The assassination of John Kennedy was an act of the most vicious kind and an act of stupid folly. Here was a man who had never done anybody any harm, though he had certainly annoyed some and shaken others by the things he said. At times he had been particularly bold and courageous. He needn’t even have been in the place where they killed him except he had chosen to go there. And being there he might still have taken precautions that could have prevented what took place.
Once he was dead his enemies might have felt a certain sense of satisfaction. Yet even within hours it must have become apparent to all that what this man was doing was so right and just that it could never be crushed. And the day must surely come when all the world will acknowledge what at the moment of his death could be perceived only by a few.
Why did he die?
Chiefly because the people just could not stand to have him alive. In a world where everybody is concerned to get all he can for himself and where the weak must go to the wall it is both an embarrassment and irritation to have around a man who is concerned for the underdog. The more popular he is, and the more people listen to his words and act upon them the the more dangerous he becomes. You can’t have men who go about and suggest that the servants should be fed an cared for before the master of the house, neither can you tolerate one who is so insensitive to the feelings of people that he carries the war right into the enemy camp by mixing freely with those who are depressed and rejected and declares that servility is not a sign of weakness. His very presence is itself a judgement on others. He must die.
Then too in a world where everybody has his own religious scruples it is an irritation to have a man who is neither a cipher nor a pedlar of traditional religious jargon, but who seeks instead to break new ground. You can’t suggest to people who have been cradled in the faith, and whose fathers died for it, that there is an interpretation of it that their fathers never knew. if this man were right, then the cherished notions of so many others must be wrong. And if he persists, and his popularity grows, then who is to guess what the future of traditional religion might be. He is going to make the work of all those who disagree with him more difficult in a day when it is difficult enough anyway. And if he really got the upper hand who is to say what he might inflict on us. This man is dangerous. Every year he is allowed to live the position of others is threatened. Only for a little under three years can he be tolerated, then he must die.
There were those too who said he was a danger in politics. One of the reasons given for his death was that he threatened the peace of the empire, and was both a warmonger and a revolutionary. But there was very little evidence for this, and those who knew him best always asserted that he was a man of peaceful ways. Had he not openly pleaded with people to accept and to trust one another? And had he not spent much of his pubic life trying to remove suspicion between groups of people who had rarely come face to face? The worst that could be said against him here was that the only peace he could tolerate was one that was founded on justice, truth and righteousness. And most people took the view that this was just the reason given by his enemies who hated him on other grounds.
But how did he die?
With all these charges and feelings against him you might have expected that his trial and death would have been something. Feeling against him must have run high. The case must have been fairly easy to handle, and afterwards there must have been a tremendous sense of relief on the part of all concerned. But you would be quite wrong.
To begin with there wasn’t really any trial at all to speak of. If there had been the man would certainly have been acquitted. Only by unilateral action on the part of a few who literally took the law into their own hands and discharged it ignominiously before they could be prevented did the things happen at all. In all probability it was a few who had to be paid both to say and to do the right things, and many others must be kept in ignorance until it was over in case they tried to prevent it. To delay over the act would surely be fatal. One attempt, and that a quick one, was the only one that could succeed.
And far from feeling a relief when it was over the world instead was filled with a wave of horror and shame. There were many who stood by and wept, and there were others who hung around in order to do everything they could to make the next few days as easy as possible for his friends and family. Apart from the feelings of satisfaction that filled the hearts of a few, nobody else really felt that anything worthwhile had been done.
What then did his death achieve?
In the eyes of most people nothing at all. How could it? His reign had been wonderful, but short, and his death put an end to it all. Others may try to carry on the good work, but in the circumstances they could hardly hope to succeed. The one who was hated by the few and adored by the many had gone. Tomorrow the world would turn to fresh fields and pastures new.
All these things happened on a Friday. The world was stunned and shattered, and most people could not possibly understand what it was all about. But on the third day, the first day of the week, there were a few meeting together when suddenly the light dawned and their eyes were opened. What did they see?
They came to a new understanding of what mattered in the world. No longer were they worried by the politics of nations nor by the machinations of evil rulers, for these things all came and went. And no longer were they worried by all the burdens which the religious leaders and teachers placed upon them for they seemed so far from the life of the common people and so far from the man they loved. Now they were concerned with the whole meaning and purpose of life which they now saw to be rooted and grounded in sacrificial love. And this world never dies, even if the man who practised it were killed, because this was the thing thatreally mattered; this was the only thing the world wanted to know.
So it was that the few were able to go out from their conclave, back to the world, with a new understanding of life. ‘We know what matters’, they said, ‘and we have seen the only thing of real importance’. Death may take its toll, helped on its way by people who are evil, stupid and cruel, but God reigns supreme and turns man’s folly into power. Life for that little group could never be the same again,
Of course there were those who said they were stupid. There were many who said they had got it all wrong, and the religious people said it was utter blasphemy to suggest that the essence of the faith could be found in a man like that. But by this they were not perturbed. They knew what they believed. And so great was their faith that it wasn’t long before many other people began to believe it too.
I had intended this morning to say something to you about Augustine. In the circumstances it seemed to me that I should speak only of Christ. And that, not of the Christ who was, but of the Christ who is.
Following the service an elderly evangelical layman of the Spurgeonic tradition was outraged and unleashed his fury on the local greengrocer of the same generation but without too much theological or doctrinal acumen. The greengrocer took him to task, with what result I never discovered. The greengrocer told me the story. The other man never mentioned it.