AN EYE FOR AN EYE?
38‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
(Matthew 5:38-48, NRSV)
Had you asked my high school self if I was racist I would have said no. After all, I had a couple of African American friends in middle school and had been very close to one of my African American teachers. All of these were left behind when I attended an all-white Southern Baptist high school in Memphis. It was 1978, exactly 10 years after Dr. King was assassinated by James Earl Ray on an April day in Memphis. In the decade following Dr. King’s death, momentum built around the country to make his birthday a national holiday. The racist running joke in my school was that we should make James Earl Ray’s birthday a national holiday. Now I cringe to think I ever repeated such a thing.
Perhaps to atone for the James Earl Ray joke, in 1988, 10 years after the joke and 20 years after Dr. King’s assassination, I participated in my first social justice march. I was 2 years into seminary where I had learned to love Dr. King and his nonviolent leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. In the early 1960’s Dr. King, a Baptist minister, was invited to speak in chapel at my seminary. The Louisville, Kentucky seminary was Southern Baptist, but led by open minded professors and administrators who invited Dr. King to speak. The next year the seminary lost a million dollars in donations. Two decades later professor Bill Leonard quipped that it was “money well spent.” So why you ask did some friends and I skip classes to join a march around the Kentucky state house in Frankfort? Because Kentucky was one of a handful of states that refused to observe Dr. King’s holiday, which Ronald Reagan had signed into law in 1983. It took the State of Kentucky until 1993, another ten years, to properly observe Dr. King’s holiday.
I had a change of heart and mind about many things back in my seminary years. One of those things was capital punishment. I’ve been thinking a lot about the death penalty this week because this past Tuesday (January 10, 2017) Dylann Roof was sentenced to death for the Charleston Church massacre. It was a heinous crime. Cold blooded murder. On the evening of June 17, 2015 Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist, entered Mother Emmanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. When he walked out 9 good people lay dead. Roof later told officials that he was hoping to start a race war. On December 15, 2016, after about two hours of deliberation, the jury found Roof guilty on 33 federal counts. On January 10 Roof was sentenced to death.
Since I had been thinking about Dr. King all week for today’s sermon, when I heard the news about Dylann Roof being sentenced to death, I thought about Dr. King, America’s nonviolent prophet. And then I asked myself, had Dr. King ever specifically addressed capital punishment? I could not remember a single instance, though I was sure he did.
Since Dr. King is one of my heroes, I consider myself well versed in his writings and life. On a PF mission trip to Atlanta, I took our group to the King Center and museum. I took them down the street to visit Ebeneezer Baptist Church where Martin Luther King, Sr., known affectionately as Daddy King, had served as pastor for 40 years. Martin Luther King, Jr. grew up in this church, was baptized in this church, and eventually served as an associate pastor under his father in this church.
An often forgotten fact is that King, Jr.’s mother, Alberta, was shot and killed while playing the Lord’s Prayer on the organ during a worship service in Ebeneezer Church on June 30, 1974. The killer, Marcus Wayne Chenault, an African American man from Ohio later said that he was “driven to murder after concluding that ‘black ministers were a menace to black people’ and that ‘all Christians are my enemies.’” Chenault had come to Ebeneezer to kill Martin Luther King, Sr. who was not in the service that day. During the service Chenault stood and shouted, “You are serving a false God,” and began shooting two pistols. Alberta King and Rev. Edward Boykin were both killed.
Which brings us back to the present day death sentence for Dylann Roof, murderer of 9 innocent people in Mother Emmanuel AME Church. Again I ask, had Dr. King ever spoken or written about the death penalty? Purveyor of nonviolence that he was, I knew Dr. King would be against it. It seems to me that Dr. King would have forgiven James Earl Ray for shooting him. After all, he harbored no ill will toward Izola Curry, who was black and nearly stabbed Dr. King to death on September 20, 1958.
In a November 1957 article in Ebony magazine, Dr. King was asked “Do you think God approves the death penalty for crimes like rape and murder?” He responded, “I do not think that God approves the death penalty for any crime, rape and murder included.... Capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern criminology, and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.”
As I researched for this sermon I learned that Dr. King’s first public involvement in social issues was not the Montgomery Bus Boycott, instead it was the death penalty case of Jeremiah Reeves, someone I had never heard of. “A young black man, Jeremiah Reeves was only 16-years-old when he was convicted of raping a white woman…Reeves had confessed under duress, but later recanted, a claim widely believed in the black community. King joined the NAACP’s efforts to save Reeves’ life.”
Reeves was found guilty by an all-white jury and put to death on March 28, 1958. A week later King addressed a “Prayer Pilgrimage” rally in front of the State Capitol building. He said, “The issue before us now is not the innocence or guilt of Jeremiah Reeves. Even if he were guilty, it is the severity and inequality of the penalty that constitutes the injustice. Full grown white men committing comparable crimes against [black] girls are rarely ever punished, and are never given the death penalty or even a life sentence.”
Sadly, the role of race in decisions about the death penalty persists to this day. According to the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center, recent studies “add to an overwhelming body of evidence that race plays a decisive role in the question of who lives and dies by execution in this country. Race influences which cases are chosen for capital prosecution and which prosecutors are allowed to make those decisions. Likewise, race affects the makeup of the juries which determine the sentence. Racial effects have been shown not just in isolated instances, but in virtually every state” with the death penalty.
So we see once again, as if we needed more proof, how racism in 21st century America harms people of color, in the courtroom no less, where justice is supposed to be blind. There is still so much work to be done and the work must be done by all of us regardless of skin color. We are all God’s children and our task on this earth is to love and care for one another. To work and fight for equality for every woman, man, and child regardless of gender or orientation, regardless of education or profession, regardless of national origin or ethnicity, regardless of age or religion. Love is the only answer, hate and violence will only move us further away from Dr. King’s dream.
In one of his most famous sermons entitled “Loving Your Enemies,” Dr. King said, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence…in a descending spiral of destruction.”
The title of King’s sermon was taken from today’s scripture lesson. In a direct contradiction of Old Testament laws and norms Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of [God] in heaven’” (Matthew 5:38-45a NRSV).
Which brings us back to Dylann Roof once again—I do not believe that Jesus would have supported the death penalty for Roof or anyone else. Recall that Jesus stopped the death penalty in its tracks when he stopped the unjust stoning of a woman caught in adultery. In the double standard of the day, there is no mention of the man caught in adultery. Also recall that Jesus forgave his executioners from the cross saying, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And recall once again the words Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday
January 15, 2017
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
O God of all nations and peoples, we are grateful for the dreams of freedom, justice, and peace forever spun by your Spirit and proclaimed by prophets in every age. We are grateful that in our time you call every woman and man to lift up and live by that dream, to embody it in our world continuing the revolution of love.
We especially praise you this [day] for the lives of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., and for countless others through the ages whose names are known and unknown, and for those who yet lift up the dream and confirm it as yours, who quicken the conscience of this country and the human family around the globe, whose courage and commitment inspires us.
So we thank you and remember your promise that one day justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Keep us faithful to that promise, your dream and ours. Through Jesus we pray. Amen.
The prayer was adapted from My Heart In My Mouth by Rev. Ted Loder.
 “Advice for Living,” Ebony, November 1957