A Tradition of Principled Resistance

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Mark 9:  30-37

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As the songwriter says, ‘good experience comes from seasoned judgment–which comes from bad experience’.

Michael Deng was the son of two immigrant Chinese parents.  He worked hard to enter Baruch College in NYC.  In order to find some support at the largely commuter college, he signed up for a fraternity.   The fraternity was attractive to Michael and others because it offered friendships, a sense of community, some solidarity over against the rest of culture, and the prospect of mutual support through the rigors of college life.  Community, meaning, belonging, empowerment.

Michael’s photo shows a bright-eyed young man, smiling, eager, energetic.

He died on December 9, 2013, outside a rented house in Pennsylvania.  The house looked like a fraternity house.  The brothers went there to haze new members.  Michael was blindfolded, forced to wear and sand loaded backpack, lifted and dropped on his head, and ‘speared’ by a classmate running at him full tilt with his head down.  The ritual was called the Glass Ceiling, a reference to constraints against advancement for Asians in America, something the fraternity apparently wanted to challenge.  An icy back yard, a snowy evening, a cold night—and an unintended, tragic, loss.

According to one account, Deng drew the ire of others because he ‘resisted’.  He realized, too late, that what was happening was wrong, dangerous, and perhaps potentially fatal.  So he resisted, and thereby became the focal point of heightened abuse.  No reporting, yet, has identified how many others may have been spared, or saved, due to his resistance, and, tragically, the necessary attention given to his unconscious state, his labored breathing, his bruised torso, and, finally, his death.  No reporting, yet, has placed this incident quite fully in the fuller narrative of the rigors and perils of American student life.  But most notably, no reporting, yet, has tried to understand Michael’s last moments, his decision to resist, his resistance—bringing his demise and perhaps sparing others some measure of hurt—within a tradition of principled resistance.  

Sometimes you follow a story, as clearly I have this one.  It has bothered me, hounded me, for many days, for a variety of relatively easily named reasons.  And I have wondered about its meaning.  Stephen Weinberg famously wrote that ‘the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more its seems pointless.’  Comprehensible. Pointless.  It is a serious ‘point’.  Yet comprehension requires the mind, alone.  We deem pointless what seems pointless, though, as a choice.  It is if you think it is.  Pointless.  It is if you choose to live like it is.  Pointless.  There is a dualism of decision haunting this world, not just in the pages of Scripture, but also upon every day.

At the very end, it seems, from what little we comprehend, that Michael Deng made a choice to resist.  He pointedly and in a tragically costly moment decided to fight back, to object, to refuse, to resist.  And there, in that moment just now, in light shadow, in a whisper, in a ghostly echo, one may sense, we may choose to sense, just a measure of meaning in the heart of an otherwise awful and pointless story.

That is where you come in, this morning.  Yours is a tradition of resistance, and you have that tradition to offer.  In fact, you have offered moments of entrance to the tradition of principled resistance for a month.  In a kindly way, of course.  One Sunday, you gave the conclusion to a summer national preacher series on ‘The Beloved Community”.  Come, you said, join with Thurman and King and us.  One Sunday, you hosted a Matriculation gathering.  Come, you said, ‘read, take and read, read’, join with Augustine of Hippo and us.  One Sunday, you marked Labor Day with the Lord’s Supper, and a opened a year long theological overture to prayer.  Come, you said, join with Jesus, the crucified, and the church and us.  One Sunday, you celebrated International Sunday, and extended a particular Methodist handshake to students and others from abroad.  Come, you said, join with Wisdom, wisdom that offers power to withstand what we cannot understand, and Luther and Pope Francis and us.  Next Sunday, you will open our musical year, beautiful it promises to be, with a full morning bathed in beauty, bathed in musical experience.  Come, you say, and join with choristers and orchestra, and learn from Bach how to meditate upon the cross and resurrection, and wing with us.  

