Earlier this week, someone asked me a piercing question about the Sermon of the Mount: “Where is the line between turning the other cheek and being someone’s doormat?”
I found part of the answer later that day, when I heard that Rosa Parks, the mother of the civil rights movement, had died at the age of 92.
Rosa Parks was tired of being a doormat, and she was tired of her people being a doormat. In politely refusing to give up her seat on the bus, Rosa Parks drew a line in the sand. Her small act started a movement that we embrace today as the catalyst of the civil rights movement.
Was Rosa’s action Christ-like? How did her actions measure up against the words of Jesus?
Jesus said in his sermon: “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.”
At face value, it would seem that Rosa Parks didn’t do what Jesus said. The white man asked the black seamstress for her seat on the bus. Wasn’t she obliged to give it up? If not on the basis of the Deep South racial culture of the day, which demanded that she do so, how about as a follower of Jesus?
Didn’t Jesus say “Give to everyone who asks?”
We cannot take everything that Jesus said to its literal extreme. What if someone asked for sex? What if someone asked us for our entire paycheck? What if someone kidnapped our child? Should we not demand our child back?
The general intent of Jesus’ words about our enemies is that we must seek to change our enemies by loving them. Perhaps in loving them we can actually make them our friends. By our love we can show them the error of their ways. We can make some enemies into friends by showing kindness to them, by surprising them with non-violent behavior and unbelievable generosity. In short, we should act lovingly toward them.
This doesn’t guarantee that they will cease being our enemies. In fact, Jesus’ enemies didn’t cease being his. Instead, they killed him. Likewise, many African Americans died in non-violent protests seeking a change in the laws of our country.
Rosa Park’s resistance was in keeping with the spirit of what Jesus taught in this passage. She sought to overcome evil with good.
Jesus also demonstrated in his life that there are times the enemy must be confronted directly with his/her evil ways. Evil must be resisted or else it will continue. Evil can be resisted while still loving those who are perpetrating the evil. The truth of the civil rights movement is that without the non-violent resistance to the racial inequalities of our laws, change never would have occurred.
Rosa Parks could still have love in her heart for the man who asked for her seat on the bus. Only God can know that. While she wasn’t the first brave soul to emerge in defiance of unjust laws, she was the first to be cast into the spotlight and the one for whom the torch of the civil rights movement would be carried for future generations because of her courage not to move.
In defying the order to move from her seat on that bus in Montgomery, she wasn’t only making a “stand” for herself; she represented all African Americans who were subjected to that kind of injustice. In that sense, her refusal to move was a way of loving others who continued to be demeaned as she was being demeaned.
Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Of course the questions are raised: “Who’s good? What’s evil? What must be done?”
It’s easy to draw the line in such a way as to put ourselves on the side of the good and others on the side of evil. Jesus warned us plainly, though, about not making the mistake of pointing out the speck in our brother’s eye while having a log in our own.
The civil rights movement reminds us just how easy it is for us to have logs in our eyes. Thankfully, God sends us simple people like Rosa Parks who help us see ourselves as we really are simply by refusing to be a doormat any longer.
There’s still more to be done. May we continue to strive to fulfill the words of our Declaration of Independence, which states that “all men (people) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Just having these words in a document doesn’t make them so. We must live them to make them so. That’s as true today as it was the day Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that bus in Montgomery.
Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. His column appears in The Moultrie Observer.
Michael Helms is pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson, Georgia.