NOTE: These weekly essays are sermons prepared for Sunday delivery at North Baptist Church in Port Chester. The author is a layman and a long-time journalist for newspapers and church publications.
I don’t remember their names and I haven’t been in touch with them for fifty years. But they were the source of a major epiphany in my youth.
I was 17 years old in 1964 and I was enjoying my last summer at home before enlisting in the Air Force. In August I volunteered to be a counselor at Camp Pathfinder, the Baptist camp near Cooperstown, N.Y., and the staff orientation meeting took place Saturday afternoon. All the counselors were, as usual, under 20 and white.
Among the volunteers were two young women who had completed their freshman year at Cortland State College.
As a newly minted high school graduate, I regarded them as wise in the ways of an adult world I had not yet joined.
Both of the young women wore a small black button labeled “CORE.”
Overcoming my reluctance to look stupid, I asked, “What is CORE?”
The women smiled indulgently at me.
“Congress of Racial Equality,” one said.
Of course, I thought to myself. I had heard of CORE.
Then came the epiphany: “Of course!”
Here were two Christian women a few months older than I who used tiny buttons to proclaim a fundamental tenet of faith.
Of course! “Love thy neighbor” was not limited to the families living next door to my house on Cedar Street. The commandment to love neighbors included everyone, regardless of how different they looked from my family.
The little CORE buttons were as unambiguous a Christian symbol as cross pendants.
Of course! Fifteen months earlier I had sat in front of our black-and-white Admiral television to watch President Kennedy make the political case for civil rights. He had hinted at the theological basis for equality and justice:
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 … We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.
It is always embarrassing to look back on one’s youth to confront the self-absorbed ignorance that prevents us from seeing great truths. I am duly chastened to remember a time when my faith was so limited.
At 17, my youthful conscience tormented me about many things, mostly sexual caprices, lies to my parents, secret beer blasts, and taking Jesus’ name in vain. I imagined God scowling down at me like an annoyed George Carlin, fuming at my transgressions. It would not have occurred to me that the God who weeps as millions are crushed by injustice would hardly care about my fervent tributes to Miss July’s centerfold charms.
Throughout high school, my theology focused on my futile efforts to be a good boy. My myopic faith did not include worrying about fellow students who suffered in abject poverty in Madison County, or about the daily verbal abuse endured by the handful of African American or Onondaga children in school, or the routine taunting of children born too short, or too tall, or too androgynous for comfort.
Being a conformist – which is frequently the same thing as striving to be a good boy – I may even have participated in the abuse. I am sure I never intervened to stop it. If God ever frowned down on me like an annoyed George Carlin, those would have been the times I should have felt the heat.
Then a few days short of my 18th birthday, two young women wearing CORE buttons broke through my obtuseness and expanded my theological horizons. I found myself re-assessing what God thinks is important. In the words attributed to All-American lineman Buck Buchanan, “God don’t care who wins ball games.” But God does care about what you think is important in the game of life.
In Luke 4:14-21, Jesus helped clarify what is important in the game of life by citing the scripture he would adopt as his spiritual and political manifesto:
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
It’s hard to overestimate the radical nature of Jesus’ declaration.
In a world in which untold millions endured poverty and hunger, Jesus proclaimed good news based on the premise that God’s children should to do something about it.
In a world in which thousands were imprisoned and enslaved by oppressive Roman rulers and paranoid kings, Jesus declared that it was enough, and God’s children should do something about it.
In a world in which millions were blinded by self-imposed ignorance or physical disorders, in a world in which thousands suffering from incurable diseases were shunned and cast aside, Jesus said he would restore sight and remove the afflictions, and God’s people should stop treating the sick as inhuman nonentities.
In a world in which ninety-nine percent of the population was beaten down by the one percent who had fortune and power, Jesus proclaimed the emancipation of the oppressed. And God’s children should stop oppressing one another.
In Roman occupied Palestine, Jesus message was revolutionary. It scared the hell out of his listeners, especially the Romans and Pharisees whose livelihood depended on preventing people from thinking outside their boxes. And when Jesus sat down and said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” all that changed.