For those, perhaps few, with eyes to see, and ears to hear, you offered the shelter of a particular tradition.

The Gospel of Mark, read more than preached these weeks, announces, affirms, and extols this tradition.  For Mark is written with the cross in mind, and is written, at least in part, to make sure earlier Christians, the community of faith, fully understood the call to resistance.  Jesus is raised from the dead. Yes.  But.  Life in him means bearing a cross, bearing up under suffering, and resistance all that cheapens life ‘in this adulterous and sinful generation’.

So, early in Mark 7, you heard Jesus teaching resistance to falsehood, to lips that move but hearts that lie.

Then, later in that chapter, you heard the gentile woman resist Jesus’ exclusion of her—‘even the dogs get crumbs’ she said—and Jesus’ own reversal, his inclusion of her, his healing of her daughter.

And, in Mark 8, you heard the hallmark word of resistance, which the church placed on Jesus’ lips, ‘If any man would come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow.  What does it profit a man to gain the whole world lose his soul, his life?’

Like today, in Mark 9, you just heard resistance to heavy-handed leadership proclaimed in the affirmation of servant leadership, and resistance to the tides of disenchantment proclaimed in the figure of childlike innocence.  Would you lead?  Then serve.  Would you love?  Then hold a child.

Your tradition is one of principled resistance.   On Sunday morning in worship at 11am you resist the temptation to sleep the day away.  On Sunday evening in worship at 6:30pm you resist the anonymity of student life with the offer of a beautiful oasis, dinner and eucharist.  On Wednesday morning in worship at 11:10, with the School of Theology, you resist the separation of learning and vital piety.  On Wednesday eveningat 5:15pm in worship, in the Episcopal eucharist, you resist the midweek Christological amnesia that can emerge in a post Christian culture, in an secular University, in a sprawling big city.  On Thursday noon, served communion on Marsh Plaza, you resist the temptation to forget God, to forget love, to forget faith, to forget the humanity of your neighbor.  In all, some 300 gather in these services, a mere 1% of the number of students at BU, but a witness, salt an light, a reminder of your tradition of principled resistance.

I say at funerals, perhaps like that offered Michael Deng, ‘one who has loved, one who has been loved, is never lost’.  Maybe I should add, ‘one who has resisted, who has lived the tradition of principled resistance, is never lost’.

Faith is resistance. Faith is the power to withstand what we cannot understand.

We are in worship this morning to attest to something.  Faith is the power to withstand what we cannot understand.  Worship is the practice of faith by which we learn to withstand what we cannot understand.  God is the presence, force, truth, and love Who alone deserves worship, and worship is the practice of the faith by which we learn to withstand what we cannot understand.  Worship prepares us to resist.  So we see Jesus again in the wilderness.  To resist all that makes human life inhuman.  So here you are, come Sunday, come this Sunday.

This week you may, suddenly, find that a choice is required of you, through no fault, intention, planning or device of your own.  Further, the choice you want to make perhaps could involve refusal and resistance:  refusal of a request from an archetypal authority, resistance to a popular mood, resistance to an ingrained habit, refusal of the pleas of a friend.  Russell Lowell predicts that at least once to every person and group comes such a moment to decide.  

With all your heart you may want to refuse, to refuse.  An invitation, a suggestion, a promotion, a direction, an order.  Your heart may say:  This is not me, not right, not good. Resistance always costs.  Resistance means sacrifice.  Resistance hurts.  The slings and arrow of fortune’s discontent draw blood.  Resistance, refusal.  Does such principled denial have a place in Christian living?  Dare ask:  Does God evoke and use refusal?  Does Christ, God’s everlasting Yes–in whom Paul says there is no longer Yea and Nay, but only Yes–Does Christ desire resistance and refusal?

For Daniel, refusal to give up his family name, his religion, his faith landed him, with the others, in trouble.  You enjoy the story, I know.  Daniel resists the order to blaspheme, and accepts punishment, even death.  Bound in the heart of fire, the prophet of God is protected, strangely, by God who answers prayer.

