By James M. Wall
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, then a candidate for US president, was flying on April 4, 1968, from New York City to Indianapolis, Indiana. During the flight he learned of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.
In spite of warnings that it would not be safe, Kennedy insisted on speaking at his previously scheduled campaign event in Indianapolis. The impromptu eulogy he delivered before a predominantly African American crowd of 2500, may be found at the end of this posting.
Observant readers have already realized that the title of this particular posting comes from a familiar biblical passage, Joshua 24:15:
But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.
This passage emerged from a very specific historical moment in Joshua’s life. But its intent is universal. Choices by each of us must be made. We are called to determine the course of our lives based on our choices of the gods we serve.
Robert Kennedy faced a confused and potentially angry crowd that night in Indianapolis. Another politician might have played to that potential anger. He made a different choice, choosing hope over fear/anger/hate.
Currently there is considerable anger in our political dialogue. An embattled president faces a Congress with many members who have achieved power by promoting fear over hope. It is a formula for short term political gain and long term national disaster.
In such a time we might despair. One commenter in a recent posting on this blog admonished me to stop “bouncing back to MLK events”. I do not agree; this is no time to forget history.
For this reason, I find myself reaching for inspiration from those who have inspired us in the past, such as this historic pairing of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, whose paths merged on a dark April night in 1968.
I spent this year’s Thanksgiving week back home in Georgia, visiting family and old friends. It was in Georgia that as a seminary student in 1955 I was given an opportunity to meet Martin Luther King, Jr.
I have written before about this experience. It seems pertinent here. With two fellow seminary students I interviewed Dr. King’s father, the pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, “Daddy” King Sr. The interview was for a course on Race and Religion.
At the end of our session with “Daddy” King he had one last suggestion for us:
My son has finished his work for his PhD from Boston University. He will be home this weekend and will be preaching at Ebenezer. I want you boys to come to church to hear him. You can meet him after church.
I don’t know about my fellow students, but I was free that Sunday. Did I return to Ebenezer? I did not, one choice that ranks close to the top of my list of regrets in life.
Eight years later, I finally met Martin, Jr., in Chicago, when I interviewed him for a magazine I then edited. I told him of my missed opportunity. We compared notes on our lives. We were born 46 miles, and less than three months apart in Georgia. Our paths were close, but in the segregated South they did not cross.
When Dr. King died, the world lost a champion of justice and hope. It did not, however, lose his message of hope over fear, a message badly needed in this nation at this time.
During his lifetime, King was the victim of massive vilification and the brutality of racial segregation. The vilification increased after he became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War.
King inspires me still, as he surely does most who know his story.
Few of us can remotely compare ourselves to King; we can only rejoice that for a few short years he brought us a message of hope over fear in a manner we can only try to emulate.
In recent weeks, this blog has been reaching a larger audience, thanks to the wide range of the internet. Web sites from Oregon to Dubai have linked to postings from this blog.
Some who encounter these links are pleased; others are made angry enough to say harsh things about the blog, nothing of course, as harsh as those that were said about King, but harsh enough to provoke the ever-present temptation to consider giving up the god of hope in favor of the easier path of fear and anger.
One reason I prefer to choose hope is the strength of the internet international peace and justice network which has embraced the campaign to end the illegal and immoral occupation of Palestinian people and land.
Those sites that link my postings to their sites place me in a larger company of notable and creative writers whose comments are inspiring in their determination to expose the Israeli government’s policies against the Palestinians.
My presence on these international websites has evoked angry postings on US websites, some written by Presbyterian clergy and lay members, who are yet to forgive those of us who supported Presbyterians who endorsed a call to justice for Palestinians at the 2010 General Assembly.
One US Presbyterian blogger, for example, has accused Debbie Menon, a blogger located in Dubai of linking to a ”horribly anti-Semitic site”, not mine in this case, but another blog, bringing back the old “guilt by association” line of attack.
The charge is bogus, of course, or I would not want to be associated with Debbie, a creative and courageous blogger. But anti-semitism is always the first bullet fired by advocates of fear/anger/hate to intimidate the faint hearted. They do it through deception.
A favorite technique of these bloggers is to associate any criticism of the policies of the state of Israel as “anti-semitic”, as though the policies of a government and a religion tradition are one and the same.
This tactic works for some people. But I find that the easy use of anti-semitism in a political discussion has largely lost its cache and become instead, an exploitation of an ugly and demeaning act of hatred.
The writers on Debbie Menon’s site, My Catbird Seat, are a varied lot, some of whom I had encountered earlier on the internet. I do not always agree with the style of all they write, but they are definitely more sensitive to the injustice suffered by the Palestinian than any American Christian conservative bloggers I have yet found on the internet.
My own brief moment in the vilification derby sun came recently when another Presbyterian blogger, a Reformed pastor, employed the title, James Wall: Sewer Dweller, when he wrote about my most recent posting.
A rather nasty title, I confess, but this particular newly designated “Sewer Dweller” wears his title proudly, with the understanding that it is a merit badge on the way to the final goal of ending the immoral Israeli (not Jewish) Occupation of Palestinian land and people. Here is part of the Reformed pastor’s posting:
Looks like we’ve got another anti-Israel activist who likes to go dredging around in the muck, and this one may come as a surprise to some. It’s James Wall, the former long-time editor-in-chief of the Christian Century, and it appears that he’s been hitting the pages of my favorite sludge-bucket.
The website Veterans Today is not a “sludge-bucket”. It is a progressive website that sees injustice and calls it for what it is, which explains why these days, I find myself more at home with my new friends at Veterans Today and My Catbird Seat than with any Presbyterian blogger who has failed to realize that the Israeli occupation is a moral evil which must be ended. Perhaps this is a new ecumenism of the faithful.
This four minute plus, video of that night in Indianapolis, was filmed a few hours after Martin Luther King’s assassination. In it, Robert Kennedy speaks from his deep conviction that it was not a time for justified anger, but a time to choose the path of hope and love over the path of hate and fear.
It is the message that fits any moment in history when justice is denied.
James M. Wall is currently a Contributing Editor of The Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, Illinois. From 1972 through 1999, he was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine. He has made more than 20 trips to that region as a journalist, during which he covered such events as Anwar Sadat’s 1977 trip to Jerusalem, and the 2006 Palestinian legislative election. He has interviewed, and written about, journalists, religious leaders, political leaders and private citizens in the region. Jim served for two years on active duty in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF (inactive) reserve. Jim launched his new personal blog Wallwritings, on April 24, 2008. He can be reached at: email@example.com
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