The Tolstoy, Gandhi, MLK Sermon
Updated: Feb 16, 2020
Following Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, on the road to Jericho
isn’t like a marshmallow roast singing Kumbaya
We tend to think that the prophets only lived long ago. They wore robes and had long beards and had Old Testament type names like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah.
But there are prophets living among us right now. One of them is a little 16 year old girl—Greta Thornburg. I believe she is the voice of the planet right now. I’m not saying we ought to re-write the Bible and create a book in the New Testament called Greta. I’m saying the long lineage of prophets stretches from Amos and Micah up to Greta and Dr. William J. Barber II today. What’s the UCC motto? God is still speaking.
Today I want to talk about two of my favorite modern day prophets, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., because they give us direction in a time when our country is morally lost. The path forward starts perhaps on the road to Jericho, where we find the Good Samaritan helping someone of another race and religion, and it extends to that road where people threw glass bottles and human excrement in the path of Gandhi as he marched barefoot an effort to bring peace between Hindus and Muslims. The path forward out of this state of moral decline, stretches from the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with Martin Luther King, all the way from those roads to 4600 Hamilton Boulevard.
The road to Jericho first involves acknowledging that there actually is a broken and wounded man on the side of the road. That man on the side of the road is perhaps our country. We don’t walk on this path without acknowledging that there is something wrong.
Fifty years ago one of our prophets acknowledged this. He said on the last day of his life, “America is sick.”
If we are going to talk about Martin Luther King, then we aren’t going to say, “It’s all good. The stock market is up. Unemployment is low. America is doing well.” To look through MLK’s eyes is to say something is sick.
So how does MLK look at America these days?
Well, we have kids being separated from their parents, being put in cages, and documents about sexual abuse taking places in those detention centers is being destroyed. We have third world poverty right here at the bottom of Prospect Hill. Right there in the shadow of Wesley Way, we have fellow humans living in shelters made of tarps and sticks. Go a few miles further west down War Eagle Drive and you’ll find a guy splitting wood and living in the woods near War Eagle Park and the Jackson Recovery parking lot. We have grinding third world poverty right here, and on top of that kind of sticks and tarp poverty, they somehow endure it in freezing temperatures.
The last time I spoke, it was a story of grace. I had just read the homework assignment some of you completed, and I thought it was a time for a message about God’s unconditional grace—that message that we’re ok, we are enough just as we are.
This time we’re here to talk about faith. Faith is when we realize we are not enough and that there is a long ways to go AND the faith part is that we believe we will get there. That is faith. But it’s not just a belief thing. Much of Christianity seems to think faith is merely an intellectual acceptance of a series of doctrinal principles. One must intellectually acknowledge a formula that goes like this: “We are sorry for our sins and we believe Jesus died for our sins, we now acknowledge him as our personal Lord and Savior, and Walla then we get to go to heaven.” Okay that’s fine. But, I think faith is more than that. There’s often two very destructive results from that kind of heaven-centric religion. One, it lends itself to overlooking the social and physical environment of this world and it helps people miss the real joy in faith. More on that later. Faith is about making heaven on earth. Faith as we see it in the book of James—is action. Faith has legs and hands. Faith does something in this world.
Today we’re going to talk about two people of a faith tradition that seeks to not merely get to heaven, but seeks to make heaven on earth: Martin Luther King and his predecessor Mahatma Gandhi.
So today is not some, “Let’s get around the camp fire and roast marshmallows, hold hands, and sing kumbaya and say we’re cool with MLK.” Today we’re not going to just say, “Yeah. Gandhi and MLK, Wow what good people!” Umm. Truth is, they were considered criminals by their governments. They had been a jail. They were spat on—literally. They were agitators. Rebel rousers. They were about civil disobedience. They died martyrs. It should be uncomfortable, if not dangerous, to really talk about and follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr.. Why? Because his story invites us to challenge the systems of oppression in our day.
As Dr. William J. Barber II says, to really follow in the footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King entails a call to civil disobedience, it is to “confront racism, poverty, and war.” I believe Gandhi called it radical non-compliance. “It is not some cute Disney movie, where everybody loves everybody in a party of utopian bliss. Rather it is the kind of love that dares to tell the truth about injustice, and if we’re not going to deal with that part of Dr. King, then we need to leave him alone.” Dr. Barber says, “It’s not enough to celebrate Martin Luther King. It’s not enough to talk about what a great speaker he was. And say, well he just wanted everyone to get along, no he didn’t, he wanted people to change.” Barber adds, “We love to honor the prophets—AFTER THEIR DEAD.”
Just before one of our prophets was killed, he said, “America is sick.”
No matter where we are on the socio-economic and political spectrum, one doesn’t have to look very hard to say that our country is in a state of moral decline. I read just yesterday a Christian religious leader in this country said, “The truth doesn’t even matter.” Let that settle in for a second. It’s the breakdown of the very fabric of life. 2+2 isn’t 4 anymore. It’s now whatever you want to call it.
So I say with Dr. Martin Luther King,
“America is sick!”
