People of Resilience

“A People of Resilience,” Bob Ryder

Amos 5:24

“…let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

It was 60 years ago yesterday when four African American college students – Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr and David Richmond quietly sat down at a whites-only Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina and remained there when they were asked to leave.  It was a sit-in – a peaceful protest challenging segregation in the “Jim Crow” south, and it was one of the most catalyzing events in the American Civil Rights movement.

This month we turn our attention to the question, “What does it mean to be a people of resilience?” This follows our previous theme on “integrity” from last month.  Because nothing could epitomize the concept of resilience better than the perseverance of African American people living in the United States, for February we’ll consider the lives of some people who have demonstrated both resilience and integrity as our observance of Black History Month.  In March we’ll observe Lent considering the resilience and integrity of Jesus.

I want to begin with the thought process I went through preparing this reflection.  My idea a few weeks ago as we looked ahead to Black History Month was to consider African American leaders making history during our lifetime.  My original intention for this morning was to speak about John Lewis, the Civil Rights leader and member of the House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th congressional District.  You’d be hard pressed to come up with someone who has more integrity and resilience than he.  In addition to his many achievements, Mr. Lewis was recently diagnosed with cancer, and it feels right to keep him and his family in our hearts this morning – our nation owes him a lot.  But gathering my ideas for today, two related quotations I found while researching Mr. Lewis’ life and career made me realize there’s an additional leader we ought to be thinking about on this particular day in tandem with Mr. Lewis.  The quotes by Mr. Lewis that struck me are nearly identical.  The first is…

“Rosa Parks inspired me to find a way to get in the way, to get in trouble… good trouble, necessary trouble.”  John Lewis

And the second…

“I want to see young people in America feel the spirit of the 1960s and find a way to get in the way. To find a way to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”  John Lewis

Today is Super Bowl Sunday – practically a national holiday in the United States, and – as it happens – one of the teams playing is the San Francisco 49ers.  The last time the 49ers played in the Super Bowl was back in 2012 when their quarterback was Colin Kaepernick.  Today Mr. Kaepernick is a free agent not employed by any team in the NFL following his controversial activism a few years ago.  Troubled by highly publicized deaths of numerous African Americans in the United States caused by law enforcement in the months and years preceding, during the 49ers third preseason game of 2016 Mr. Kaepernick remained seated for the National Anthem.  For the following preseason game, he accepted the suggestion of a former player and military veteran to kneel instead of sitting as a way of making clear his gesture was not intended as disrespect for the military.  For all the remaining games in the 2016 season, Mr. Kaepernick took a position on one knee during the National Anthem rather than standing.  The gesture did not go unnoticed.  It became a national scandal drawing a storm of criticism from the public, from many executives in the NFL, and from pundits and politicians including the president.  A Wikipedia article about Mr. Kaepernick offers the following quote and some additional explanation about his intentions this way…

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder”, referencing a series of African-American deaths caused by law enforcement that led to the Black Lives Matter movement and adding that he would continue to protest until he feels like “[the American flag] represents what it’s supposed to represent”.

After the September 2016 police shootings of Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott, Kaepernick commented publicly on the shootings saying, “this is a perfect example of what this is about.” Photos then surfaced of him wearing socks depicting police officers as pigs. In a statement he acknowledged wearing them as a statement against “rogue cops”. He maintained that he has friends/family in law enforcement and that there are cops with “good intentions” who protect and serve and he was not targeting all police.

Nations do not take criticism well, and this is certainly true of the United States.  Pointing out corruption and hypocrisy in politics or culture is often met with bitterness and ostracism. We prefer to think of ourselves in terms of bravest moments and our most noble ideals.

It takes the courage and imagination of a prophet to hold a mirror up for a nation and make it see itself beyond it’s flattering illusions.  You’ll recall I began by sharing that familiar passage from Amos, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  While that verse by itself is noble, it has context.  Amos was berating Israel for the way they treated the poor, calling the people out for their delusion that extravagant worship rituals cast them in a flattering light before God.  Less often quoted are verses 21-24 that come before. Speaking from the perspective of God Amos writes…

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Years ago on the television series “Thirty Something” the character Miles Drentell – an advertising executive – was chiding his employee Michael (the main protagonist) about a matter of conscience.  Michael had recently criticized a client of his firm – the makers of “Dursten Beer” – for firing celebrity spokesperson Randy Towers after he participated in a protest against the Gulf War.  Michael was pitching an ad that reinstated Towers in a commercial associating Dursten beer with peace.  In what I think was one of the best scenes every to air on television, Miles replies to Michael’s criticism and ad pitch in a chillingly cynical interpretation of the advertising business, chiding him for his naïveté. (the scene from Thirty Something S4 E21 takes place at 26:40)

Miles: I’m curious to know, Michael, just what you think this company does? On a very basic level, you seem ignorant of what you and I do for a living. Have you been sleepwalking all this time? In a trance? I don’t know how else to explain your coming in here with that “I’d like to buy the world a Dursten” concept.

