When I watched Selma this past Sunday, I was too shocked to even cry.
Watching bodies being thrown by bombs and gunshots, seeing beautiful faces slammed against the asphalt and beaten bloody with billy clubs, and hearing white men jeer at protestors–black and white alike–was almost more than I could handle.
I kept cupping my hands against my face in terror and whispering, “Oh, Jesus.”
If I’m being truthful, my gut reaction was absolute shame. I couldn’t stop thinking: I don’t want to live in a country where this happened.
But what made me even sicker was the realization that I do live in such a country. Fifteen years into a new millineum, entire systems of oppression go uncontested, and blatant acts of prejudice and bigotry are still pervasive.
Like a police officer choking a man gasping “I can’t breathe” with his dying breath.
It’s easy to watch a movie portraying scenes from fifty years ago and be horrified by both the perpetrators of injustice and those who sat blindly by and let it happen. It’s much more difficult to critically think about the issues on which you and I are on the wrong side of history.
Selma took place in the 1960s, so walking down the street you could still pass someone who cursed or attacked those protestors.
Throughout time, these people (hopefully) changed their minds and saw the error of their ways. Still, in the history books, their images and hateful words are forever bound to the crippling prejudice of their generation.
I wonder if had I lived in that time in the South and been as inundated with regional hatreds and historical heirs of superiority as the angry antagonists of the Selma story were, would I have followed Dr. King?
Rich with biblical allusion, his prophetic words peak deeply to our spirits today. But for some in that time period, his teachings on equality–now staples in American religion–would have sounded too controversial.
What modern movements of the Spirit have we been blind to or, God forgive us, discounted? What issues in our nation are breaking God’s heart right now?
I could take a few guesses–systematic poverty, wage inequality for women in the workplace, ethnic prejudice, high divorce rates, the murder of human fetuses, the treatment of sexual minorities as second-class citizens, drone strikes, military torture techniques, etc.
Discrimination and prejudice hurt God’s heart because they demean God’s own image in us–the Sons and Daughters.
Every day, we must continue shifting our mindsets from fear to love, from injustice to equal opportunity, from blind ethnocentricity to vibrant diversity, from superiority and judgment to humility and gracious acceptance.
However, a major problem we face, as the characters in Selma did, is that the institutions created to protect us often perpetuate injustice themselves. Our schools and universities, our courts and legislatures, and our churches still neglect the wellbeing of all for a select privileged.
Like Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Something I’ve been convicted by recently is how important it is not to entirely give up on “the establishment” and therefore surrender our power to influence it.
If young Christians are tired of the way churches stigmatize sexual minorities and people struggling with mental illness, the last thing we need to do is abandon the mainstream church.
If women are tired of being disenfranchised in the political sphere, we need strong female candidates not to dismiss Washington but to keep running for office.
If social justice activists are sick of unfair income distribution, they must collaborate with the private sector and demonstrate corporate responsibility as new way of doing business.
Protests are powerful, but resistance only goes so far. What is needed to dismantle corrupt systems is creative and redemptive action from within these institutions. We need to be agents of restoration within our schools and churches and courts and city halls.
Let’s spend less time demonizing our opponents, as that only widens the gap of misunderstanding. To win the hearts of those who–out of their own fear and limited vision–persecute others, we must stand with firm commitment to our standards, unified hearts, intentional acts of love, and radical humility.
Dr. King, I believe, recognized that strong rhetoric influence minds and spirits but that purposeful actions shift cultures. Both art and politics–demonstration and activation–are necessary.
That’s what Selma taught me.
I’ll leave you with these words from his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which speak to my spirit as strongly as they did the first time I read them in my eleventh-grade English class:
But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus and extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you…
So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime — the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth, and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.