Making Sense of the Bible and Violence

Beware of god

Below is the script from which I preached a recent sermon on “Making Sense of the Bible and Violence.” The Sermon was preached in the context of a series called Making Sense of the Bible based on the book of the same title by Adam Hamilton.

At the beginning you will see a list of traveling car games that will not make much sense. They were used as reminder points for me as I told an introductory story illustrating our (humans) varied points of relationship with violence. The main point was that we are both entertained by violence and sickened by it too.

After the introductory point, the script begins to make more sense as a readable sermon.

Sermon feedback was very positive. I sense a large number of our congregation have struggled with the problems of biblical literalism for some time. In this sermon, and in this series, they have discovered some freedom.

I post it here as a record of the preach


We have an interesting relationship with violence, don’t we?

Think about it for a minute with me as I give you an example.

Car games:
License Plate Game
The daddy of all car games – Punch Buggy
Jackson – caring, loving, non-violent soul (thank God)
– weak punch
– teaching him to punch – a rite of passage

We have an interesting relationship with violence.

We kind of enjoy it on one level

We are entertained by violence and we like it on one level

And we abhor it on another. We looked on in disbelief on September 11th 2001, as some individuals took it upon themselves to commit an horrendous act of violence which ended up changing our world.

Personally speaking, I have had a changing relationship with violence.

Growing up in a violent, conflict ridden country like Northern Ireland
– It normalized violence – the new reports, the hatred, the complete devaluation of human life was all just normal, and not shocking.
– It never made me bat an eyelid as a boy. It was just what humans do. Right?

– But i am not a little boy any more.
– I have made two wee humans of my own.
– I have seen the devastating effects of violence on a person’s life and I have concluded that, in fact, violence does nothing but beget more violence in the world.
– Dunkirk movie
– compelling watch, but not entertaining
– found it hard work because I was grieving it – grieving the violent depictions of those moments in human history.
– I was grieving what human beings are capable of doing to one another in the name of politics, territory, economy; in the name of war.

We have a strange relationship with violence.

We are entertained by it.

It is somewhat normalized in our world.
And yet we abhor it.

We never want to be the victims of violence. I imagine we never want to perpetrate violence either.

As humans, we have a strange, mixed up relationship with violence.

And, for sure, it can seem that the Bible does too.

We spend a lot of time in church reading in the NT about Jesus who is the very image of God.
We reflect on Jesus the Prince of Peace
– Jesus the one who said love your enemies and pray for them.
– Jesus who taught us to turn the other cheek
– Jesus who will turn swords into ploughshares and spears to pruning hooks.
– Jesus who said blessed are the peacemakers.

But we are people of the whole book.
Our story does not simply start in the New Testament. Our story starts at the very beginning when God created the heavens and the earth. As we have said in the last number of weeks, our story, as humans, is found in the story of Israel and their relationship with God.

In that story we see a God who is loving and compassionate and forgiving of Israel.
In that story we see a God who is willing to rescue his people from slavery.
In that story we see a God who is willing to make a piece of land available to these people; the Promised Land.
In that story we see a God, who they report, was willing to completely annihilate the occupants of that piece of land in order to give it to Israel.

Time and time again, the writers of the Old Testament testify to a God who regularly would take sides in a fight, and who would willingly wipe out the opposition – men, women, children, animals…
We encounter a God who, on initial reading of the words in the Old Testament, seems like a bit of a monster.

So how do we make sense of that?

I am going to begin to sound like a bit of a broken record in this series, but it all comes back to what your starting point with Scripture is.

If we take a literalist position on Scripture, that is that God dictated each and every word of the Bible as we know it today, and that there are no faults, contradictions or discrepancies there in, then we can conclude that God is a violent God, and that God does love and come alongside some humans more than others.

We can also conclude that since we are made in God’s image, and God uses violence, then it is okay for us to be violent too, because God is or was.

And finally we can also conclude that God is not the same yesterday, today and forever as the Bible says God is, because the images of God that we read in the Old and New Testaments are so vastly different in nature that one can do nothing but conclude that these are either different God’s, or else the one God of the Bible has an absolutely confused identity.

