What would you live for?
So often we here the expression “I’d die for you” or “I’d die for [x y z]”. And whilst this conjures up images of sacrificial love, as a Unitarian I don’t think focussing on death and suffering is at all healthy; making death and suffering somehow worthy and spiritual. To make suffering in itself a vocation, and end to itself as though it has a purpose or inevitable. We are not here to suffer, friends. To be honest, I think the question should be “What would you live” for?
This morning I’d like to talk to you about the Unitarian Minister, Rev. Jim Reeb who was murdered fifty years ago. As a Unitarian, Reeb fiercely believed in the Unitarian values of Freedom, Reason and Tolerance: that all people share in and are equal reflections of the Divine; all persons should be treated with equality and dignity irrespective of their sex, creed, race, class, sexual orientation. Reeb was from a very well to do middle class background and was offered a prestigious post ministering to a middle class congregation, but instead chose to work in a downtown inner city mostly African-American Parish in Boston, ministering to the needs of a community which was downtrodden, poor and denied basic human rights – African Americans could not vote, nor could they use the same public loos as a white person and had to give up their seat on a bus to a white person: that was, if they were allowed to use the bus. And the sad thing is, those laws were promoted by people who were Christians and believed God had ordained them! God, apparently, was the first segregationist.
Jim Reeb believed his faith could move a mountain - the mountain of racism and discrimination. When Rev Martin Luther King Jnr made his famous call for the clergy of all denominations to stand alongside him in the city of Selma, in Alabama in Spring 1965 Jim Reeb answered that call. His faith demanded he be there. Selma had been the scene of an atrocious race-riot where peaceful African-American and their white supporters taking part in a peaceful demonstration for voting rights had been attacked by the police.
Whilst walking down the street with two other Unitarians, Jim Reeb was attacked by a group of white supremacists, armed with baseball bats and lengths of pipe. Reeb was beaten round the head and suffered from a blood clot in his brain. Whilst he was being taken to hospital Rev. Luther King presented a press conference calling the attack on the unarmed ministers as ‘cowardly’ and urging calm. Reeb died two hours later and his funeral Eulogy was preached by Rev King. His death provoked mourning throughout the country and candle-lit vigils in his memory. Rev King said
James Reeb, symbolizes the forces of good will in our nation. He demonstrated the conscience of the nation. He was an attorney for the defense of the innocent in the court of world opinion. He was a witness to the truth that men of different races and classes might live, eat, and work together as brothers (King, 15 March 1965).
The President, Lyndon Johnson invoked Reeb’s memory when delivered the draft of the Voting Rights Bill which would give African-Americans the vote before the US Congress
Jim Reeb had travelled to Selma not knowing he was to become a martyr. He travelled because his faith in God, and his faith in humanity demanded he did. He lived with the poor and the marginalized. He lived for the poor and oppressed. He walked alongside the marginalized and oppressed; he walked alongside them. He believed his faith could move a mountain. Sadly, Jim Reeb paid the ultimate sacrifice for his love of humanity. But his death, tragic as though it was, proved to be a catalyst, a defining moment. From the tragedy of his death others were inspired to stand in his place, to stand up and be counted, to stand up and want to change the world. Jim Reeb’s death changed the world for the African-American community. Jim Reeb died, but his spirit lived on. And still lives on, fighting against racism and all forms of discrimination. The most important thing Jim Reeb did was to live: his example, his teaching, his courage are more important than his brutal murder.
What are we prepared to live for?