A Theology of Resistance

A Theology of Resistance
November 5, 2006
Rev. Douglas Taylor

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

Ella Baker!  In 1982 Sweet Honey in the Rock, on their album Breaths, had this song entitled “Ella’s Song.”  Ella Baker was one of the ‘behind the scenes’ movers-and-shakers of the civil rights era.  She participated in organizations and structures that effected change.  She was a field secretary and later a branch director of the NAACP.  Ella helped organize Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  She was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a major organizer of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.  She was a quiet leader in these organizations.  She remains comparatively unknown alongside the big names, the men, which history remembers of the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s.  The song written by Bernice Johnson Reagan of Sweet Honey on the Rock immortalizes Ella’s words of struggle, hope, and freedom.  Ella Baker was a woman of power who helped other people realize their power.  She was a friend and advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr. and is noted to have argued with him at times.   In his 1963 book, Strength to Love, Dr. King wrote, “The trailblazers in human, academic, scientific, and religious freedom have always been nonconformists.  In any cause that concerns the progress of mankind, put your faith in the nonconformist!”   Ella was a nonconformist, to be sure.  She was a woman who spoke out and acted out and challenged the racist and sexist structures of oppression.  Ella was a trailblazer for freedom.

I’m a woman who speaks in a voice and I must be heard
At times I can be quite difficult, I’ll bow to no man’s word

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

The path to freedom during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was through Non-violent Resistance.  The non-violent component is the piece that we often hear about; the non-violent aspect was the radical new method that turned everything upside down.  And the only problem with our continual lifting up and praising of the non-violent facet of the movement is the risk of losing the other half of the equation.  It was not simply non-violent.  It was non-violent direct action; non-violent resistance.

The eighteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus tells The Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:2-6).

2He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. 3And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

4”For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’”

I don’t know about you, but this small parable surprised me when I bumped into it.  It just does not seem like the kind of thing you would find in the Bible.  It is just so pragmatic!  “I’ll see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out.” Ella’s story reminds me of this widow in the parable from the gospel of Luke.  The persistence of the people who seek justice, who accomplish reform, who make a difference, is remarkable.  The persistence of those who will not sit down and wallow in pity, of those who stand up to injustice though the odds are stacked against them, of those who stare unjust authority in the face and say, “grant me justice against my adversary,” is remarkable indeed.  The persistence of those who practice resistance is the key to accomplishing justice.

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

Ella Baker understood that organizations are necessary to accomplish justice.  As you have perhaps heard me say before, goodness must be organized.

There seems to be a recurring half-truth among people of faith that the highest form of religion and spirituality is some sort of mystical aestheticism or monastic retreat from the material world to focus on the sweet nectar of solo divine communion.  We are by no means free from this misconception.  Our own Henry David Thoreau is remembered so fondly for his retreat into Walden.  His theology of self-reliance and freedom of conscience is highly revered among us.  Thoreau’s reverence for nature, his self-sufficiency, and insistence that every one march to the beat of his or her own drummer, his severe distaste for organized government and distrust of authority, goes to the heart of many Unitarian Universalists.  Thoreau poses an odd mix of retreat and engagement, but both actions are a form of faithful resistance!

On the fourth of July, 1845, Thoreau moved into his rough-hewn cabin on Walden Pond on the outskirts of Concord, and he wrote what one colleague (Rev. Patrick O’Neil) has called “his immortal apologia for retreating into the sanctuary of Natural surroundings far from the madding crowd:”

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

And two years later, when he came out from Walden, he wrote:

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spend any more time for that one.

The account of Thoreau’s time at Walden was not published for several years.  When it was published, it was received with great acclaim!  But when Henry David Thoreau came out of the Walden what he presented to the world was his short essay on “Civil Disobedience.”  Dr. Martin Luther King kept a dog-eared copy of that short essay on hand for sustenance and encouragement.  When Thoreau came out of the Walden what he presented to the world was his essay on “Civil Disobedience.”  The common thread between his book Walden and his essay “Civil Disobedience” is the faithful resistance to conformity, the commitment to one’s own conscience.  Resistance is not isolation; it is engagement with a vision toward justice and a better tomorrow.