Now if we are Biblical literalists, then we simply accept all this. We accept the violence of God, by saying that God is God and God can choose to use whatever means God desires to get the job done. God can give and God can take as God pleases. If God did it that way, then thats just the way it is, and we can rejoice that God chose us and not the others, right?

But, like I have said already, Biblical literalism can get us into trouble.

If we are literalists then we better not be eating any shell fish. There’s a law against that.
If we are literalists then we better hope our children are not unruly, because the Bible commands the death penalty for such rebellion.
If we are literalists then we better hope our boss doesn’t want us to work on the Sabbath because that offense also warrants the death penalty.

And then there is already mentioned problem of Jesus, for the literalist. Jesus is the very image of the invisible God, according to the writer of the letter to the Colossians. If you want to see God, then look to Jesus because God the Son is one with God the Father. But Jesus, God the Son, is night and day different from the God we read of in the Old Testament.

So the first thing that we have to do is remember that the Bible is a complex collection of ancient inspired writing. It is the writings of people in very different times, in which they seek to communicate their understanding of God and God’s involvement in their lives. In essence, when we read the Scripture and are beginning to try to make sense of the violence in the Old Testament, we must remember the absolute humanity of the authors, and therefore the humanity of the text. These were human authors, with human experiences, in a human culture and a historical context different to our own. When we read these tough and violent texts we must do the work of understanding the world that was being written about – a world very different to our own world in these days.

You see, when we remember the humanity of the authors it becomes possible to remember that they were likely writing to represent what they thought about God, rather than than what God actually told them to say.

When they won a violent battle victory, of course they were going to say that God was with them and God gave them that victory. That’s what we do as humans who believe in the divine. In another movie about the military that I watched recently, there is a part where the Captain of the platoon is giving a rousing speech to his men, and when he is done he invites the chaplain to come and say a prayer with them; to invoke the mighty hand of God to protect them and go before them.

When Israel won a hard fought victory, or when the Hebrew people took control of the Promised land at great cost to the human life which had existed there before hand, God was given the glory and God was given the praise because God had given them the victory.

Make no mistake, friends, the first century Ancient Near Eastern world was a world in which conquest and conflict between tribes and nations was common. This was a violent world. Therefore the writers of the ancient works that we today call Scripture had to write in order to make sense of God in the context of a violent world filled with violent and power hungry humans.

And this world is the same in the New Testament. In the NT world it is the time of the Roman Empire – a battle happy and quite blood thirsty, conquesting empire. In the New Testament and in the gospels in particular, perhaps the best example of the violent world that it still was is in the fact that crucifixion was still an accepted form of criminal punishment. The human bent toward violence in Biblical times is absolutely witnessed to in the gospel accounts of the passion, crucifixion and death of Christ Jesus.


There’s that name again. The name that we can’t get away from.

You see Jesus is the fullest and most fathomable expression of God that we can ever look to. When we look to Jesus, we are looking at God, because Jesus is God the Son – the very Word of God. John’s Gospel states that – “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the very beginning God.” The two cannot be separated and that is why, Adam Hamilton argues, and i stand with him on this, we must read the words of the Biblical text through the lens of the person, ministry, heart and words of Jesus Christ. That means that when we read a passage in the Bible that seems contrary to the life, ministry and Kingdom message of Jesus, who is the Word of God, we are being invited to ask questions and to do the work of making sense of the passage in light of who God has testified to being in Christ Jesus.

So today, I put across the argument, which you might disagree with, that God is in nature and essence loving, good, compassionate and merciful. God seeks peace in human relationships and God grieves when we attack, maim and hurt one another. Today i put it to you that the violence attributed to God in the Bible is actually the violence of sinful human beings whose hearts perennially struggle to be in control of the world around them; whose hearts are power hungry and are willing to become violent in the pursuit of power and control.

Jesus invites us to declare that God is King and to surrender control. Jesus invites his followers not to the violent way of conquest and conflict, but to the way of peace-making and non-violence. In fact when we look at the cross we see that not only is Jesus non-violent, but in fact Jesus submits himself to the violence of humans. Jesus submits himself to a violent death at the hands of humans in order to show them that in God, death has no victory or sting; that death does not win; that in God we find life in all its complete; we find peace.

