Sixty-one years ago today, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, AL for an act of civil disobedience. She wouldn’t move to the rear and standing section of a Montgomery bus in order to maintain segregation. According to her attorney, Fred Gray, Rosa disrupted their own plans of protest. Mrs. Parks had planned to disobey the law, but not that day. She did it anyway.
These days many people recognize the evils inherent in segregation and the separate and unequal America it produced. Nowadays, Rosa Park is heralded by people of goodwill as champion and hero. Though she was arrested just sixty-one years ago, we have forgotten the actual events at the heart of her resistance. For starters, she actually did break the law. Segregation was the law in Alabama and the bus company – which was privately own and contracted by the city – complied with the law. She was lawfully arrested and forced to pay a fine of $14. The bus driver followed company policy and the arresting officers followed the law.
At the time, many white Christians said, “Well, there you go. She broke the law and the police were right.” For them, that was the end of it, as if Rosa had been convicted Jaywalking or breaking a window. The law was the law. Sadly, there have been and will always be Christians so wedded to thoughtlessness and their own cultural comfort that legality will suffice for justice. Thankfully, there have been and will always be other Christians glued to the gospel who will not mistake legislation as justification. What we know now about Alabama, American, and segregation is that the law was wrong and so were many Americans.
The citizens of Alabama were wrong!
Jim Crow was wrong!
The majority was wrong!
An unjust and evil law on the books deserves no defense from the people of God. Rosa Parks understood segregation — and the border wall of Jim Crow erected to maintain it — were unjust and malignant. The lack of justice in the law made them more than merely unjust, it made them ungodly. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”
In the wake of all we’ve seen this year: the shooting of unarmed black men, the rise in hate speech and harassment, threats of lynching, and so on, it is time — and past time — for the Christian community to loose ourselves from faux Christian leaderships, who are simply bent on their own empowerment and glory, and have long ago abandoned the gospel and ministry of reconciliation, and attach ourselves to a vision of the world so few Americans could see sixty-one years ago.
What is clear, to me at least, is that in the next few years Christians (real Christians, not the evangelical political complex that has co-opted our name and exchanged our values for promises of power and their own self-protection) will have greater opportunity to sit with the marginalized. Will we counteract injustice when we see it or do our best to look the other way as many believers did in Rosa Parks’ era? I believe a Rosa Parks’-like, faithful, public witness against injustice may be the best way forward for a people who’s national spokespersons have reduced our gospel witness to empty slogan and allegiances with immoral power-brokers.
We stand on the precipice of reclaiming our virtues, for the glory of Jesus rather than the grandeur of our country, if only we will.
A few weeks ago our family sat down and discussed which injustices were most concerning for us. For me, it is policing; for Rochelle, it is issues around the church and LGBTQ+ person, especially given her work on the board of CenterPeace. Our oldest daughter is most concerned about women’s rights within her generation and our youngest was most concerned about snack time at school (she’s nine). Following that conversation, we each pledged to take particular actions in our community among the people most affected by those issues.
We made the decision, though our lives are good by any historical and most American standards, that the good life for us isn’t necessarily good news for the world and because that’s the case, we’d rather be people who sit with the hurting than ask others to sacrifice their seat.