Summit Presbyterian Church
March 8, 2009
Mark 8: 31-38
Loving and Losing
In 1954, an African American couple, Andrew and Charlotte Wade, were looking for a house to buy in Louisville, Kentucky. They wanted a modest, ranch-style house with a yard for their two children. They looked in the "Negro Section"; but decent houses were hard to find. When they tried to buy in white areas, they were refused. The Wades then had an idea: to ask a white couple to buy a house and transfer ownership. After going to a few friends, who said no for various reasons, they asked Carl and Anne Braden. The Bradens were only casual acquaintances, but they were active in organizations opposed to segregation so the Wades hoped they might say yes. The Bradens did, and they bought a house chosen by the Wades in a small, new, all-white development right across the city line. The Bradens transferred ownership to Andrew and Charlotte and the Wade family moved in soon after.
Neither the Wades nor the Bradens did this as a kind of political protest. The Wades wanted a house; they hoped, of course, that their action would make it easier for other black families to live where they chose, but their goal was to live in a stone style ranch house in the suburbs. They expected trouble. They knew they might never become friends with their new neighbors, and it was not their intention to force that. But they also thought trouble would die down and they could settle in. The Bradens were more naive. According to Anne Braden - whose book about the incident is my source - she and her husband Carl barely gave the decision a second thought: they were against segregation, and when anyone asked them to do something to oppose it they said yes. As Anne said in retrospect: "Louisville's race relations, such as they were, had always been quiet. There had been no open clashes. One man wanted a house. We were helping him get it. It seemed a small thing."*
It turned out to be no small thing and plenty of trouble followed. When the Wades moved in a white mob gathered at their house, and at the house of the Bradens. Both couples received constant, hostile phone calls. In that first week men burned a cross next to the Wade house, drive-by shooters fired into it; someone broke their front window by throwing a stone with a threatening note. The police offered little protection; many were friends of the hostile white neighbors. Supporters of the Wades took turns staying in the house with them. A committee was formed to support the Wades. Most of their supporters were African American, with the exception of a few dedicated white activists. Liberal white Louisville - including many on record opposing segregation - distanced themselves from the Wades and the Bradens. They criticized the Bradens for being dishonest and exercising poor judgement, of upsetting things, of moving too fast. Anne approached the white ministers in town for support; many claimed to be sympathetic but weren't willing to take a public stand. Six weeks later the house was bombed at 1:00 in the morning. Miraculously, no one was hurt - the Wades were up late, on the other side of the house from where the dynamite had been planted underneath the bedrooms, and their child was with grandparents. But the Wades could no longer live in the wrecked house, although they and their allies kept up a defiant around the clock presence. The police investigated the bombing in a half-hearted way. In the course of the grand jury investigation the prosecutor came up with a remarkable theory: that the Bradens or their friends had bombed the house themselves, to stir up trouble, and that it was "communistic inspired." Shortly, the Bradens and several other white supporters were indicted on charges of sedition -- rebellion against the government. Carl Braden was tried first. There was no real evidence of sedition, but he had books by Karl Marx and other disreputable folks on his bookshelf. That was enough to give him a fifteen year sentence.
To make a long story short, Carl Braden never served time. Andrew Wade and the Bradens organized national support - both legal and financial - for the appeal, and eventually charges against all the defendants were dropped. That was a relief, but when Anne Braden wrote her book in 1958 - and the epilogue in 1999 - she could not claim total victory. The Wades were never able to live in their house; Louisville remains a largely segregated city, for all the progress that's been made. Anne was grateful for the way the struggle propelled her and her husband into a life of even deeper activism, and had no regrets. But she names the losses. The trauma was hard on both families, especially the children. Anne had a miscarriage in the midst of it. The Bradens were ostracized for decades by much of the white community, including friends and liberals. Anne had already learned not to talk politics with her parents, but buying the house estranged them further. Anne points out that all their trouble, she and Carl were still protected by white privilege. The arrests were so shocking because they were used to having police on their side. The, on the other hand, Wades might have been killed; it was their house that was bombed. Andrew Wade also ran an electrical contracting business with his father that was devastated by the publicity. Banks refused to lend to large customers and smaller customers were scared off. The courageous stand of the Wades and the Bradens did lead to change. But it came at a cost.
Jesus said to his disciples and to the whole crowd: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it."
