It was June of 1966, his name was James Meredith and he embarked on a 220 mile “March Against Fear.” Beginning in Memphis, Tennessee, he intended to walk—step by foot-sore step—to Jackson, Mississippi. The purpose of this March Against Fear? To inspire persons of color to conquer their fears: the fear of registering to vote; the daily fears about living and traveling in their home states. “Nothing can be more enslaving than fear,” Meredith told reporters. “We’ve got to root this out.” Unlike the monumental Voting Rights March the year before, this March Against Fear consisted of James Meredith and anybody who felt like joining him.
Just fourteen miles into his journey, Meredith was shot. The bullet rendered him unable to continue the march. When they heard the news, other civil rights leaders stepped in ... Despite their own mortal fears, they were determined to continue the march in Meredith’s name. Overtime people from all over the South and other parts of the country came to participate—young and old, poor and rich, black and white. They marched over 200 miles sleeping on hard grounds, fed by local communities. Often feeling the brunt force of bigotry. When they finally reached Jackson, the March Against Fear was 15,000 strong.
The threat of violence is ever present. Oppressed peoples—from those who lived in Jackson in 1950’s to those who live in Roxbury in 2013— know the threat of violence is real. The oppressed—those with their backs against the walls—respond by adopting behavior, ways of life that may protect them. They begin to take caution and fear becomes a form of life assurance. Fear becomes a way of life.
It is a fear Jesus knew all too well. Jesus was a poor Jew, in an occupied country, without political or economic influence, a member of a minority group amidst the powerful Romans. Disempowered. Disinherited. The lives of those living in Palestine during the first century were smothered by oppression. Their lives suffocated by fear. Fear took hold of them. They accepted life as it was.
So our companion this Lenten season Howard Thurman asks, what do “the teachings and the life of Jesus have to say to those who stand with their backs against the wall?”1
Jesus came into a fear-filled world of oppressed and captive peoples. Having been commissioned by the Holy Spirit in his baptism, Jesus returns from the wilderness and enters the synagogue to give his inaugural address—his justice agenda—and the words are not his own.
He reads from the book of Isaiah, and implies that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him and had anointed him to do such things as to “bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to those weighed down and imprisoned, recover sight to the blind, let the oppressed breathe.” This is his call to relief for those who live with their backs against the wall. And we know that Jesus went out and did just that. Jesus comforted the sick and dying; he turned toward those from whom society had turned away; he healed the disinherited with his love.
But, Jesus gave the disinherited another option for survival, an alternative way to resist powers of evil and oppression. Jesus told people, “The kingdom of heaven is within and that we are children of God.” This great affirmation of Jesus that we are children of God gives us an “inner equipment.”2 Creates a profound faith in life that nothing can destroy.3 It was with just such equipment that James Meredith embarked upon his march ... and it was with the same inner equipment that others took up where he had been forced to end. You see, when we begin to affirm with conviction that we are God’s children, our relationship with the world begins to shift. We see that to fear another is a basic denial of our own integrity, our own value of life.4 And once we know this, we become unconquerable from within and without.
This radical position that Jesus took 2,000 ago and Thurman took 60 years ago, is relevant still today. The challenge is to determine and own the worth and dignity of ourselves, our oppressed, disinherited selves, and recognize that same worth and dignity in others, even our enemies, our oppressors. It is faith and awareness that overcome fear and transform it into the power to strive, to achieve, and not to yield.5
In 1953, Howard Thurman accepted a deanship at Marsh Chapel at Boston University. He was the first African American dean of a mostly white institution. He arrived at Boston University with the goal of creating an inclusive religious community—one that would invite all people to find a place at the altar.6 Thurman built a spiritual community with God at its center ... a community grounded in worship and meditation, oriented to action and nonviolence. Thurman believed that the search for common ground and the search for justice is both a journey of personal exploration and of community. Thurman’s message at Boston University was clear: shared experiences between people can be more fulfilling than all of the faiths, concepts, beliefs and fears that separate them.
Being a part of community is fear’s greatest adversary. Christian community gives “a sense of worth that cannot be destroyed by any of life’s outrages.”7 It is here in the Church where we learn to foster and nourish that core teaching that we are children, beloved of God. It is here where we can banish our fears together and work to dismantle structures of oppression.
This weekend 14 children of God will join this community. They will stand before us and affirm that love conquers fear. And we will all rise to our feet and boldly proclaim that we surrender to Jesus Christ, God incarnate, who rules our lives … who had come to bring good news to the disinherited, relief to the oppressed, who had come to make the first last and the last first.8 And then, we march. Our path of discipleship, our March Against Fear, begins here in this place with the lesson of Jesus that we are children of God. And friends, with that as our mission … as our fuel, fear is doomed … Amen.
2 Thurman, 53
3 Ibid, 56
6 Howard Thurman, Head and Heart, 167
8 James Cone, God of the Oppressed, 50-51