How do we make sense of the violence in the Old Testament?

We remember the times which were being written about – times very different to our own.
We remember the humanity of the writers and that in their humanity they were doing their best to testify to God.
We remember that they were interpreting the times around them with the tools they had in their box – the tools of a context and culture which was bloody and violent in a way that our context and culture is not.
We remember that we can only interpret the seeming violent God of the OT by looking through the lens of Jesus, the Word in the NT.

In this sermon I am not trying to excuse the violence by saying that this is just the way things were back in the day.

Rather, in this sermon I am trying to give you a framework within which you might begin to make sense of this difficult theme in Scripture.

In this sermon, and in every sermon, I am trying to point you to Jesus – the very image of God here on earth; the name above all names; the Prince of peace; our rock and our redeemer, who bore the violence of sinful man so that all of us may know freedom; so that all of us may know first hand the love of God; so that all of us might experience in Christ the transforming grace that calls us each to die to ourselves and rise up to new life in Christ

I am trying to point you to Jesus as the only lens through which we must interpret Scripture and the world around us.

How do we make sense of the violence in the Old Testament?

We develop a framework for understanding it by understanding the humanity of the authors and the culture and context of the world they inhabited and were trying to make sense of, of course. But ultimately we look to Jesus as our master and we hear Jesus’ say “Blessed are the Peacemakers…Love your enemies and pray for them…turn the other cheek.

The Elephant in the Room

Talk about the white elephant in the room

Below is the main text of the sermon I preached on Sunday. The subject matter was one of great sensitivity as well as being one of a very personal nature. There was definitely a sharp intake of breath when I mentioned what I would be preaching about.

This sermon is preached in the context of a series based on Adam Hamilton’s book, “Making Sense of the Bible.” Some of the content has been taken from the book, of course, and the remainder has been built upon that foundation in my own preparations and thoughts. The text we read in the service was Luke 14:25-15:7, with the primary conclusion of the sermon being drawn from the parable of the lost sheep.

Below is the text as it was typed up for me to preach from. There were moments when I came off script, so what you read here is not the sermon in its final form. The recap on the series, mentioned at the very beginning of the sermon, was a recap of the main areas touched upon in the series so far, namely an overview of the Old and New Testaments, a sermon on the meaning of inspiration (as it relates to Scripture), a sermon on science and the Bible, and a sermon on making sense of the violence in the Old Testament.

Feedback was and has been positive from the congregation.

I post it here as a record of the preach.


Recap on Series so far…

This week we are going to talk about the elephant in the room

The Elephant in the Room is a term that we use to describe something that is glaringly obvious in its need to be discussed, but is never actually discussed.

I have used that phrase as the title of my sermon today because I think that we have something that we need to talk about in church, that never really gets talked about – well not in the local church anyway. It gets talked about air higher levels in the church, by the men and women who write doctrines and policies, and come up with the discipline that we live under. But on a local level – we are not often given to preaching about the elephant in the room; we are not often open for discussion on the elephant in the room.

Today I want to talk to you about one of the most personal matters that human beings can talk about – and that is human sexuality.

Before I go any further, I need to say a few things in terms of ground rules. This topic is so personal to folks; I understand that it can can be profoundly sensitive.

Some of you have wrestled personally with the things I am going to touch on today. Whether that is in your own life, or in the life of a loved one or friend. For some folks in here I know that this is a deeply personal matter. My promise to you today is that I will be sensitive to that. It is a deeply personal matter in my own life too. My prayer is that all my words will be drenched in the grace and love that only Christ can give.

My job today is not to pontificate on what i think is right and wrong.
My job is not to lament the way things are in the world and dream of returning to the way they once were
My job today is to teach in a way that might help you make more sense of what the Bible says about human sexuality.
My job, as always is to point to Jesus.

Might there be somethings I say that you might find yourself in disagreement with? Perhaps. My job is not just to say the things that all 150 or so of you want to hear. But if that does end up being the case, let me remind you from the get go, that Christians, since the earliest days, have been able to disagree with one another, and still break bread together, in fellowship, in the name of Christ, and in the name of the deeper things that unite us, namely, the unconditional love of God.