But as one of our prophets William J. Barber tells us, “We were born for this moment. And it is time to call for moral revival.” But we don’t have moral revival in this land without getting on the road to Jericho, without seeing that broken man, without being the man who helps a man very different from him both racially, religiously, economically, and reaching out to do something for that man.
It’s easy to forget that MLK wasn’t just about fighting racism. MLK fought poverty and war. MLK understood that poverty wasn’t a black issue. It was a human issue. MLK’s insistence on non-violence eventually caught up with him on his views on the Vietnam War. And when he publically came out against the war, his open ended invitation to the White House was immediately revoked. Fellow preachers abandoned him. Other black civil rights organizations abandoned him. Now just as then, everyone must bow at the altar of militarism. When MLK did not bow, he faced being a man alone, a man in the middle—which is where people of faith wind up. Today it’s even worse. If one acknowledges that 53 cents on every dollar goes to the military, the budget of that is bigger than the next 17 countries combined, we have enough nukes to destroy all life on the planet, and still be have people who have to skimp on insulin and die early, we have people living in tents in the middle of winter. To talk about MLK is to get uncomfortable. It’s questioning an economy based on war instead of renewable energy. And let’s get this one out right away, to questions the military industrial complex is not an act of hatred for our troops or our country. It is to be a part of the agitating legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Coretta Scott King was asked something about violence after her husband was shot and killed. She said, “Violence isn’t just about bullets and guns. Violence is when people have to work 3 jobs to survive and still do not have health care. Violence is when you have to self-medicate an infected cut because you can’t afford a doctor. Violence is when you have to choose between food or insulin. Violence is when people live in their cars. Violence is the third world shacks at 10 below temperature at the bottom of prospect hill below the octagon house by Wesley Way. Violence is the man’s skin condition at the soup kitchen. Violence is a two year old at the soup kitchen in a grocery cart bundled up in so many clothes the kid can’t even bend over. Where is that child sleeping tonight? Violence is the haggard single mom who has no idea how she is going to pay next month’s rent. Violence is that man in the corner at the soup kitchen with a wicked cough who has to go back in the cold.
And then she said something very profound, Coretta Scott King said, “An apathetic attitude that refuses to address the forms of violence is also violence.” So being non-violent in the tradition of Jesus, St. Francis, Leo Tolstoy, Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King is NOT about what we do, it’s also about what we don’t do. It’s not, “I’m non-violent. I don’t punch people in the face.” That’s not non-violence we’re talking about. Being about the non-violence of Gandhi and Martin Luther King is about looking at the structures of society and using our connections, skills, and energy in changing whatever it is that hurts people and other species.
The danger of celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.
Too often the only danger we face when we honor Martin Luther King is the danger of making his life just another thing to do on our yearly national checklist of things to do.
Another danger is perhaps, that we feel like we’ve done enough. Goodness sakes, we named a national holiday after him. Here we’ve named a parking ramp downtown after him. We even made a bronze statue in his likeness. Come on haven’t we done enough?!
Maybe we start to feel good for having honored this man can’t we just leave him out there a statue on a pedestal?
If we study people like Martin Luther King, we realize that they didn’t happen in a vacuum and they didn’t merely put their heroes up on pedestals in the form lifeless little bronze statues. A Martin Luther King had Mahatma Gandhi and Gandhi had Leo Tolstoy and Tolstoy had Jesus as transformative living examples.
Interestingly, these huge figures in human history all gravitated to the same message in the teachings of Jesus and re-contextualized that message into their time and place in history. They were not merely bronze statues to each other that they honored once a year. They were daily living guides who helped them navigate in a broken world.
The things they learned from each other was a way of being, seeing, and living in this world, and they tried to apply the example of each other to their particular context.
And here is where it gets uncomfortable. We are also called to ask, how do we take the central message in the teachings of Jesus, loving our neighbor as ourselves, and apply it here in 2020 Sioux City Iowa.
So first let’s connect the dots between the road to Jericho, Russia, South Africa, India, Memphis and Sioux City. In other words, I want to show how two of the central teachings of Jesus, namely turning the other check and loving one’s neighbor as oneself, shaped Leo Tolstoy who influenced Gandhi who influenced Martin Luther King,
In this historical arc there is a unifying theme that seemingly runs counter to the cultural universe. It’s as if the whole cultural galaxy pivots around the ego and the narrow definition of tribe. And here are three very different people, from different parts of the world who run counter to this axis. Their turn away from an empty ego-centric existence, their redefinition of who is our tribe, and the transformation of society through non-violent acts of love and kindness offer us a path forward for our time and place in history. Interestingly and fitting given the nature of Jesus and his story of the Good Samaritan, it isn’t necessarily three Christians who show us what Jesus is like, it is a Russian who was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church, an Asian Hindu, and an American Baptist preacher.
The story could start in 1879. Leo Tolstoy had just finished one of the greatest masterpieces in literature—Anna Karinina. He was financially set. Rich from land he had inherited as well as book sales which were happening on a global scale, you would think everything was going well. It wasn’t. Tolstoy became profoundly discontent. Here would be the time to finally relax. ”Tolstoy, you’ve worked hard as a writer. You’ve done your part. Relax. Take a break. Enjoy the fruits of your labor.” Instead Tolstoy falls into a deep depression and dissatisfaction with life.
