get great and lasting legislation passed.
On your own, you may never lead a great social movement for change

But YOU can help change the tone of our rhetoric by your own personal choices.

People who disagree with you politically are not your enemies. They just disagree with you politically. We must find a way to change the feeling and tone in what we say to each other, and how we talk to each other. We must find a day to recapture a respect for those who serve in our government at all levels, for those who put themselves on the line each day simply by serving the people.

One final story from another time…not so long ago, but apparently a long time ago.
 I heard a story this this week from the time after President Reagan was shot. As you may recall, Reagan was shot and a bullet lodged inside of him, very near his heart. After he came out of surgery, one of the first visitors to see him was Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neil.

Never were there two more opposites, politically…the old Massachusetts liberal….the old California conservative. They had, in a sense, fought each other for decades. They were both now old men, near the end of not just their careers, but their lives.

But they  had also made a pact, those two, that even though they deeply disagreed with each other and each other’s vision for the nation, they would be friends. And, once 6 pm rolled around each day, they would put down the rhetoric and embrace each other.

So, Reagan had been shot. And Tip O’Neil comes to see him. They embrace. Tip O’Neil kisses Reagan on the head. And these two old political “enemies” take each other by the hands, and in unison recite the 23rd Psalm.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside the still waters…”

It’s a beautiful vision of what has been, and what could be, again in our nation, among our leaders.

For those of us within the Church, may we be able to re-embrace Jesus’ compassion and love for all, for his reminder to “put away your sword.”

For all of us, may we be reminded again of Dr. King’s words that, finally, only love can drive out hate.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

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