Jesus' reading of the Scripture so completely unnerved the old boys (and they were old boys) in the synagogue in Jerusalem that they tried to throw him off a cliff.
The Scripture still scares the hell out of a lot of people. Not long after I met the two women with CORE buttons, I found myself sitting in a bible study in an Air Force chapel. I was still new to the Air Force game and would have identified with what Ike told his son, Second Lieutenant John S.D. Eisenhower, when the new West Point grad visited the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe: “Every officer in this theater is senior to you and junior to me.” Sitting among colonels and senior sergeants, I listened respectfully to the Baptist style of dismissing the radicalism of Luke 4.
“Jesus didn’t mean it literally,” a lieutenant colonel opined as I sat at attention. “He was talking about folks who were spiritually blind and oppressed.”
“That’s right, Sir,” said a Chief Master Sergeant who didn’t get his eight stripes by disagreeing with colonels. “Jesus was saving souls, not talking politics.”
I’m sure I nodded in silent assent like a bobble-head puppet.
But of course high-ranking military officers are not always right (pause to savor the understatement) and in this case they were probably wrong. The last statement Jesus read to the assembly in the Synagogue was the most political of all: “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
The reference is to the year of Jubilee is in Leviticus when, according to the law of the Torah, debts would be forgiven, property would be returned to its original owners, and slaves would be freed.
“And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.” Leviticus 25:10)
It doesn’t get more political than that. It also doesn’t get more problematic, and history records that the Israelites had difficulty implementing the plan. But the proclamation of Jubilee remains one of history’s most astonishing documents promoting equality and justice. It’s no coincidence that the radicalism of Leviticus is inscribed on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all (emphasis on “all”) its inhabitants.” And in the Nazareth Synagogue, Jesus made it plain this was one promise God meant to keep. “Read My Lips. Liberty for all.”
If Jesus was as spiritually radical as we know he was – he did, after all, come to wash away the sins of all of rebellious humans after we turned our backs in God so we would not face eternal death – it makes sense that he would be politically radical as well.
Jesus’ radical politics are still frightening, not only to those who believe they have a God-given right to fortune and property and they owe nothing to the poor and oppressed. Jesus’ radical politics frighten us, too. If you were among the PBS viewers who grieved when Lord Grantham lost all his money and would have to sell Downton Abbey – and relieved when Matthew Crawley came to the rescue and made it possible for the series to last another season – it’s hard to realize that Jesus had another plot twist in mind: Sell the damn place and give the money to the poor.
In 1971, my last year in college, David Kirk published a wonderful little book called, Quotations from Chairman Jesus. The book appeared at the height of the Vietnam War and in the midst of painful political, racial, economic, and generational strife in the U.S.
The militant words in the book (modified only slightly, as when Kirk rendered the Good Samaritan as the Good Black Panther) are Jesus’ own.
One online reviewer of the book who identified himself as “Rain Cloud” wrote:
This book is still relevant because of all the people who--God knows how--believe Jesus was a republican. I can only believe these blow-hards have never taken the time to sit down and read the New Testament. This was a man who told his disciples when they went out on a trip to carry the message to not even carry a coin purse. Not even a coin purse! He said to them, if you have an extra coat, give it to the poor. The body is more than clothes, life is more than food. Does that sound like a stock portfolio loving conservative republican to you?
Of course (I hasten to point out) all of us, not just Republicans, have a tendency to seek material pleasures and enhanced riches.
I don’t think Jesus condemns us for that.
But Jesus did proclaim in the Synagogue in Nazareth that the pursuit of such happiness should be available to all people: the poor, the blind, the oppressed, and those entrapped by an economic system that drowns them in debt.
No one, Jesus said, should get rich or surround themselves with possessions at the expense of anyone else.
And having said this to each of us, Jesus rolls up the scroll, sits down, and calmly returns our startled stares.
“Today,” he says quietly, “this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The rest is up to us radicals.