As we try to medicate away all uncomfortable forms of discontent, these three show us that some dissatisfaction with life and the status quo is not only good but probably necessary if one is to achieve some sort of societal transformation.
Tolstoy looked at his masterpieces and felt, “Is this enough? Do my stories really improve the quality of life for others?” That’s when he had a Saint Francis moment. It was time to shed convention. Which for him meant getting rid of his aristocratic title of “Count Tolstoy.” It was time to give up his fancy clothes and dress like his servants. (Something Gandhi did as well). He left his writing den and went out in the fields and worked alongside his serfs. He offered to free all of them and to help them own their own land. It was such a radical idea his serfs didn’t know what to do with it other than to reject it. Realizing that even though he wrote with the aim of helping people to more fully love life, many of the people of his country didn’t know how to read. So how would they ever access the world of books. So Tolstoy started a school at his estate and taught his workers how to read.
At age 51, Tolstoy started to look into matters of faith—something he found completely ridiculous but eventually something very logical. How was it logical? Tolstoy looked at his workers. They didn’t seem to have existential crises. They seemed to have a simple faith that he marveled at. Tolstoy concluded that if people need faith in something to survive, which they did lest they fall into the same cynical funk he was in, then faith was completely logical. For Tolstoy faith meant looking to the life of Jesus. What he found was a huge discrepancy between the Russian Orthodox Church and the teachings of Jesus.
One of the key things Tolstoy picked up on was the notion of ‘turning the other cheek.’ The Russian Orthodox Church was in lock step with the war-pron Czars. Tolstoy had fought in war. It wasn’t a theory or a concept. It was a reality he had lived. It had lead him to highlight the non-violence views of Jesus. Tolstoy couldn’t see how the church could be okay with war, and violence done unto others to achieve its goals, given the horrors he experienced as well as the obvious teachings of Jesus on the subject. So Tolstoy, being who he was, boldly sought to start a new religion—based solely on the teachings of Jesus. This eventually got him excommunicated.
Fourteen years after Tolstoy’s existential crisis at age 51, a skinny Indian lawyer got kicked off a first class train in South Africa for being a person of color. His name was Gandhi. This moment of getting kicked off the train became a pivotal moment where he actually was grateful for the experience. He saw it as his opportunity to feel injustice. That feeling would lead him to non-violently fight the South African government for 21 years and eventually get an Indians Right Act passed in that country. And when the act was passed, Gandhi didn’t gloat over his hard fought victory. Instead he called for a day of penance, mourning, and reflection for how many people lost their lives in that struggle against the British Empire.
Gandhi’s fight against a world of injustice started at a very early age. As a little boy he would give a pat on the back to the local beggar. His mother would tell him not to touch the untouchable. Little Gandhi didn’t obey his mother and gave this man from the lowest caste of India a pat on the back every time he passed him on his way home from school.
In Gandhi we see that there are two tracks in faith and life. On the one track, we are running on spiritual fumes. We are hurrying, rushing, going through the motions, living by averages based on rote memory and the conglomerations of past things. The omnipresent benevolence of the Kingdom of God is but a blur we miss in the mad rush.
Then along comes a guy like Gandhi who is on the second track of faith—who accomplishes more than most of us could even imagine. Yet he doesn’t do it in a mad rush. It’s more of a saunter. He can maintain a clarity that doesn’t miss the spirit of benevolence all around him, because as is the pattern with everyone we’ve studied in the Admiration Series, he doesn’t start his day with how he can change the world. Instead, he starts from a place that asks himself, “How can I change myself.”
Gandhi knew that blaming everything on the other guy didn’t get anyone ahead. He knew that some of the things he disliked in others, whether the British or the Muslims, was something he had inside himself. Gandhi shows us that perhaps the same narcissistic ego we cannot stand in Trump also resides inside of us—to some degree. The second track of faith is getting to that level of honesty. The first track of faith resorts to speaking out and complaining about the change we want to see. The second track says with Gandhi, “Become the change you want to see.”
But don’t expect the world to celebrate if you start to run contrary to the galaxy. It isn’t like everyone loved Gandhi. To Hindus he was way too forgiving and passive while Muslims were slaughtering Hindus. In fact, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu. To Muslims his kindness was taken as a patronizing attempt to assimilate them. To the British, he was a disruptive agitator whose boycotts cost them money and eventually a crown jewel in their colonial empire. After seven stints in jail totaling up to four years, the British Empire could not quiet this man. On so many fronts, Gandhi was a man in the middle—which is where Buddha says people of faith should be.
Even while he was unfairly imprisoned, it was clear that Gandhi ran counter to the world. He saw prison as a benevolent opportunity to read. He studied all religions and sought to be transformed. He said that a person who knows how to study cannot be imprisoned. This turning misfortune into fortune was a habit with him.
And just when it would seem that Gandhi was some sort of Robin Hood who would hate the rich, he befriended the rich as well. In fact, one of Gandhi’s best friends was Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru was from the highest socio-economic caste. Nehru was also an atheist. So while Nehru was a complete economic, social, and spiritual opposite of Gandhi