Sermon for the Dedication of the Jonathan Daniels Carving
We are here to honor Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Martyr. He was murdered on August 20, 1965 in Haynesville, Alabama for registering illegally disenfranchised African American voters.
As we do that at Evening Prayer on this particular Sunday, the Church bids us read Micah 6:1-8. “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” It’s wonderfully appropriate, but I didn’t choose it. The Church did.
I was one of Jonathan Daniels’ seminary professors — all the rest of whom I’ve outlived. I was the one of them who taught Hebrew Bible, Old Testament. So, my tribute to Jonathan this afternoon is a little lesson in the key Hebrew words in Micah 6:8.
“Justice” — the Hebrew word is mishpat. “Kindness” — the Hebrew is chesed. “Walk humbly with your God” — the Hebrew is hatsna’ leketh ‘im eloheykah. I want to unpack those words.
Mishpat, justice, is what results when a shophet, “judge,” shaphat[s], “judges.” “There is strong evidence that … originally … mishpat referred to the restoration of a situation or environment which promoted equity and harmony in a community.” (The Anchor Bible Dictionary)
“Justice” is introduced in Micah with, “[Our God] has shown you … what is good.” And what is good is defined in the preceding verses in terms of God’s rescuing people from the oppression of slavery, God’s caring for them as homeless refugees in the wilderness, God’s provision of a home when they were homeless.
For the Bible justice involves things like that — and so often in the psalms and elsewhere, equity for widows and orphans and the poor. Biblical justice is not retributive justice. It does not have to do with the protection of those in power through the use of violence. It is not about punishment.
Biblical justice is distributive justice. It has to do with recognition of and provision for the needs and rights and dignity of every human being. It has to do with being kind rather than correct. It is what God’s people are supposed to do.
Which brings us to the second word of our text, chesed, “kindness.” “Kindness,” “lovingkindness,” “mercy,” “steadfast love” have all been used to translate chesed in English Bibles. No one English word captures its meaning.
It seems basically to have to do with loyalty in relationships, loyalty that is considerate of and affectionate toward the sharer of a relationship. It is not used in Hebrew of “kindness” in the abstract. It bespeaks actual steadfast, loving, merciful, kind loyalty toward another. It is rooted in God’s commitment to God’s people, in God’s steadfast, loving, merciful, kind loyalty toward God’s human colleagues in the doing of justice.
It is about the kind of relationship God wants people to have with God, and with each and all of their human brothers and sisters. It is indeed about sensitivity and responsiveness to the needs and rights of others, indeed about respecting others, but, at root, it is about affectionate, unswerving commitment to others. I propose it be rendered, “compassionate solidarity.”
Mishpat, “justice,” chesed, “compassionate solidarity,” and, finally, hatsna’ leketh ‘im ‘eloheykah, “walk humbly with your God.” In the Hebrew “humbly,” hatsna,’ comes first — is emphasized as the key to what the phrase is about — “humbly walk (or ‘go along with’) your God.”
Not only is it put first as if for emphasis; it is a hapax legonemon, a word that occurs only here and nowhere else in biblical Hebrew. What it actually means is pretty much up for grabs. The guesses, on the basis of sparse evidence, include “modestly,” “secretly,” “cautiously,” “carefully.” Since the oldest English translations chose “humbly,” subsequent versions have fallen into line — with nary a footnote about its obscurity.
But what if Micah chose and emphasized an unknown word on purpose? The medium can be the message. How something is stated can convey as much or more than what is stated. Maybe here the point is not the meaning of a word that is obscure and unknown, but that such a word is used.
If so, the verse could go like this: “What does the Lord require of you but to do mishpat, “justice,” and to love chesed, “compassionate solidarity,” and experiencing hatsna’ — “unbargained for, scary unknowns as you along with your God.” Or “to go along with God in doing what is right toward all, in having a passion for lasting human and humane relationships with God and all our sisters and brothers, and to be open to new and unknown and surprising, devastating things all that may involve.
In the life that led him to seek ordination and go to seminary, in his study and reflection at seminary, Jonathan Daniels had learned about and grown in commitment to, God’s call to do mishpat and to have a passion for chesed. That led him to respond, along with seminary colleagues, to Martin Luther King’s call for people of good will to support with their physical presence on the weekend of March 10-12, 1965 the struggle for civil rights under way in Selma, Alabama. Jonathan had gone along with God for the weekend.
But as the weekend unfolded, mishpat and chesed were joined by unbargained for hatsna’, in the form of increasing conviction that going along with God had to involve not just flying in and demonstrating and then flying out, but staying in chesed solidarity with African American sisters and brothers in the struggle for mishpat.
And so it was that doing justice, loving compassionate solidarity with God’s black children, and going along with God led to Jonathan’s unplanned and unbargained for staying to share life and work with those brothers and sisters, and finally to being killed by Tom Coleman’s shotgun on the porch of that store in Haynesville. He is a martyr in whom response to words like Micah’s was lived – and led to death.
So, here we are, gathered to honor God’s martyr Jonathan Daniels. As God called Jonathan, I believe God is calling us through these words of God’s prophet Micah.
God is calling us to do justice that frees the oppressed and cares for all. God is calling us to compassionate and caring solidarity with all our human brothers and sisters. God is calling us to be alert to new, maybe upsetting and life-threatening, places to which doing justice and loving our ties to all may take us.
Maybe such a place now is, once again, Alabama, where, having been given permission by the Supreme Court, that state seems to be dismantling the voting rights for which Jonathan and others died. Maybe such a place now is facing up to what “Black lives matter” is all about — yes, in terms of police brutality, but more deeply in terms of the racism in our hearts and culture and social structures that gives permission to and feeds police brutality. Maybe such a place now is the hijacking of our national moral backbone by the National Rifle Association with regard to dealing with campus blood baths. Mishpat, chesed, openness to the pain and death that can go with doing and loving them: God is calling us to follow the example of God’s martyr Jonathan Daniels in hearing Micah’s call.
One of those weird passages in the Apocalypse, the last book of the Bible, pictures the final defeat of the ultimate evil one by God’s faithful servants. “They, it says, “Have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life in the face of death.” The Greek translated “the word of their testimony” is τον λογον τηs μαρτυριαs − literally, “the logic of their martyrdom.”
Jesus’ death and resurrection reveal a logic inextricably woven into the fabric of the universe. In that divine logic unjust and uncompassionate powers have reached their limits when crosses and shotguns have done their worst. They can go no further than death. But the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is that God can.
When a servant of God does not cling to life in the face of a cross or a shotgun, the logic of oppressive empires and racist cultures has run its course; their power and its weapons have done all they can do. But God’s logic persists; God’s powerless weakness — whose weapons are justice and compassionate solidarity and love — continues its patient, persistent, non-violent subversion of oppressive empires and racist cultures. Jesus does not conquer Rome, but Jesus outlasts Rome. Jonathan Daniels and the company of civil rights martyrs do not conquer racist cultures, but what they are about outlasts those cultures and finally brings down their battle flags from state capitols.
We give thanks today for God’s logic and for Jesus and the martyrs who lived and died by it, among them Jonathan Myrick Daniels.