The Journey of JFK

This past Friday marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. Any of us who were old enough to remember that tragic day were taken back in our memories to where we were when we heard the news that the President had been shot. I was in second grade and can still recall our teacher sharing that news with us in a way that was appropriate for seven year old children. For much of my life, the tragic death of President Kennedy was most of what I knew about his brief time in office. Only in recent years have I become aware of his own journey of growth and leadership in one of the most important aspects of the life of our nation – civil rights. For most of his first two years in office, President Kennedy hesitated to become involved with promoting the civil rights movement. As a Democrat, he counted on the support of Southern Democrats many of whom were staunch segregationists. Yet by the spring of 1963, President Kennedy grew to the point that he came out publicly in support of national civil rights legislation. This growth was nurtured by the witness of thousands of African Americans who willingly subjected themselves to physical, verbal, and emotional suffering through participation in faith based non-violent direct actions. In particular, the Birmingham campaign in April and May of 1963 captured the nation’s attention as people as young as seven years old were arrested and/or subjected to the violence of high pressure fire hoses and attacking police dogs. This led to one of the most important speeches of President Kennedy’s life. On June 11, he addressed the nation on television about the justice of civil rights. He pointed out various aspects of the inequality and injustice of segregation. Here is some of what he said to the nation:

The Negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the State in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing a high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year, a life expectancy which is 7 years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much.

This is not a sectional issue. Difficulties over segregation and discrimination exist in every city, in every State of the Union, producing in many cities a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety. Nor is this a partisan issue. In a time of domestic crisis men of good will and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics. This is not even a legal or legislative issue alone. It is better to settle these matters in the courts than on the streets, and new laws are needed at every level, but law alone cannot make men see right. We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.

Two aspects of this part of his speech are especially important for me as a follower of Jesus. In the last line, President Kennedy declared the cause of civil rights to be a moral issue connected to the Scriptures. Those same Scriptures had been used for centuries by some to support first slavery and then legal segregation. I believe that the President called us back to the original intention of the Scriptures as the revelation of God’s love for all people and God’s clear desire for justice for all. Secondly, the President lifted up the impact that segregation had on people’s lives in terms of economics, education, and even life expectancy. Although legal segregation in our country is long gone, disparities in economics, education, and physical health based on race still exist throughout our nation. In our area of metropolitan Washington, DC, African American households on average have only one tenth the wealth of white households. Public education in our city and most cities has largely re-segregated based on the racial implications of economics. There continues to be a disparity in health care and life expectancy according to race. All this adds up to say that the struggle for true equality goes on. This struggle is an essential part of the ministry of the Church because the words of President Kennedy still ring true, “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures…” As we remember the tragic death of a President fifty years ago, may we also remember his journey of growth in the commitment to justice and commit ourselves and our churches to this ongoing journey of faith, love, and justice.

Dr. Jim Melson, Director of Spiritual Formation


Beyond “I Have a Dream”

On August 28, I joined thousands of people on the National Mall in Washington, DC to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March for Jobs and Freedom during which Martin Luther King, Jr. gave one of the most famous speeches in American history popularly known as “I Have a Dream.” That day in August of 1963 is remembered as one of the high points of the civil rights movement. Some 250,000 people gathered to protest the injustice of racial segregation and its accompanying economic impact and to lift up a vision of a more just and equal society. Yet as that day recedes into history, it is easy for it to be mythologized or trivialized by forgetting the great cost paid by thousands of people who persisted in the struggle for justice. During the 50th anniversary ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial, there was a powerful symbol to remind all of us of that cost. At 3:00PM a bell was rung to recall the exact time when Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous speech. Yet that bell was not just any bell. It was recovered from the wreckage of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Al. where four precious young girls (Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair) were killed when the church was bombed on September 15, 1963, just a few weeks after the momentous gathering on the National Mall. After the euphoria of the March for Jobs and Freedom, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave another speech in the face of the devastating pain and loss of September 15. Dr. King gave the “Eulogy for the Martyred Children” during the funeral service for three of the four girls killed in that terrible bombing. I want to share some of his words from that very difficult day, words not as familiar as “I Have a Dream,” but words that show the foundation of faith in Christ that enabled people to persist in the struggle for justice under almost unthinkable conditions:

“So in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter; nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. We must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and worth of all human personality…I hope you can find some consolation from Christianity’s affirmation that death is not the end. Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance…Let this daring faith, this great invincible surmise, be your sustaining power during these trying days.”

