Earlier this week, a full flight prepared to depart from Chicago to Louisville. But United Airlines realized it had a problem: four of its own employees needed seats in order to get to their jobs. First the airline tried to get volunteers; then, when that didn’t work, the airline chose to remove four passengers. The airline didn’t take anyone from First Class nor from its other premier seats. It forced people out of their seats from the back of the plane.
An Asian-American man named Dr. David Dao refused to give up his seat. United called in the police. And from there the situation got bizarre, with phrasing only George Orwell could write. Police observed Dr. Dao introduce his head to the armrest of another seat. They then escorted his unconscious body off the plane. Which allowed United to re-accommodate Dr. Dao.
Re-accommodate must go down as the Orwellian word of the year. It sounds nice: to accommodate someone means to care for them and provide hospitality. To re-accommodate sounds even better. But the word hides an ugly fact. Think how we could use this word: a landlord didn’t evict a family, he merely re-accommodated them. An undocumented woman wasn’t sent to a detention center; just re-accommodated. Rosa Parks wasn’t told to give up her seat; simply offered re-accommodation.
In truth, no pleasant words could distract from the bloodied face of Dr. Dao; or the horror of the other passengers screaming, “My God, My God, what are you doing?” One could clearly see the suffering on David Dao’s face.
But this wasn’t the only suffering this week. News came of 46 Egyptian Christians murdered while at church on Palm Sunday. And much closer to home, of a Muslim woman in Milwaukee beaten for wearing a headscarf.
What are we to make of these awful, horrifying events? And especially, how does the resurrection of Jesus cause us to see them differently? How do we see suffering and pain in the light of Easter morning?
One of the most succinct expressions of our Easter faith came from Martin Luther King, who wrote, “The cross is the eternal expression of the length to which God will go in order to restore broken community. The resurrection is a symbol of God's triumph over all the forces that seek to block community. The Holy Spirit is the continuing community creating reality that moves through history.”
King’s creed held Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost closely together. Good Friday: on the cross Jesus died for his hope. On Easter: the empty tomb promised Jesus’ hopes vindicated. On Pentecost: the Holy Spirit bound together all those who hope into a new community. Through this statement of faith, King placed at the center of his spirituality three experiences: suffering, redemption, and community.
This morning I want us to consider how these same three experiences interact in our spirituality too: how do suffering, redemption, and community intersect?
Many people speak as if the most challenging question of faith is “Does God exist?” But I find my own heart stumbles over the cross and its question, “What does suffering mean?” To see the brutality people can inflict on each other, whatever the reason, challenges my faith. And to claim suffering as redemptive seems a foolishness.
But as I struggle with the question - what meaning is there in suffering? - I’ve come to value how other people answer this question for themselves. One person who thought deeply about the meaning of his own suffering was Martin Luther King; in his own life, he experienced both Good Friday and Easter, suffering and redemption; and each of them bound up with Pentecostal community.
King’s thoughts on suffering changed through his work on civil rights. At first, King spoke optimistically of the power of suffering to transform people. During the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, which launched him onto the national stage in the struggle for Civil Rights, King saw the experience of suffering leading to transformed hearts.
The Montgomery boycott lasted far longer than King expected. In the tenth month of that effort, feeling weary himself, King told an elderly black woman, “Start back riding the bus, cause you are too old to keep walking.” But Mother Pollard, as she was known, told King, “I’m gonna walk till it’s over.” King protested, “But aren’t your feet tired?” “Yes, my feet is tired, but my soul is rested.” King knew what she meant: though the boycott required much suffering, those who suffered discovered a soul-force, a spiritual power, a resurrection hope that lifted them. By Easter’s logic, oppression could not keep the truth down forever; God worked for liberation, draining death and hatred and bigotry of its power.
King often spoke about this power born of suffering. Throughout his work, King faced violence: beatings, bombings of his home, a nearly successful stabbing, denunciations by enemies and condemnations from allies. He said, “My personal trials have also taught me the value of unmerited suffering. As my sufferings mounted, I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the sufferings into a creative force.” One of the most remarkable elements of Jesus’ personality was a similar lack of bitterness; he could get angry but never seemed bitter. King chose Easter, chose the resurrection response to suffering, the path of transformation instead of bitterness.
King believed the creative force would transform him and heal those who caused him to suffer. So he proclaimed, “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you.” But events sorely tested King’s faith in the redeeming power of suffering; none more so than the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.
The bombing killed four girls, wounded more, and shocked everyone. King gave the eulogy sermon for the girls and while he still found meaning in suffering, it had changed. He preached, “They did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. … The death of these little children may lead our whole Southland from the low road of man’s inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood.” The bombing changed how King thought of suffering: before he spoke with confidence, now he spoke conditionally, questioningly. Suffering might redeem. These deaths might change the south. Good Friday loomed. Easter became a question.
