Jesse Jack­son’s ser­mons, now col­lected, stir the soul

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - BOOKS - By Bar­bara Ma­hany Bar­bara Ma­hany is the au­thor of sev­eral books, in­clud­ing, “Slow­ing Time: See­ing the Sacred Out­side Your Kitchen Door.” Twit­ter @Bar­baraMa­hany

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

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