On the evening of April 4, 1968,
while standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was to lead a protest march in sympathy with striking garbage workers of that city, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.
In KEEP HOPE ALIVE
, I began with Chapter One:
THE MORNING AFTER APRIL 4, 1968
"Peace for Israel means security, and we stand with all our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity. I see Israel as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality."
-Martin Luther King
Mary woke at dawn and re-entered the living room for the first time since she had said goodnight the night before. She was not surprised to see Khaled sprawled out in his recliner or Riad at peace on the sofa. But she was dismayed to see Art curled in fetal position on the black and white checkered tile at the front door.
She gently stepped over him into the red and white kitchen as the morning sun broke through the garden window. The sun illuminated the cherry-blonde slab stump of an ancient olive tree that had been hewn into a kitchen table and received as a wedding gift from family and friends, who lived in Khaled’s hometown, the village of Majd Al Krum, in Upper Galilee. Even on the most frigid morning, Mary felt warmed by the high-gloss patina of the tabletop, but held more dear the signatures and marks from the entire town etched underneath.
Mary silently performed the morning ritual of brewing the first of many pots of Turkish coffee for the day, gratefully inhaled the piquant aroma, and then quickly exited up the back staircase to the bedrooms to wake her daughter for school. When Mary returned to her kitchen after escorting Ahmeena to her third grade classroom, she was not surprised to find Khaled and Riad at the table, downing a second pot of the Turkish brew.
“Please, Mary, don’t say a word. I drank too much, and now I am paying the price.”
“Khaled, the pain in your face brings me to tears; you are clearly suffering. I will not add to your misery. But you, Riad--you look buoyant. What’s your secret?”
Riad chuckled. “Tolerance.”
Mary marveled at how his gleaming pate radiated the sun’s rejection through the garden window that showcased a pendulous purple wisteria and bird bath, where blue jays had immediately gathered to eat the seed she had just put out.
At that moment, Art stumbled into the room, banging his shoulder against the wall and hip into the butcher-block counter. “Oiy! Sylvia is going to fry me! I thought I’d be back at her sister’s by noon, but that bad news about Martin Luther King, Jr., hit us all like a left to the liver! I thought last night would be only good reminiscing, but reality intruded. Hmm, Thanks, Mary, I need this brew.” He nodded and gratefully downed the pungent coffee that Mary had just set before him.
“So, who wants breakfast?”
“Just toast, Mary, my love,” Khaled whimpered weakly.
“Same for me.” Riad beamed, and Mary thought how grateful she was to know him.
Art whispered, “Have you any Mylanta, Mary?”
Mary suppressed a smile as she turned to retrieve it, when the unmistakable seven knock's of Ahmad was heard at the front door.
“Namaste!” Ahmad bellowed as he opened the red door, reminding Mary of a Cheshire cat without any guile at all.
Riad replied, with a beatific smile, “The God in me salutes the God in you, too.”
“Art, Khaled, look what I found in the gutter.” Ahmad nudged a redheaded muscular youth forward as hard as he could.
“Why, Jack Hunt, I haven’t seen you in weeks; come in, dear.” Mary was always happy to see any of the eleven Hunt children who lived next door.
Khaled stood to welcome his neighbor and asked, “Jack, why aren’t you in class this morning?”
“Well, I didn’t know until I showed up that poli-sci and humanities were both canceled. Both professors are heading to King’s funeral. They both marched with him in 1964. I am free until three, when I have football practice. I was just getting out of the car and hoping to catch up on some sleep, when Ahmad accosted me and dragged me in here.”
Riad stood with his palms together and slightly bowed. “Welcome, Jack. I’m Riad, and the poor fellow to my right is Art.”
“Oh man, Art, you look like shit! I hope it’s not contagious.”
“Shut up and sit,” Art growled.
“Ahmad, we expected you for dinner last night. I made your favorite— roasted lamb.”
“Oh, so sorry to have missed you all, but after I left Khaled’s going-away party at Westinghouse, I worked through the night. In fact, I have not eaten since the goodbye brunch yesterday; I could use some lamb right now.”
Mary turned swiftly and began emptying the refrigerator. While Art moaned, she asked, “Please, Ahmad, I have not heard a word about the going-away party; fill me in.”
Ahmad grinned and nodded. “Well, the best part was at the very end, when Khaled stood at the microphone and spoke with tears in his eyes to the two hundred people who had gathered to say goodbye. He held us spellbound with his words: ‘My dear friends, I am overwhelmed by this turnout. I have been blessed. I will miss you all very much. Thank you for the kind words, the gifts, the memories, and all your good work. I also want to leave a remembrance with one of you.’
