Five years ago, the movie “Selma” was released in movie theaters everywhere. It told a story that was unfamiliar to me, a story that had happened in my lifetime, and a story that I needed to know. As all movies do, it condensed the storyline and heightened the details to enhance the drama. Here’s the story that inspired the movie. 

In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which made discrimination based on race illegal. In reality, the powers that be in the segregated South would not be changed overnight or without resistance. 

In January 1965, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others began a voters’ rights campaign in Selma, Alabama to allow black voters to register to vote. Despite repeated attempts at registering to vote, only 2% of the black population had been allowed to register. And so they protested.

The protests were nonviolent, but in February, police attacks on protestors increased. A 26-year-old black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was shot by a state trooper while protecting his mother from a trooper’s nightstick. The young man died eight days later.

The next month, on Sunday, March 7, Hosea Williams and John Lewis led a march intending to go from Selma to the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery, 54 miles away. But when they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by a blockade of state troopers and local law enforcement. 

What happened next caused the day to be remembered as “Bloody Sunday.” The troopers told the marchers to turn around, and, when they did not, the troopers attacked the crowd with clubs and tear gas. When the crowd retreated, mounted troopers chased them and continued to beat them. 

Photos of the day reveal what state troopers and local law enforcement were wearing as protection: they donned helmets, badges, gas masks, and they carried billy clubs. Some of the helmets and squad cars bore images of the Confederate flag. 

Television coverage of that day triggered national outrage, and King called on religious leaders all over the country to join them for another peaceful, nonviolent march just two days later. 

Two thousand people gathered for the second march. President Lyndon B. Johnson asked King to delay the march, and a court order prohibited them from proceeding. But King led the marchers to the site of carnage that had occurred two days earlier. When they arrived, King asked the marchers to stop and kneel in prayer. When they had finished, he turned the march around, and they returned to Selma. 

That night, a white minister from Boston by the name of James Reeb who had joined the march was attacked by local white men, and two days later he died, as well. 

The next week (Monday, March 15), President Johnson addressed Congress and said of the protesters in Selma, “Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” Two days later, he submitted voting rights legislation to Congress. 

On Sunday, March 21, the third phase of the march from Selma to Montgomery began. By the time they reached the state capitol 54 miles away (five days later), their numbers had swelled to 25,000. 

King gave a stirring speech from the steps of the capitol. “The road ahead is not altogether a smooth one,” he said. “There are no broad highways that lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. But we must keep going…”

The struggle was not over. Indeed, a woman from Detroit, Michigan, Viola Liuzzo, was shot to death just hours after participating in the march, and the Klu Klux Klan visited the front yard of her grieving husband and left a fiery cross in the middle of the night. 

King was wholly devoted to nonviolent resistance. He concluded his speech that day by saying, “Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding. We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.” [1]

As we know, the struggle against racism continues today in yet another chapter, lying at the heart of our immigration crisis and plaguing cities and neighborhoods and schools. 

We are in the midst of a sermon series right now called, “Is There More to Life than This?” The question comes from the Alpha series, something we did last year and that we’ll do again this fall on Sundays from 5:00 – 6:30 pm. It involves a whole series of faith questions, and for the sermon series, we are placing some of the questions from Alpha in conversation with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. 

Today’s question asks, “Why and how should I read the Bible?” That’s a big question. Overwhelming sometimes. How does one encounter a holy book?

In a dictionary of theological terms, a biblical scholar posits with a bit of sarcasm that the Bible is a book Christians believe is so holy and inspired that they almost never read it for fear that it might draw them close to God and neighbor or change their lives in some other inconvenient way. [2]

Martin Luther said, “The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me.” I think that sentiment is true. 

The Bible is the living word. And it is one of the most reliable ways God reveals Godself to us. We grow closer to God as we spend time in God’s word. It speaks to us in plain language, and it invites us to delve into the subtexts and contexts in which it was written. It is not a single book, but a collection of books written over hundreds of years. 

We best look at it from a wide view, rehearsing the themes that emerge again and again — themes of God calling us into a relationship, themes of compassion and mercy, especially for those without power — even as we dig into the particulars. It’s sometimes tempting to engage in proof-texting, the practice of taking a passage out of text to justify a theological position, but that is dangerous. 

To be faithful to this text, it’s important to note that it was addressed to people without power, to people in the minority, people who lived in fear. It speaks of a battle that is not just with particular people but with systems that were larger. And it’s not a strategy for aggression, rather a form of resistance — a resistance that’s counter-cultural. 

Paul’s words were addressed to the community of faith in Ephesus. His words were meaningful, and so they lived on, inspiring Christians beyond the original audience, eventually becoming part of the biblical canon. 

Paul’s words live on and reverberate in our own time, too. Surely this image helped inspire King’s vision of nonviolent resistance in the last century. Some years earlier, King preached a sermon on Christmas Day in which he said, 

“To our most bitter opponents we say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. 

Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half-dead, and we shall still love you. 

But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”[3]

The apostle Paul was in prison when the letter to Ephesians was penned. As he sat in prison, we can imagine he had in view a Roman guard. As a word of encouragement to the believers at Ephesus, perhaps he created a metaphor using the soldier’s uniform to illustrate how to withstand the powers that threatened them: 

  • Put the belt of truth around your waist. 
  • Put on your feet whatever shoes will make your ready to speak of peace

Had he been looking on the scene of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, he might have said:

  • Protect yourself with a shield of faith, and wear a badge of righteousness or justice, close to your heart. 
  • Wear a helmet not with symbols of exclusion but of rescue and salvation
  • Take up not billy clubs to return violence with retaliation, but be strengthened by the Spirit and by the word of God
  • And pray. Pray that we might have courage and persevere in declaring the gospel, the good news. 

Hearing these words afresh, Paul invites us to remember who we are: We are followers of Jesus, and as such, we pursue the truth. We look for righteousness and justice, not self-interest. We seek peace. Real peace. In big ways and small ways. In the way we relate as a society, and in the way we relate to one another. 

At the heart of it, Paul is calling us to love our enemies, and that is so hard. How can we do it? 

The truth is we cannot do it alone. God has made a way in Jesus. Jesus marked out the path of nonviolence. He walked that path to the very end, to the cross.

Paul says to the Ephesians: “All of us…are by nature children of wrath….But God who is rich in mercy…made us alive together with Christ….For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (Ephesians 2:3-10)

Walter Wink said, “It is our very inability to love our enemies that throws us into the arms of grace.” 

God gives us the Spirit and strengthens us to be ambassadors of truth, messengers of peace, and bearers of justice. So with words of encouragement for one another and with the Spirit’s guidance, we pray… Keep us alert, O God, and give us courage to speak boldly of you who brings life and salvation to all. Amen. 

1 –
2 – Jacobson, Rolf, Editor. Crazy Talk: A Not-So-Stuffy Dictionary of Theological Terms, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.
3 – Martin Luther King, Jr., sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama (Christmas, 1957), written in the Montgomery jail during the bus boycott. Reprinted in the A. J. Muste Essay Series, number 1 (A. J. Muste Memorial Institute, 339 Lafayette St., New York, NY 10012).