So, with that in mind let’s get going!

In the world that I grew up in human sexuality was never really talked about in church at all. In fact, although i am from Northern Ireland, the influence of British culture was indeed great. We tended just to not talk about these kinds of things at all, and just hope that by some kind of osmosis, the right things would be learned. But it was never talked about openly and most definitely not in church.


I cannot remember one time in my entire childhood, adolescence, or young adult hood when i have heard anything said in church with regard to human sexuality. I never heard a sermon preached on it. I never sat in a Sunday School Class that taught on it. And I don’t think it ever came up at Youth Group either.

And yet…pretty much most of the Christians I met growing up and most of the Christians I meet these days seem to have a very strong opinion on matters of human sexuality.

Some times i wonder if i just missed that class, or if i wasn’t in church that day…

But seriously, even though there never seemed to be any specific teaching on matters of human sexuality, there always seemed to be plenty of overtones about what is proper and acceptable for Christians in matters of human sexuality. In other words…every one had an opinion…everybody had an idea…but no one really liked to talk about it. They just kind of pointed to the Bible and said, “It’s all in there…somewhere…I’m not really sure where…but I know it is in there…so this is what you should think”

When I was a child the social construct of western society was very simple when it came to human sexuality. Men and women fell in love with one another, got married, had children and kept the cogs of the world turning by doing the best they could to raise those children well.

That was kind of it.

When I read books, that was the model of relationships the author wrote about.
When I watched TV or movies, that was the model of family life.

As far as I knew that was just how it worked. And it was how it always worked for me too.

But we’re not in Kansas anymore…right? We are not in that world any more.

In fact, it seems like we never were in that world. Not really. All the while that I was learning what was supposed to be normal and acceptable in matters of human sexuality, there were others for whom what was being taught as normal, was actually very foreign in terms of their feelings and their personal realities.

Because of what was being taught as normal, and what we were accepting as normal, those others felt abnormal, different, and even below standard. They felt that they had to keep their feelings and realities a secret, hidden away from those who were nearest and dearest to them.

As I’ve said, we are not in that world anymore. The last 30 years has seen a total sea change in the way our culture and western societies think about human sexuality. Those things that people once felt they had to keep secret, they no longer feel they do. Although, it should be said that this is not the case for everyone – there are still many, many people who feel abnormal, different and below standard, and who continue to keep their realities and feelings secret.

That said though, the world is different. The so called norms of human sexuality that i was taught as a boy, and perhaps you all were taught too, are no longer the norms of the society around us. And in the same way as the church has always had to ask questions of it’s traditional stance when culture and society changes, the church in these days is faced with some major questions about human sexuality.

So it is important that we are able to make sense of the Bible on these matters. Right?

I can’t go into all of the Scriptures that pertain to human sexuality today, but there are a couple that I want to speak into. As I do so, I want you to know that I am not, in any way, saying definitively that what I am communicating to you is 100% the only way to interpret these texts. Remember, my job is not to pontificate today…my job is to help you make sense of what we read in Scripture.

So let’s start in Leviticus. Because that’s where every one love to start!!

In Leviticus 20, the writer, thought by some to be Moses, is writing a book of law and statute for the people of Israel to live by. In Exodus, the Commandments had been given at Sinai, of course, but Leviticus takes the Commandments and breaks them down into more detailed codes for daily living. In Lev 20, we are reading about the holiness codes. There is a bunch of stuff in here about what is not right and not right in terms of human relationships. And buried in there are these words:

“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”

That seems pretty cut and dried. Right?

But remember what we have been emphasizing on in this series. As we reviewed the Old and New Testaments, as we discussed inspiration, and as we have tackled some of the big questions coming out of the Bible, we have been mindful to remember the humanity of the Bible writers – that they were imperfect minds, doing their best to interpret a perfect God in an imperfect world. We have been mindful to remember that the inspiration of Scripture is not the same as the dictation of Scripture.

It is easy for us to read our English translations of the Bible, with our 21st century minds and contexts, and to interpret in a such a way that we think we know exactly what the original writers of the Bible were thinking and wanting to get across.

