By Rebekah Sears
On my wall there hangs a print of a little girl walking to school—a completely ordinary action. But there is something different about this particular girl’s walk. Surrounding her are four armed U.S. marshals and in the background are the remains of a rotten tomato and hateful words scrawled across the wall.
The print is of Normal Rockwell’s 1964 painting, The Problem We All Live With. The girl is Ruby Bridges who, at six years old in 1960, was the first African American child to attend a “white” school in New Orleans. Every day for a year Ruby walked through an angry mob of parents, children and others chanting insults and uttering death threats.
No one—especially a young child—should have to endure such hatred while standing up for justice.
Nevertheless, the story of Ruby Bridges tells us she walked with courage and strength. She did not back down in her struggle. She also embodied such grace as to pray for the people who stood outside her school, and to ask God’s forgiveness for them and their actions. She did not become entrenched in hatred, bitterness and hopelessness, nor fall away from the command of Jesus to love others, even those who hated her.
Ruby’s daily walk was an example of the power of persistence and love in the work for justice today. It teaches us that we cannot remain silent and still when we hear or see injustice around us, no matter who is in government. At the same time, it reminds us that we must also work out of a place of love for others, remembering that it is God who calls us to this work and that ultimately our hope is in the light of Christ, not governments.
On January 21 I was proud to gather with friends here in Ottawa to walk for justice. We joined millions of people marching around the world. To be sure, the people participating in these events held diverse opinions on many issues. But there was also unity on the importance of resisting injustice, racism, sexism and the oppression of the vulnerable. And so we walked together as a way of standing with people who have been marginalized and denigrated because of immigration status, religion, race, ethnicity, gender and orientation.
Yes, we are called to respect governments and elected authorities. But we are called by a higher power to hold them accountable for words and acts of injustice. “Let justice roll on like a river,” says the prophet Amos to the Israelites who were failing to care for the vulnerable among them, “and righteousness like a never failing stream!” (Amos 5: 24).
As the prophet Isaiah wrote, and Jesus claimed as His own “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 1:1-2a; Luke 4:18-19).
We, as Christians, are all called to participate in this proclamation of God. We must never forget who called us, and we must always act out of love and humility. But also we must not stay silent or still, for with silence comes complacency. And complacency allows injustice to grow.
As I gaze at pictures of people marching around the world on January 21, especially in Washington DC, I cannot help but think of the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. It’s a powerful speech that inspires hope for a future without oppression. But just four months earlier, from a jail cell in Birmingham Alabama, King wrote an impassioned letter, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, to white clergy who were discouraging such confrontational actions against the government. It speaks to his harsh criticisms of complacency and the exclusion of justice as a theme of the gospel.
In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.”
I pray that King’s lament might inspire and challenge us to stand up and walk, like Ruby and so many others, with the convictions of justice, peace and human dignity. Let’s keep on walking. And let us walk with love.
by Rebekah Sears, policy analyst for the Ottawa Office