GOD AND SOCIAL CHANGE

by Julius Lester

During the 1960's I was affiliated with and, for a couple of years, worked full time with SNCC (SNICK), the Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee, at the main office in Atlanta, Georgia. The organization is best remembered now for its two most flamboyant leaders, Stokely Carmichael who shook America to its roots with his calls for "Black Power", and H. Rap Brown who gave us the memorable line, "Violence is as American as cherry pie."

As head of SNCC's photography department, I spent most of my time in the basement darkroom printing negatives from SNCC's files and creating materials in which those photographs could be used. But several times a day, I would come up from the basement to socialize with whomever might be around.

One afternoon a group of five or so of us were chatting. Although we worked together and were always in each other's company, we did not talk much about our lives before joining SNCC. However, on this particular afternoon, we somehow started talking about our pasts, and we were amazed to learn that each of us was a P.K., preacher's kid.

Over the course of my life I have learned that P.K.'s have a lot in common, and it does not matter if the P. of the P.K. was a minister, rabbi, or Episcopal priest. We had all grown up going to religious services week in and week out; we had grown up burdened with the expectations of others that we were the little exemplars of holiness as our parents were the major exemplars. It was not surprising that none of us had set foot in a church on a Sunday morning since leaving our parents' homes and had no plans to do so in the near or distant future.

Although there are many P.K.'s who, like my departed older brother, rebel against the moral strictures placed around their lives, that was not the case for those of us in the SNCC office that day. Our lives had been irrevocably shaped by having been set apart as children. A higher degree of morality had been expected of us, and for whatever reasons, we had not rebelled. Even though we knew no one expected the children of teachers to be smarter nor the children of doctors to always be well, we were expected to be God-like. Just as fish are born into water, religion was the environment into which we were born and grew. Whether we attended church or not as young adults, the values of the religions into which we were born had shaped who we had become. We, in turn, had used those values and helped shape the ethos of the civil rights movement.

While the civil rights movement was responsible for significant social changes, it was, at heart, a religious movement. In the segregated black communities of the south, the only black-owned public buildings were churches. The only blacks who did not work for whites were ministers. Thus it was logical that the churches became the places for mass meetings, and black ministers were looked to for leadership. As P.K.'s we had grown up without the same degree of fear as children whose parents' livelihoods could be threatened by economic reprisals. Our lives had been sheltered from the worst of white racism.

Equally important, religion was at the center of our lives. We had to go to Sunday School, and if the teacher asked a question about something in the Bible, we had to know the answer. We had to listen to our fathers' sermons because they might ask us about it at dinner. Entertainment in my house was my father quizzing me on the Bible.

When the non-violent civil rights movement began with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, its theology was already familiar to us. The object of the sit-in demonstrations of 1960-61 was not to sit down at a lunch counter next to a white person and eat a hamburger. We could get better hamburgers in the Negro part of town. The object was to change the soul of the adversary!

The concept was not new to us because we had heard our fathers say from their pulpits that God was love, that we were to love our neighbor as much as we loved ourselves, that we were not only to accept whatever harm someone might want to do to us, but we were to then turn the other cheek.

The non-violent civil rights movement took Christian teachings and applied them in the political arena. There had not been anything like it in America since the abolitionist movement of the 19th century. But William Lloyd Garrison and the other non-violent abolitionists did not have the advantage of the contributions of Mahatma Gandhi to the theory and practice of non-violence. Martin Luther King, Jr. did.

The term, non-violence, does not do justice to the reality of the concept. Non-violence was a political tactic, albeit a very effective one, but Gandhi and the civil rights movement from 1955-1964 wanted something revolutionary. Gandhi coined a new word—satyagraha, with the force of one's soul. For him satyagraha was a way of life in which you lived in such a way that those you encountered on a daily basis were affected and maybe even transformed by the quality of your living.

The concept of satyagraha was easy for me to grasp, not only because I was my minister father's son, but also because the spring semester of 1960 when the sit-in movement started in Nashville, Tennessee, where I lived and was in my final semester at Fisk University, I had been reading Paul Tillich's Dynamics of Faith and Martin Buber's I and Thou in a Philosophy of Religion course. Both books put at the center of one's life the primacy of the encounter with the mystery that is God, an encounter that should transform even the most mundane parts of one's daily life.

The concept of satyagraha was also easy for southern blacks because we had grown up and lived in a religious milieu that taught us that to hate whites was to descend to their level and be no better than they were. It was a moral environment that taught us to pity prejudiced, hateful white people because they were like children who did not know any better. It was also an environment which taught us to make distinctions between those whites who hated us and those who sought our friendship.

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" were not simply nice words in the Black south of the 1950s. Those words were a guidepost that enabled us to maintain our humanity under the inhumane circumstances of racial segregation with its underlying threats of violence if one did not stay in "his place".

When Martin Luther King, Jr., began to articulate with sonorous eloquence the concept of non-violence, he spoke to people who already understood that the moral victory lay with them because they did not fight hatred with hatred nor violence with violence.

It is exceedingly difficult for people who have been oppressed to eschew the temptation to strike back if and when the opportunity presents itself. If this were not the case, God would not have found it necessary to say more than twenty times in the Pentateuch, "You shall not wrong or oppress the stranger for you were strangers in Egypt." Because God found it necessary to say this over and over, we know the oppressed have a difficult time not doing unto others what was done unto them.

The concept of non-violence gave southern blacks a way to channel their anger, the understandable desire for revenge, and focus the energy on changing the hearts of the adversary. What Dr. King did so brilliantly was to base his concept of non-violence on a central Biblical teaching: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." The goal of the civil rights movement became, not the end of segregation, but, in the words of Jane Stembridge, a white civil rights worker, the goal was the creation of "the beloved community."

Absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power.

—Eric Hoffer

The religion practiced by the civil rights movement stands in profound contrast to the religion practiced by a truculent and reactionary Christian Right. Where the religion of the non-violent civil rights movement appealed to the heart and the soul of the adversary, the Christian Right views those who disagree with it as an enemy to be vanquished. Where the religion of the non-violent civil rights movement sought to persuade America to become a place where the self-evident truth that all were created equal would become a reality, the religion of the Christian Right wants to recreate America into its own image. Where the religion of the civil rights movement spoke in words of redemption and reconciliation with the adversary, the religion of the Christian Right speaks in anger, vilifying all who disagree with its definitions of what is good and what is evil.

Many whose politics and theology are liberal, to one degree or another, wonder despairingly what is happening to our country. The short answer is, well, nothing. Even a cursory examination of American history reveals that today's Christian reactionaries are not a new phenomenon. Indeed, the attitudes and beliefs they espouse are little different than those espoused by the Puritans of the 18th century. Common to the Puritans then and those of today is their unshakable conviction that they, and they alone, know what God desires, and they are the only ones righteous enough to carry out God's will. The present religious and political conservatism is not the exception in American history; this is the norm.

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Source: Cross Currents, Fall 2006, Vol. 56,  No 3.