My text is taken from the Gospel of St. Matthew, which tells the familiar story of Pontius Pilate delivering a carpenter from Nazareth into the hands of first century extremists, and then washing his own hands in a bowl of water, and declaring boldly- to the crowd: “I take no responsibility for the death of this man.”…

President John Kennedy was killed two days ago in Dallas, and the One Thing Worse Than This, is that the citizens of Dallas should declare unto the world: “We take no responsibility for the death of this man.” Yet, that already seems to be the slogan of our city and some of its officials: “Dallas is a friendly city — this was the work of one madman and extremist.” “Our hearts are saddened — but our hands are clean.” How neat and simple this solution. How desperately we wish that it were true.

I am well aware this morning that the man charged with the assassination of our President has admitted to being a Marxist and left-wing extremist. But, my friends, whether extremism wears the hat of left-wing or right-wing, its by products are the same. It announces death and condemnation to all who hold a different point of view. And here is the hardest thing to say: There is no city in the United States which in recent months and years, has been more acquiescent toward its extremists, than Dallas, Texas. We, the majority of citizens, have gone quietly about our work and leisure, forfeiting the city’s image to the hate mongers and reactionaries in our midst. The spirit of assassination has been with us for some time. Not manifest in bullets but in spitting mouths and political invectives…

The vocal, organized and unorganized extremists have captured us — while we were sleeping in the night. And there is no way in all creation to avoid our corporate and mutual guilt. By our timidity, we have encouraged the aggressor; by our paralysis we have given safe conduct to reactionaries; by our confusion we have promoted the clarity of evil; by our small prejudices and little hates we have prepared the way for monstrous and demonic acts that have betrayed us all. We have become a garbled people, mistaking patriotic cries for patriotism, boisterous boasts for courage, and superficial piety for faith. In this week of blood-stained history and death, we are under an imperative to whisper unto one another and to God: “Oh Lord, have mercy on us all.”

Yet still there hang the questions: “What are we to be?” “What are we to do?” By the grace of God, this much is clear. We are called to be a city where political debate continues. Different points of view must be expressed. Liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans must go on exchanging partisan convictions. The two party system is intrinsic to our way of life, and through the years the correctives, balances, and checks of these two parties held in tension, have given depth and magnitude to our destiny as a nation and a people. But the context of that debate in Dallas — as all across our land — must be the context of mutual forbearance and good will. We must be as jealous of another person’s right to think and live, as we are jealous for that right ourselves. It is not too late to learn that men can agree to disagree in love — and still hold partisan persuasions…

“Can this be done?” asked John Kennedy. “Can we meet this test of survival and still maintain our tradition of individual liberties and dissent? I think we can… So let the debate go on — and may the best ideas prevail.”

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