March 28, 2017

First They Ignore You

If you’ve spent enough time on any social media platform in the last year, you’ve probably come across this famous quote from Mahatma Gandhi.
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
Capturing the determination of one who feels that their cause is just, even as they encounter stiff resistance, the quote offers inspiration and hope, even assurance, to those who believe that their ultimate triumph and vindication is just a matter of time. With its depiction of one’s opponents as foolish and wrong, it’s also clear to see why the quote increased in prominence during our rancorous election season and its volatile aftermath.
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
It’s almost the perfect rallying cry for the times in which we live—a thought to stir up the base and marginalize the opposition. Indeed, in our vitriolic and divided country, this quote has achieved the most elusive status—bipartisan consensus.

It’s true. At one time or another, Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and of host of Facebook pundits have employed this quote in the service of their campaigns, because, you know, Gandhi.

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
In addition to its capacity to inspire sought-after emotional responses from the body politic, this quote possesses another quality that truly sets it apart from the pack in the race to be the Quote of the Age. That quality of distinction is that the quote is false. Gandhi never said it. It comes from a magazine article written about Gandhi in 1982, over thirty years after the Indian independence leader’s death. And even that magazine article is indebted to an older source—a passage from a speech given by a union organizer named Nicholas Klein at a labor rally in 1918, but you’ve probably never seen that on Facebook because, you know, who’s Nicholas Klein?

In Baltimore, Maryland on May 15, 1918, Nicholas Klein addressed the Biennial Convention of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. For labor, in general, and for textile workers, specifically, this was the height of a turbulent era of resistance, organizing, strikes, and direct action. Only a few years removed from the Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy here in NYC, a crime that claimed over one hundred forty lives when a fire swept through a textile factory in which the owners had locked their own employees, matters of life and death were on Klein’s agenda as he took the podium.

His speech was short, a pep talk, really. Klein reminded his audience of victories they had won and encouraged them to stick together and stand with one another when hard times came their way. Then, he concluded his speech with a story.

There is a story told about the making of the first railway. There was an old man, it is said, whose name was Stephenson, who made the first locomotive… And when old man Stephenson proposed a train — something to be run without the aid of horses or oxen, he was ridiculed. One day a test was made, and they laid two pieces of wood and upon these two pieces of wood they placed some thin sheets of metal, and upon that crude arrangement was placed the first locomotive.

And it is said in this story that thousands of people were out to see the first test of that locomotive, and of course the people all shouted, and pointed to their heads, and said the man was crazy, and they said the locomotive was out of question; it was impossible, and the crowd yelled out: "You old foggy fool! You can't do it! You can't do It!" And the same everywhere. The old man was in the cab, and somebody fired a pistol and the signal was given. He pulled the throttle open and the engine shot out, and in their amazement the crowd, not knowing how to answer to that argument, yelled out: "You old fool! You can't stop it! You can't stop it! You can't stop it!"

And my friends, in this story you have a history of this entire movement. First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.

And that is what is going to happen to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.

Nicholas Klein isn’t as famous a Gandhi, but let’s give credit where credit is due.
First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.
The man at the center of the Gospel passage we’ve read this morning would’ve understood Klein’s point.

First they doubted him. Then they criticized him. And then they drove him out of town. But, through it all, Jesus saw him, healed him, found him, and set him free.

John’s 9th chapter recounts the story of miraculous healing.

It happened that Jesus and his disciples encountered a man who had never been able to see. Making mud and then spreading it upon the man’s face, Jesus told him to go wash himself in a nearby pool of water.

Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

John’s account implies that, after the healing, Jesus and his disciples left the man and continued on their way. However, with the gift of sight, our man was about to see for himself how awful and obstinate his neighbors could be.

First, they doubted him.

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
The Pharisees—members of the religious establishment—were dubious of the man’s claims, too. They inquired so as to learn if this really was the same man who once was blind. Once they were satisfied that it was the same man, they were less than enthusiastic.

First they doubted him. Then they criticized him.

Once the evidence convinced the authorities that a healing had, indeed, taken place, criticism about how the miracle occurred replaced their doubt.

It wasn’t the right time for healing, they said.

A holy man would know better than to heal on the Sabbath.

The authorities questioned the healed man’s parents, then gave him one more chance to denounce Jesus.

“We know that this man is a sinner,” they said.

He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

First they doubted him. Then they criticized him. And then they drove him out of town. But, through it all, Jesus saw him, healed him, found him, and set him free.

Our story ends where it began, with Jesus drawing near to a scorned and outcast man. In this end is a new beginning, though, because he who was once blind now sees things clearly.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
The Gospel that gives us life is the message of a Savior—God’s Son—who seeks out, heals, lifts up, and loves broken people.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus said at another time, “because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

To claim the name Christian is to say, “Yes, I am one of those broken people that Jesus loves and is making whole.”

To live the Christian life is to do the good work of loving, and lifting, and serving broken people in Jesus’ name.

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

Or maybe not.

You don’t have to be a skeptic to regard this quote as a little too optimistic.

Furthermore, stripped from its original context and dropped into our own, I think it’s a fair assessment to say it supplies too much fuel for the fires of our division. It too easily caters to the “us vs. them” mentality that subverts our common good. That seems like a fair assessment to me.

After all, if everybody thinks that the quote supports their point of view at the expense of their enemies’, if everyone thinks that it means that they’re right, then does it really mean anything at all?

But, even still, I’ve shared this with you today because hearing this and thinking about it, does help us to receive Good News.

As people of faith, your see, we proclaim a Gospel that says even if you are ignored, you are still a beloved child of God.

As sheep in the Good Shepherd’s fold, we say that even if you’re laughed at and disregarded, the Lord will lead you, comfort you, anoint your head, and fill your cup.

And even if enemies fight and assail you, in the depths of your being, no weapon formed against you will ever prosper, because we are more than winners—more than conquerors. You are a blessed and beloved heir to heaven’s promises through the grace of Jesus Christ.

And that is why we can call a message about a misappropriated quote and a formerly blind man Good News for all people.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

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