[The following is the manuscript for the short (8 min.!) sermon I gave Sunday, Jan. 13, at Rainbow Mennonite Church. The Bible readings to which the message was related are Isaiah 2:2-4, Matthew 5:38-45a; Romans 12:17-18.]
We have been blessed this morning by the stories our fellow church members have shared about their journey to and/or for peace.
I was asked to share along the same lines, but I don’t have much to say in that regard for when I was still in high school, partly influenced by Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, the 18th century German Pietist, I decided that because of my faith in Jesus Christ and his teachings as found in the Bible (such as what was read this morning) I should be a pacifist. And that has been my position for more than 55 years now.
Considerably before my 18th birthday I responded to what I believe was God’s call to become a Christian minister, and I was so employed after my first year of college, when I was still 17. Thus, I received a ministerial exemption from the draft and was never subject to the possibility of entering military service.
It was only in the early 1970s, though, that I became significantly aware of the Anabaptist tradition of pacifism. That was largely through reading Arthur Gish’s book The New Left and Christian Radicalism (1970). Through the years I became more and more an admirer of the Anabaptists, partly, but not entirely, because of their position on pacifism. That admiration culminated with my becoming a member of this church, and a Mennonite, in July of last year.
The Scripture reading this morning from the prophet Isaiah about turning swords into plowshares is a particularly apt one for Mennonites, who have historically been primarily an agrarian people. I can identify with that, too, for I grew up on a farm, and the Seat family in Missouri were mainly farmers ever since they migrated to the state around 1820.
Less than two years ago, in April 2011, I saw a very impressive sculpture on the top floor of the Court House in Liberty, where I live. It is the “Plowshare Sculpture,” done by Arlie J. Regier and presented to Clay County in 1990. Little did I know then that the following year I would be a member of the same church as Arlie.
This Tuesday is Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and a week from tomorrow is the national holiday celebrating his birth and life. I have recently read the essay about King titled “The Inconvenient Hero.” That essay was written by Vincent Harding. Many of you probably know of Harding, an African-American who was born in Harlem in 1931: he is a scholar, a writer, an activist—and a Mennonite.
Two years ago, in May 2011, Dr. Harding was in a panel discussion at the University of Arkansas. The topic was “Turning Swords into Ploughshares: The Many Paths of Nonviolence.” The other two panelists were the Dalai Lama and Sister Helen Prejean, whose story is told in the 1995 film “Dead Man Walking.”
When he was in his early 20s, Harding was drafted into the army. In his talk at UA he explained how he “was taught how to slash out another human beings’ bowels.” He went on to say, “I kept hearing the song ‘Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.’” But, he lamented, he and other soldiers were being trained “to cut their guts out because that is what your government tells you to do.” “At that point,” he said “essentially I became a conscientious objector.”
While King is best remembered for his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, he became more and more vocal in his opposition to the war in Vietnam as well as in his advocacy for those living in poverty in this nation.
On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, King spoke at the Riverside Church in New York City. Harding is said to have been the ghost writer for that powerful speech, which was titled “A Time to Break Silence”—and he was talking about breaking silence regarding opposition to the war in Vietnam.
I don’t remember having read that speech before doing so this past week. I also found myself a bit chastised, for among other things King said, “I would encourage all ministers of draft age to give up their ministerial exemptions and seek status as conscientious objectors.” Of course, I was already living in Japan at that time; but even though I was opposed to war, and especially the war in Vietnam, I had never considered doing that.
Just twelve days after his noteworthy speech at Riverside Church, King preached at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Please listen carefully to the ending of that marvelous sermon (and this brief meditation). King declared,
I have not lost faith; I’m not in despair because I know that there is a moral order. I haven’t lost faith. Because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. I can still sing “We Shall Overcome,” because Carlysle was right. No lie can live forever. We shall overcome because William C. Bryant was right, truth crushed to the earth, will rise again. We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell was right. Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, yet that scaffold sways the future. We shall overcome because the Bible is right, you shall reap what you sow.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to go out to transform the jangling discord of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. With this faith, we will be able to speed up the day when the lion and the lamb will lay down together. And every man will sit under his own pine and fig tree and none shall be afraid, because the word of the Lord has spoken.
With this faith, we will be able to speed up the day when all over the world we will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at Last, Free at Last, thank God, almighty, we’re free at last.” With this faith . . . . Men will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nations will not rise up against nations; neither shall they study war any more.”
May it be so!