Over the last month I followed bits and pieces of the Dylann Roof trial in Charleston, South Carolina. No one disputed the facts: Roof entered Mother Emanuel AME Church and killed nine African-Americans during a Bible Study. The jury convicted him to no one’s surprise. And then they moved into the sentencing phase, specifically the question of life imprisonment or the death penalty.
Dylann Roof addressed the jury as they debated his sentence. He denied that he was a racist, claiming, “I don’t hate black people.” And he went on, adding, “Anyone, including the prosecution, who thinks I’m full of hatred has no idea what real hate is… they don’t know what real hatred looks like.”
There are many things one could say about this. What’s the meaning of hatred if killing nine people at a Bible Study doesn’t count? Of course his act was one of racial hatred. But at the same time I hear in his words the deep problem of white Americans naming racism and racial hatred. He killed nine people simply because of their race. Even in the courtroom he decorated his shoes with racist symbols of white power. But he couldn’t acknowledge who and what he was: a man whose life was twisted by hatred.
To have this court case unfold this week, in the lead up to Martin Luther King Day, invites comparisons. While Roof couldn’t acknowledge the hatred shaping his actions, King lived a life responding to the call of love.
King lived deeply aware of the reality and the power of hate; he faced men like Dylann Roof, people who bombed his home, beat and killed his followers, and, in the end, even killed him. In the face of such hatred, King consciously chose nonviolence. As he explained, “Nonviolence saves [our resistance] from degenerating into morbid bitterness and hatred. Hate is always tragic. It is as injurious to the hater as to the hated. It distorts the personality and scars the soul.”
We see the tragedy of hatred in Dylann Roof; and in King, the dignity of love. But more than dignity, for King made clear the power of nonviolence to transform hearts warped by hatred.
One moment which showed the transformative power of love came in Birmingham. Martin Luther King went there to protest America’s most segregated city. Strict laws, economic practices, and threats of imminent violence kept segregation in place. King and his movement began a protest campaign. It centered on groups of protesters - 50 at a time - walking from the 16th Street Baptist Church to City Hall to request a meeting with the mayor. “Bull” Connor, the police chief, responded with swift and repressive action. He turned fire hoses and dogs on the peaceful protesters.
As the campaign drudged on, opinion changed even among Bull Connor’s officers. King told the story of a Sunday afternoon, when several hundred people gathered with the intention of holding a prayer rally at City Hall. Bull Connor, as he had numerous times, ordered the marchers to stop. When they politely refused, he told his men to use the fire hoses.
King’s own words capture the wonder and power of love.
“What happened in the next thirty seconds was one of the most fantastic events of the Birmingham story. Bull Connor’s men, their deadly hoses poised for action, stood facing the marchers. The marchers, many of them on their knees, stared back, unafraid and unmoving. Slowly the [African-Americans] stood up and began to advance. Connor’s men, as though hypnotized, fell back, their hoses sagging uselessly in their hands while several hundred [people] marched past them, without further interference, and held their prayer meeting as planned.”
Hatred’s power broke that day; the world came to see the dignity of the marchers and the venality of Bull Connor. The mayor and city council changed the laws, white-owned businesses changed their practices, and voters turned Bull Connor out of office.
As King said elsewhere, “We met Ole Bull, but left him a Steer.” (Who says love can’t be snarky?)
The exceptional day in Birmingham grew out of the everyday commitment of King to live by love. He wrote about his understanding of love many times and in many places. And I’m sure many challenged him on it. Because he called for his followers to love their enemies.
In Birmingham, months after the protests ended, white supremacists set a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Down in the basement, several girls donned their choir robes as they got ready for worship; the sermon, “A Love that Forgives.” The bomb exploded, killing four of the girls and wounding 22 others.
It wasn’t the only bombing in Birmingham; some called the city Bombingham because of its racially motivated attacks on African-Americans. Hatred like this posed a real challenge to King’s call to love and his practice of nonviolence. He addressed this directly in a Christmas Sermon on Peace. I quote him at length when he said:
“I’m happy that [Jesus] didn’t say, ‘Like your enemies.’ because there are some people that I find it pretty difficult to like. Liking is an affectionate emotion, and I can’t like anybody who would bomb my home. I can’t like anybody who would exploit me. I can’t like anybody who threatens to kill me day in and day out. But Jesus reminds me that love is greater than liking. Love is understanding, creative, redemptive good will toward all [people]. And I think this is where we are, as a people, in our struggle for racial justice. We can’t ever give up. We must work passionately and unrelentingly for first-class citizenship. We must never let up in our determination to remove every vestige of segregation and discrimination from our nation, but we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege to love.”
In the face of violence - tragic violence like the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church - King called on people to embrace love. Not as a passive acceptance of what happened, not as a quiet endurance, but as a conscious decision to resist and overcome hatred with love.