“And it was I, Ahmad, who held the fish bowl filled to capacity with everyone’s signatures that Khaled reached his hand into and then pulled out a paper scrap, unfolded it, and called out, ‘Oh, Bubbles McGrath! You have won. Come up here and receive your gift!’ Now, Bubbles is a short, plump blonde, who jumped up like a toad and screamed, ‘Oh my gosh! I have never won anything!’ She literally bounced her way to where Khaled and I stood, but I quickly got out of the way, as the man of the hour held out a festively wrapped box like a shield to protect himself from the force of the rushing Bubbles McGrath. Blubbles flung her arms around Khaled and kissed him on the mouth, then blurted out, ‘Oh, thank you, Khaled, I am so excited!’ It was incredible, how she tore the box open like a child at Christmas, and when her face beheld the treasure inside, her lower lip quivered, and she quietly whispered, ‘Thanks.’ Then she held out the gunmetal gray snow shovel, and the room roared!”
Mary had noticed Jack was oblivious to Ahmad’s tale. As he stared out the garden window, she intuited he was worried about his sister Bonnie, a WAC nurse in Vietnam, and his brother Kevin, who was in the Navy. While the men were still chuckling over Ahmad’s tale, Jack startled them all as his words rushed out. “My professor told me that he marched with King because, even though he himself was an atheist, he felt in community with the diversity of people of faith who had come together with one voice demanding justice. He said King had a power to make you believe you were connected to every other person in the crowd as if they were a sister or a brother.”
A heavy, pregnant silence filled the room, and Mary held her breath until Jack turned toward her, his eyes like blazing emeralds, and with a sardonic smile, remarked, “Being stuck in the middle of ten others, I have no desire for any more sisters or bothers.” Then, with a sigh deeper and more meaningful than any words and with overcast eyes brimming with tears, he softly murmured, “I will be sorry when you Diabs depart for sunny Florida. I always appreciated you letting me use your library, Dr. D.”
Mary turned as her own tears fell, and Khaled mumbled, as he choked back his own, “We will all miss you, too, Jack, but we have a few weeks left before we will part. Let’s have some coffee now!”
Riad beckoned Jack to sit at his right side, but Jack shook his head. “Ah, that’s ok. Really, I have got to go. Practice is at three o’clock, and I only came back home to get some sleep.”
Khaled implored, “Jack, please, sit and visit. Mary, where is his coffee? Besides, Riad has some fantastic tale we never got to hear last night, and now is the time. Riad, the floor is yours.”
Jack remained unmoved as Riad queried, “Have you heard the tale of the Bedouin named Mohammed Ali? No? How about the Nag´ Hammâdi library? Hmmm, do you know I am a master of ancient civilizations, and I speak Greek and Hebrew fluently? Jack, you are an open book and I see you are not at all impressed. May I ask you, have you heard of UNESCO?”
Jack barely suppressed a smirk as he sat down in one of the seven eclectic chairs that hugged the sides of the enormous olivewood table and indulgently uttered, “United Nation Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization.”
“Correct, but I’ll get to that later. For the story I want to tell you all, dates back to antiquity. But I will begin in 1945, in Egypt, in the land just above the bend of the Nile, north of the Valley of the Kings, across the river from the city of Nag´ Hammâdi, near the hamlet of al-Qasr, under a cliff called Jabal al-Tarif. An Egyptian Bedouin named Mohammed Ali was out gathering sabakh, a nitrate-rich fertilizer for the crops that he grew in the small hamlet of al-Qasr. He was aghast to stumble upon a skeleton as he dug, and bewildered when he uncovered a two-foot high earthenware jar. A bowl had been placed over the top, and it was sealed with bitumen. At first, the Bedouin thought an evil genie was within, but when he shook the heavy jar, he heard things moving and thought it might be gold. He smashed the jar open and out fluttered pieces of gold particles that he tried to catch, but they disappeared. When he peered into the jar, he was dismayed to find twelve leather-bound books. Mohammed Ali was illiterate, so he placed no great value on books, but was confident he could sell them and make something for his troubles. So he carried the jar filled with books back to the homestead.
“Now, Mohammed Ali also happened to be a fugitive from the law, for he had wielded the weapon that spilled the blood of a patriarch during a violent incident in a generation-long family feud, not so very long before. After a few days of mulling over possibilities, he decided to give his find to the local Coptic priest for safekeeping. You see, he feared the authorities soon would be lurking about and would confiscate his possession before he could receive any money for it.
“His mother ripped out many pages to keep the home fire going, and I grieve and wonder what ancient treasures she burned. Anyway, the priest passed it on to his brother-in-law, a traveling tutor, who brought the books to the Coptic museum in Cairo on October 4, 1946.