But often times, in the Bible, things are not always as they first appear, which means that we often have a little more work to do, and some questions to ask if we are to think a sentence or paragraph through fully.

So what was the writer of Leviticus trying to get at? Well, in the rest of the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible) there are only two recorded references to same sex activity. One is the very famous one in Genesis 19 where we read of happenings in a town called Sodom. If you don’t know the story, let me overview it for you.

Two angels visit Sodom and get taken into the house of a man called Lot. Later that night, the men of Sodom hear that Lot is housing strangers in his house and they come and surround the property, demanding that the visitors be brought out to them so they could have their way with them.

Lot, being the amazing host that he is, refuses to give in to the demands of the townsmen, and instead decides that he will offer his two virgin daughters to the men, because these men have come under the protection of his roof.

I know. Right?

To your ears and mine, hearing about a father who is willing to protect two strangers at the expense of his two daughters is just not cool.

So, think with me for a minute. What is this story really about in Genesis 19? The answer is that this story is about power and force, and sexual violence, more than it is about same sex orientation.

When we talk about same sex relationships today, i assume that we are not talking about power and force and sexual violence. no. When we talk about same sex relationships today, by and large we are talking about stable, committed and loving relationships.

For us Sodom is a place that is forever related to same sex attraction because of this story, but the bottom line about Sodom is this: it was a fairly nasty and violent place to live and operate. It was known as a place of excesses and violence, and for their lack of care for the poor among them. The people of Sodom were condemned for much more than for what we have let their town name come to define in our own day.

The story of Sodom is the only record of homosexual activity recorded in the Torah before Leviticus. Is it beyond the realms of possibility that the writer of Leviticus was referring to the sin of homosexual rape as an abomination, and that he was not referring to committed, stable, and loving relationships between two members of the same sex as being sinful?

The other reference to same sex matters in the Torah is in Deuteronomy chapter 23. It is a brief and passing mention and it is in reference to Temple Prostitution. Yes.. You heard it right. Temple Prostitution. In these times it would not have been uncommon for religious temples to have had prostitutes on the premises. Engaging with such men or women would likely have been part of a fertility ritual of some kind, but ultimately much remains unknown about this.

But whatever it was – it is not a reference to stable, loving and committed relationships between two people. The comment here in Deuteronomy is a holiness code referring to momentary activity in the Temple.

Also worth noting is what the meaning of the word translated as abomination is. In the Levitical Law, things were usually very simply divided in life. Things of all natures were either clean or unclean; normal or abnormal. Clean/normal was good. Unclean/abnormal was not good. Another way of describing something as unclean or abnormal was to describe it as an abomination. The same word is used to describe the unclean/abnormal practices of eating shell fish or pork

So again, I want to ask, with all this in mind, is it possible that the writer of the Levitical Law Codes was using the word abomination to describe men lying with other men as simply not normal?

Friend, don’t get me wrong today. I am not trying to explain away these texts. I am not trying to lose you in the middle of a lot of information.

What I am saying is this: Perhaps we are often too quick to judge what the writers of the text really and truly meant when they wrote these words down a long time ago in a galaxy far far away

Essentially, the Old testament is not talking about stable, loving and committed relationships when it is talking about same sex attraction. The definitions of what is abnormal in the times that Leviticus is written, are some completely different from the definitions of abnormal in the 21st century western world.

So what about the New Testament?

Again, I cannot go into every single text, but I do want to take a look at Romans 1 where Paul is describing the guilt of humanity before God. In this section he makes reference to humanity’s rejection of God in favor of pursuing their lusts for one another, and exchanging up natural relations with one another for unnatural relations. Again, looking at the texts, Paul seems to be picking up on the themes of the Old testament in that he is referring to the idea of ritual sex or idolatry and also to the ideas of abnormal/normal/unclean/clean acts. He is likely also referring to the ancient Roman practice of pederasty. Pederasty is when an older man takes on a younger boy as a student and lover.

Now, I am sure that we can all agree that rape, sexual violence, ritual prostitution and pederasty are all acts that are worthy of our all round condemnation, right?

