It was a sunny day, a bit cool and brisk. A good day to put on an overcoat if you were going to be outside a while, as they were that day. A day not unlike last Sunday, here in Seattle. That day, 50 years ago in Selma, Alabama.
Some 600 people had set out that Sunday morning to make the long 54 mile trek to the state capital in Montgomery. To talk to Governor George Wallace about the death of their friend, Jimmie Lee Jackson, shot by a police deputy last month. To bring attention to their ongoing fight for voting rights.
The first part of the march uneventful, and as there are at such times, maybe a spring in their steps, a striding confidence, as they stepped out into the hope and fear of a new beginning, a moving forward into something calling and important.
The marchers had just walked to the outskirts of town and up on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Now, one thing you have to know about this particular bridge is that it arches in the middle and you can’t see what is on the other side until you are at the crest of the bridge.
It was only when they reached this point, here in the center of the bridge, that they saw what was before them. The line of state troopers and county posse. Horses. Billy Clubs. Whips. Canisters of tear gas.
The Gospel of Mark was written at a time when Judea was covered with crosses.
A great Jewish uprising was taking place against Rome.
Rome responded with capital punishment – nailing dissidents to crosses.
Some Judeans promoted using violence to overthrow Rome.
To follow Jesus in his way of nonviolence – even as it might lead to their own humiliation and death.
It was these early followers of Jesus that the marchers in Selma remembered.
These early followers that others remember today in the ongoing struggles for dignity, respect and equal rights for all people.
The long march goes on.
Last week, Boris Nemstov was gunned down on a bridge next to the Kremlin, the day before he was to lead a march to protest Vladimir Putin’s government.
A blogger in Bangladesh killed for blog posts critiquing Islamic fundamentalism.
On the cross, Jesus says something puzzling, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34
What does he mean?
The only way I can make sense of this odd statement Jesus makes in the Gospel of Luke, is that Jesus knew something else as well. He knew what was in the heart of these soldiers. He knew what was in them, for he knew these same feelings in himself. The same anxieties, fears, indifference and hatred that placed him on the cross.
Knew in himself the same things that can lead any of us to blind hate and to picking up a Billy club, a gun, a sword, a canister of tear gas. Fear. Anxiety. Fear of change. Fear of the other. Hatred.
Martin Luther King, Jr. knew as well what was in the heart of those armed men on the other side of the bridges he crossed. He once wrote, “Let no man bring you so low as to make you hate him.” He could only write those words because he had faced his own hatred. Faced his hatred, his fear and made a commitment each day to not have these emotions rule his life.
There is a famous poem by Vietnamese Buddhist and Peacemaker, Thich Nhat Hanh, “Call Me By My True Names” that helps me find myself as I remember the events of 50 years ago and the ongoing marches for the dignity and rights of all people.
His poem helps me find my place with the marchers coming up one side of the bridge on the long walk to freedom and justice.
And he helps me find my place where I do not want to recognize that I am as well – standing with the men on the far side of the bridge doing all in our power to block the marcher’s way.
Jesus, King, Thich Nhat Hahn help me see that I am all those people on the bridge on the long march to justice.
And in that recognition, maybe the beginning of even trying to understand what forgiveness is and requires of me today. A forgiveness that begins with facing my own folly and fear, hopefulness and hopelessness, hatred and longing for wholeness
Thich Nhat Hanh concludes his poem,
Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up and the door of my heart could be left open, the door of compassion.”
Here is my prayer. That the remembrance that I am all those on the bridge, may become an opening to a new way to stand. A new way to walk and speak. A new way of compassion. A new way to healing. A new way to be on the long march to justice and hope.