Audre Lorde, an African-American lesbian poet, would later sharpen this question. She made a distinction between suffering and pain. “Pain is an event, an experience that must be recognized, named, and then used in some way in order for the experience to change, to be transformed into something else, strength or knowledge or action. Suffering, on the other hand, is the nightmare reliving of unscrutinized and unmetabolized pain.” I find Lorde’s distinction sharpens King’s tentative “may well.” Pain may well redeem if it moves us to strength, to knowledge, or to action.
Lorde’s insight unlocked the question of the meaning of suffering for me. In fact, causes me to reframe it as the meaning of pain. For I think she’s right: suffering comes as a constant reliving of the same unprocessed pain. It’s Charlie Brown, running up to the football thinking this time Lucy won’t snatch it away. It’s each of us, when we keep remaining stuck in the same broken patterns, behaviors, and relationships which drain away our true selves. Suffering locks us into a continual pattern of re-accommodating ourselves, re-accommodating indignity. And to this she contrasted pain: pain can teach, enlighten, clarify. Pain can be that Easter moment when new life begins, when we resurrect our dignity, resurrect our true self, resurrect what was once broken.
I don’t know how Dr. David Dao makes sense of what happened to him, but I see something important happening among Asian-Americans in the wake of this incident. As writer Jessica Prois wrote, speaking for herself as an Asian-American, “David Dao being violently dragged off a United Airlines flight was plainly reprehensible. But... it probably wasn’t an example of ‘flying while Asian.’” Yet it sparked in her and in many other Asian-Americans a deep awareness of the racism and discrimination so often endured silently. It seems like a resurrection moment when people come away from a painful incident having claimed their voice.
The pain King experienced in the Civil Rights movement certainly brought clarity to him. King continued to speak of redemption, but in important ways his own pain transformed the injustice he saw. In an essay published after his assassination, King said, “Everyone underestimated the amount of violence and rage [African-Americans] were suppressing and the vast amount of bigotry the white majority was disguising.” Facing the depths of pain didn’t turn King bitter; but it did broaden his concerns to include international issues like the Vietnam War and focused him on the plight of the poorest Americans. The reality of his own pain opened his heart even more profoundly to the suffering of others.
The violence King endured sought to isolate him. Hatred screams at its victim, “You are alone. No one cares.” We saw it on Good Friday, as even Jesus’ closest friends abandoned him. We suffer alone. But God brings resurrection; that new life comes in the profound “no” of Easter to the abandonment of Good Friday. The women came to Jesus on Easter; and in that visit one sees the Holy Spirit knitting together a new community. Where violence sought to isolate, the Spirit brings Pentecostal community. Solidarity is a resurrection act.
Last year a shooter killed over forty people at the Pulse gay bar in Orlando, Florida. Almost immediately, vigils happened around the country. Many of us attended one at City Hall here in Milwaukee. To stand with friends and strangers, united in our opposition to violence, felt healing; a gift of the spirit knitting together broken hearts.
This week a man beat a Muslim woman in the early morning hours as she returned home from prayer. The spirit moves among us to say “no” to this violence; and to make clear, “You are not alone.” A Plymouth member contacted me immediately on hearing about this violence; and through her suggestion we have cards to sign and send in our reception hall. I hope you will send them; and that we all stay open for opportunities to stand in solidarity with our Muslim neighbors. For this is the Pentecostal response to pain; the joining of our spirits with the Spirit of God to knit back together hearts broken by pain.
The community building work of King deepened in him his commitment to the transforming power of Easter. In his last, and most radical, speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Network King closed by saying, “When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in the universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. Let us realize that William Cullen Bryant is right, ‘Truth crushed to earth will rise again.’”
When the first disciples came to the tomb, they didn’t realize at first that “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” As Matthew told it, on Easter morning the disciples kept glimpsing but missing the resurrected Jesus. The women hear of the resurrection but then, “He has gone ahead of you to Galilee.” They glimpse him but get the message to tell others, “He has gone ahead of us to Galilee.” This elusive Jesus appeals to me; this Christ always one step ahead of us, going on ahead.
And it speaks to me of the difference between the re-accommodation of suffering and the resurrection after pain. The Romans tried to ground Jesus down into the earth. To define him by suffering, to defeat him with brutality, to make the meaning of his life the awfulness he felt, and finally to confine him by their oppression. But Jesus rose. Suffering, pain, even death would not be the final word on his life. He rose, beyond the confines of hate and the snares of brutality. He rose over all the forces that tried to block beloved community. He rose, saying, “I go before you but you shall rise too. Come, follow me. We rise.” Alleluia and Amen.