A message given Sunday, April 15, 2007 by Rev. Scott Summerville
There was once a little boy named James; “Jimmy” is what his mother and father called him. It was the early 1930’s and Jimmy was growing up in Ohio. Later he would become a famous person, an important figure in American history, but that would come much later. Back in the 1930’s he was just little Jimmy running around the neighborhood. He came from a large family, a very close and loving family. His father was a preacher in the A.M. E. Zion Church [African Methodist Episcopal.]
Up to age four or five Jimmy just thought he was a kid like anybody else, but it was about that age when he began to realize that to some of his neighbors he was not fully and entirely a human being; they looked at him with suspicious looks he did not understand. And he began to hear a word that puzzled him: “nigger.” Quite a lot for a five year old child to comprehend.
One day when he was nine or ten years old he came home from school. His mother was in the kitchen. She asked him to run downtown and get her something from the store. He took the money from his mother’s hand, scooted out the door and ran downtown. On the way he passed by a big car with a family seated inside. As Jimmy passed by the car a boy leaned out the window of the car and shouted, “Nigger!” Jimmy stopped, turned around, walk back to the car, and slapped that boy hard across the face. Then he took off running as fast as he could, until he was back in his mother’s kitchen.
His mother was still at work fixing supper, her back to him. He told her the whole story. When he finished his story, after he told how he had smacked the other boy across the face, his mother, never turning to face him, simply asked him,” And what good do you think that will do?”
“And what good you think that will do?” That question – that questioning of the natural impulse to react to injustice with violence – would shape the thoughts and the life of this boy and would eventually affect the history of our nation. The boy Jimmy was James Lawson. Thirty years later James Lawson was at the very center of the struggle for desegregation in the United States. In 1957 young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. invited Lawson to come south to teach and train those who would be on the front lines of the nonviolent struggle for civil rights. He began his work in Nashville where he led a successful effort to desegregate the downtown shops and businesses.
Lawson became pastor of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee in 1962. In 1968 when black sanitation workers went on strike for higher wages and union recognition after one of their coworkers was accidentally crushed to death, Reverend Lawson served as chairman of their strike committee. expiring domains It was James Lawson who invited Dr MLK Jr to Memphis in 1968, and he was on the balcony of that motel as Dr King was shot. He is to this day regarded as the great teacher of nonviolent social change in 20th century USA. I had the privilege last week of being in the presence of Dr. James Lawson, now distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt University. He is 79 years old. And he is younger than I am. It was quite a thing to be with this legendary figure, to be walking the streets of Nashville where he had led the movement for desegregation fifty years ago. After being with Dr Lawson on Thursday, I returned to my hotel room to hear over and over on the news the reports of the Don Imus affair.
It is so easy to forget history.
It is tragic when those who have the power of mass media at their fingertips, whose words influence millions of people, forget history, forget civility, forget decency and kindness. It is tragic when those whose voices could be voices of healing and positive change are instead voices that hurt and wound. It is not hard to understand why seventy years ago a young white boy raised in a family where prejudice was fed to him, would stick his head out a car window and shout, “Nigger!” But for educated adults to use that word and its equivalent phrases today is a thing that is hard to understand.
The conference in Nashville last week where I met Dr. Lawson was a United Methodist conference on mediation and peacemaking. A central theme of the conference was the role of imagination in the making of peace. I heard amazing stories the last few days, stories of people all over the world – Somalia, Columbia, Tajikistan – places where human beings have lived in the midst of seemingly endless violence have made breakthroughs for peace.
I came home inspired by these stories and inspired by those who were my teachers this week. Reading books can be very inspiring, but there is something particularly inspiring about being in the presence of certain people – there are certain people who by their very presence impart a spirit of hope and possibility. I was with a number of such people this week. I want to learn more about how they got that way and how to be that way.
There is a common notion that people who are mediators and peacemakers are weak or hopelessly idealistic. I was reminded again this week of how much courage, commitment, concentration, and wisdom it takes to seek to resolve human conflicts in ways that do not involve violence.
The ultimate teacher of the civil rights movement was Jesus. It was his principles that Lawson and King and others took to heart. Jesus understood violence. Jesus endured violence.
In the gospel story today there is one disciple, Thomas, who refuses to believe the reports that Jesus who was crucified and buried has been seen alive. His mind cannot entertain this concept. He demands proof. What is highly significant in the story of Thomas is that the final proof he seeks is not to see the face of Christ; it is to see the wounds of Christ and to touch those wounds.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe. ” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you. ” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe. ” ( John 20:25-27)
The risen Christ has wounds; he is recognized by his wounds. The wounded Christ speaks the word of peace – “Peace be with you.”
We live in a consumer society; what we call the good life is a life with the right pleasures. It is so hard for us to deal with pain; so hard for us to confront pain. But there it is all around us and we can’t shut it out. It takes courage to deal with violence and pain – sometimes it takes courage even to name it – even to acknowledge it.
It is possible for each of us to acquire a greater capacity to face and to deal with pain in ourselves, our relationships, and our world, instead of running away from pain and trying every possible way to block it out and to deny it. It is inspiring to be with those people who have been able to overcome that resistance and whose life work is to touch and to offer healing to the wounds of others. I am grateful that I was able to have that experience this week.
If we stay for a moment in the presence of the risen Christ – with his wounds – it is possible for us to find a greater capacity to live with compassion and creativity and hope and violent times.
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe. ”
Grace and peace to you.