For Naboth, refusal came more dear.  Old King Ahab had every vineyard he wanted but one.  He asked for the land.  Naboth refused.  He asked again, this time presumably in a more kingly voice.  Naboth refused.  Ahab asked again, with a hint of threat on his tongue.  Naboth refused.  And Ahab went whimpering to bed.  Not so, Jezebel, who simply took Naboth aside, and cut off his head.  Refusal can either cost you a king’s friendship, or your head, or both.

John of Patmos did something to put himself out on the rocky prison isle, a first century Papillon, as he wrote his Revelation, our last Bible book.  Refusing to worship Caesar?  Names jeeringly attached to Rome–beast, satan, whore?  Resistance to the more established synagogue?        

What if I were to shout to you this morning that this church had received a magnificent bequest, a precious gift left us by an ancestor?  Further, were I to announce that this one gift was worth more than all our buildings and all our current endowment and all our church program put together?  Would you not dance, sing, soar?

You inherit a tradition of principled refusal, a pearl of great price, a treasure hidden in a field, a precious gift.  A tradition of principled resistance.

Several summers ago an older woman was robbed at gunpoint in her own home.  The newspaper, perhaps accurately, has quoted her in full as regards her view of this crime: “We are raising a generation of hooligans.”

Pummelled still, even in old age, even in closeted retirement, the violent spirit of the age pounds at her, lacing her with blows left and right.  Yet she resists!  You may recognize her, now.

This was Rosa Parks.  A younger Mrs. Parks found herself, seated midway back in a Montgomery bus, on December 1, 1955, pummeled again by the hand of aggression, the Strong Man of this world.  For some reason, she refused to move.  Bus stopped.  Police came.  Crowd gathered.  Anger, shouting.  The Montgomery bus boycott began.  A tradition of principled resistance–this is your native land, your mother tongue, your home territory.

The prophets of old knew this.  They spoke about God’s unbending holiness.  They spoke about God’s own refusal to set a divine seal on any present moment, any present setup, any present arrangement of power.  They spoke about human suffering, about how God sees, hears, knows, remembers, and intervenes for the suffering.  They spoke about God’s justice, critical of every established power.  They refused.  Here it is:  “Prophetic speech is an act of relentless hope that refuses to despair, that refuses to believe that the world is closed off in patterns of exploitation and oppression.” (Brueggeman).

My son had only one request for a gift one year.  He showed me a catalogue that pictured a little grill, for cooking meat, “ A lean, mean fat reducing machine, guaranteed to reduce each average hamburger by 3 oz of fat–$59.95”   Then I noticed the sponsor of this culinary instrument—George Foreman.  And I inflicted a story on my son, as parents do.

In 1974, one of the greatest boxing matches of the century pitted Mohammed Ali against the world champion, George Forman.  Kinshasha, Zaire.  November 2.  Ali predicted:  “The most spectacular wonder human eyes have ever witnessed.”  60,000 cheering fans, shouting, “Ali Bu Mal Ye”, which antiseptically translated means, “Go get him”.

Scenes: Forman charging, rounds 1-6.  Forman 25, young, strong, powerful.  Recently defeated both Frazier and Norton.  Ali: 32, guile fitness and will.  After 5 rounds, Forman arm weary and bewildered.  3rd Round, Ali leans to crowd:  “He don’t hurt me much”.  5th round, Forman tantalized by the stationary target, angry, frustrated.  Angelo Dundee had loosened the ropes!  Ali, later:  “The bull is stronger but the matador is smarter”.  Then, 8th round:  “Ali is leaning back against the ropes, inviting the champion’s hardest blows suddenly in the next instant he springs forward and brought Forman down.  Down the strong man went, the first time ever he had been knocked out.

