On August 16th 1967 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. Toward the end of his speech he said this:
“If you will let me be a preacher just a little bit – One night, a juror came to Jesus and he wanted to know what he could do to be saved. Jesus didn’t get bogged down in the kind of isolated approach of what he shouldn’t do. Jesus didn’t say, “Now Nicodemus, you must stop lying.” HE didn’t say, “Nicodemus, you must stop cheating if you are doing that.” He didn’t say, “Nicodemus, you must not commit adultery.” He didn’t say, “Nicodemus, now you must stop drinking liquor if you are doing that excessively.” He said something altogether different, because Jesus realized something basic – that if a man will lie, he will steal. And if a man will steal, he will kill. So instead of just getting bogged down in one thing, Jesus looked at him and said, “Nicodemus, you must be born again.”
He said, in other words, “Your whole structure must be changed.” A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will “thingify” them – make them things. What I am saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, “America, you must be born again!”
That was 48 years ago and much has changed and much has remained the same. We have an African American President and in New York a couple of weeks ago a prominent political leader said that the President does not love America and a short time after a candidate for president said that he didn’t know whether or not that statement was true because he never talked with the president about it.
That was 48 years ago and much has changed and much has remained the same. Segregation is now illegal but at the University of Oklahoma members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity laugh as they chant racial slurs that refer to lynching African Americans and that they will never be part of their fraternity. ”
King’s speech was 48 years ago and much has changed and some of it has changed for the worse. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the middle class is slipping away.
In 1967 Dr. King wrote his final book that he titled, “Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community.” In it he talked about the need for better jobs, higher wages, decent housing, and quality education. That was 48 years ago and the choice is still before us: Chaos or Community.
On August 9, 2014, an 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a Ferguson Police Department officer. The shooting was followed by protests, acts of violence, looting and violent clashes with the police. It was chaos.
On Friday, March 6, an unarmed 19 year old man named Tony Robinson was killed by a Madison police officer. I don’t know what happened to cause his death and will make no judgment until the investigation is completed. I will however say that if Ferguson was chaos, so far Madison is community. And if that is so what is the difference between Madison and Ferguson. I believe that part of the answer can be found in today’s gospel and what precedes today’s gospel.
When Nicodemus visited with Jesus he took a risk. He was part of a powerful political and religious party that taught that there was no resurrection and they were becoming increasingly hostile toward Jesus for teaching the exact opposite. Jesus was a threat to their power and control. He went to talk with Jesus just after Jesus chased the money changers out of the temple. That certainly was upsetting to the power structure. It was risky for Nicodemus to be seen with Jesus and because he risked we have Jesus words “you must be born again”
Nicodemus didn’t understand what Jesus meant by being born again and their discussion continued until Jesus reminded Nicodemus of a very important event from the history of the Jewish people. Jesus retold for Nicodemus the story of his ancestors in the desert after they were freed from slavery. Some of them were bitten by poisonous snakes and were seriously ill. God told Moses to mount a bronze snake on a pole. Those who looked at the symbol and trusted in God were healed, lifted up and given life.
Nicodemus understood that and believed it and it was then that Nicodemus’ risk became a blessing for many because it was then that Jesus talked about being lifted up himself so that those who believe would have eternal life. It was then that Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that all who believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life” It was then that the risk of Nicodemus became an opportunity for Jesus to talk about his sacrifice and its meaning for the world.
I believe that risk and sacrifice are important factors in the difference between Ferguson and Madison.
Madison police Chief Mike Koval apologized on behalf of his department for the fatal shooting of Tony Robinson and asked people to be patient and continue to support the police department.
Koval also asked Robinson’s family for forgiveness that he acknowledged likely won’t come easily. This is what he said. “Reconciliation cannot begin without my stating ‘I am sorry, and I don’t think I can say this enough. I am sorry.
That was a risk and it is also a sacrifice as asking for forgiveness is always a sacrifice.
