The 50th anniversary celebration of the Selma voting rights marches is now a thing of the past. We watched on our devices Representative John Lewis and President Barack Obama tie the past, present and future together in ways that reminded us of our interconnectedness as a human family. Some even made the journey to Selma and other important landmarks in the movement. Commemorative souvenirs were sold, powerful speeches and sermons given, and life is now back to normal. The Civil Rights Movement is again, tucked neatly away in some corner our consciousness until next February when we observe Black History Month.
Except it isn’t. Not in mine, and hopefully not yours, either.
Anyone who has spent any time learning about the Civil Rights Movement has heard the term “outside agitator.” It’s the phrase used to describe many of those protesters not living in the cities where they poured their support in to local movements across the south. They came in cars that were followed by members of the KKK and in buses that were bombed and maybe even by hitching a ride from strangers. Considered disruptions to the community, they were certainly not welcome by the local government.
But prophets and agitators are hardly welcome by any establishment. Not even by a group of Alabama clergymen who, in an open letter, titled, A Call for Unity, urged Dr. King and others to withdraw support from demonstrations.
Show restraint. Find proper channels. Press it in the courts, and not in the streets, were some of the suggestions from these “men of genuine good will.”
But we know that this well-intentioned letter—an appeal for law and order and common sense, elicited a response from Dr. King, that we have come to know as his Letter from Birmingham Jail, which he wrote in April 1963.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country.
Because of our mutuality and our interrelatedness, no one is an outsider. Even the apostle Paul knew that. We are, friends, all inside agitators. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea.
So what now? What do we do, as faithful-ish people living in the 21st Century? Do we sit idly by in Nashville, without being concerned about what happens in Ferguson? Do we sit idly by in Chicago, without being concerned about what happens in Sierra Leone? Do we sit idly by in Seattle without being concerned about what happens in Syria? Do we sit idly by in Tennessee without being concerned about what happens in Indiana? Do we sit idly by, comfortable at our desks at United Methodist Communications without being concerned about what is happening to our brother or sister down the hall? Do we sit idly by in Davidson County without being concerned about the over 400,000 low-income, working Tennesseans who are in the Medicaid Gap, who desperately need an extension of the health care safety net, but were told again last night that they must wait.
This right time, the admonition to “wait” has almost always meant “never.” How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
Being an agitator takes different forms. I don’t have to name them, but I’m sure you have been given opportunities in your life to respond to the call to Macedonia for aid. What are those communities and places of work and study and play, where we are called to be inside agitators?
John Seigenthaler, Assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, recalls a phone conversation with Diane Nash, during the Freedom Rides of 1961:
My phone in the hotel room rings and it’s the Attorney General. And he opens the conversation, ‘Who the hell is Diane Nash? Call her and let her know what is waiting for the Freedom Riders.’
Diane Nash, for those who don’t know, was a movement leader who had emerged as one of the most respected student leaders of the sit-in movement in Nashville, TN and who organized additional riders from Nashville to continue the freedom rides after the buses were bombed and riders beaten.
So I called her. I said, ‘I understand that there are more Freedom Riders coming down from Nashville. You must stop them if you can.’ Her response was, ‘They’re not gonna turn back. They’re on their way to Birmingham and they’ll be there, shortly.’
You know that spiritual — ‘Like a tree standing by the water, I will not be moved’? She would not be moved. And, and I felt my voice go up another decibel and another and soon I was shouting, ‘Young woman, do you understand what you’re doing? You’re gonna get somebody… Do you understand you’re gonna get somebody killed?’
And, there’s a pause, and she said, ‘Sir, you should know, we all signed our last wills and testaments last night before they left. We know someone will be killed. But we cannot let violence overcome non-violence.’
That’s virtually a direct quote of the words that came out of that child’s mouth. Here I am, an official of the United States government, representing the President and the Attorney General, talking to a student at Fisk University. And she, in a very quiet but strong way, gave me a lecture.
What are we willing to risk for the cause of love and justice?
German Lutheran pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi dissident, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, writes this, on our call to follow Christ [feel free to substitute whatever [non] gendered pronoun you like]:
The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death–we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise godfearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time–death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call. Jesus’ summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ. In fact every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 89-90
As 21st Century Christians, this is of course an appalling invitation.
We don’t want to die. We don’t want to abandon the attachments of this world.
We are comfortable. We are paid well enough. We have a place to live. A car to drive. We have insurance and maybe a little retirement saved up. We want to live, and live life to its fullest.
But it’s not just the material stuff we are attached to. It’s the comforts of affluence and privilege and power and the bliss of ignorance.
We are nearing the end of Lent and are in the thick of Holy Week—a reminder that we are a fickle people. The same shouts of Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! that we heard last Sunday, will turn to Crucify Him in just a few more days. We are the ones who laid down our garments on Sunday to welcome the King of Kings, only to spit at him on Friday. We know the story all too well.
We will not likely go home today from work and write our last wills and testaments as the freedom riders did. In fact, today may be just like any other day. But don’t let that fool you. At a moment’s notice you may be asked to stand in the gap and do something courageous, all for the sake of love.
The foot soldiers in Selma, the girls who were killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Jimmy Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo, Reverend James Reeb and other drum majors for justice did not wake up the morning they were beaten or killed, thinking that day would be any different.
Our lives, for the most part, will remain undisturbed. But perhaps today, and especially this week as we journey with Christ to the cross and eventually to the season of Easter, we can, even if it’s the only week out of the year, remember our call and our responsibility to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
What is the cost of discipleship for us today?
What will it cost if you are the only one in a room of yeses, to say no, I cannot get behind this?
In an exchange with my friend on Facebook last night, as we were talking about our Selma experiences that were several weeks apart, he posed this question: What is the cost of ally-ship? He reflected on this as he walked with others from Selma to Montgomery last week and traveled with a gender queer friend [meaning they didn’t identify as male or female and/or man or woman] who had to choose several times a day, which gendered port-a-potty to use. What is the cost for any of us who question the status quo?
What does it mean to align yourself with someone whose mere being doesn’t fit in to a neat little box you can check on a form? What does it mean to say, no, I will not support your racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, prejudiced, unjust, unChrist-like policies?
What will it cost if you are the only one in a room of yeses, to say no, I cannot get behind this?
The Christ who we say we follow, we must also be willing to emulate. I’m not just talking about the turn-the-other-cheek, humility-practicing, miracle-wielding son of God. Not the sterile Jesus we see in on Sunday school classroom walls with wavy brown hair and fair skin. But the other Jesus. The Jesus we forget about, because it is convenient to: The social agitator. Table turner. Friend to prostitute. Dinner companion of disreputable characters. Obedient even to the point of death, even death on a cross.
As we leave our gathering this morning, remember to touch your garment—a reminder that we are bound to one another through Christ Jesus. We are not just bound, we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Because whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
So go in peace, empowered by the Holy Spirit, following the Christ who demonstrated how far love will go, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.