But it also has to be pointed out that these are each different from stable, committed, and loving relationships too. Right?

Again…let me stress that I am not here today to pontificate on what is right or what is wrong. It would be easy for me to preach a sermon that was all in on one side of this debate or the other. But I am not sure that that is what Jesus would do himself, and I am not sure that it is what Jesus would want me to do today. To preach such a sermon would be to alienate and exclude, and I am not convinced that alienation and exclusion of humans is the business of Jesus’s ministry.

So what would Jesus say about human sexuality?

The truth is, we don’t know. You see, Jesus never said anything about it. He talked about marriage, but only in the context of a teaching he was giving to his listeners about divorce.

I do know this about Jesus though.

Jesus is the very image of the invisible God. When we look at Jesus we see the heart and character of God in human skin.

Like I said a couple of weeks ago, when we look at the Old testament, the temptation can be to see a violent and violence justifying God, but when we look at Jesus we do not see such a God. We see the Prince of Peace. We see the one who says love your enemies and pray for them; who says Blessed are the peace makers. When we look at Jesus we see the God who absorbs the violence of the world rather than orchestrates it.

Also, when we look at Jesus we see one who was willing to fly in the face of ancient teachings about the place and status of women in the world as they knew it. We see one who was willing to break with the ancient traditions and codes in order to meet the woman at the well. We see the one who was willing to kneel down and protect a woman who had been caught in adultery.

When we look at Jesus, we see an image of God as the friend of sinners.

And when we look at Jesus we see an image of God and realize that before this God we are all sinners.

Every single one of us has something about us which should essentially maintain the distance between God and ourselves.

If you came to church thinking that I might define sin, and specifically sexual sin, for you today, then I am sorry. I am not here to do that.

Today I am here to remind you all that each of us is broken; each of us is sinful; and each of us stands in dire need of God’s unconditional, unwavering and persistent love.

Today I am here to point you to God the son, Jesus; the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep and who is willing to go all the way in order to find every single one of us; to find you.

We are each of us broken. Each of us sinful. Each of us ashamed of one thing or another in our lives.

And we are also, each of us, invited by Jesus to walk with him and to walk in the way of the Kingdom.

We are each of us welcome into the family of God, as sinful and broken and ashamed as we might be.

And it is in this family, with God’s love abundantly available among us, that we will find out what it means to humble ourselves, be transformed in Christ and to become the beloved community.

I read an article this week that said this about the church: Church is a group of broken individuals united only by our brokenness traveling together to ask to be fixed.

If you are here today and you think that homosexuals are more broken than you are, then I am sorry, because I just don’t think that’s true.

If you are here today and you are homosexual and you think that you are not at all broken, then i am sorry, because I just don’t think it is true.

We are all broken. We are all lost. We all stand in need of God’s rescue and restoration in life; of god’s transforming grace in our lives.

I read an article this week that said this about the church: Church is a group of broken individuals united only by our brokenness traveling together to ask to be fixed.

So today, broken people, will you the hear the call of your equally broken pastor as I tell you that all broken people who are asking to be fixed by God are welcome here. And will you join me in assuming that all broken people, no matter how they are specifically broken, will find partners for the journey join this place.

How do we make sense of the Scripture on this matter?

We ask the questions that need to be asked of the text.
We look to Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith.
We look to Jesus who says that all are broken and yet all are welcome to be fixed by grace and love.

My Journey to Civil Rights Alabama…

There are places in the world that are of significant importance in terms of the events that have happened in those places and the impact said events have had on a world scale afterwards. Perhaps one would think of Auschwitz in Poland as such a place, or Ground Zero in New York City. These are examples of places where significant human suffering happened. They are also examples of places in which, in the face of human suffering, humanity appeared to ultimately unite in order to recover well and subsequently find a new way forward, making the world a better place.

This week I have found myself in a series of such places.

The State of Alabama (U.S.A.) is home to three places that are, in my opinion, three of the most significant sites in the world in terms of the importance of the events that took place in them, and also in terms of the ripples of impact that spread across the world, ripples that were generated by these events. These three places are Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma.