Michael Johnson, an African American man and the leader of the Dane County Boys and Girls Club said this after the shooting:
On the night of the shooting, I called Chief Koval around 1 o’clock in the morning and asked him to join me and another community leader on a visit to the family of Tony Robinson, Jr. Without hesitation, he jumped in my car en route to the other side of town. He agreed that, as the Chief of Police, his immediate communication with the family was important.
When we reached the home, Tony’s grandparents were quite vocal, extremely concerned and understandably angry. Chief Koval apologized, and shortly thereafter they all prayed together. Tony’s grandfather pleaded with the chief, asking him to “please do the right thing.” Chief Koval responded by saying, “I will.” That was a powerful and humbling moment.
The Boys and Girls Club that Johnson heads relies heavily on donations. I can tell you from experience that if someone takes a stand on anything that somebody will be dissatisfied and will express their unhappiness by stopping their donations. Johnson’s words and actions were risky and sacrificial and they were important to our community.
Tony Robinson’s uncle Turin Carter speaking for his family said this when demonstrations were taking place in Madison, “We are not proponents of anti-police,” “We understand that this was an individual act that the entire police department has to take responsibility for. We understand that law enforcement is necessary.”
“We want peaceful protests. We want no further tension with police officers,” Carter said. “We need to change our mindset on the police.” Saying those things was a risk and required sacrifice.
It is also important to say today, after two police officers have been shot in Ferguson, that our police officers risk their lives every day, sometime work under extreme pressure, and at times sacrifice their lives for our protection.
With that said it is also important to say today that we have had demonstrations in our streets and grief and anger have been expressed, as they should be when a human life is lost to violence, but the emotions expressed were about more than the death of Tony Robinson.
Turin Carter, Robinson’s uncle said, “This is a bigger issue than Tony, This highlights a universal problem with law enforcement and how its procedures have been carried out.”, and I would add that there is even a bigger issue that needs to be addressed if we are to remain a community and not descend into chaos.
On Friday in an open letter, signed by over 90 Madison Clergy persons and religious leaders, addressed to elected and appointed leadership of Madison and Dane County, this point was made:
“Tony’s death has laid bare the truth that our social contract does not provide the same benefit for all members of our community; and that our policies, practices, and attitudes stack the deck against and criminalize black and brown skinned members of our community at an alarmingly disparate rate. In short, as the Cap Times Editorial Board stated on March the 9th,
“…the fact is that Madison is not the city that it should be.”
“These issues, the racial disparities and the lack of justice and fairness in our social and political systems transcend all boundaries of religious denomination or belief. They transcend political party and affiliation. We are all called to address these issues because they reflect upon and impact our basic humanity.”
These are the kinds of things that we are called to address:
- In 2011, more than 74 percent of black children in Dane County lived in poverty compared to 5.5 percent of white children.
- That same year, the unemployment rates for Dane County blacks was 25.2 percent compared to 4.8 percent for whites.
- Black men accounted for more than 43 percent of new adult prison placements in 2012, yet represented only 4.8 percent of the county’s adult male population and it’s not that they commit more crime than the white population it’s because they can’t afford the lawyers that the white population can.
If we are to remain a community and not descend into chaos these issues must be faced, discussed honestly, and solutions must be found.
I began this reflection with a portion of Martin Luther King’s speech and I will end with another portion of that same speech because I believe it speaks loudly to us today, 48 years later. This is what he said:
“So, I conclude by saying again today that we have a task and let us go out with a “divine dissatisfaction.”
“Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.
Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security.
Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent sanitary home.
Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality, integrated education.
Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity.
Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character and not on the basis of the color of their skin.
Let us be dissatisfied until every state capitol houses a governor who will do justly, who will love mercy and who will walk humbly with his God.
Let us be dissatisfied until from every city hall, justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Let us be dissatisfied until that day when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. And men will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth.
Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout “White Power!” – when nobody will shout “Black Power!” – but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.”