This was more that just a strategic choice. For King knew the danger of responding to hatred with reciprocal hatred, meeting violence with violence. In his own words, he explained, “I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate; I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many white citizens’ councilors, and too many Klansman of the South to want to hate; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear.” I thought of these words of King, fifty years later, as I looked at the blank face of Dylann Roof, whose expression seems to capture the way hatred emptied out his soul, creating a moral vacuum out of which he lamely says, “I killed nine people because of their race but I am not a person of hate.”
Martin Luther King and his movement faced hatred like that of Dylann Roof; and King consciously chose not to be sucked into the undertow of hatred, not swept out into a sea of bitterness. Like a swimmer caught by a riptide, King moved counter to the current. And in doing so showed the strength of his soul; or as he said, “we will meet physical force with soul force.”
What nurtured this powerful soul force in King? What graced him with the ability to stand up to water hoses and dogs in Birmingham? The ability to comfort families who lost children in a “vicious and heinous” act of terrorism?
Clearly, his faith made the difference. The words of Jesus, the power of God he connected with through prayer, the spirit lifting him in the songs of the church. And, I’ve come to think this week, it was the faith nurtured through rituals like baptism.
King once alluded to this in a reflection on his experiences of love’s power in Birmingham. King contrasted the water hoses and the water of baptism. He said, “Bull Connor… would say, ‘Turn the fire hoses on.’ ... [Bull Connor] knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denomination, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water.”
King knew the waters of baptism gave him the soul force to meet hatred with love, to resist violence with nonviolence, to overcome oppression with hope in someday.
And we might see the same power becoming known to Jesus in his baptism. The story goes that a prophet named John was baptizing people in the River Jordan. And that Jesus came along, asked to get baptized, and that when it happened, the voice of God was heard saying “this is my son” and seen in the form of a dove.
We enact this story in worship whenever we baptize someone. We celebrate God’s love; rejoicing in the proclamation that someone is beloved of God. And, when it is a baby, we give them a quilt adorned with a dove.
I love baptisms; I could do one every Sunday. But too often we celebrate baptism without realizing the social justice implications of the ritual. The cuteness of the babies distract us from the radical nature of this sacrament.
John stood by the River Jordan. John, even though he came from an elite family of priests, gave up his privilege and power to live by the river. He saw the power based in the Temple, the religious authorities colluding with the political power of the Romans, and he said, “no.” And not just no, but he went about practicing a ritual of purification. That’s what his baptism did: to purify people who felt polluted by the corruption of religion and politics, people who understood the oppressive nature of the status quo, people woke to the nightmare of injustice. John stood by the River Jordan, practicing a ritual of resistance.
Jesus came to the water. John came from money; but Jesus from parents who lived one night ahead of homelessness. John saw oppression; Jesus felt it in his body. And Jesus knew too all that people whispered about him: “doesn’t look like Joseph,” “Mother got pregnant from the ‘Holy Spirit,’” “oughta go back to that Galilean ghetto where he belongs.” Jesus knew what they said about him when he came to the water.
Jesus learned something in the water. He heard a voice declare, “This is my beloved, my son.” He knew in that moment that all the gossip didn’t matter; he was beloved. And as a symbol of this profound assurance that how his society saw him didn’t matter, Jesus and John spotted a dove.
That symbol of the Holy Spirit often seems too cute. “Oh, a little white dove,” I thought; until someone pointed out to me that doves and pigeons are really the same kind of bird: doves, majestic symbols of purity and peace; and pigeons, rats with wings, the pest of every city. (I should have known they were the same. When I serve them for dinner we call them squab.)
When Jesus emerged from the water, he saw a dove, purity, peace. But a Roman looking on would have seen a pigeon, a pest. Jesus came out of the water seeing himself differently, as a beloved son and not the child of an unknown father. Felt blest by a dove instead of annoyed by a pigeon. The ritual of resistance, baptism, affected how Jesus saw himself and how he experienced the world.
I think baptism and the wider practice of faith did something similar for Martin Luther King. White supremacists looked at King dismissively, called him “boy.” But he knew himself as a man. All of the laws and hatred of his day said, “your life doesn’t matter.” But King knew Black Lives Matter. King knew the water, knew it like Jesus; through the water of baptism he knew like Jesus, “I am somebody.”
As we celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, and as we do so reminded of the on-going viciousness of white racial hatred, I want to learn to love like King. I can’t like my enemies; but I can learn to love them. And the power to love like King begins for me in the waters of baptism; where we know ourselves as doves, even when the world calls us pigeons; where despite what others might gossip about us, we hear the whisper of God, “You are somebody.” Our soul force, like that of King and Jesus, can begin when we know the water. Alleluia and Amen.