Please click here to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this sermon.
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish truth. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, 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.Extremists of Justice by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?
In my teens and early twenties, I often described myself as a pacifist. I remember saying many times that I would not respond with violence even if I was threatened with violence. I believed that it was not my place to take another’s life, no matter what. I thought I was modeling myself after the ways of Jesus, whom I viewed as an extreme pacifist. I was delighted when I became a UU to find here many pacifists, others who also vowed to never take another’s life, no matter what.
In my teens and early twenties, I often described myself as a pacifist. I remember saying many times that I would not respond with violence even if I was threatened with violence. I believed that it was not my place to take another’s life, no matter what. I thought I was modeling myself after the ways of Jesus, who I viewed as an extreme pacifist. I was delighted when I became a UU to find here many pacifists, others who also vowed to never take another’s life, no matter what.
Yet by the time I reached my thirties, my view about violence and power had been altered. I was angry. I had experienced violation and hurt and many disappointments. I wanted revenge for the harms done to me and to those I cared about. I wanted to exercise my power to hurt those who had hurt me. At least I wanted to draw attention to harms done, so that no one need suffer in silence. I admired those who were not passive, but rather sought to end suffering with the power of rage.
We will explore the role of anger, its power, and its weaknesses next Sunday.
For today, I want us to focus on what it takes to be a peaceful person who works alongside other people in the worldwide community of peacemakers, using soul force to create change for the better. The kind of change that heals, repairs, makes whole what has been broken. The kind of community that doesn’t divide the world into opponents.
“Soul force” is a term that has intrigued me for many years. It involves a commitment to what I now, in my older years, call a “developmental” stage. It is a stage of spiritual development that sees beyond the self, that recognizes that one’s life is worth losing for a greater good. It is not so much about following a vow to not return violence with violence. It isn’t passive. It is active, always working for the greater good in creative ways.
It is in community with others that it becomes clear that together there is always enough power to make the difference that needs to be made.
The cost may be your life, but becoming a martyr is not the reason for practicing nonviolence. Rather, one’s motivation to work for “peace, liberty, and justice for all” is centered on birthing what needs to come into being to create life, especially for those who are barely living.
Soul force is contagious. It draws out the best in us.
Gandhi, in his later years—back in India, his country of origin, after living in Britain, then South Africa—found an entire nation of people dominated by the British and their exploitations. He used soul force to help people regain their power to have control over their own lives.
I think of the Salt March as an example of the contagious soul force that Gandhi had and that he shared.
The British had ruled over India for three centuries. They had committed many exploitative acts. One was the law they passed in 1882, called the Salt Act, that prohibited Indians from accumulating or selling salt. Salt was an integral part of the Indian diet. Yet the Salt Act made it so the only way salt could be bought by Indians was if it was purchased from the British. It was illegal for Indians to collect their own salt from the sea, to even borrow salt from a neighbor.
In 1930, Gandhi submitted a letter to the British rulers letting them know that in ten days, he and his followers would defy the Salt Laws. No response. So, Gandhi and 78 others departed their ashram, and set out on foot for the 240-mile march to the Arabian Sea, where they intended to make salt from the seawater. It was a symbolic act, a creative way to empower a downtrodden people.
Along the way, Gandhi spoke to large groups gathered to hear what he had to say. Many were so inspired that they joined him and the 78 original marchers headed for the sea. By the time they arrived, the group had grown into thousands.
The authorities arrested many of them, beat them, put them in jail. The international press carried the story, and the resulting worldwide attention helped cause change to occur. More acts of non-violent civil disobedience led to more change, until eventually, India would win its independence.
People all over the world were inspired by the power of what became known as Mahatma Gandhi’s “soul force.” Martin Luther King, Jr. studied Gandhi and used his ideas for the many marches and demonstrations he led that were characterized by non-violent resistance. It was because of the outrage of ordinary citizens who demanded change because they saw the way the non-violent were treated.
Of course, to this day not enough has changed.
And as many of us are aware, Dr. King was challenged by those such as Stokely Carmichael, who famously said that King’s “…major assumption was that if you are non-violent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart.” Carmichael said that was good, but that King had “made one fallacious assumption.” Stokely Carmichael went on to say, “In order for non-violence to work, your opponent must have a conscience … The US has none.”
I know it may seem that way. But I believe that soul force is not about trying to shame those who have no shame. It is about uniting those who know that their loyalty is to not to the self, not to their personal life or their individual family’s well-being, but rather to the future of the whole of humanity.
There is a recognition that all of us are one.
It is that sense of soul force that caused so many to take to the streets during the Black Lives Matter movement and so many movements for liberation and justice before, and for those that will continue
When I was in my very first ministry, there were those among that congregation’s members who didn’t want to be associated with any other “faiths,” any other people of faith. They had been hurt by religion and wanted nothing to do with any form other than Unitarian Universalism.
I hope and I believe we have moved past that stage. We know that there are other peacemakers in the world, some from faith communities and others not.
I am proud that we do seek to join our soul force with others, and in so doing, become thousands who will change the world for the better.