“I happened to be the assistant to the director of the antiquities department at that time, and our department was immediately summoned to inspect them. What we found were ancient compositions, written in Coptic that had been translated from ancient Greek. The volumes were leather-bound pages of papyrus, and no doubt the gold dust that Mohammed Ali witnessed was from papyrus fragments that had broken off. For the past twenty years, under the leadership of UNESCO, Egypt, and the American scholar James Robinson, these anthologies and collections of texts with titles like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene have now been translated into many languages.”
Jack’s emerald orbs glinted as he quietly asked, “So?”
“Well, I believe when this knowledge has been disseminated by seekers of God, it will prove to be a revolutionary find. You see, the texts date back to the early days of Christianity. The most likely source for these books was the Pachomius Monastery, which thrived for centuries just three miles from the burial site. I believe a monk buried these books in the wilderness under the cliff of Jabl al-Tarif for safe-keeping.”
“But why would a monk hide some books? What for?” Jack sipped his second cup of coffee as he kept his eyes riveted on Riad.
“Well Jack, two thousand years ago, there were many different understandings of Jesus among Christians. Now, thanks to the treasures of Nag´ Hammâdi, we know how rich and diverse those understandings were. These texts had been deemed heretical by those who were gaining power through the political arena. Surely you know about Emperor Constantine?”
“Of course, he lived in the fourth century, didn’t he? Wasn’t he a pagan warrior who became the first Christian ruler, but waited until he was on his deathbed before being baptized?”
“Yes and the most decisive event in the history of Christendom occurred when Emperor Constantine accepted the Christian faith, for those who had once been persecuted were now protected by an earthly king. Both a patriarchal monarchical state and church were formed at the same time. Power struggles and debates were common among the early Christians. Individual churches determined which texts were read, and they all had their favorites. Constantine sought to unite his empire, and uniting the church was a savvy political move. He announced he would pay for fifty illuminated copies of scripture to be bound, and thus the biblical canon was established and sealed. There was fierce debate among the bishops about what should be included and what left out.
“The proto-orthodox, who had now become the dominant voice, determined what was heretical for everyone. The proto-orthodox demanded much-loved scripture to be burned, usually because it did not fit their understanding of God. No doubt, what was found at Nag´ Hammâdi is thanks to an unknown monk who lived a few miles away in the Pachomius Monastery. If the authorities had found out about him, these texts and that monk would both have burned!”
“But why were the books deemed heretical? Why were they suppressed? What was the establishment afraid of?” Jack’s eyes remained riveted on Riad.
“Well Jack, many of these texts were considered Gnostic. Gnosis is defined as knowledge discerned institutively. Gnostic texts offer deep mystery that is discerned via intuition, not rational thought. This is not the way for fundamentalists. A Gnostic is open to receiving intuitive knowledge of deep spiritual truth. For students of the New Testament, this is a much greater find than the Dead Sea Scrolls. Forty of the texts had previously been unknown to modern scholars. Thirty-five scholars have been working diligently on these translations, and we all agree that the bound books themselves date back to the fourth century and were written in Coptic translated from Greek and Aramaic. The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of the sayings of Jesus, words of wisdom, proverbs, parables, and some very confounding mysteries. About 35 of the 114 sayings have no counterpart in the New Testament, while at least 20 are almost identical, and 54 have similarities. Many scholars concur that the sayings were originally written in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, the language of Jesus and his followers. It is very possible the sayings are closer to the words Jesus actually spoke than what is found in the canonical gospels.”
“I am still not clear about why there was so much censorship. If the people were talking about Jesus and what he said, that seems better than not talking about him at all.”
“Agreed, and two thousand years ago, there was lively debate about who Jesus was, and why he came. Jack, you do understand that history is always written by the winners, right?”
“Of course I know that! And now, I suppose you will tell me all about the losers?”
“Well, the proto-orthodox, who were the majority, considered these texts anathema. Texts were deemed heretical for many reasons, and usually it was because they did not fit neatly into the evolving dogma. Gnostic texts offer us mystery, not answers. For centuries, all we had to reconstruct Gnostic beliefs were the hostile accounts against them given by Irenaus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Epiphanius, and other church fathers who disagreed with the Gnostic understanding.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t do church anymore, but my sister Maureen is a nun, and my brother Mike is a priest. I wonder what they would think of all this stuff. Might tick them off, is my guess.”
“Now Jack, we must be kind to the early church fathers; they were flawed like all of humanity, but they did the best they could. We are all guided by the inner light and by how much light we have opened up to receive. The gifts of Nag´ Hammâdi present us with a very diverse Christianity, indeed.
