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God Give Us Power to Lift the People - in Memory of Richard Jaeggi

“And so it is that I, a man entering the last third of his life, continue to steer my life, for better or worse, according to the patterns set by this odd pantheon of heroes: a terrorist, a madman, and a religious fanatic.” Richard wrote those words in his Big Acorn column in 2005. He was referring to three heroes who formed his worldview. The terrorist was Robin Hood, an enemy of freedom— at least to those who define freedom as the right of the rich and the educated to freely exploit the poor and the ignorant. The Madman was Don Quixote, who determined that the only life worth living was one of uncompromising service to the highest ideals. Of course, the religious fanatic was Gandhi, who dedicated his life to the discovery of how power might be applied by ordinary men and women to right the great wrongs of the world.

Richard found a way to combine each of those qualities to become a spiritual activist. To some of you, that may sound like a strange word combination – spiritual activist. Spirituality has a reputation for being interior and individual-centered. Activism, on the other hand, is other-focused as it brings communities together around issues of social justice. When we put the two concepts together, spiritual activism becomes love in motion. Spiritual activism is prayer made visible. Spiritual activists believe we need to do justice and love mercy in order to create positive change. If we really want to live in more compassionate and humane world, we need to become more compassionate and more humane ourselves.

The painful reality is that many of us were taught to believe and think, “My way is right, therefore your way is wrong.” I believe there must be another way to live, a way that unites action with mindfulness a way that says, “You don’t have to be wrong for me to be right.”

One way to find healing from this divided thinking is to become a spiritual activist. And the first quality of spiritual activism is Satyagraha. Satyagraha is a word invented by Gandhi and his followers. It’s a synthesis of two words: the word satya means truth founded in love, and the word agraha means firmness, insistence and force. Satyagraha means a force and a power born in truth and love. It was the word Gandhi used for non-violent resistance to bring about change. Gandhi sometimes called it “love force” or “soul force.”
Satyagraha means clinging to truth, no matter what. Under no circumstances can a spiritual activist hide or keep truth from an adversary The spiritual activist is obligated to be honest, open, and direct in dealings with opponents. No matter the cost, one must follow the truth, even as he or she endeavors to be truthful.

Gandhi’s idea of non-violence can be tracked to a number of thinkers. We begin with an American Protestant minister named Adin Ballou. In the 1800’s, Ballou sought social reform, teaching an idea called, “non-injurious force.” That’s why we read part of his catechism earlier in today’s service. Shortly before his death in 1890, Ballou began a correspondence with Count Leo Tolstoy of Russia, who was amazed to learn that this prophet of non-resistance had been almost forgotten in America. Tolstoy sponsored translations of Ballou’s work, which deeply influenced his own thinking about non-violence.  As a Christian, Tolstoy taught absolute non-resistance to violence. He believed that all coercive action was forbidden by Jesus. When Gandhi read Tolstoy’s 500-page theology book called The Kingdom of God is Within You, he said it, “overwhelmed me.” They started a correspondence. In his last letter to Gandhi, Tolstoy wrote, “Your activity is the most essential work, the most important of all the work now being done in the world.”

So, Satyagraha is very close to the spirit of the Christian Gospel, though sadly not lived often enough. For Gandhi, Jesus was the supreme non-violent resistor. Martin Luther King Jr. noticed the same thing. Through Satyagraha, King found a new way to affirm the teachings of Jesus, which spoke well to his people in his time and to some of us beyond.

Sorry for the history lesson – but I think we need some context to understand the work of Richard Jaeggi, an progressive Christian spiritual activist who continues to teach us how to put Satyagraha into action. When I look at the life and legacy of Richard, I wonder: what can we make of all this? What do we do with the non-injurious force of Adin Ballou that we read during our service? What do we do with ideas like the Soul Force of Gandhi and the political resistance of King? What do we do with love and nonviolence in a country where power and politics reign supreme in our institutions, including religions? What do we do when many of our institutions marginalize or silence the voice of dissent to protect the status quo? Of what relevance is Satyagraha at a time when only select, handpicked social crises tend to shock the moral sensibility of political, civic, business, educational and religious leaders?

Think about those who have been deeply wounded by life. Think of those who have suffered most terribly, those who flee their homes in the face of violence and brutality, those who feel like outcasts because of the violence of betrayal, suspicion and hatred. This sense of shame and duplicity is true of so many people who have lived lives where tragedy, violence and fear have robbed them of self-esteem. As we know violence is all too common within the homes in this country fed by a diet of vicious entertainment and dysfunctional relationships. And how much lasting peace has a war on terror achieved? How many have been converted by violence?

Violence leads to more violence. Spiritual activism is liberation. It is freedom. It is the choice to participate in God’s suffering for the world. As Spiritual Activists, we say no more! If we want to honor Richard and continue his legacy, then we summon the courage to declare, “Violence is not what God intends for the world.” In a day when guided ballistic missiles can carve highways of death through the stratosphere and remote operated drones can attack out of nowhere, we no longer have a choice between violence and nonviolence; it is either nonviolence or nonexistence. So, for me, the spiritual activism of Richard Jaeggi issues an invitation to follow the way of Satryagraha, the Soul Force of loving of non-violence. Justice will be done, evil will be beaten, and God will set all things right through our prayers and through our actions. The life of Richard inspires my prayer: God, give us power to lift the people.

When people are discouraged, God, give us power to the lift the people.

When those who have been victimized by violence can’t face the horror of life, God, give us power to the lift the people.

When those who have been thrown away and marginalized can only respond with apathy and resignation, God, give us power to the lift the people.

When victims of oppression take the blame for oppression and lose their trust in humanity, God, give us power to the lift the people.

For those crying for justice, God, give us power to the lift the people.

For those yearning some peace in a fallen world, God, give us power to the lift the people.

For those who believe there is still something wonderful to do in our lives and in our world, God, give us power to the lift the people.

For those who think that justice means injuring those who injure us, that error can be corrected by error, that evil can be vanquished by evil, God, give us power to the lift the people.

God give us more power to tear down the walls that separate us from one another. That’s what Gandhi and King began to do. That’s what Richard dedicated his life for. God give us power to lift the people.

Richard, you showed us how it’s done. We bid farewell to you, a beloved husband and father, son, brother and friend.  Go in peace with God. Walk in the spirit of life and love until we meet again at the breaking of the dawn of the new creation. Until that time, we will keep figuring out how power might be applied by ordinary women and men to right the great wrongs of the world.


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