Baptism of the Lord, Year B, 2015

Published: January 10, 2015

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor preached the following homily at the Martin L. King Jr. Memorial Mass at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock on Saturday, Jan. 10, 2015.

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Bishop Taylor

Most people think that there exists only two basic options when confronted with evil: fight or flight. Resistance or retreat. Giving aggressors a taste of their own medicine or tucking one's tail and playing dead. Violent revolution or abject resignation to the domination of the powers that be. Our culture admires those who expose themselves to danger in order to use violence to confront violence, and we recognize as heroes those who pay the ultimate price.

But today's feast reminds us that there is a third way that requires even more courage, that of non-violent resistance to evil. That of persuasion rather than coercion. This is not pacifism or acquiescence, it is the use of moral force rather than physical force. It is the approach taken by John the Baptist and Jesus, which comes to mind as we celebrate this feast of the baptism of the Lord. It is the non-violent approach taken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as we celebrate his national holiday against the background of police brutality in Ferguson, MO., and indeed nationwide, and insufficient representation of people of color on police forces in much of the nation.

In this regard, we see an important progression between the ritual Jewish baptism John was administering in preparation for the arrival of the Messiah, and the sacramental Christian baptism that you and I received, which came into existence only after Jesus' death and resurrection. Both involve renouncing the world's way of doing things in favor of God's way of doing things.

As Dr. King says, "Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend."

John's baptism announces the non-violent arrival of the Kingdom of God. He resists evil with forceful words intended to change hearts permanently rather than supporting an insurgency of his contemporaries capable only of compelling temporary compliance, at most. Dr. King had the same idea. He said: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." 

Like Dr. King, John the Baptist called people to repent not only of personal sins, but also of their sometimes unwitting participation in the oppression of others ... in Dr. King's case it was often people who were simply born into the Jim Crow system and couldn't imagine things being any different. And this is what earned both of them the ire of the powers that be. John wasn't arrested for telling people to quit breaking the Ten Commandments.

He was arrested for speaking a truth that unmasked not only the moral failings of the king, but also the craven hypocrisy of King Herod's supporters, including the religious leaders. But in the end, which approach was more effective? The violent sword that took off John's head, or his challenging words that continue to convict us 2,000 years later? The bullet that took Dr. King's life or his inspiring witness to a better way to confront evil. Only the latter changed hearts.

Then Jesus takes us two big steps further: his baptism with water and then his baptism with the Holy Spirit. Our Christian baptism with water isn't just for repentance like that of John, though it does wash away sins ... but that's just the beginning. And Dr. King, being a Baptist minister, knew this very well. Our baptism unites us with Jesus in his death and resurrection, whereby we die figuratively to the kingdom of this world, and its way of doing things, and rise again reborn sacramentally to a new life in the Kingdom of God and God's way of doing things.

And in his death and resurrection, Jesus shows us just what that way of doing things is: responding to violence with self-sacrificing love. Convicting the conscience of the oppressor by not responding in kind. Shaming the enemy with the realization that he's not our enemy, but only a brother whom we love and forgive.  Letting them arrest you over and over again, and turn the dogs on you, and the fire hoses. Organizing bus boycotts when everyone said it wouldn't work, that the people didn't have the endurance needed, and then doing everything possible to fill people with hope and confidence that they could prevail — and they did!

Marching through streets lined with jeering crowds and seeing your name slandered day after day in the newspapers of the nation. Turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, giving your cloak, dying to self. That's the third way, the way of Jesus Christ and the way of Dr. King. Not fight or flight, but rather standing there with the even greater courage required to resist evil with the costly, personally vulnerable, non-violent force of good. Chanting "we will overcome" — a we that includes everyone, including former oppressors because it involves converting stony hearts into hearts of flesh.

Here's one of my favorite quotes on this topic from Dr. King: "Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, 'Love your enemies.' It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can't stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they'll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That's love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There's something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies."

Where do we get the courage to love like that? Through the baptism with the Holy Spirit promised in today's Gospel. Without the empowerment that God gives us, we would be ill equipped to rise to the occasion when faced with evil, and thus likely to choose the ultimately ineffective worldly response of fight or flight.

In confirmation we received the gifts of the Holy Spirit for a purpose: to enable us to live as Jesus did, thus changing enemies into friends and thereby ushering in the Kingdom of God proclaimed by John the Baptist, and established through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Dr. King says, "Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend."