This morning, I had the privilege of preaching at St. James Episcopal Church in Keene, NH on the Feast Day of Jonathan Daniels. Mr. Daniels, a Keene native and an Episcopal seminarian at the time of his death, August 20, 1965, heeded Dr. King’s call to come to Selma and work for Civil Rights. Here’s the Sabbath meditation I offered (which begins with a line from Isaiah, one of the lectionary readings of the Feast Day).
From the book of Isaiah, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’”
No doubt Jonathan Daniels heard such a voice and clearly responded; he left Harvard to attend seminary and then, even more courageously, heeded Dr. King’s call for Civil Rights workers, leaving the relative safety of New England, venturing down to Alabama. After marching from Selma to Montgomery, he spent the spring semester of 1965 working to integrate the local Episcopal Church and returned to New England only to write his exams at Episcopal Theological School. He could have stayed in Keene that summer but he didn’t. He went back to Alabama to tutor children, register voters, help people get services. Along with twenty-eight others picketing whites-only stores, he spent a week in jail, refusing release until everyone who had been arrested got bailed out. After the group got released, Jonathan and three others went to fetch cold drinks from Varner’s Cash Store. When a white man with a shotgun threatened them, Jonathan placed himself between Ruby Sales and the barrel of Tom Coleman’s shotgun. At twenty-six, Jonathan Daniels became a martyr for Civil Rights, and an exemplar of courage.
When I think of Jonathan Daniels, I recall a classmate of mine at the very seminary he attended who said some thirty-five years after Jonathan had graced those rooms, “While Moses was dithering and making excuses to God about why he wasn’t the right person to go to Egypt and free the slaves, people were dying.” The implication: you go when you are called. No stalling because the clock is ticking and injustice never takes a day off.
Sadly we are reminded of this, and the great irony that just three weeks before Jonathan died August 20, 1965, the landmark Voting Rights Act became effective, and just this week, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed into law a bill limiting early voting and requiring voters to show a photo ID. There are no vacation days for injustice and Jonathan Daniels knew that.
I think also of James Reeb, a thirty-eight-year-old Unitarian Universalist minister who also traveled to Selma to work for voting rights in March 1965, beaten to death by three segregationists five months before Jonathan died. Reeb’s murderers, like Tom Coleman, were acquitted. James Reeb left behind his wife and four young children.
We might ask ourselves this sunny Sunday morning as we recall the martyrs who died for Civil Rights, as we inevitably ask ourselves would we have the courage to answer as Jonathan Daniels and James Reeb and countless others have, “Here am I; send me,” how do we weigh the cost of such decisions?
Monday, along with the sorry news from North Carolina, NPR’s “All Things Considered” carried a brief story about the youngest child of the slain Civil Rights leader, Medgar Evers. Van Evers, now in his fifties, said: “I feel as if I gave up both of my parents to the movement. After Dad died, Mom was gone a lot. She had to support us, she had to carry on my dad’s work, so she frequently wasn’t there. We were alone a lot.” Though he considers his mother heroic, he did not follow in his parents’ footsteps as another great leader of Civil Rights. He states simply, “It’s not my calling. There have been famous people who would say, ‘Why aren’t you doing what your dad did?’ And I look at them and say, ‘Well, guess you’ve not been in my position.’” The father of two sons, Van Evers spends as much time as he can with his boys. “Having my dad taken from me — and I didn’t get to do things like playing ball in the park, and all the rest of that stuff — I feel like the most important thing I can do for my kids is give them what I didn’t get.”
Many years ago I watched a film called “A World Apart,” about a heroic white South African anti-apartheid activist told from her daughter’s point of view. While the precocious child understood why her mother fought so hard for the dignity and rights of black South Africans, she could not help but question why their well-being appeared to be more important than hers. Why did her mother devote all her time to other children’s rights, while placing her own child at risk as the obvious target of angry whites?
These are not easy questions and there are no easy answers. As a child growing up in Tennessee during the struggle for Civil Rights, I imagined were there to be an all-out race war black against white, I would valiantly volunteer for the black army. Though I was too young to have boarded a bus to Selma, I liked to think had I been old enough to become a Freedom Rider I would have, though in truth, as a young adult I lacked the fortitude to volunteer for the Peace Corps. Some of us possess the vein of courage, the conviction, or perhaps a requisite sense of imperviousness or invincibility necessary to go off to danger zones. Maybe some of us are hard-wired for such risk-taking, or simply hear without equivocation God’s call. But for those of us who may hear it, and like Moses, grasp for a reason why we are ill-suited to go, we needn’t assume we are cowardly or off the hook.
Actually, it wouldn’t serve society were we all to march off to the front lines. Some folks have to stay home, tend the babes and the elders, grow food, educate the young, heal the sick, make art, record the stories. And though the battles fought on a bridge in Selma or in Tahrir Square become iconic images for the visage of freedom, ultimately, justice is wrought from the choices we make in our everyday lives, in the place, to quote Wendell Berry, where history has put us.
And though it may seem counter-intuitive if not distasteful, one of the most demanding elements justice requires is finding ourselves not just in the courage of Jonathan Daniels but the brokenness of Tom Coleman. We’re often quick demonize those who resort to violence, and quicker to distinguish ourselves from them without taking the time to understand from whence the violence comes.