Michael: All right Miles, we’ll give Dursten his patriotism, full tilt, Yankee Doodle, everybody’s gonna feel safe, and united, and secure, and God bless America, man!

Miles: From sea to shining sea.

Michael: Which is great, because I do believe God does bless this country.  But he blesses all the rest of them too, doesn’t he?

Miles: This conversation is approaching inanity.

Michael: All Randy Towers did is ask a question, Miles. Just because we won the war doesn’t mean we can’t ask any more questions, does it?

Miles: The thing that most appalls me is your hypocrisy.

Michael: MY hypocrisy??

Miles: Do you actually imagine there’s some difference between this campaign and everything else that we do?

Michael: It IS different, Miles!

Miles: No, it is not.

Michael: It has to be!

Miles: Or what?  You know what I love about this country? Its amazingly short memory. We’re a nation of amnesiacs. We forget everything. Where we came from, what we did to get here. History is last week’s People magazine, Michael. So don’t pretend to cry for Randy Towers — no one really cares.

Michael: All he did was express an opinion.

Miles: He expressed an unpopular opinion. No one wants to be unpopular. That’s why we’re here. That’s the dance of advertising. We help people become popular. Through popularity comes acceptance. Acceptance leads to assimilation. Assimilation leads to bliss.

We calm and reassure. We embrace people with the message that we’re all in it together, that our leaders are infallible, and that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong.

That is what we do. It’s what we’ve always done, and under your gifted stewardship, what we will continue to do, onward toward the millennium. In return for our humanitarian service, we are made rich. I’m sorry if you misunderstood the nature of this covenant, but you’ve done it so well up till now.  I thought you knew.

Nations do not take criticism well.  Public figures express unpopular political opinions at their peril, whether calling out the rich and powerful on sexual assault, holding politicians accountable for corruption, or confronting law enforcement on brutality and racism.   There is always a backlash.  There is always a campaign to make the hideous look inevitable, acceptable, normal, admirable.  When someone draws attention to the dark aspects of a nation’s history and culture, it gets ugly.  The fictional Randy Towers protested the Gulf War and is no longer welcome to sell beer.  Mr. Kaepernick, a talented athlete and Super Bowl veteran, has not played in a single down of football in the NFL since his contract expired at the end of 2016.  By declining to stand for the National Anthem, Mr. Kaepernick drew attention to the dark history of racism we prefer to ignore, to injustice that continues to the present moment we pretend isn’t there.  Though not as blatant or ubiquitous as in the days of slavery, nor as openly defiant as during “Jim Crow,” people of color are still the victims of a withering systemic inequality.  For speaking up about police brutality perpetrated against our fellow citizens with dark pigmentation, Mr. Kaepernick was excluded from the NFL and became the subject of public hatred.  No, nations don’t take criticism well, but like the Greensboro Four sixty years ago this weekend, Mr. Kaepernick found a provocative yet respectful way draw attention to the ugly fact of racial injustice in the United States.  As John Lewis put it, he found “a way to get in the way.”  He found “a way to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”

About Mr. Kaepernick’s protest, John Lewis said this in an interview by Julia Manchester in “The Hill” 10/07/17

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) praised NFL players who kneeled during the national anthem at games to protest racial injustice on Saturday, saying he would kneel alongside them.

“I would kneel with the players. A young John Lewis would kneel.”

“It is so inspiring to see these young men standing with their owners and standing with managers and coaches,” the civil rights icon, who worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights movement, said.

(Refering to Mr. Keapernick’s critics he said) “Some of these people would have said back in the sixties ‘don’t go on the freedom rides, don’t participate in a sit in at the lunch counter, don’t march on Washington, don’t march from Selma to Montgomery.’ You have a right to march. It’s protected and shielded by the flag,” he continued.

Lewis’ comments came after President Trump said at a campaign rally [  ] that the NFL should fire players who kneel during the national anthem as a form of protesting.

The NFL community responded in a show of solidarity through kneeling and linking arms before and during the anthem at games across the country.

If you tune into the game this evening, pay attention to the festivities honoring America with a giant flag and the likely over-performed national anthem and military jets flying over the stadium embracing us with the message that we’re all in it together, that our leaders are infallible, and that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong.  As you watch and listen, consider the meaning of those lyrics “the land of the free, and the home of the brave” and hold a thought for courageous prophets of  justice and freedom – prophets like Amos, prophets like Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr and David Richmond, prophets like John Lewis and Colin Kaepernick.  We owe them our gratitude and our respect.

Because we’re considering what it means to be a people of resilience, I’ll conclude my thoughts with this Nike advertisement from the 2018 Super Bowl…