The power of Christ’s forgiveness and resurrection that enabled people to persist in the struggle for justice 50 years ago is the same power that enables us to persist in the ongoing struggle for justice today. As we face daunting issues such as war, immigration reform, health care, the criminal justice system, poverty, and others; we are called to deeper faith in Jesus Christ and deeper commitment to living the way of Jesus in our day and time, no matter what the costs. Intentional practices of spiritual growth and commitment to in-depth Christian community put us in the position to discern and follow God’s call to justice in our day. It is not enough to remember and honor those who paid the cost of living the way of Jesus during the struggles of 50 years ago. We honor and benefit most from their witness as we join the great cloud of witnesses who follow the way of Jesus’ non-violent, self-sacrificial, inclusive love whatever the cost. Through the power of the resurrection, the One who paid the cost for all of us provides the power to live His way today.

Dr. Jim Melson, Director of Spiritual Formation

PS. The four girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church were recently awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. As Dr. King quoted in many of his messages, “The moral arch of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” 




The Shadow of the Cross

“They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.” Luke 4: 29 (NRSV)

This is the first full week of Lent, a season in which many Christians around the world reflect on the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus in preparation for the celebration of the resurrection on Easter. When thinking about the cross of Jesus, our minds go to the last week of his life in Jerusalem during which the events of that first Holy Week took place. Yet the shadow of the cross fell over the life of Jesus well before that week. In fact, that shadow emerged at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.

Luke chapter 4 begins with the familiar story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. This story is regularly lifted up at the beginning of the Lenten season. However, the story that follows is just as important in helping us to see the shadow of the cross during the very first days of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 4: 16-30). After gaining a reputation as an acclaimed teacher in Galilee, Jesus returns to his home town of Nazareth where he  is invited to teach in the synagogue. He chooses the opening verses of Isaiah 61 as his text and goes on to proclaim that this Scripture is fulfilled in him. At that point, everyone is amazed and proud of their home town boy made good. After all, it’s not every day that someone from your home town fulfills a Scriptural promise!

It doesn’t take long for this celebration to turn into the worst homecoming ever. Instead of stopping his message when everyone is inspired and pleased, Jesus goes on to cite two examples of how God acted outside the boundaries of the people of Israel through the widow of Zarephath in Sidon during Elijah’s time and through the Syrian general Naaman during Elisha’s time. Luke succinctly records the reaction of the hometown crowd, “When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.” (vs. 28) They were so enraged that the homecoming ends not with a pot luck supper but with an attempt to kill Jesus by throwing him off a cliff. Clearly, the shadow of the cross falls over Jesus from this time until the actual crucifixion on that first Good Friday.

What made the people in Nazareth so angry that they were driven to attempted murder? I believe that they did not want to hear or believe that God acts beyond any of the boundaries with which they were so comfortable – boundaries of religion, privilege, culture, ethnic pride. Jesus made it clear that anyone who follows him will face the same shadow of the cross. In his famous book The Cost of Discipleship, the German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This is a call to follow Jesus  and die to ourselves and the boundaries that define us by race, economic class, social status, gender, sexual orientation, religion or any other boundaries that come to mind. God in Christ breaks down those barriers and reconciles us to God and to each other. If we are honest with ourselves, the Church is often seen as an institution that erects barriers rather than as a fellowship that destroys them. Are we willing to follow the person and way of Jesus to the point of taking up such a cross? The shadow of the cross begins right now for anyone who follows Jesus. Yet as with Jesus, the cross always leads to the resurrection- the promise of abundant life both now and forever.

Dr. Jim Melson

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