In recent months, discussions have taken place about when the rights of a believer-citizen should be exercised, or not. There are valid points on both sides of the conversation and worth hearing. One camp says a believer should never demand their rights and just take what comes as an example of a submissive and sacrificial love. Others stand immovable in their rights believing they are gifts from God. Which one is right? It is hard to tell sometimes. Maybe it’s a both/and kind of thing. On one occasion, the apostle Paul appealed to Caesar demanding his rights as a Roman citizen. On other occasions, he did nothing and just took what came and praised God in the process.
One of my personal heroes is Rosa Parks. Rosa was a black seamstress living in Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950s. She was a devout Christian. Rosa would become an iconic symbol in the civil rights movement for not giving up her seat on a city bus to a white person. She was arrested during that event and her arrest was one of the ignition points of the civil rights movement. In a 1956 interview Parks said of that day on the bus, “I would have to know for once and for all what rights I had as a human being and a citizen.”
On Sunday, December 4, 1955, just days after her arrest, plans for the Montgomery bus boycott were prepared. The announcement for the boycott was made in black churches in the city. The boycott brought national attention to the evil of segregation. Some in today’s faith/politics conversation might not approve of what Rosa Parks did because she was asking for her rights to be honored not only as a citizen of the United States but as a human being created in the image of God.
Today, we are beset with a shaming spirit that has entered our social discourse, sadly, even within the Church. That spirit and its demand for a one-size-fits-all response of social commentary, on either side of an issue, can be easily offended if its ideas are not accepted. History has shown us that there is not always a simplistic one-size-fits-all answer in God’s Kingdom. While we may see the same social issue playing out, we will not always see the same remedy or take a similar course of action. In December of 1955, Rosa Parks exercised her rights as a citizen and human being, and history was changed.
I wonder where we would be today if four young black men at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina had not remained seated at the counter after being told to leave or if Martin Luther King Jr. did not have the courage to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama because his actions might upset another believer not convinced that King’s actions were the right kind of witness for his faith. What if these individuals had allowed a shaming voice or threats to silence their peaceful dissent? Their lives and legacy have become gifts to all of us, modeling how our faith can be expressed in the public arena beyond just silence and submission.
After all these years, we are still trying to learn how to live with each other in honor and peace. One of the challenges we still face is knowing when we should remain seated or when, under the impulse of God’s Spirit, we choose to not give up the seat of our personal commitments before God, no matter who might disagree with that course of action.