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Rev Lonnie S. Atkinson
Special to The Guardian
The young protesters were seated in a healing circle. They repeatedly sang, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of...”
Only a few hours before they had marched with thousands of friends and strangers, young and old, of every racial background, gender, socioeconomic status who prophetically proclaimed, “We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome someday. Oh, deep in my heart I do believe...”
There were echoes of people in the streets in past years. Each generation in each nation sang songs of peace, justice, freedom and love. So, too, in our time.
I have been a peaceful but vocal protestor. In the late ’60s in a racially divided Halifax, I walked with those seeking to be heard. The forces of power and privilege denied the realities in an effort to maintain social inequality and position. Visibly it was a truth revealed in postal codes. North and south ends of a small piece of land reflected the great divide in our society.
In the ’80s, I led our congregation in a peace march in Winnipeg. We hoped to ban cruise missile testing in Canada. Terms like limited nuclear war, precise targeting, collateral damage shook my conscience to the core. I would later learn that I was in a file with our national security people – my photo captured singing hopefully “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me”.
As each group of protest marchers set out, I found myself thinking of Biblical processions of the past: the Exodus slaves following pillars of fire across burning deserts; Joshua’s trumpet leading band of immigrants marching till walls fell; the returning exiles climbing the mountain to the renewed temple; the hosanna chorus waving palm branches as they proclaim the coming of their Deliverer Saviour.
These are but examples of how often our people have made the pilgrimage, have joined in the freedom walk. From Jericho to Jerusalem, Selma to Soweto, people have sung, “O freedom, O freedom, O freedom over me. And before I’d be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.”
During my doctoral studies in Pittsburgh, I was to discover that my thesis director had been a freedom rider in the 1960s. I had heard of their stories. I had shuddered as I watched news reports. But like those who live privileged lives I had no clear vision of the stark realities of violent, oppressive racial discrimination. While we were in town studying, the movie “Mississippi Burning” was released. It vividly depicted the deaths and subsequent investigations of the murders of three freedom riders. I shuttered to think of the conditions they faced as young idealists who put themselves on the line joining the marching martyrs.
But, as I spent time talking with John Mehl, I would learn that though fear was present each day as they faced cruel and bitter forces stacked against those marches they knew that they needed to be there. It was a deep Christian calling to stand with those who are oppressed, to speak so that the walls that divide might be broken down and to be willing to put one’s life on the line that others might be released.
From beatitude to mission declaration, from parable to life witness, from healing encounter to multitude miracles, Jesus sought to set the Micah 6:8 example. When we ask, what does a God require of us, the gospel is clear – justice, mercy, humility. Jesus would teach this to rich rulers and poor beggars, to the ostracized and the oppressors, to all who would listen and those willing to pick up their crosses and follow him.
I’ve frequently wondered what the disciples sang as they walked the deserts, hills and village streets of Palestine.
Perhaps one of the Psalms or another popular song of the time.
Maybe they might have sung about walking hand in hand, working side by side, living in peace, loving one another.
Maybe they would have sung, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love” while linking arms and inviting other to walk with them.
Rev. Lonnie S. Atkinson is with Wellspring Presbyterian Church in Montague. A guest sermon runs regularly in Saturday’s Guardian and is provided through Christian Communications.