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Risking Your Life – 1/20/2013

I would like to begin this morning with a story from the Buddhist tradition. The story is about a king who lived long ago. He was a great and powerful king, he ruled over many lands and peoples and he had a great number of servants and soldiers. When this king went to war, all of his neighbors were afraid of his mighty armies, and his own people feared him as well, for in times of peace he would make a great show of his skills as a hunter. He would go out into the countryside and find the most powerful and dangerous animal and kill it. Then he would bring it back to the city so that his subjects could see how powerful and dangerous he was, and know that he was their king, and that they should fear him.

And so, one day the king set out into the mountains on one of his hunting trips. He was riding with his soldiers and his servants and up on a ridge ahead of them the king saw it: an ibex. An ibex is like a super-charged version of a mountain goat. This one stood as tall as I do, and it had great long sweeping horns that were gnarled and dangerous. And the king saw the ibex and thought to himself, “That is the thing that I will kill to show how powerful I am.” He set off towards it on his horse, quickly leaving all his retainers behind. And the ibex saw him coming and it turned and fled. And it galloped over the mountains and led the king on a great chase, for it knew the landscape very well.

Eventually the ibex came to a place where it knew there was a chasm – a break in the earth – and knowing to expect it, it leapt high into the air and clear across to the other side. The ibex kept right on running and behind it, the king was taking aim with his bow. He was almost ready to fire his arrow when he and his horse came to the chasm as well. His horse saw the danger ahead and stopped short, but the king was unprepared and he flew out of the saddle and over the horse and into the rift below.

The king fell so hard that he broke both of his legs and he lay there in a lot of pain and he thought “This is it; this is the end of me.” But the ibex turned and saw the riderless horse, and so it returned to the chasm and hopped down into the valley and stood face to face with the king. And the king looked at the ibex and said, “O mighty ibex, you have beaten me, for I will surely die here. You have proven yourself more powerful than the king.”

The ibex looked back at the king, and in that moment the king could have sworn that he heard the ibex answer him back, “Is there no other way to prove my power, than by taking a life?” And then the ibex turned around and got down onto its knees, and let the king climb up onto its back. The ibex hopped back up out of the chasm and helped the king return to his company.

When the king had gotten home to his palace, he thought for many days. And after thinking he gathered all of his servants and soldiers around him and he said, “I have made a decision that I will not go to war any longer. That I will not go hunting any longer.” And the people were confused and they asked the king why he would make such a declaration, and all he would say to them was to ask, “Is there no other way to prove my power, than by taking a life?”[i]

This past week held the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The national holiday that honors him will be observed tomorrow, and it has been widely reported that the Presidential inauguration, also scheduled for tomorrow, will include a bible which belonged to Dr. King. So we find ourselves at a particular hour and time of year when Martin Luther King’s words are most likely to be read and his memory most likely to be invoked.

This time of public remembrance and veneration comes with a certain peril, however. Dr. Cornel West of Princeton University described this problem a few years ago as the Santa-Clausification of Dr. King. King was feared by the established order and by agents of the status quo throughout his life, even unto the point of that life being stolen from him. But today he is routinely appropriated into the mainstream: former radical agent of change becomes a generic symbol, sanitized and unthreatening. America’s most famous “outside agitator” of the 20th century becomes just another thing for school children to sing about, another reason – and I wish I were making this up – for a sale at the GAP. As Dr. West says, “celebrity status operates in such a way that it tries to diffuse all the threat and to sugarcoat and deodorize what actually is rather funky.”[ii]

Dr. King was an activist for racial justice, as well as a strong opponent of the war in Vietnam and a campaigner for broad, transformative economic justice throughout this country. He managed to survive numerous threats to and attempts on his life in the fight for voting rights, integration of schools and businesses and other basic human rights for African Americans. It was the economic justice campaign that was actually his focus when he was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King’s ideals and ideas all mattered a great deal. But what he accomplished in life, and what his memory still accomplishes after his death, ultimately hangs on what he was willing to risk in order to follow his values. He was willing to risk more than comfort or convenience, more than his good name or his worldly possessions: he was willing to risk his life, for the work in which he believed.