Struggling myself don’t mean a whole lot, I’ve come to realize
That teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my struggle survives

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

Back when I was living in Montgomery County, Maryland, I participated in a grassroots, interfaith, political lobbying group called Action In Montgomery, or “AIM”.  This was based on the Industrial Areas Foundation that was founded by Saul Alinsky in Chicago in the 1940.  People from all sorts of faiths – Jewish, Catholic, mainline Protestant, and Unitarian Universalist – came together to advocate for issues of common concern in the community.  Many people were involved from the start with the reflection and discussion about what the needs were.  I showed up after things were already cooking, I walked in when it was time for the action to start.

I remember in particular an AIM meeting my family and I attended on county funding for housing held at a little Methodist church. Over 200 people from nearly 15 churches tried hard that evening to fit into a very small sanctuary!  My family and I sat up in the choir seats next to the pulpit.  (If I can’t be in the pulpit just put me in the choir and I’ll be happy.)  It was a great meeting– exciting and efficient: a kind of mix between a tent revival and a well-run finance committee meeting.  Near the end of the meeting there was a Call to Action. “Now, we’ve talked about power before,” said the speaker calling us to action. “We need some power now to see this housing proposal safely through the budget process of the County Council. We’ve got power right here in this room tonight. We are that power.”  My daughter leaned over to my wife and whispered, “We have the power?”  “Yes, we do,” my wife responded.  “Do I have the power?” my daughter asked incredulously. “Yes,” my wife said smiling, “You do.”  My daughter and I responded to the Call to Action and signed up to help see the proposal through.  It was fascinating to sit with my 11 year-old-daughter talking about a dedicated funding line in the county budget with a member of the county council.

The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on
Is when the reins are in the hands of the young, who dare to run against the storm

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

Ella Baker was affectionately known as the Fundi, which is a Swahili word for a person who passes skills from one generation to another.  Through her efforts with school desegregation and the organizing of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Baker shaped the Civil Rights movement in a very basic way: by doing it without seeking fame or recognition and truly making a difference.

To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail
And if I can but shed some light as they carry us through the gale

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

So, what about you?  Do you have the power? Do you believe in freedom? Will you persist against injustice until unjust authority is worn out?  Are you a nonconformist?  Can you shed some light?  Will you wade in the water?  Are you a part of the resistance?  Perhaps you are thinking you came to this faith to retreat from the maddening crowd, to restore your soul, to find a deeper spiritual connection with God; you didn’t sign-up for the resistance!  Well, first I will say ‘OK, that’s fine; but you know of course that your retreat is a form of faithful resistance.’  Resisting the subtle and pervasive pressure to conformity!   And second I will say, at some point you must come out from retreat and engage the maddening world in active resistance, at some point you must leave Walden for we are in a time of great need for justice and resistance.  It is time for you to leave Walden for you have “several more lives to live, and [can] not spend any more time for that one.”

Colleague and wise soul, Alice Blair Wesley says, “What all the kings, presidents, generals, CEOs, mafia dons and celebs put together do, is ultimately far less important than what people in free churches do, when the people faithfully seek together to find and to live out the ways of love.”  That is why we are here, that is the grand purpose for which this and any other free church exists: to grow and to serve; to faithfully seek together to find and live out the ways of love; to be a community of resistance.

When you joined this congregation you signed up for the resistance.  Dr. King wrote: “we are called to be people of conviction, not conformity; of moral nobility, not social respectability.  We are commanded to live differently and according to a higher loyalty.”  As Unitarian Universalists we too are called in this way.  We are not called to be respectable among the other religions; we are not called to be palatable or popular or within any proximity of prevailing opinion.  We are called upon to be radical, to be a community of resistance, to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth.  Indeed most churches are somewhat counter cultural, much of what goes on is against the grain of the pervasive culture: loving one another rather than competing with one another, giving yourself away rather than spending money to gather things to you, the first shall be last and the last shall be first¸ and all that sort of thing.  But Unitarian Universalist churches are both counter to the pervading culture as well as counter too much of standard protestant ‘church’ culture, too.  Here we strive to be to be not only counter cultural but radically transformative of culture as well.

Not needing to clutch for power, not needing the light just to shine on me
I need to be one in the number as we stand against tyranny

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

Welcome to the resistance: here we insist that all are welcome, all are inherently worthy and equally filled with human dignity.  Here we buck conformity and call each to live as a human being not as a market niche, not as a label, not as an illness, not as a stereotype.  Welcome to the resistance.  Stand up and be counted among those who are human in community.  Together we can change the world.

In a world without end,

May it be so.