Almost from the very beginning, Southerners in general and Alabamians in particular have resented what they have called “outside interference.” At least as far back as the Civil War, Southerners complained that Yankees just did not get it; they did not understand the Southern way of life. Of course, what that meant in antebellum Alabama was that Yankees wanted to put an end to slavery but did not really understand what a good, kind, and benevolent system slavery really was!
More recently, during the Civil Rights’ movement of the 1960s Southerners complained that Yankees (and Yankee journalists especially) did not understand the dynamics of the relationship between black folks and white folks in the Deep South. If they did, then they would just go back home and leave us alone.
There may be just a little bit of truth to the charge that Yankees don’t get us. How can you explain sweet tea, cornbread, Hank Williams (both junior and senior), Mardi Gras, and any number of other Southern institutions to anyone from Massachusetts, Ohio, or California? Having spent a good part of my life as a missionary to New England, I know what I am talking about.
Today we remember Jonathan Daniels who was one of those folks that Southerners accused of “outside interference.” Indeed, his biography is entitled Outside Agitator. Forty-two years ago today he was arrested and less than a week later unemployed highway engineer Thomas Coleman killed Daniels with a shotgun as the young man tried to protect a young black girl. Coleman argued that he had acted in self-defense and an all white, all male jury exonerated him.
Alabama’s bishop at the time of Daniels’ murder was Charles Carpenter. Carpenter deeply resented the “outside interference” of Yankees who came to Alabama to take part in the civil rights’ movement. I still find this hard to believe but Bishop Carpenter’s one and only public statement about Daniels’ murder and Coleman’s acquittal took place at the diocesan convention that followed. Carpenter criticized "the crowd of visitors whose presence motivated by various objectives caused us much difficulty and brought unwarranted confusion and tragic consequences."
I don’t know how fully Daniels, a New Hampshire native, “got” the South, but at least he was aware that there was something he did not quite grasp. Not long before he was killed he wrote these words in his journal:
“I began to lose self-righteousness when I discovered the extent to which my behavior was motivated by worldly desires and by the self-seeking messianism of Yankee deliverance! The point is simply, of course, that one's motives are usually mixed, and one had better know it.”
I love the phrase “self-seeking messianism of Yankee deliverance.” We’ve all encountered it, and it can be very annoying to say the least. But I think all of us here tonight would also give thanks to God for the “Yankee messianism” that motivated people like Jonathan Daniels and Catholic priest Father Richard Morrisroe and Unitarian minister James Reeb and others to risk and sometimes give their lives in the struggle to secure equal rights for African Americans.
But the Episcopal church designated Jonathan Daniels a martyr not because of his “yankee messianism” nor because he, like so many other young men and women from the north, came south to help register African American voters. We honor Jonathan because he gave his life so that another might live and because he was where he was and was doing what he was doing for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
A martyr is a reminder. He or she is a sign in our midst reminding us of two things: First, they remind us that grace is costly. As Bonhoeffer said, “Grace is free but it is never cheap.” The cross shows us just how costly grace is. Indeed, if grace were not offered to us freely, we would be unable to afford it. But if we accept the grace offered to us in baptism and at the Lord’s table, then we may have to pay a very high price indeed. Daniels and other martyrs show us just how high the price might be.
Secondly, martyrs are God’s gift to the church to remind us that God is alive and well and active in the world. They are also God’s gift to the world, daring the world to explain away someone who gives her or his life for the sake of the gospel. If the crucifixion is a bonfire, then martyrs are the sparks from the fire. For a brief, brilliant moment, they light up the darkness. They give us just enough light to see the outline of a better world..
For several years now the Dioceses of Alabama and the Central Gulf Coast have sponsored a pilgrimage to Hayneville where Jonathan died and his killer was acquitted. The most moving part of that event to me takes place during the offertory. Members of the congregation carry large photos of persons who died in Alabama during the struggle for civil rights. As the names of the persons in the photos are called, the photos are brought forward and each simply says, “Present.”
There’s no disputing the truth of that. The preface to the Eucharistic prayer affirms that when we sing the Sanctus we are joined by “angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven.”
The letter to the Hebrews reminds us that “we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses”. But it is especially in the eucharist that the church on earth and the church in heaven become one.
Today’s significance is not just remembering men and women who gave their lives in a great struggle. And it is certainly not about beating ourselves up and feeling guilty because of what Bishop Carpenter did or failed to do or because we or our parents or grandparents could have done so much more to support the civil rights’ movement.
The message of Jonathan Daniels’ life and death is about the transforming power of God’s love. It is the message of Christ’s resurrection. What happened outside a country store in Lowndes County 42 years ago is caught up and redeemed by what happened in a borrowed tomb in a garden outside Jerusalem 2000 years ago. Light defeats darkness; justice overcomes injustice; life conquers death. But Jonathan stated it more eloquently:
“I lost fear in the black belt when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord's death and Resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God…. As [we] said the daily offices day by day, we became more and more aware of the living reality of the invisible "communion of saints"--of the beloved community in Cambridge who were saying the offices too, of the ones gathered around [God’s] throne in heaven--who blend with theirs our faltering songs of prayer and praise. With them, with black men and white men, with all of life, in Him Whose Name is above all the names that the races and nations shout, whose Name is Itself the Song Which fulfils and "ends" all songs, we are indelibly, unspeakably ONE.”