One man come in the name of love
Revd Dr Donald MacEwan
Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 24:36b-48
Early morning, April four
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky.
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride.
I’ve seen U2 play that song Pride (in the name of love) three times, with Bono’s lyrics describing the moment when Martin Luther King was shot, fatally, in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968. The first time I heard the song played live was just 19 years after his death. Two weeks ago was the 50th anniversary of the murder.
Who was Martin Luther King?
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, he studied Divinity in Pennsylvania, and became a Baptist Church minister in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954. A year later he led the Birmingham bus boycott, over the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat in the white section of a bus. For the rest of his life, King was both pastor and civil rights campaigner, against segregation of different races, in favour of equality for African-Americans, and in favour of non-violent means of achieving justice, integration and harmony. His faith and his politics were intertwined. The campaign took him to Washington DC in 1963 where he gave a speech to perhaps a million people, including the famous section, I have a dream. The following year he received the Nobel Peace Prize. His campaigning continued, not only on civil rights, but against what he perceived as an American devotion to militarism, and against the Vietnam War. He was in Memphis in April 1968 campaigning for black workers on strike for fairer pay and conditions when he was killed.
There’s more to U2’s song than homage to Martin Luther King. It connects his death to that of Jesus.
Surely referring to Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane, Bono sings, One man betrayed with a kiss.
And the parallels are intriguing.
Like Martin Luther King, Jesus was a student of scripture, a preacher, who travelled the country, attracted followers, and spoke against systems of oppression.
Like King, Jesus offered both a message and a life of non-violence, in the midst of a powerful government defending injustice, and voices to the side demanding violent resistance.
And of course, like King, Jesus’ way of life, of honesty and integrity, of compassion for the vulnerable, fostering love even for enemies – led to his being killed. Jesus died on a Roman cross, a judicial killing.
Today’s gospel reading follows the account of his death. It’s a story of Jesus raised from the dead, and the main note is of joy. But in the midst of the glory, the violence, the pain and the suffering of what happened is not forgotten. “Look at my hands and my feet.” Jesus said. Then he showed the disciples his hands and his feet. Why? Because they were still marked with the holes, the wounds from the nails of his execution. The Easter story is the resurrection of a man killed for his non-violent direct action, overturning the tables of money-changers in the Temple, preaching a kingdom not of power but of love.
One man come in the name of love is how the U2 song begins, but as Bono well knows the one man is another man, and another woman and countless more throughout history. And the emergence of still more figures come in the name of love still continues
Today we will offer prayers for the new Rector, Srdja Popovic.
We’ve had a Rector from the earliest days of the University, originally elected at a general congregation of the University every year, a figure of great power. In 1858, the law changed, and it became only the students who elected the Rector, for a three-year term, as head of the University Court. Last year, students elected Srdja, who has already begun his role, and was ceremonially installed on Friday after being unceremonially dragged from pub to pub on Wednesday. I’m sure everyone in the Chapel today wishes him well, and the students whom he represents and will encourage to be active.
For Srdja too, whom I know has played some of the songs of U2 in his band, could be said to be one man come in the name of love. He was one of the founders of the Serbian nonviolent resistance group Otpor! Otpor!’s campaign against Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic was successful in October 2000 when thousands of protesters took over the Serbian Parliament. He then became the Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies (CANVAS), a non-profit organisation based in Belgrade, Serbia, that aims to teach the use of nonviolence to make a change. Although Srdja did not made the ultimate sacrifice in facing tyranny in Serbia, others did, and no-one should underestimate such courage.
The stories, the lives, the courage I’m exploring today have never seemed more crucial. So many aspects of our lives today seem to be marked by recurrent patterns of power, resentment, conflict, retribution and violence, with justice a fig-leaf for vengeance, and victims becoming lords. This is dreadfully obvious in Syria. But it is also a narrative which applies to Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and even closer to home in apparently democratic countries in Europe. Our own experience of industrial action in St Andrews has seen something of that pattern – of resentment and anger – which I hope will prove temporary, retreating into the ordinary, kindly patterns of collegiality and respect. Students’ lives, friendships and relationships can sometimes fall into patterns of conflict and retribution, not least online. And even the wonderful production of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street in the On the Rocks Festival (and if you missed it, you should be kicking yourself because it was a terrific night at the theatre) even Sweeney Todd was essentially a tale of violence, resentment, and vengeance with tragic consequences – and suspiciously tasty pies.
The Christian faith has been called in to justify such actions, in the name of divine justice, from the Crusades to the Hundred Years war, from brutal colonial murder in Australia to resistance to immigration across Europe today.
But Jesus cannot be found in the way of violence. Jesus resists such use and expectation. Put up your sword, he said. Love your enemies. He did not overcome his people’s oppressors, whether civil or religious, by seeking their power, and taking it by force. He overcame their domination by submitting to their violence – arrested, tried, mocked, beaten, crucified. He embraced those hostile to him, opening wide his arms. And on the cross, he said, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. It is no coincidence that one of Martin Luther King’s finest sermons, called Love in Action, is a reflection on those words of Jesus from the cross – Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
When the risen Jesus stood among his frightened friends, he said to them, “Peace be with you.” It was a conventional greeting – Shalom – but it was more. In his presence and in that word, he shows us how to live now: as a community of forgiveness, not of feuding; as a society of reconciliation, not resentment; as a people of love, and not of lusting for power. A true and deep peace, of health, wholeness and harmony.
Does this mean sitting back and doing nothing in the face of injustice? By no means.
One man come in the name of love, but Jesus called all these frightened friends to take courage. You are witnesses, he said. Witnesses see and witnesses speak. Jesus called his followers to go, to love their neighbours and their enemies, to bless those who persecute them, and to spread his vision of God’s loving community.
And Martin Luther King spoke to a million people or more in Washington, that they would go and bring to reality justice, non-violence, equality and integration, on buses, in schools, in factories, in offices, in universities, in law-courts, in Congress and in the White House.
And Srdja, in his installation speech on Friday, emphasised his role in empowering students in being active in the cause of grater justice and indeed happiness their fellow students.
Our first reading, from the prophet Isaiah recounts the call of one person to serve God.
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’
Oppression, cruelty, injustice and evil remain in our planet and in our relationships, personal, societal and international.
Prejudice and discrimination remain over gender, sexuality, colour, creed and ability.
One man come in the name of love – to call us all, regardless of gender, to go in the name of love.
Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’
And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’