To hear this sermon as preached, press play below:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Last Sunday, when I offered you a sermon in honor of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I quoted the great man’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptanc
e speech in which he said:
“Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts.”
In the intervening week, between that last time I invoked Dr. King’s words, and this time, we have received news of not one, but two mass shootings in California, in which Asian men turned guns on their own people. In a dance hall in Monterey Park, a Vietnamese man in his 70’s shot and killed ten people, and then on Monday afternoon, an older Chinese man went on a shooting spree killing seven of his former co-workers at a mushroom farm in Half Moon Bay.
To add insult to injury, these 17 deaths marred the celebration of this year’s Lunar New Year – a time that is of cultural significance to people throughout East and SouthEast Asia.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
But the trauma of the last week was not contained to the Asian American community. Once again, this week we were confronted with the violent death of a young Black man. Tyre Nichols actually died early in January, but the video of his beating, at the hands of five black police officers in Memphis Tennessee, dominated the news cycle on Thursday and Friday.
On Saturday in the early afternoon, I take a deep breath, and google “Tyre Nichols video.”
If I intend to preach about Mister Nichols, I better watch it.
I better own up to the part I play in this society – I better face the horrifying reality – watch this killing – I better look into that trauma that my Black brothers and sisters live in constant fear of.
And so I press play.
The body cam footage shows the events unfolding from the vantage of a policeman, who jumps out of his squad car and runs up to a car stopped at the roadside. Screaming obscene threats at the top of his lungs, he flings the car door open, reaches in and drags Tyre out of the car.
Other cops converge, pulling at Tyre’s arms and shoving him off balance. As he is going down onto the wet pavement, I catch my first glimpse of Tyre’s face, looking backwards at his assailants, his eyes filled with bewilderment and fear.
At that moment, I stop the video.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
I have to stop watching.
My face is in my hands. My heart rate is elevated, and I am breathing hard. I watched the footage for less than thirty seconds, and my emotions are playing havoc with my body.
My intention had been to watch the video and write a sermon. But watching the video has the effect of shutting me down. I am confused, abstracted. I spend much of the afternoon wandering around the house, in a state of emotional paralysis, trying to find a way back – some way to return to a world that makes sense…
One of my religion professors in college once pointed out the lesson to be learned from Adolf Hitler. I remember it well. He said that the most important lesson is not that Hitler was exceptionally evil. It was not that he was inhuman. To be sure, it’s undoubtedly true that he was exceptionally evil and inhuman – but the lesson that each of us should take from the historical fact of Adolf Hitler, is that he was human. Each of us must know that a human – a person, just like you or me – is capable of becoming an Adolf Hitler.
This notion introduced a wariness to my soul. I recognized the need to be watchful – to try to recognize the subtle workings of prejudice and callousness that might blossom into evil intent.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
It is not until later in the evening that I work up the courage to resume watching the video.
Now they have him on the ground. The threats intensify.
“I’m gonna tase you!”
Tyre isn’t cooperating now – he is struggling, wailing, trying to get away from the punches.
The hand of a policeman appears in the frame, holding a white plastic device – it must be a taser. He pushes it up against Tyre’s thigh.
And then, miraculously Tyre breaks free, and sprints off into the night.
Again, I stop the video.
Even though I know the outcome, I am drawn into the feeling that if I stop it here, Tyre will get away.
He will not get caught.
He will get home to his mother.
And as the knowledge of reality returns – that he will be caught, and he will be beaten to death… I feel sick.
It feels bad, watching this video.
It feels, suddenly, like the modern, internet equivalent of going to the town square to see a hanging.
This is trauma – this pain that reaches out and touches me with its stain of voyeurism. I am looking on as someone suffers, and I am unable to do anything about it!
Is it important to watch this, or can I just stop now?
Is it important to know this trauma through the intentional process of traumatizing myself by watching this?
Will this process of self-induced trauma deepen my compassion and understanding for the plight of Black people in America?
But will this deeper understanding make any real difference? Will it alter the way I live in the world?
And if I change – if, by watching this, I am made more keenly aware of the Hitler that is inside me – will my ability not to be Hitler have anything more than the most miniscule effect on the world?
Won’t there still be people out there who carelessly, even joyfully, give in to their inner Hitler’s?
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Yes, I eventually watch the rest of it. I watch them catch him and beat him until he can’t stand, and then prop him up to beat him some more.
I hear him cry out for his mother.
And then I stop it again.
That is it for me.
I can’t watch anymore.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he began to speak and taught them.
What did he teach them?
Did he say: “The Romans are oppressing you. Get your sword and fight!?”
Did he say “What are you standing around for? Don’t you know that only the strong survive”?
He might have said these things.
They would make a certain amount of sense, given the circumstances. He had a large following, and people were calling him “the King of the Jews” so he could have taken advantage of the situation and made a move.
If he was interested in power Jesus’ sermon on the mount might have sounded very different.
Power, though, is about one person imposing his will on another person through the use of force.
Jesus was not interested in this.
He was interested in something else. Something that led him to say:
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
I was sad and depressed, and when Cary asked me what was wrong, I told her about the video.
She came to me and sat down next to me on the couch.
“Let me show you something…” She said, pulling out her phone.
“No,” I said, “I can’t watch any more of it…”
“Just watch…” she said.
A video started playing, a beautiful, tall, athletic black man, riding a skateboard.
He leapt into the air, the skateboard flipped around and he landed back on it.
“Yes…” she said. “It’s Tyre.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Tyre in heaven…
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.