Alice Walker begins one of her novels with this epigraph: “When the ax entered the forest, the trees said, ‘The handle is one of us.’”
Margaret Mead wrote, “We make our own criminals, and their crimes are congruent with the national culture we all share. It has been said that people get the kind of political leadership they deserve. I think they also get the kind of crime and criminals they themselves bring into being.”
What is it about our culture that compels us to hew ax handles from trees? Recognizing our daily culpability, complicity and collusion is the first step in dismantling injustice. We need not leave our families or communities behind to aid territories rife with strife. If we stay home and realize how our choices— economic, social, political, and ethical— fashion ax handles, if we consider the clothes, the electronic devices, the jewelry we buy, the fossil fuels we consume, the mono-culture crops and factory feed lots we rely on, the disposability of products, people, fellow creatures we accept, perhaps we can avert irrevocable havoc on a planet we did not make but may well destroy.
It is all too easy to scoff at Tom Coleman, to curse the bigots who wield weapons—separating ourselves from those who perpetrate great harm. As tempting as it is to divide the world into the heroically brave ilk of Jonathan Daniels, and those can’t muster his courage or evince his faith, let us not succumb to temptation. Instead, let us summon the will to acknowledge our complicity, the seemingly small, often unnoticeable accretions that create the national culture and global paradigm we inhabit.
Let us hear in the words of Isaiah and find in the example of Jonathan Daniels the imperative to enter the trenches of self-examination, facing the harsh, discomfiting, unsettling truths that our consumption, mobility, and deepening spiritual disconnection from the ground of being that sustains us—contribute to violence, injustice, and desecration of planetary proportion.
In 1955, a fourteen-year-old black boy from Chicago named Emmett Till goes South for the summer and though his mama warns him not to mess with white folks, Emmett loves to pull pranks. He’s just a boy like other boys, full of sass and a foretaste of testosterone, so he flashes a photo of a pretty white girl boasting how she’s his sweetheart. A local black boy goads Emmett to go in the market and say something to the white woman inside. Emmett, full of bravado buys himself some candy and as he reaches the door to leave, turns to Carolyn Bryant and says, “Bye Baby.” The world glimpses the horror of what Carolyn’s husband Roy and his brother-in-law, J.W. Milam do in retaliation: crushing Emmett’s skull, gouging out his eye, lashing a seventy-pound cotton gin fan around his neck with barbed wire then dumping him in the river. His mother Mamie insists on an open casket and publishes the picture in Jet. The all-white jury finds both men not guilty and four months later this is what J.W. Milam says: “What else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers in their place. I know how to work ’em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice.”
For J.W. Milam, boys like Emmett did not recognize their place. For Tom Coleman and the trio who beat James Reeb to death, for Byron De La Beckwith who shot Medgar Evers, and a host of other Southern white folks who maimed, tormented, bombed, fire-hosed, and otherwise dehumanized myriad African Americans and oft-remembered white allies, blacks demanding rights along with Northern sympathizers and Southern agitators threatened to undo what most Southern whites believed to be the order of Creation divinely wrought.
My friend’s father autopsied Martin Luther King. My sister was born during the week-long curfew imposed after Dr. King’s death. That worldview held by Southern whites is neither abstract nor incomprehensible to me, repugnant though it is. And though I prefer to distance myself, when I read Annie Leonard’s book, The Story of Stuff: The Impact of Overconsumption on the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health-And How We Can Make It Better, I cringe because the way I live is so entrenched. Consider how we have collectively created a reality in North America not just normalizing but exalting a way of life where we literally dump waste into the world’s most precious, and increasingly scarce element, fresh water—and use the flesh of trees, with their amazing capacity “to make oxygen, sequester carbon, distill water, accrue solar energy as fuel, make complex sugars and food, create micro-climates, change colors with the season and self replicate” to wipe up our spills and our tushes.
Imagine explaining to a sub-Saharan woman who walks six hours round trip for a jug of water that we use that to flush our toilet—once.
Who here questions golf courses? Paper towels? Aluminum cans? PVC pipe? Colorful cheap cotton clothes? Electric toothbrushes? New iterations of smart phones and tablets every year? None of these serve the planet but to us these are inalienable conveniences—part of life as we know it. As God and ingenuity intend, right?
Like J.W. Milam, we don’t feature ourselves bullies; but we don’t cotton to anyone messing with our way of life. Sure, we might buy a Prius but don’t ration our fuel. Don’t discuss how offshore drilling, the laying of ocean floor cable, undersea military maneuvers and the massive increase in commercial shipping are disrupting mammalian marine life to point of potential extinction. Don’t mention the five to seven million tons of electronics made obsolete each year.
Everywhere we turn, Jim Coleman lurks with a shotgun. Its barrel, like the ax blade, forged from the ore we pay others to mine for the culture we create.
Jonathan Daniels bravely heeded the call to venture into hostile territory to work for justice. His legacy to us, whether we travel to the places teeming with the harsh effects of our chosen lifestyle, or whether we wrestle at home with the inconvenient truths of unsustainability, is to be as brave as the trees, who utter upon seeing the ax enter the forest, “The handle is one of us.”
The indisputable courage, conviction, and selflessness of Jonathan Daniels invite us to hear Isaiah and reply, “Here are we. Transform us—that we might become vessels of transformation where we are.” Amen.