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Emilie Townes Headshot

The Selma Marchers Weren't Just Activists -- They Were Believers

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Forty-four years ago, on March 7th, Alabama state troopers and a sheriff's posse broke up a march by civil rights demonstrators from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Also known as Bloody Sunday because the troopers and posse attacked the 600 marchers with billy clubs and tear gas, it was the first of three March marches that are hallmarks in the U.S. civil rights movement. The second March was attempted two days later. The third march, begun on March 21st and lasting for five days completed the 54-mile journey. For the majority of the seminarians I teach now, these marches and the civil rights movement in general are the stuff of history. For me, they are memories. This presents a challenge for my teaching because I am now in the position of not being able to draw on my students' recollections about events of the 1960s (as well as the 70s as most are born post 1980) so that we can blend their experience with the ethical theories we are exploring in the books and films we use to develop more faithful moral decision-making abilities. Instead, I find that my students bring little historical awareness of our history as a nation and the role that the churches have played in that history. In short, we are bad historians and this is a problematic place to be as people of faith. It means that we are cut off from what it means to be a people of history that spans for centuries and has much to teach us for the present day and the ways in which we must be working for a better future. Our histories, religious and secular, should be part of the faith tool kit we have at our disposal as we sort through our options for how we live our lives and the values we pass on to the generations coming behind us.

Because we often do not have this history at our disposal to draw on because we do not know it, I often hear students ask: "Who will be our next great leader?" They are often drawing on the models of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks -- the two civil rights movement protesters they know best. When I suggest that the people they are looking for staring back at them in the mirror each morning, I often hear a collective gulp in the room before we begin to explore what this may mean for them and their ministries. Most, I am happy to say, are willing to take up the challenge as we begin to talk about the historical resources we have for them to draw on. Often, I suggest that they begin with the Bible and not treat it as much as a moral rule book, but more as a testament of faith and faithlessness that we can draw on and learn from as we see that folks have been trying to figure out how to live their lives in response to God's call to us for a mighty long time. We, then, are standing in a long line of folks working out what discipleship -- the living out of our faith -- must mean for this time and place with a strong eye to future and the foundation we are laying for it with what we do now. My students are earnest and they want to make the world a better place. So we work on faith strategies, large and small (but particularly the small because it is in the persistent faithful actions we do each day that wears away injustice at its foundations), that can help bring in the new day dawning they are trying to visualize even as they are building it.

We sort through the strategies of protest used historically and I challenge them to begin to look at new modes of protest for today. The world has changed and continues to change rapidly. Many of the social institutions like the press have changed in significant ways and how we get our information has dramatically changed now that there are very few private acts we can do that will not end up in some public stage that ranges from gossip to billboards to the internet. I wonder how the liberal and progressive church responds to these new realities as well. How well are these churches and others across the theological spectrum letting our members and attendees know about the history of the denominations we are in and the role that individual church has had in it? To our peril, we can become so focused on mission and social injustices that we fail to teach folks the reason why we are so concerned about this world and how our historical faith statements compel us to act. One of the important lessons I learned growing up in Durham and Southern Pines, North Carolina is that faith should be founded on spirituality and social witness and relying on only one side of that equation makes us listing Christians and ultimately not very faithful. My grandmother would then remind me that there is a big difference between acting pious and being faithful. That lesson stuck and it is the one that we need as our watchword if we want to forge and effective and faithful progressive Christian witness for today.