In a place where you can almost sense the primordial forces of fire, ice, and life, where images of snow capped volcanoes and lush forests reflect from the surface of waterways gouged by the great glaciers, these profound and sobering words are prominently displayed:
"For here we admit a wrong. Here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law." Ronald Reagan, signing the Civil Liberties Act, 1988.
The words were an epilogue to the story told in that place, a story from our nations' history that seemed utterly out of place amidst the tranquility and natural beauty of Bainbridge Island. The island, a short ferry ride across the Puget Sound from Seattle, was the home of a community of Japanese Americans when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. Today, Bainbridge is proud to host the Japanese Exclusion Memorial on the site where, on the morning of March 30, 1942, US Soldiers armed with rifles and bayonets rounded up 227 residents of the island for a trip to camps where they were imprisoned throughout the remainder of the war. Some of those Japanese Americans lost all they owned through vandalism and economic hardship, others with the help of friends and neighbors were able to return and pick up the pieces of their lives and renew their quest for their American dream. Their only "crime" was their Japanese heritage, their race.
As we strolled the paths of the memorial, I couldn't help but wonder how I would have reacted had it been my neighbors who were being rounded up and taken away. In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I fear I would have been a lot more worried about the impact of the war on my life and on my family than about recognizing and confronting injustice at the hands of our own government. I know that standing up for "equal justice under the law" takes incredible courage, especially if you're one lonely voice in a crowd.
A generation later, two more individuals were imprisoned, this time by state authorities for leading a non-violent movement in support of "equal justice under the law" for another racial minority, a minority denied justice even by the founding fathers of our nation. Their names were Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Reverend Ralph D. Abernathy. Upon their arrest, many referred to them as extremists, and even a group of clergymen called on them to renounce their protest tactics. In his response penned from his jail cell, Dr. King wrote in an open letter:
But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ." So 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? (Excerpt from Letter From a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963, M.L. King Jr.)
Next week our country honors the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King with a national holiday that many of us pay scant attention to. As Christians, we're taught that Christ's kingdom knows no national or racial boundaries. It can't submit to national definitions or identifications. It's a place where "there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female" and where "all are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).
So perhaps it's a good week to rededicate ourselves in our prayers and in our actions, both individually and as a congregation to oppose injustice at home and around the world, and to strive to "love as Jesus loved," without regard to race, creed, or color.
May your week be blessed in all things,