During the last week, as part of my studies with Wesley Theological Seminary, I have had the opportunity to take a class/make a pilgrimage to these sites in order to study the stories and legacy of the American Civil Rights movement. In the following paragraphs, I would like to offer some of the primary reflections I noted as my week there progressed.

1. Human beings in so called civil societies possess the ability to treat horrendously their fellow humans.

I knew this already. Having grown up in Northern Ireland, where hearing stories of abhorrent acts of violence between humans was a normal part of daily life, I absolutely knew just how badly we can treat one another. But this last week it was impressed on me again as I heard the stories of lynchings, the general de-humanizing and mistreatment of African Americans, the bombing of 16th Avenue Baptist Church in which four little girls had their lives robbed from them, and the brutality with which local law enforcement beat and trampled the black people of Selma as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Recently, I find myself grieving the violence that humans inflict on one another. As I watched the movie Dunkirk, I could not help but grieve what humans do to each other. As I moved through Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma, I felt exactly the same. I was just so deeply saddened by the human ability to cheapen life and see it as something that is expendable in the name of a cause or ideology. The Declaration of Independence states:

…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

How can it be that in a nation founded on such truths; a civilized nation, such abhorrent treatment of human beings could be allowed to take place?

Human life is precious.
Even when human life exists in the most depraved and cruel human beings, it is still precious.
Humans are created in the image of God. Therefore, human life is absolutely precious and should ALWAYS be highly valued.

2. “What will I be willing to die for?”

This question came back again and again as the week went on. In each site we visited we were told of attacks upon the African American people; attacks which, in some cases, led to terrible human loss. For example, in the 16th Street Baptist bombing, 4 little girls lost their lives. In Selma blood was shed as marchers absorbed the violence of the authorities. On Christmas Day in 1956, Fred Shuttlesworth’s parsonage was bombed (an attack which Rev. Shuttlesworth survived). Although each attack brought its own pain, and inflicted unimaginable suffering upon families and entire communities, the pain and suffering seemed to be that which galvanised these communities to take their next faithful steps to freedom. Rev. Shuttlesworth recognized that in the fight for freedom, “Somebody may have to die.” and proved himself willing to take the hits which came his way again and again and again.

As I reflected on this thought with my classmates, I could not help but ask myself what it is that I am willing to die for? What is it that I am willing to go all the way for? What cause or situation will I willingly bear pain for?

In churches across the world, privileged, well-off Christians like me sing the old refrain, “I surrender all” with passion and gusto. We kneel in submission to God at the alter rails of our churches, symbolizing our willingness to go all the way for Christ. But are we really willing to submit and surrender? Am I really willing to take up my cross and join Christ in his sufferings for the sake of the Kingdom; for the sake of my suffering fellow humans in the world? If I am honest, I can say that in my head and in my heart, I absolutely WANT to be willing to follow Christ all the way into the world, but will my desire to follow Christ prove substantial if it ever begins to cost me physically? Shuttlesworth, Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, and many un-named and not so famous members of the African America community made a choice and declared that their personal freedom and the freedom of their people was important enough that it was worth suffering for; worth deliberately putting themselves in harms way agains and again and again for. Their courage, faith, and rugged determination is not only admirable, but also enviable.

As I got to the end of the week I had found myself reflecting on the fact that Dr. King and his peers had sold themselves out to a philosophy, and sold themselves out to a vision. Completely. They had a goal to move towards and they resolutely set out towards the fulfilling of that goal.

What are your goals?
What philosophy are you sold out to?
What are my goals?
What philosophy am I sold out to?
What is my cause?
What I am willing to suffer for it?

I personify the idea of privilege in life. I have never wanted for anything. I have never been looked down upon because of the color of my skin. I have never been discriminated against because of my gender or sexuality. I have never been so poor that I do not know where I will get my next meal. I am an immigrant, but I am a white, English-speaking immigrant, so I have never experienced any kind of maltreatment as other immigrants do. I have never experienced suffering personally, or among my people group, that would have put me in a position to have to fight for freedom or for legally protected rights that were being with withheld from me.

I, too, sing that refrain, “I surrender all” but would I really be willing to? This alone was the most massive challenge of my week: I am called to not only sing, “I surrender all,” but to live it out. My sincere prayer is that my willingness to surrender all will only increase from this point forward.