“One of my favorites is the Gospel of Thomas. These pithy sayings of Jesus are meant to be heard and chewed upon. Consider sayings three and five: ‘The kingdom is inside you, and it is outside you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living father,’1 and ‘Know what is in front of your face, and what is hidden will be disclosed to you. For there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed.’”2
“Hey, that reminds me of ‘seek and you will find,’ and ‘knock and the door will open.’
“Yes, you see the connection. And in Thomas, sayings ninety-two and ninety-four, Jesus says exactly that. But in saying two, Jesus speaks: ‘Let one who seeks not stop seeking until one finds. When one finds, one will be troubled. When one is troubled, one will marvel…’”3
Jack interrupted with “Wait, I still do not get what was the big deal. Why did the authorities want these books trashed?”
“Jack, did you know that the Gospel of Mark was written first, in about 70 CE? Then Matthew and Luke followed in 85 CE, and the very different sounding Gospel of John appeared just before the turn of the first century. The Gospel of Thomas was written down as early as the middle of the first century, and no later than the middle of the second.”
Jack interrupted. “You mean it may have been written even before the Gospel of John?”
“Exactly, and that is why I wonder if the author of John was debating many of Jesus’ sayings quoted by the author of Thomas. In particular, I was struck by the fact that Matthew 12:31-32, Mark 3:28-29, and Luke 12:10 are nearly identical to Thomas saying forty-four, ‘Jesus said, “Whoever blasphemes against the father will be forgiven, and whoever blasphemes against the son will be forgiven, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven either on earth or in heaven.’4 The writer of John completely left this quote from Jesus out. What do you think about that, Jack?”
“Well, it sounds like Jesus is just alright with whatever you think or say about him, but the Holy Spirit--that’s God within. It sounds like Jesus is saying it’s not so much what we think or say about him, but how we treat one another and ourselves.”
“Spoken well!” Ahmad grinned as he continued, “If I may share a moment, there is the Hindu way to God through love, and it is the very path that Jesus taught about. In fact, I think Christianity is one great brilliantly-lit highway to God! The Hindu discipline I follow is called bhajti yoga. What is required upon this path is loving God first, with no ulterior motives; not even a desire to be loved back. All day, as I do my work, I do it for God. I am in love with God, and that fills me with a love for all men and all creation. Love God first, and everything else falls into place, I say.”
Jack had become excited. “You just made me remember what Mike wrote to me, after he heard Thomas Merton speak at what became his last peace rally, before he was electrocuted in a freak accident and died. My brother was standing next to this nun who accosted Merton after his speech and demanded, ‘Why didn’t you mention Christ in your speech?’ Merton replied, ‘What we are asked to do at present is not so much to speak of Christ as to let him live in us, so that people may find him by feeling how he lives in us.’5 Mike wrote that after overhearing that encounter, he quit giving his parishioners the usual list of prayers to say for penance. Instead, he told them not to mention Jesus by name for a week, but to keep Jesus foremost in their minds and hearts.”
Riad beamed. “Jack, your brother is a wise man to think of such a just penance for Christians who may forget the other names for Jesus, like Emmanuel, meaning ‘God is with us,’ and the Prince of Peace. And Martin Luther King, Jr., walked in his footsteps; I hope we never forget his message of justice and equality for all humanity.”
Khaled met Art’s eyes and gently spoke. “You know, Martin Luther King is foremost the voice for the Negro, but he also speaks for all who seek justice. He said, ‘We have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. Now is the time for justice; now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to lift our nation from injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.’”6
Art stabbed out his cigarette and injected, “Yeah, and do you know what Reverend King said just a few weeks ago? He said, ‘Peace for Israel means security, and we stand with all our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity. I see Israel as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality.’”7
Khaled nearly blubbered, “Reality? The reality is that Israel’s democracy does not extend to Palestinians, whose families have lived there for centuries! Martin Luther King also spoke about not ‘being satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’8 Reverend King also spoke about his people’s great trials, tribulations, and creative suffering. He spoke about injustice, but offered such hope for change, because the American dream is that all men are created equal. This is also the Palestinian dream. Reverend King spoke of his dream, and I, too, have a dream, that underneath the shade of olive trees, the descendants of Abraham will one day sit down at the table of brotherhood.”
Art lit another cigarette as he added, “My rabbi always says, ‘If we would all just do like Micah told, we’d be alright. Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.’”9
1. Meyer, Marvin. The Gospel of Thomas, pg 23
4. IBID, pg. 41
5. Azar-Rucquoi, Fundamentally, It's Love Faith in Focus, April 29, 2002
6. King, Martin Luther, Jr. A Testament of Hope, pg. 217-218
7. Lewisy, San Fransisco Chronicle, Jan. 21, 2002
8. King, Testament, pg. 219
9. Micah 6:8
TBC January 20, 2009 on WAWA: