Fifty years ago this week—August 20, 1965—Jonathan Daniels was shot and killed in Hayneville, Alabama. Jon Daniels was a seminarian at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had spent the summer demonstrating for civil rights in Alabama and doing voter registration work in Lowndes County. On the day he died, Jon Daniels had been released from jail. Along with a Roman Catholic priest and two African American civil rights workers, he approached Varner’s Cash Store in order to buy some cold drinks. A deputy sheriff with a shotgun aimed at Ruby Sales, one of the women in the party. Daniels stepped in front to protect her and was killed. The man who shot Jonathan Daniels pled self-defense and was later acquitted by an all-white jury.

Several years later, I entered the seminary Jonathan Daniels attended, and I studied with faculty members who had known and taught him. That seminary—now called the Episcopal Divinity School—has long had a tradition of remembering Jonathan Daniels in its liturgical calendar, and in the last decades the larger Episcopal Church has come to recognize him as well. This past week, my wife Kathy, our Director of Programs Ruth Frey, and I joined Bishop Budde and many church people from the diocese and around the nation on a Jonathan Daniels pilgrimage sponsored by Episcopal Divinity School to Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, and finally to Hayneville, Alabama. We spent several days reflecting not only on Jonathan Daniels’ life and witness but also on the ongoing issues of racial justice in America. We concluded with a Eucharist in the courtroom where Jonathan Daniels’ killer was acquitted.

As part of the larger church’s observance of Jonathan Daniels, the cathedral is installing his bust in our human rights porch, and just this week the carving was completed. Following this service we will have a special forum to say more about that installation, and the bust will be formally dedicated at an Evensong in October.

There are so many things to say about Jonathan Daniels, about race, about martyrdom, about reconciliation, and there is so much going on about racial justice in America today that could be informed by his witness. How do we begin to think about these things? This morning we get some help from the sixth chapter of John. This passage nominally concerns the bread and wine of the Eucharist, but there is more to it than that. In today’s Gospel, Jesus says:

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. [John 6: 54-56]

You and I are so used to hearing Jesus talk this way that we don’t really hear how radical these words are. The Torah prohibits Jews from drinking blood. That prohibition lies behind the kosher food laws and the requirement that all the blood be drained from an animal when it is slaughtered. A Jew would not risk consuming blood and violating the commandment. As the book of Leviticus tells us,

For the life of every creature—its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off. [Leviticus 17:14]

For Jesus to talk to his followers about eating his flesh and drinking his blood seems eminently normal to you and me who use that language when we take communion. But to a Jewish audience, Jesus’s words must have sounded radical if not openly sacrilegious. Speaking as a Jew, Jesus cannot mean that we are literally to drink his blood. He must be telling us something else.

What I think he is telling us gets not only at who he is but at who we are called to be, too. It amounts to a reversal of all our ideas about power, especially considering the way ancient warfare was practiced. In many places in the ancient world, victorious warriors routinely drank the blood of those they conquered. In telling us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, Jesus turns that equation upside down. Here we have a Messiah, a king, telling us to drink his blood. He’s not asking us to risk our lives for him. He’s risking his life for us.

In the second century, Tertullian famously said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The Christian word “martyr” literally means “witness”. The people we call martyrs are witnesses to a deep truth about Jesus, God, and us. God became one of us in Jesus. Jesus put his life at risk for us. Christianity is not only about loving your neighbor and trying to be good. Christianity is about this deep, mysterious truth at the heart of the universe. The one at the center of creation actually risks everything for us. Power—in its pretentious, inflated, pomposity—power is not the operating principle of the universe. Love—in its vulnerable, self-giving, compassionate mystery—is.

Jonathan Daniels was the 28th civil rights worker killed in the earlier days of the movement. He was neither the first nor the last martyr in the cause of racial justice. In recent years, months, and days we have seen other martyrs who have put their lives at risk on our behalf: the nine women and men killed in Charleston most obviously come to mind. But so do Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and others. The one we have come to know in Jesus keeps coming back among us in the person of these witnesses. And yet we seem not ever to recognize him.

We are also observing a second fiftieth anniversary this week: the Watts riots in my home city of Los Angeles. From August 11 to 17, 1965 the city erupted in violence that began when a young black man, Marquette Frye, was pulled over for reckless driving. The incident grew into six days of violence covering 46 square miles of the city. When it was all over, 34 people were dead.

In 1965 we were saddened when people like Jonathan Daniels (or James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner a year earlier, or Medgar Evers a year before that) were murdered, but we were not particularly surprised. That was the south. But when Los Angeles erupted in rage and violence many (especially whites) were shocked. Los Angeles was considered at the time as the most hospitable U.S. city for African Americans to live in. Reports at the time always referred to the suburban-looking “wide tree-lined streets” of Watts. The racial injustice in Alabama was obvious. The racial injustice in California (and later Michigan, Massachusetts, and even the District of Columbia) was harder to see.

Fifty years later, we have yet to learn all the lessons of 1965. We live in a country that has gutted the Voting Rights Act which was bought at the price of the violence and death we are remembering this week. But some things have changed, many for the better. I have been to Alabama twice now, and each time I go there I am impressed (and frankly a bit surprised) at how intentionally the deep south has come to terms with its own history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and racial injustice. But when I come back home to the north, I am struck with how we continue to live in a kind of racial fantasy land. Jonathan Daniels was murdered doing civil rights work in the south in 1965. But he could just as easily have been killed working for school busing in Boston in 1975. The killings of unarmed black people happen in southern cities to be sure, but they also happen in Michigan, New York, Maryland, Ohio, and California. Alabama and South Carolina have removed their Confederate battle flags. Some northern institutions have yet to do so.

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. [John 6: 54-56]

Those Christians who have died in the service of racial justice—from Jonathan Daniels to Clementa Pinckney—have been strengthened and sustained by the example of Jesus—the one who puts himself at risk for us. We don’t follow one who consumes us. We follow one who offers himself on our behalf. As followers of Jesus, as brothers and sisters of Jonathan Daniels, you and I need today to ask ourselves some hard questions. What are we doing—not out there or down there but up here and in here—to come to terms with our own history of racial injustice, with our own personal, interpersonal, institutional, and cultural racism? Civil rights looked a lot easier when all you had to do was get on a bus and go desegregate a lunch counter in another state. The ongoing work right here is harder and more risky. It asks that we open ourselves up to the questions we would pose to others.

In telling us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, Jesus turns the tables on our usual expectations of what holy figures are supposed to do. He refuses to point the finger at others. He opens himself to the world. In this time and place in America, you and I are being asked to live out that logic in our own lives and work. Jonathan Daniels understood it in his day and offered himself so that our history of slavery, racism, segregation, and oppression might be healed. His life and death ask no less than that you and I do the same—that we put ourselves—our lives, our comfort, our privilege—at risk on behalf of others so that all may live and thrive in an America worthy of its name.

We can’t all be martyrs, but we can all be witnesses. We can offer ourselves in the spirit of Jesus and after the example of Jonathan Daniels. We probably won’t get a saint’s day in the calendar or a bust in the narthex, but the nation we inhabit just might finally begin to live into its promise of justice and equality for all. Amen.

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