The Story of Jonathan Daniels

Today is marked on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church as a time for all Episcopalians to remember the life and witness of Jonathan Daniels, a seminarian who was murdered 52 years ago this Sunday during the Civil Rights Movement. In light of recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, that included violence and death borne of racial prejudice, I’m sharing this sermon about his faith as a Christian that I preached at my previous congregation:

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Edina, Minnesota
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 16, August 22, 2010

“And ought not this woman . . . be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When [Jesus] said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. (Luke 13:16-17)

I love the image of Jesus noticing this unknown woman who was bent over and bowed to the ground for 18 long years. While teaching in a synagogue on the sabbath, a holy day of rest at the end of each week, Jesus has compassion on her, calls her to himself, and heals her. The woman stands up straight and begins to praise God, and eventually the crowd rejoices, too.

Before their rejoicing, however, a confrontation erupts between Jesus and the leader of the synagogue over the fact that an act of healing had taken place on the sabbath. Jesus observes that even animals are allowed to be untied and led to water on that holy day, so he believes that setting this woman free from her bondage is more than justified in the eyes of God.

This is the last time that Jesus teaches in a synagogue on the sabbath in the Gospel of Luke. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, at the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus visited the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. There, on the sabbath, he read aloud the words of the Prophet Isaiah and said that these words had been fulfilled:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.[1]

The German theologian Jürgen Moltmann believes that Jesus was announcing the dawn of the messianic era, a time of endless sabbath, a life of endless feasting.[2] He goes on to describe the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem, where he suffers, as his festival procession that brings liberation to humanity. The healing of the crooked woman is a foretaste of that freedom that enables us to stand before God with praise on our lips for the wonderful things that God has done.

Jonathan Daniels was the kind of person who was able to glimpse this endless sabbath with the eyes of faith and to live, therefore, as a bearer of hope, here and now. Daniels, a native of New Hampshire, was valedictorian of the class of 1961 at VMI, the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. He later enrolled in the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, seeking holy orders in the Episcopal Church. In 1965, as a seminarian, he heard the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., appeal to white religious leaders like himself and others in the North to come to Selma, Alabama. King wanted them to participate in a march from there to the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery as part of the Civil Rights Movement.

Jonathan Daniels wondered if he should go. He wondered if God wanted him to go. Here, in his own words, Daniels described what happened next:

I had come to Evening Prayer as usual . . . and, as usual, I was singing the Magificat with the special love and reverence I have always felt for Mary’s glad song. . . . I found myself peculiarly alert, suddenly straining towards the decisive, luminous, Spirit-filled “moment” . . . Then it came: “He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things. . . .” I knew then that I must go to Selma.[3]

There he joined an integrated group of black and white Christians that tried to worship at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Barred from entering the doors, they held their own prayer service outside. Needless to say, controversies over what is and isn’t allowed on holy days aren’t limited to the first century or the pages of the Bible.

Jonathan Daniels was among the minority of white volunteers from the North who stayed for the weeks and months ahead. He joined the successful march from Selma to Montgomery and participated in another march that exposed him, for the first time, to the violence of the struggle for racial equality. He had been aware of his own anger and a natural desire to respond in kind with violence. However, reflecting on that pivotal moment, Daniels said:

I think it was when I got tear gassed . . . that I began to change. I saw that the men who came at me were themselves not free . . . Even though they were . . . hateful and my enemy, they were human beings, too. . . . I began to discover a new freedom in the Cross: freedom to love the enemy.[4]

He came to appreciate this freedom, a freedom that flows like a river from the self-emptying of Christ. Daniels wanted his enemies to be set free in the same way that he had been. He felt empowered to suffer with joy for the kingdom, a kingdom with open doors, where “a great multitude from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” stand before the throne of God.[5] As described so beautifully in the last book of the Bible:

These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. . . . They will hunger no more, and thirst no more . . . and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.[6]

Daniels was eventually arrested with a group of demonstrators at a store in Lowndes County, Alabama, that was known to abuse black customers. They were soon transferred to a jail in the county seat of Hayneville and, suspiciously, released six days later without bail on August 20, 1965. After their release, Daniels and a few others decided to buy cold drinks at a small grocery store that was nearby. Waiting in the doorway of that store with a 12-gauge shotgun was a part-time sheriff’s deputy named Tom Coleman.

Walking in front of Daniels was a black teenager named Ruby Sales. She stepped up to the doorway, where they were confronted by Coleman. She heard Coleman threaten them and remembered being pulled from behind and hearing a shotgun blast. She saw Daniels fall to the ground, where he died. The man who pulled the trigger and killed him was tried in the Lowndes County Courthouse and swiftly acquitted of any wrongdoing by an all-white jury.

Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote these words about the death of Jonathan Daniels:

The meaning of his life was so fulfilled in his death that few people in our time will know such fulfillment or meaning though they live to be a
hundred.[7]

Daniels is also honored as a witness to the gospel in the Chapel of Saints and Martyrs of Our Own Time in England’s Canterbury Cathedral. He once described the connection between his work in Alabama and his faith as a follower of Jesus Christ in this way:

We, too, may set our faces to go to Jerusalem as he has gone before us. . . . We go to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. We go to stand with the captives and the blind and the oppressed. We go in “active non-resistance,” not to “confront” but to love and to heal and to free.[8]

The teenager whom Jonathan Daniels pulled out of harm’s way is still alive. Today Ruby Sales directs a non-profit organization in Columbus, Georgia, encouraging diverse people to work together for justice and for spiritual maturity. Jonathan Daniels saved her life and lost his own. She once told The Washington Post that she’s asked herself the same question ever since:

What is the work I was saved to do and how do I do it?[9]

Ruby Sales saw with her own eyes how she had been rescued from death, if only momentarily. We may not look at our own lives in quite the same way, but we probably should. With each sunrise, we know that we have been rescued from death, if only momentarily, and believe that death will never have the last word because of the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ. In him, together with the crooked woman in today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel, we have been made worthy to stand before God and freed from our bondage to offer our praises.

Jonathan Daniels and the martyrs of Alabama, our brothers and sisters in Christ who were killed in that state during the Civil Rights Movement, are remembered during an annual pilgrimage to Hayneville. A procession begins there in front of the Lowndes County Courthouse, before moving to the jail where Daniels and his friends were taken and then to the front steps of the store where he was murdered.

It concludes with a celebration of Holy Communion inside the same courthouse where justice had once seemed so elusive. There the judge’s bench becomes an altar, and black and white Christians share the Body and Blood of Christ. There Christ takes upon himself the sins of the whole world, healing the injustices done to us and the injustices that we have committed. There we are reconciled to God and to each other and given a foretaste of God’s eternal sabbath day, a feast that has no end. The good news is that the same feast is set before us . . . at this table . . . today.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Luke 4:18-19

BACK TO POST Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) 270.

BACK TO POST From a theological paper by Jonathan Daniels, which was written about a month before his death and read at his funeral. Interestingly, near the end of the paper, he also wrote these words:

I lost fear . . . when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had truly been 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.

BACK TO POST Charles W. Eagles, Outside Agitator: Jon Daniels and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2000) 64.

BACK TO POST Revelation 7:9

BACK TO POST Revelation 7:14, 16-17

BACK TO POST Larry Benaquist and Bill Sullivan, co-producers of the documentary film Here Am I, Send Me: The Journey of Jonathan Daniels (2003).

BACK TO POST Larry Benaquist and Bill Sullivan

BACK TO POST Julie Bourbon, “Chorale Celebrates Sacrifice” (The Washington Post: Virginia Extra, March 4, 2004) 1, 4.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s