Those who may need to resist and refuse today are part of the spiritual rope strategy, the wearying of the Strong Man, the resistance of evil, the binding of evil.  It’s not pleasant.  Hurt, setbacks, delay, confusion.  But there is an eighth round coming!  There is an eighth round coming!

How hungry the church is today to perceive this truth.  God is at work, in part, to encourage and give stamina to those on the ropes, using Ali’s rope a dope strategy, binding the Strong Man.  The historic Christian church in this country has been on the ropes for a generation, 30 years of blows to the midsection.  God’s spirit is not in a mode of lightening triumph, for those who would still maintain a real connection between deep personal faith and active social involvement.  But the eighth round is still coming…

A tradition of principled resistance.

I can imagine an objection or two.

Well taken, is your perhaps silent objection thus far:  some refusal is Godly, but some is not.  Too often those who resist or refuse are simply petulant, immature, arrogant, slothful, idiotic, selfish.  Agreed…But we speak here not of forms of hypocrisy, so many they are.  Rather, we speak of principled resistance, which shows its character by enduring body blows, by leaning against the rope and aching.

Or, maybe you doubt that refusal takes a part of small stage play.  Perhaps only the civil disobedience of Ghandi or the peaceful resistance of Martin Luther King or the risky French Resistance of Albert Camus stand out, great historic refusals, great moments of common endurance.  But you would be wrong, I suggest, to think so.  Most resistance is hidden, unheralded, unknown, unrewarded.  Most principled refusal is known only to the one sagging against the ropes, the one catching the body blows.  Most real principled resistance is very ordinary.

Prayer is primarily a form of spiritual refusal, refusal to accept the world’s time clock, where all time is meant for work or play. (Our theme, for this year). Marriage and loyal friendship are primarily forms of spiritual refusal, refusal to accept the world’s low estimate of intimacy, refusal to accept the unholy as good.  Choosing carefully is primarily a form of spiritual resistance:  “We live in a society that primarily starves our soul…we have to really resist the culture to care for the soul…but…if we choose with care our professions and ways we spend our time and our homes in which we live, if we take care of our families and don’t see them as problems, and if we nurture our relationships and friendships and marriages then the soul probably will not show its complaints so badly.” (Moore) Tithing is primarily a form of spiritual refusal, refusal to accept the world’s understanding of success and refusal to accept the implication that all that we have is ours alone.  Education is primarily a form of spiritual refusal to view the world as pointless, as in our BU School of Public Health which right now, this month, resists HIV in 37 million, resists the denial that health care is a right, resists kidney disease in 20,000 in Central America, resists the danger of alcohol for 20 years olds, resists the 32,000 deaths from bullets annually in America (Dean Sandro Galea, in presentation, 9/18/15, Boston)

In 350, Philip of Macedon wanted to unite Greece, which he did except for Sparta.  He did everything he could.  Finally he sent them a note:  If you do not submit at once I will invade your country.  If I invade I will pillage and burn everything in sight.  If I march into Laconia, I will level your great city to the ground.  The Spartans sent back this one word reply; “if”. (laconic).

You are a part of a tradition of principled resistance.

You might want to remember that.  On a cold night when some activity seems not quite right, and you need to summon a courage to resist.  On a day when a choice in vocation arrives, unannounced, and you need to summon a kind of confidence to resist turning aside.  On an evening when you know the driver has had too much to drink, and you need to ask to be let out of the car.  On a weekend when you see something and need to say something.

On the other hand, you may not need this word right now.  But you may want to remember it, especially if you are young.  For one day, one day, you may want to use some of your spiritual bequest, your prophetic endowment.  You may need to draw on the tradition of principled refusal, principled resistance..

Good news has it that along the ropes, and upon the cross, Jesus has bound up the Strong Evil, subverting by being subject to, and so empowered us to resist.

A year before he was executed by the Nazis, languishing in a small prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this hymn:

“By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered

    and confidently waiting, come what may,

    We know that God is with us night and morning

    And never fails to greet us each new day.”

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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