This is one of the most challenging passages in scripture, challenging to interpret and challenging to live. It's often been misunderstood: used to suggest that people should accept their suffering or oppression as the will of God, as in "that's your cross to bear." (or, "that's my cross to bear."). Although that can be said or heard in a way that is comforting, it does not conform with the actions of Jesus: he spent his whole ministry fighting suffering and oppression. Healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, exorcising demons, feeding the hungry, welcoming the outcast; suffering in itself could not have been the cross he meant. Sometimes this passage has led people to seek martyrdom, in the hopes that literally, losing one's life now would mean eternal life later. But to seek martrydom in exchange for reward later is a kind of works-righteousness that has no place in Christian teaching. Recently, scholars have suggested that when Jesus said the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, he didn't mean "must" in the sense of it being God's plan or will. It meant "must" in the sense of being inevitable, given the message Jesus preached of another kingdom where all were included and the poor and raised up, given the threat that message posed to all the powers, especially the Roman state.** It was inevitable, this interpretation goes, that the state would react at some point by crucifying Jesus and forcing him (or another victim) to carry his cross on the way to his execution. Inevitable, in this sinful world, that such preaching would lead to opposition.
Jesus denied himself - not for the sake of suffering or for a reward in eternity - but in the service of love, and justice. His suffering was a tragic consequence of a life and a word that threatened, and frightened, those who exercised power over life and death of their subjects. Jesus is warning his disciples, and the crowds, that following him could be dangerous for them as well, dangerous to the point where they could lose their life for the sake of the gospel. In this sense we can say the Wades and the Bradens carried their cross. Not, thankfully, on the way to their deaths. Not in the sense of a mute and uncomplaining acceptance of suffering. But they risked their lives, and much in their lives, for the sake of love. For the sake of a more just world where all would live in equality. The risked their lives, and faced loss for the sake of the gospel: the gospel of God's love for all people.
Anne Braden was a lifetime Episcopalian from Alabama. In her book she reflects on her upbringing in the church and how the teachings of Jesus and her experience led her to oppose segregation for the sake of both blacks and whites. These are her words in 1958 language:
The passage from the Bible that impressed me the most deeply in my early religious training was the one from Christ's story of the Last Judgment: For I was hungry, and ye gave me no meat, I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and yet took me not in; naked, and ye clothed me not . . . Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me." I thought about that passage a great deal; it worried me almost constantly. And it woud have been hard not to worry about it in those days, for this was the 1930s and there was hunger everywhere. The people I knew tried I think, according to their lights to practice what Christ taught. My family did. They fed many people who were hungry. Sometimes my mother, growing weary of it, would turn away one of the beggars who came to our door and that would cause me a sleepless night worrying for fear she was going to hell; but most generally she fed them. Especially, she and my father made sure that the Negro family who worked for us from time to time were not hungry or shelterless or naked. If they were short of money to pay the rent, my father provided the money. The family was always clothed because they got our castoff clothes after they were too faded and old for us to want them any more. But something happened to me each time I looked at the Negro girl who always inherited my clothes. Sometimes she would come to our house with her mother, wearing one of the dressed I had discarded. The dresses never fitted her because she was [bigger] than I was. She would sit in a straight chair in our kitchen waiting for her mother, because of course she could not sit in one of our comfortable chairs in the living room. She would sit there looking uncomfortable, my old faded dress binding her at the waist and throat. And some way I knew that this was not what Jesus meant when he said to clothe the naked."
Anne Braden knew that what Jesus meant was something more demanding. Something more radical than well-intentioned charity. Something more deeply loving and just. Something more costly. Something that would demand her life - not her death - but her life - and something that would bring loss. As it would demand the lives , and bring loss, for many others.
Jesus demands more of us, too. As we cling to the values of a broken world (as we often say in our prayer of confession) it's often hard to see where or how. We can so easily be blind to the injustice and suffering that surrounds us. But Jesus warns us - discipleship does demand our lives, and it may well mean loss. We aren't called to seek glory in suffering or in martyrdom. But we are called to take risks and face loss in the service of love, for the sake of the gospel. May we pray for the wisdom and courage to do so.
*Anne Braden, The Wall Between: with a new epilogue, forward by Julian Bond (Knoxville, The University of Tennessee Press, 1999; first published by Monthly Review Press, 1958).
**See Brian K. Blount and Gary W. Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), p. 147, quoting Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: a Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988).