MLK, civil rights, and sacrifice

My supervisor at Bet Tzedek Legal Services, where I volunteer/intern, called me during lunch to tell me she was going to leave early today and gave me the option to not come in today.

I had just come out of class, where we discussed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches, sermons, and essays and watched a bit of a documentary on the civil rights movement, particularly the Freedom Riders. I felt an implicit challenge, a nagging poke in the stomach as I listened to Frederick Leonard of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) talk about how the white mob in Montgomery approached the bus as it stopped at at the station. The people inside made the decision not to exit the bus at the rear and instead face the opposition at the front door. Jim Zwerg, a white Freedom Rider, exited first, and the mob descended upon him with baseball bats, iron pipes, and bricks.

I heard other details of violent opposition, but hearing that story recounted by a man who was actually there stirred my imagination. What would I have been thinking at that very moment? A capacity for imagination in these kinds of instances affects me deeply. When I watch a movie and in it, a character faces imminent death, I place myself in his or her shoes…what would I be thinking? It doesn’t have to be death. It could be the possibility that I will never be the same again…a smashed-in face, inability to walk, difficulty with mental tasks, loss of sight. Would I support a cause knowing that I would have to give up my source of income, the comforts of home and family, the companionship of friends, or the cleanliness of civilized life? It is too uncomfortable to imagine one day going from handsome to grotesque, well-built to wheelchair-bound, top student at USC to social outcast…I could go on.

MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” helps me imagine myself as a black person in the South. How can I not feel exceedingly disconsolate as I read of the painful realities of segregation and racism? Deep down, though, I recall the Bible verses that teach me of man’s depravity and sinfulness–Romans 3:10-12, Romans 3:23, Isaiah 53:6. No one does good, no not one. For all have sinned. All we like sheep have gone astray. We feel so sorry for people who suffer and are oppressed. But the vast majority, if taken out of their hardship (ultimately by the providence of God), would spurn mercy and return to their sin. Sin knows no socioeconomic class, no race, no culture. If not for the mercy of God, I would be a sick sinner regardless of whether I was raised in a Midwest farm, Southern plantation, beachfront condo, drughouse in the projects, quiet suburban enclave, mountainside getaway, or Ivy League mansion.

It is these thoughts that keep me sober-minded and abjectly humble from day to day. It is this personality that feels a slight bout of anger but then a lingering sadness when I see other believers live life with such carefree and casual attitudes. They, of all people, should know better. Those who truly know that their lives are founded on God’s mercy will continually be disgusted at the pride that seeps through every crevice of their thoughts, words, and deeds.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. man, i wish i had today off! ok…that’s not the right way to think about it. I think dying for a cause other than God is (usually) as waste. Of course, there is difference between moral duty, and a simple cause, such as fundraising for MS or AIDS. It makes you wonder if your life will make a difference in those moments before you face death. Ultimately, I would only die for my family, friends, or Jesus. And if dying for Jesus means dying for a complete stranger, that could happen too. Death is not so much an end but a naptime in light of Christ’s sacrifice, is it not?

  2. I need a copy editor; I’ve got mistakes all around, haha.

  3. Reading your comment made me think: What would you (or I or anyone) consider as dying for God/Jesus? What if, in our desire to show compassion to another person (or a group of people), we die? It can be one isolated act or a sustained effort. I think that even if I wasn’t sharing the gospel, if I was being compassionate in faith, for the purpose of glorifying God, I could still consider myself dying “for God.”

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