25th February, 2018
On April the 4th 1968, New York senator Bobby Kennedy was on the campaign trail when he heard the news of the assassination of Martin Luther King. Kennedy was scheduled to speak at a rally in a poor area of Indianapolis. His advisors, feeling concerned for the senator’s safety suggested that he abandon speaking at the rally on account of the large number of African Americans expected to be in attendance.
Kennedy considered this, but decided to ignore the advice and proceeded with the rally. He did this knowing that news of Martin Luther King’s death was only just beginning to spread and that he would have to share that particular news with his audience. Kennedy had spoken of many issues in the hours and days leading up to that moment. He had spoken about Vietnam, racism, poverty and the need for job growth. That was his platform at the time. As he was driven from his aircraft to the rally he decided to abandon such topics and even refused the notes his speech writer was busy throwing together. Instead he called upon his own convictions and delivered a four minute largely off the cuff speech, which is regarded as one of the greatest pieces of oratory of the modern era.
The speech began with Kennedy breaking the news of Martin Luther King’s death, and the acknowledgement that the assassin appeared to have been a white man. He then did something which surprised everyone. He spoke of the death of his own brother John F Kennedy, someone who had also been killed by a white man. I say surprising because this was the only time Bobby Kennedy said anything about the death of JFK in public.
Then came the truly remarkable quote that Bobby Kennedy seemed to pull from thin air. Of all the things to draw upon, he quoted the Greek playwright Aeschylus. “”Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
His speech concluded with a plea for peace, reconciliation and unity even in such trying times. That night at least, there was no violence or rioting in that city. The crowd took his words to heart and dispersed quietly.
Sadly, that shining moment when a would be American president spoke so eloquently about peace in our world was short lived. Only two months later Kennedy himself was also silenced by an assassin’s bullet.
Why is it that so many people who have championed the cause of peace have died in such horribly violent ways? Each time such notable deaths occur there is always a process by which people try to make sense of a tragedy. Unfortunately, such efforts often give rise to trite explanations or even worse, meaningless clichés. “It was his time.” I’m sure you’ve heard that one. Such expressions, while well intentioned, fall short because we cannot rationalise irrational acts of violence. We don’t want to believe that when a hero dies that sometimes there isn’t a meaningful or even satisfactory explanation for their death.
I do not believe that Martin Luther King or Bobby Kennedy were meant to die in the manner they did. In fact I would go further and state that had the two people who pulled the triggers in each case made a better choice, both deaths were completely avoidable. The reason I recall these particular deaths today is because while we can get our heads around the idea that these assassinations could have been avoided and were in no way preordained events that were destined to take place, many are not able to make such a clear distinction when it comes to the death of Jesus.
Much of our church language dealing with the death of Christ suggests that in some way Jesus was sent by God who had the clear intention that he would be executed at the hands of the Romans. It is a common lapse into predestination, the idea that God has already determined all that will ever take place and that we are mere actors in a play written by someone else. It is this idea that is the origin of such expressions as “God has a plan.” But if that were true it means that humans have no responsibility for any action in this life be it good or bad. If I choose to act generously, predestination says that God decided I would be generous. If I am selfish, well, God made me that way. You see the problem. Essentially predestination is the idea that we have no choices of our own in this life.
The Jesus story becomes far more meaningful when we reaffirm that none of his life, ministry or even his execution were events preordained by God. Just like all of us Jesus had choices. His life and ministry are a demonstration of the way God would have us use our power to make wise choices. Jesus shows us that we are capable of good choices, choices that affirm non-violent action, reconciliation and inclusion of all people.
The confusion about the amount of choice Jesus had does arise in part from Gospel readings like the one this morning. Right there at the beginning of the reading we are told, “then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
It is easy to misinterpret this passage. Some seem to think that the fact that Jesus made such a clear prediction is evidence that he was carrying out some divine plan. Well, there are better explanations for this aspect of the gospel narrative.
Some have suggested that given that this passages were written well after the life and death of Jesus that the writers simply invented these predictions and present them as if Jesus really said them. Ok, that was a convoluted way of saying, the gospel writers simply made these predictions up.
On the other hand, by reading the entire gospel of Mark, rather than the handful of verses we have this morning, a different explanation appears. In the Gospel of Mark there is a particular narrative device that scholars refer to as the Messianic secret. What this means is that in Mark, unlike other gospels, Jesus keeps his identify as the messiah secret.
The messianic secret is something that builds throughout the first part of the gospel. We have the story of Jesus’ baptism and his 40 days in the wilderness. He then gathers his disciples, preaches, heals, breaks bread. Essentially Jesus embarks on a ministry of peace. It is only when this has been going on for some time that his disciples begin to wonder what is really going on. This is when he asks them who they think he is, and Peter confesses that he believes Jesus to be the messiah. It is climatic moment in the story, because the disciples have finally worked it out, it is this peaceful ministry that reveals Jesus to be the one they were waiting for.
Jesus responds to their moment of realisation, firstly by swearing them to secrecy and then by telling them that he would undergo rejection, trials and be put to death. That is what we heard in this mornings reading. It is a prediction of sorts, but when placed in the context of the whole story we see that Jesus is not saying exactly what will happen, but rather is pointing out the natural consequence of peaceful action in a violent world.
The notion of peace is incredibly threatening to a violent world. Peace is a radical alternative to systems of dominance, systems that benefit some and subjugate others. As a result of this threat powerful people often respond to the hope of peace through violence. This is an understanding we need to recover as we move towards Good Friday. Jesus did not die because God sent him to die, even if some of our hymns like to suggest that. Jesus did not die because God required some kind of ultimate sacrifice. Jesus died because he embodied peace in such a way that those in power were terrified of what he represented. The embodiment of peace became the victim of horrific violence.
That was not the end of the story however…but some things need to wait until we get to Easter. To be continued…
– Reverend Richard Bonifant