It happens that two people from our own tradition connect to Martin Luther King’s story through that same willingness to risk dying, and the same tragic price that he paid. In the late winter of 1965, American attention turned, in fits and starts, towards Selma, Alabama. It began in February, when Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed by a state trooper there. His crime was protesting for his right to vote and to register other black people to vote. In the natural outrage that followed, a march was planned from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. Dr. King was among the organizers, and he issued a national call for people of goodwill to come to Selma and join the marchers. The story goes that Unitarian Universalist

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ministers and lay leaders were among the first folks from outside of Alabama to answer that call. We do know that nearly 50 of our ministers arrived there as requested, and among them was Rev. James Reeb. He was 38 at the time, and just like nearly everyone else there, he had a family – in his case, a wife and four children. Everyone who took part was risking their life; they were largely repeating, after all, the action for which Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed.

On March 9th, 1965, Jim Reeb had been in Selma for a few days, and was planning to return home. He and two other Unitarian Universalist ministers were walking back to where they were staying in Selma, when they were attacked by a group of four white men who targeted them as outside agitators. Reeb was struck badly in the head; he died from the injury two days later. Just after the news of Jim’s death began to spread, another Unitarian Universalist, a lay woman named Viola Liuzzio, was making the decision to travel from Detroit to Selma, to do what she could to join the ongoing protest there. Viola was 39, and had a husband and five children. She used her car to ferry marchers between locations that were too far to walk, and for this reason – being seen driving in a car with a black man – she was targeted by the Ku Klux Klan. Viola was assassinated on March 25th, 1965.

The power of death is great, and it is real. A life once taken cannot be returned, and the world is poorer without it. Faced with this truth, it is easy to think of violence, the strength and the will to do harm, as the final measure of power, just as did the king in the Buddhist story of the ibex. But there is a greater power than the power to kill, and that is the capacity to face death and to choose life. To do what is compassionate, what is merciful, what is just, even though it means great personal risk. What is greater than death is the courage that will not be moved by the threat of death. When the hunter who has chased you will die without your help, and you climb down into the hole with him and help him up, risking your life to save his.

The deaths of two white northerners, particularly a white minister, captured the national attention in a way that untold death and violence against black people had not up to that point had not. The Voting Rights Act passed in the wake of the horrible events in Selma, addressing the original cause for which Jimmie Lee Jackson had given his life. Speaking of Viola Liuzzo, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “If physical death is the price some must pay to save us and our white brothers from eternal death of the spirit, then no sacrifice could be more redemptive.”[iii] Here I, and I believe our tradition, would disagree in as much as there is no such thing as a redemptive sacrifice. A life lost is a life lost; it is always a thing which ought not to be. But it is possible for justice and hope to follow after dying – good may come from bad, though the bad is not erased by the good.

The teacher Jesus is said to have said, “If someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn and offer them your left.”[iv] Yet another example of someone following a peaceful ethos and being killed for it. But while much of Christianity for the past two thousand years has held Jesus’ most important quality to be his death, our tradition would offer that his most important quality was his willingness to die. He had the courage to preach against the injustices of his age, and to confront the wealthy and powerful whom they benefited. That came with the risk that they would seek to be rid of him, and the willingness to continue despite that risk animated his ministry. In this much, he was following the example of his own spiritual ancestors, taking the same role Moses played when he stood before Pharoah

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to declare, “Let my people go.” Practicing the same courage Nathan showed when he told King David the story of a man who had badly wronged another, and then declared: “Sire, thou art the man!”

When he first applied to enter fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist minister, James Reeb wrote, “I want to participate in the continuous creation of a vision that will inspire our people to noble and courageous living. I want to share actively in the adventure of trying to forge the spiritual ties that will bind mankind together in brotherhood and peace.” and. On happy is abilify cheapest price while sturdy plus make-up great weight loss with pcos like difference gp canada inc pharmacy belize city read for is it.

did Martin Luther King, who confronted his adversaries with passion, but refused to stop acknowledging their fundamental humanity. Every living thing has at least one reason to live for. It isn’t easy, necessarily, to know what yours is or to hold onto it, but harder still is the question of what you are willing to risk your life for. What cause or value or ideal is so important that you will continue it even when the threat is mortal and great? That is the question I see before us, placed by this national holiday and by the memory of our spiritual ancestors.



[i] Versions of this story appear in several different Buddhist sources – it is one of the Jataka Tales, a genre of stories dealing with earlier incarnations of the Buddha. This particular telling was freely adapted from Sarah Conover’s collection, Kindness.

[ii] Remarks made on the Tavis Smiley Show, 1/12/2007.

[iii] http://www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/violaliuzzo.html

[iv] Matthew 5:39

[v] http://www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/jamesjosephreeb.html

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