Fifty years ago today was a turning point in our nation’s history. Fifty years ago, 250,000 Americans gathered in Washington D.C. to protest against racial inequalities in what has come to be known as “The March on Washington.” It remains the largest demonstration in our country’s history, and while articles in Time magazine and other national news outlets have rightly focused on Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the historic echoes resonating from that day, I ran across a quote from one of the demonstrators that has stuck with me this past week. John Marshall Kilimanjaro from Greensboro, NC was on his way to Washington and in a book entitled Like A Mighty Stream he was quoted as saying,
Contrary to the mythology, the early moments of the March—getting there—was no picnic. People were afraid. We didn’t know what we would meet. There was no precedent. Sitting across from me was a black preacher with a white collar. He was an AME preacher. We talked. Every now and then, people on the bus sang ‘Oh Freedom’ and ‘We Shall Overcome,’ but for the most part there wasn’t a whole bunch of singing. We were secretly praying that nothing violent happened. (emphasis mine)
As I have read articles about this moment throughout the week, many, including President Kennedy believed something violent would happen, and what Kilimanjaro highlights is that even the protestors thought something violent may occur. With a number like 250,000, anything violent that may have erupted would have devastated generations that would follow… and yet, the demonstrators carried on. Among them a mixture of celebrities, student activists, civil rights leaders, preachers, and concerned citizens with a singular purpose – ready, if necessary, to risk a riot. Fifty years ago the riot never came to Washington… though it had in plenty of other places and times leading up to that day.
This past Sunday, I spoke about another man who was always a risk to start a riot: the apostle Paul. Reading the book of Acts these past few months I was not shocked by the imprisonment nor the other types of persecution Paul and his cohorts had to endure – I’ve read those stories enough to be sufficiently jaded by that side of their struggle… Yet, what had not occurred to me in previous readings was how easily Paul’s words and actions and even his sheer presence touched off firestorms of violence. From Acts 17-23 there are no fewer than five outbursts by a mob surrounding Paul leading to some form of a riot, and he continued on. Why? I think most of us, unless we be counted as insane, would have begged off the whole ministry thing if we were constantly causing riots. And there must have certainly been times when Paul thought this same thing: “What am I doing?! I need to just give up!”
One of the greatest pieces of evidence we have that Paul probably had those very thoughts was that the post-ascended Jesus shows up in his life to offer encouragement on more than one occasion. In Acts 18:9-11 as Paul was ministering in Corinth we read,
And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, 10 for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.”11 And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.
Then after a particularly bad incident before the ruling council of Jews in front of the Roman tribune in Jerusalem Jesus shows up again in Acts 23:11:
The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”
The Marchers on Washington had a mission regardless of the consequences. They had a mission that meant freedom from the bondage of racism and unjust laws meant to burden them with the cruel chains of inequality. Paul had a mission to preach the Good News that Jesus Christ saves… that he died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins… that he rose again and gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit so that we might be liberated from the wretched chains of our sins and empowered to a new life free from those sins. Missions like that are worth the risk of staring a riot.
Yet, most of us are afraid. We fear real change, real freedom. We fear the riot that may result. For those of us who are followers of Jesus Christ, we would not think of being a witness to the point of REALLY upsetting people, because we would rather have things pleasant. We do not risk the riot of ostracism that may result from being thought of as “intolerant” or “not open-minded” even though doing so may mean salvation to those in bondage to sin. We fear the riot of discomfort when we turn a blind eye to the friend who is genuinely struggling in their marriage, job, with their health. We fear the riot of breaking social barriers when we do not reach out the homeless or the disenfranchised among us.
But the Lord’s words are as true to us as they were to Paul – “Take courage, do not be afraid, for I am with you…” We are to be God’s witnesses regardless of the riot.