Faith leaders speak out on how well the faith community has upheld the tradition of civil rights and social justice activism.
In the motion picture adaptation of Alice Walker's novel, The Color Purple, Shug Avery leaves Harpo's Juke Joint, on her way to the church pastored by her estranged father. On a forced march through cotton fields, Shug is accompanied by an impromptu choir, singing on their way,"Maybe God's trying to tell you something!" written by the late Andraé Crouch. The unspoken implication is that in trying times, it is important to listen for the lesson and hear the voice of God within it. The task for those of us who are attracted to such thoughts is not to see God in our stories but to imagine our story in God's, learning somehow to see our humanity in divinity.
What we find in the fiction of our lives often comes to bear in the reality of our living. Such was the case with an individual in the Scriptures called Samuel (I Samuel 3). This fascinating story is about a young man, only twelve years of age, serving as a Temple assistant to Eli, the High Priest at Shiloh. The presumptive implication of this ancient narrative is that God calls into service those who appear to be least likely; that God summons into service those who do not have the credentials or the spiritual gravitas to assume the purposes and priorities of God.
Yet, this is a time in the nation's history when someone is needed not only to bring a nation to its feet but also to bring a nation to its senses. Strange, isn't it?
Strange, that God should choose an unexpected spokesman, an inexperienced politician, and an untested preacher with no prophetic credentials to his name. For young Samuel, leadership would not be born in him but rather thrust upon him. His place in history would not be his choice but would rather be his God-determined destiny.
Such was the case with a man named Martin Luther King,Jr. A young man, inexperienced in matters of public leadership, his theological diploma still wet with ink, and yet called upon to give direction to a march for freedom, the likes of which human history had never known. Of course, to read the story of Samuel whose life serves as background to the place of Dr. King, is to understand that in order for spiritual or social change to be accomplished, one must first be awakened to the world around you. Three times, say the scriptures, over and over again, Samuel's sleep is disturbed. In his time and in our own, this is no time to sleep. If there is to be any sense of justice within this land, there can be no reason to rest.
God's first choice was to awaken the one who would be preacher. Or, stated differently, God awakened the church. Sadly, the world no longer seeks moral guidance from the church; it appears the church itself needs guidance. The world has set aside the moral authority of the church because we who have been commissioned to speak have chosen rather to sleep. What does it means when the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church dares to accuse the church of an "impotent silence," suggesting that the church and its leaders suffer not only from a "lust for power" but from what he calls "spiritual Alzheimer's," which essentially means that the church has forgotten what it was here to do in the first place?
Awake. These are serious times. As serious as the Middle Passage, as serious as whips and chains and auction blocks, as serious as Montgomery, and Selma and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and Trayvon Martin and all the others who were choked, or shot in the street, or left for dead because of those who were "standing their ground."
Dr. Allan Boesak has suggested that "God must raise up faithful men and women who have heard God's voice in the cries of the oppressed, who take refuge in the love of God and from within that place of refuge (find) courage and step into the world to challenge the powers of evil."
Someone must awaken Samuel. It is good and right that we should celebrate the life and commitment of Martin Luther King. Perhaps, however, we are learning the inescapable lesson that the battle is not over. The indictments we seek but do not achieve certify that conflict and protest will be our lot for years to come. The struggle continues.
We must rehearse for our children, if not for ourselves, the speeches and writings of that Drum Major for Justice. But when we are truly awakened, we will discover that mere speeches are insufficient.
Where is the new voice that will sound a new and more piercing alarm and give to us something different, more potent, to say. The scriptures are correct: "When a trumpet is expected a flute will not suffice."
When we are awakened to see again the struggle and the strife of the dispossessed, we shall see for ourselves that the immoral machinations of mortal men and women will require us to admit that national holidays are not enough.
When we are awakened and are able to move away from the cloistered halls of church and temple, we will understand that magnificent monuments of granite will not alter the pain nor alleviate the suffering of those who still "yeans to breathe free." We must not permit Martin King's memorial to be just another stop on the tourist bus route.
Where is the new Samuel who will, when awakened, disturb the church from its rest? Who will speak when this new era so critically needs a new Martin? Who is there who is prepared to fill his shoes? What preacher in all our churches is ready to fill the void of leadership? What preacher stands to preach without fear on Sunday morning that he will be eviscerated for telling the truth?
So, in the cause of justice, if you have that nagging feeling that you need to be doing more than you have ever done before, if you are being shaken to your core so that you are required to speak out for those who are unable to speak for themselves, if something is disturbing your rest to the point that you will no longer simply call for a conversation but will instead give your energy toward implementing the lessons we have already learned, it is not because of this article, or anything you may have read.
Maybe God's trying to tell you something.
Bible Study Questions
1. Is there a connection between life experience and one's ability to lead?
2. Explain: "What we find in the fiction of our lives often comes to bear in the reality of our living."
3. What are you being urged, called, or summoned to do?
For Further Reading
Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer
Preaching Through A Storm by H. Beecher Hicks Jr.
Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement edited by Bettye Collier-Thomas and V.P. Franklin
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