News came earlier this week that civil rights icon, Rosa Parks had passed into eternity. At 92 years of age, she embodied as few others could, the struggle African-Americans fought in order to be treated as respected citizens created in the image of God. As a relatively young woman in her early 40’s, she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man as was the requirement in those days. Her refusal to be treated with such disrespect and inhumanity for the “sin” of having dark skin galvanized a movement and put a human face on those who suffered under an atrocious system that segregated people based on ethnicity.
As with any other revolution, some of the leaders of the Civil Rights for Blacks Movement have been (or are) demagogues and scoundrels at various levels. At the same time, those who have tried to justify their bigotry by twisting science, religion, culture and custom are even more worthy of condemnation and dismissal. Rosa Parks, however, was not a demagogue or a ruffian. She did not shy from the public limelight, nor did she exploit it to promote herself. She simply remained seated and she convicted a nation as she did so. While many desire to be known for “what they stand for” — Rosa Parks was know for what she “sat for.”
Growing up in a small-town environment in the Midwest where the vestiges of segregation and bigotry were at least tolerated if not embraced, I’ve personally observed discrimination practiced publicly and privately by people who considered themselves otherwise decent citizens. For years, it has been the practice of evangelical churches in the Midwest and South to permit a sort of “cultural racism” that implies, “We care about your soul, but not about you.” I’ve watched churches debate such issues such as whether or not blacks should be baptized in the church, how many should be allowed to attend on Sunday School buses and what do we do if (gasp) a mixed-race couple should want to become members or attend the church. Too often, churches have cowered before the prevailing culture rather than taking on the unBiblical attitudes which have made Sunday morning services the most segregated hour of the week in much of the country.
Indeed, I have written on this blog before of the latent stain of racism which still remains within many orthodox and evangelical congregations and how difficult it is to even have a conversation about the problem, let alone resolve it.
Many times, I’ve heard white Christians use the moral sins or political affiliations of Martin Luther King, Jr. to dismiss the wickedness of segregation and bigotry as if two wrongs would make a right. Surely, few people can raise the presence of latent racism than the likes of over-the-top charlatans like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and some will use that as justification for cruel and unChristian attitudes and remarks.
But let us be clear…There is no excuse for assigning worth based on the color of one’s skin. Churches should be open and affirming and welcoming places where people of every race and color can come and worship without sideways looks. People who feel a sense of inferiority or superiority due to their race need to cut it out and see every man and woman as a marvel of the creative touch of an all-knowing God.
Rosa Parks became the symbol for every person insulted, reviled and rejected for being the “wrong” color. She represented millions of anonymous and wonderful people who had shared the experience of being told “your kind isn’t welcome here”, of stares and glares cast their way when they entered the room, of conversations gone suddenly silent except for the occasional snicker or guffaw from some crude oaf in the back corner. She was the public face of little boys and girls who were called names and picked last and weren’t allowed to go to white schools. She WAS the tired black mother who sank wearily into a seat after a long day’s work only to be reminded with a stare and a nod that some strapping white male wanted her spot.
As she is remembered this week, it should be the challenge of those who would claim the identity of Christ to examine our hearts and ask the Lord to drive out any remaining vestiges of bigotry and racism.
And should we ever be on a bus in our seats and see a black lady of any age come walking down the aisle, may every white man jump to his feet and say, “Please….Take MY seat.”