While most normal people were thinking about what they were going to throw on the grill for the Labor Day cookout or whether the Bears have a chance to win more than half their games this season, I was thinking about what and or whom I would be willing to die for.
Public television did it to me again; Channel 11 forced me to think. I watched a documentary on the freedom riders, who participated in the CORE (Congress on Racial Equality) strategy in the early 1960s to combat racial segregation in the South. In Birmingham, Ala. the seven blacks and six whites who were riding together saw their Greyhound bus firebombed. In Montgomery, they were beaten by a mob of 100 whites, while many of the police officers stood by and watched.
A white federal government official who witnessed the whole bloody attack said that he tried to help one of the black freedom riders get to safety. He recalled that her response was, “No thank you, sir. We’ve all made out our wills. We’ve been trained in non-violence. We know what to do.” The young woman was only about 19 or 20, but I saw in her face a calm and a steadfast determination that I wanted to feel in myself. She knew exactly what she was willing to die for.
A few days before, I watched, again on PBS, the unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington D.C. Most people, I suppose, remember his “I Have A Dream” speech best, but the one I think of first is the one he gave on the eve of his assassination in Memphis. In that speech he declared: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.”
I can still hear King’s voice, trembling with emotion and conviction. I can still see the calm determination in his face. He knew exactly what he was willing to die for. I want some of King’s spirit in me.
Those two civil rights activists didn’t want to die. They weren’t masochists. They weren’t suicide bombers. They had a purpose in life that was so profound and inspiring that even the prospect of dying for what they believed in could not deter them from steadfastly pursuing that vision.
The 10th anniversary of 9/11 is just around the corner. What might be a metaphor for our times is that picture of hundreds of ordinary people like you and me fleeing the smoking Twin Towers while a few fire fighters were purposefully walking in the opposite direction.
Most of us are in the business of minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure. We say to our children, “I just want you to be happy.” Personally, I’m glad that the religious tradition in which I was raised encouraged me to be more like the fire fighters on 9/11 than the people fleeing danger. My tradition taught that you are not ready to really live until you know what you’re willing to die for.
It’s true, of course, that a lot of people have died for unworthy causes, so we must choose wisely. And, we never want to teach our children that dying is good thing, in itself. Most of us who know what and or whom we’re ready to die for will die of natural causes.
The point is not to seek death, but to have a purpose for living that is a lot bigger than ourselves. Four days from now I’ll think about the extremes to which human nature is capable of going. And I’ll think about the fire fighters who were willing to die in order to save lives.
I want to order my life on the model of the fire fighters.
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.