Jesse Jackson’s sermons, now collected, stir the soul
The pages of “Keeping Hope Alive: Sermons and Speeches of Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr.” are separated into two sections: one for sermons, delivered in churches, and another for speeches, delivered in arenas most aptly tagged “political.” The thing that leaps out most emphatically, though, is that the separation doesn’t matter at all.
For Jackson, one of the great orators of the civil rights movement in America and around the world, religion is political, and politics is religion. One without the other is rootless and dismissible.
Over the last half-century, Jackson — the Chicago-based founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, ordained Baptist minister and two-time Democratic presidential candidate — rightly earned his slot on the national stage as a soulstirring preacher. He proudly occupies his podium at the intersection of religion and politics:He lives and breathes the Gospel as well as the moral imperative to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, reach out to the oppressed, the stranger, the ones unjustly shoved beyond the margins.
As he beautifully writes in his concluding remarks (perhaps the most powerful piece in the collection), “When I traveled I stayed in people’s homes instead of downtown hotels. Coal miners’ homes. Meat cutters’, housing projects, gang bangers’ in LA. And when I was speaking I saw them. My refrain at the time was, ‘I understand.’ I knew who I was talking to — the woman, the coal miner …. And I wasn’t quoting Scripture, I was scripturing.”
Indeed, Jackson’s most profound gift seems to be his capacity for not seeing the line between religion and politics. The Jesus found in these pages — a selective sampling of those rare few sermons (six) or speeches (19) actually written down, compiled for the first time and edited by Grace Ji-Sun Kim, an associate professor of theology at Earlham School of Religion — is a deeply personal Jesus, one Jackson seamlessly translates into one who knows the pain and struggle of those to whom Jackson preaches.
“Jesus was the victim of the most horrific lynching on a tree,” Jackson declared in an Easter sermon at his Rainbow PUSH headquarters in 2003. “The cross was Rome’s electric chair,” he says later in the same sermon, dissolving the line between persecutions ancient and current.
As powerful as each sermon or speech is on its own merit, it’s the sweep of history that most startles and gives weight to nearly every sentence gathered in these pages.
Jackson was there, just below the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in April 1968. Jackson was there, in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1990, when Nelson Mandela walked out of jail on Robben Island after 27 years locked behind its prison gates.
His is a hard-won, authentically lived moral authority, and now, Jackson writes, “I’m old and I have Parkinson’s, but once I was young. I went to jail with my classmates when I was nineteen, trying to use the public library, and now I’m seventy-seven …. After all these years, what remains for me is God is a source of mystery and wonder. Scripture holds up. The righteous are not forsaken. We’ve come a long way since slavery time. But we’re not finished yet. Running for freedom is a long-distance race.”
Reading Jackson, absorbing the clarity of his moral vision, should be required. It’s fuel for the miles yet to be run. “Keeping Hope Alive” is the place to begin.
‘Keeping Hope Alive’ By Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr, edited by Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Orbis, 256 pages, $25