3. Civil Rights leaders were young.

Martin Luther King was only 24 years old when he was appointed as the Senior Pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. He already had achieved his doctoral degree by this time, and he would go on to spend the next 15 years at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement before his untimely death in 1968. Fred Shuttlesworth was 31 when he became the Pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham and spent 8 years there at the forefront of the Civil Rights struggle in America’s south, before moving to Ohio (Incidentally, Shuttleworth remained in close contact and regularly flew back to meetings with the movement leaders in Birmingham).

My point is that these were not leaders who had served their time in a system which would eventually reward them with esteemed positions of leadership. They were young men who were willing to step out in front and lead their people in the march towards freedom. They preached with authority. They kept their eyes on the prize, and kept moving forward towards it.

As I stated, Dr. King came to the fore at 24 years of age, and his life was ended prematurely at the age of 39. He had 15 years.

15 years.

I had never really thought about that until this week, and, even though I myself have just turned 39, I could not help but ask myself this: As a still relatively young leader in the Christian faith, if I had only 15 more years to live and lead, what would I be determined to achieve in that time frame? Again, the question has to be asked – what am I sold out to, and what am I willing to suffer for?

4. The march towards freedom must continue.

American society has come a long way since the Civil Rights movement of the mid 20th century. Many of the specific struggles of the 1950’s and 60’s may no longer appear to be the primary struggles of the Civil Rights movement. However, the reality is that while some landmark achievements were indeed made, there is still much work to be done in order to right some of the wrongs that continue to exist in America. This was so clear to me as I walked through Kelly Ingram park, across the street from 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The park is designed as a memorial of the hardest days of the Civil Rights struggle in Birmingham, and celebrates the end of segregation in the south. As I walked through the park, I saw several homeless people asleep in the park. In seeing them both, I could not help but remember that the march to freedom that we had been learning about all week is far from over. Economic Inequality, educational underachievement among working class minority communities, discrimination in the work place, gender inequality and the general effects of relative poverty are still all stark realities in the United States. The work of the Civil Rights movement is not finished and must continue, and the church can absolutely play an important part in that.

5. Size doesn’t matter.

Before this last week, the dominant image, in my mind, of the US Civil Rights was always the image of Dr. King speaking and preaching at mass meetings at which vast crowds had gathered. My impression was that it was his celebrity that drew crowds, and that the currency of the movement was the size of the crowds. However, the reality is that much of the work of the Civil Rights movement was lead and made real in little churches. The church was at the center of the movement, because the church still had pride of place at the center of African American communities. The churches we visited last week were not large churches. Dexter Avenue Baptist Church only ever had a couple of hundred members at it’s height. Brown Chapel AME had a similar number in it’s congregation.

Often, in our culture, we can be guilty of assuming that the power to achieve great things only lies with churches or groups that are well resourced, but the evidence of the Civil Rights Movement tells a different story. The evidence of the Civil Rights Movement of 1950’s and 60’s American suggests that where there is a people who are motivated and united; where there is a people who are led diligently by focussed, informed, organized and dedicated leaders, great and significant things can be achieved. Success and the achievement of goals is not limited to large and seemingly influential groups. Any body of people can achieve their goals if they are sold out to the vision, led ably, and are willing to stand together in unity. Size does not matter.

6. Leadership matters.

This, also, is a well known truth, and I have already made several references to it throughout this piece. The Civil Rights Movement shows that leadership absolutely matters. Without Shuttlesworth, Martin Luther King & Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks, Jo Ann Robinson, Diane Nash, etc, the movement would not have had the widespread impact that it ultimately did have. These leaders were captivated by a vision of freedom, they were willing to suffer in order to win this freedom, they were committed to leading non violently, and they were united.


The Civil Rights Movement was without doubt one of the most, if not the most significant civilian movement of the 20th century. The ripples of its impact spread far and wide throughout the world, and they continue to do so. I have been inspired by the example of strong and focussed leadership, the willingness to suffer and pay a price for a cause, and the ability to influence and bring about change through non-violent means.