Today the church remembers Jonathan Myrick Daniels, seminarian and martyr, who on this day fifty years ago was arrested and imprisoned for protesting against the evil of segregation perpetrated in his name as a citizen of an empire. Less than a week later Daniels would be martyred by a gunshot intended for his friend, Ruby Sales, shortly following a late night release from jail.
As a senior in my final semester of seminary, Jonathan Myrick Daniels story has been influential in my formation over my last few years, you'll note my previous blog entry was part of a sermon I preached last year at The Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg. Not just because he was an Episcopal seminarian like me, and not just because he fought against the oppression of people of color instituted and maintained by people of his own race. While those are important distinctions, what is formational for me is that Daniels followed the scripture literally when he gave what Christ said was the greatest gift, he laid down his life for a friend. Daniels stood in the middle way, Via Media, and on the day he was murdered fifty years ago he literally acted as an intercessor, he acted incarnationally, he acted as a priest… though having never been ordained.
During these last few years as I have made the move out of an ordination process in The United Methodist Church and began again as an Episcopalian, my journey continues to seem protracted, and has at times felt forlorn. During some of those times it has been Daniels’ story that continues to remind me that while I am called to the ministry of word and sacrament, and will one day be ordained a priest in the Anglican Communion, I can, and even we all can, live out the priesthood of all believers today.
Daniels’ life, and death, teaches us that the earthly incarnation of Christ did not end at the Ascension, which we celebrated a few weeks ago. No, Daniels teaches us that if we truly believe the church is Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ, then we are the continual incarnation of Christ in the world. Christ is not just something we take into us and commune with at the Eucharist meal, it is what we become as the Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of Christ, works in us individually and communally to see the Kingdom come, on Earth, as in Heaven.
We sit today fifty years after the imprisonment and martyrdom of Jonathan Myrick Daniels and yet the same sins of oppression, racism, hate, greed, egotism, and empire of that day continue to stain and tear at our nation. These stains tarnish the American story of life and liberty. These stains scream out to us just as Abel’s blood did to the Lord. These stains remind us that we, as the Body of Christ, still have a lot more to do to see the Kingdom come, on Earth, as in Heaven. Much more than just recite those words as a musty prayer each week in worship.
This week an United Methodist clergywoman was accused by an agent of the empire of being “of Satan” as she called for justice of the oppressed, the same insult white supremacists hurled at civil rights workers fifty years ago. Last week a married interracial couple, comprised of an Episcopal clergyman and clergywoman, were harassed by agents of the empire on the side of a southern road without just cause, the same as happens to countless people of color and their friends for the last fifty years. The weeks prior to that have seen clergywomen in the south receive death threats simply for preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, just as social holiness preachers and civil rights workers received fifty years ago. In the weeks before that nearly a dozen historically African American churches of various denominational affiliations were burned under mysterious circumstances, just as happened fifty years ago. Weeks prior to that a white supremacist walked into a historically black church in Charleston, SC and murdered nine Christian clergy and lay people while at prayer and Bible study, again the same as happened to racial minorities fifty years ago. These events serve only as tiny examples of the continual systematic oppression, hate, and yes, sin, which continues to seep from the foundations of our economic and governmental systems, systems that overwhelmingly and disproportionally oppress racial minorities. All of this is deepening the stain, and all the while many of us who stand in the middle, those of us who walk the Via Media, stand silent or look the other way, and hope if we do not rock the boat we can be free, we can be safe, we can be prosperous. But we cannot be free or safe or prosperous while others are still forced to wallow in the gutters of oppression, fear, and poverty. What sort of life, liberty, and happiness can we really have if it is built on the subjugation of others? We must realize that, "we are indelibly and unspeakably one."
As the shots are continually fired against the oppressed in this present age, we in the majority can primarily consider our own financial stability, our own comfort, our own life if we are not attentive to the Spirit’s calling. Rather than stand in the way of the bullets, we often choose the way of the Levite on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and walk another direction. We often choose to blaspheme our calling as the Body of Christ, for the comfort and material wants of our own body. We often choose to live as mere physical finite beings rather than embrace our call to be incarnations through the power of the infinite Holy Spirit residing in us.
As this weekend begins, and as the Washington National Cathedral hosts a commemoration of Daniels’ life, marking the fifty years since his death, I wonder how might we all honor Daniels. In the autumn the cathedral will officially unveil a stone carving of his likeness on the “Human Rights Porch”, joining carvings of Rosa Parks and Mother Theresa. As this testimony is carved in stone I wonder if we listen closely will we hear the blood of the martyrs, like Jonathan Myrick Daniels and the nine slain in Charleston, calling us to embrace our priesthood as believers and be living testimonies. A calling to take the words of the Magnificat found in scripture, which first inspired Daniels to go to Alabama, seriously; “[The Lord] hath torn down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.” Might we take this weekend to consider how we can truly live into our calling as intercessors, as incarnations, as priests, and finish the work that Daniels, and countless others, began. That the Kingdom may come, on Earth, as in Heaven, Amen.
"The doctrine of the creeds, the enacted faith of the sacraments, were essential preconditions of the experience itself. The faith with which I went to Selma has not changed: it has grown... I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord's death and resurrection with them, the black and white [people], with all life in him whose Name is above all the names that the races and nationals shout... We are indelibly and unspeakable one." ~ Jonathan Myrick Daniels