Conscious Objector

This week, I have come to believe that owning the right shoes is important. In watching neighbors and friends who lack the ideal footwear slipping and sliding and sloshing around these roads and sidewalks, I appreciated the fine, Oregon-based footwear I own.

But nothing lasts forever. Shoes wear down. But when you get that good pair of shoes, that pair that fits just right, sometimes getting them fixed or mended is much more satisfying then hunting for a new pair, right?

Now, I might be the only one here who enjoys a good cobbler meets a minister joke, but I still get a chuckle out of the idea of walking into a cobbler’s store and hearing, “Your sole’s all worn out.” Or “Looks like you need a new sole.” And when you get the shoes back, complete with a new sole, they still fit perfectly, but they feel so much better. And more than the fit of a brand new sole, is the feeling that I’ve done something very practical and sensible for myself.

We can imagine together that these very joys of a fine new sole and sensible approaches to footwear were on the mind of Henry David Thoreau as he strode across the Concord town square to retrieve the shoes he’d left with the cobbler for mending one fateful July afternoon in 1846. It was on this trip to the cobbler when Thoreau felt the strong hand of the law on his shoulder, and he was arrested. Following his arrest the authorities marched him over to the town jail. Thoreau had this to say about the moment the jailer locked the door behind him:

“I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up…. I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through before they could get to be as free as I was.”

Now, Thoreau was kind of known for being struck with some funny ideas. Building a cabin by a pond to live in for a few years was not his only such idea. And his friends knew he had a bit of an eccentric personality that could land him in some trouble now and again. One of these friends was Ralph Waldo Emerson. And as the Unitarian legend goes, Emerson, who in 1846 mostly traveled around Europe and the United States giving lectures, happened to be in Concord that July evening to visit his good friend Thoreau.

Upon seeing Thoreau locked in his cell, Emerson said, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau responded, “Waldo…” (only Thoreau could call Emerson “Waldo”) “Waldo,” he said, “what are you doing out there?”

And the answer is simple: taxes. Emerson paid his. Thoreau didn’t. According to Thoreau, for six years he refused to pay a portion of his taxes. Thoreau’s objection was not that there was a tax. He paid his highway tax without complaint. He happily paid his school tax. As the schoolteacher himself, this might have been a wash, but he was happy to pay it.
The taxes assessed by his federal government were really the ones Thoreau took issue with. At the time of his imprisonment for not paying his taxes, the Mexican-American War was claiming the lives of soldiers on a daily basis. Thoreau saw a requirement that he fund even one bullet that might shed a stranger’s blood in a distant land to be unacceptable. But his chief complaint against funding the federal government was that it continued to protect and enforce the institution of slavery, including the repugnant Fugitive Slave Act in the northern states.

Thoreau’s words: “How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.”

So for six years Thoreau went without paying this tax he deemed unjust, fully conscious that some action might be taken against him, but accepting whatever that action would be. And when that action resulted in the turn of the key in the lock of his cell, he was satisfied with the bargain. Thoreau was happily, really spiritually, disobedient.
But the institution of slavery in the country didn’t end because of the ideas and thoughts of Thoreau. The end of the institution of legal slavery came at the final battle of a prolonged and bloody war between two armies of countrymen. The idea that a peaceful demonstration of one person, that deeply conscious attention to the stirrings of the individual spirit, that peaceful personal objection was at the heart of giant overwhelming shifts in power, was not an idea whose time had come—was not an idea whose time had come…yet.

And following that period of war, the first long period of reconstruction, of remaking and rebuilding the nation took place.
In our reading today, we heard the recollection of Coretta Scott King of that night in December of 1955 when she and Martin Luther King were deciding whether the Montgomery Bus Boycott should go ahead. A federal case in 1946 before the Supreme Court held that busses could not be segregated in interstate commerce, but this did not impact local or state busses. So states across the south enacted their own Jim Crow laws segregating bus transportation in different ways, among many other such pernicious laws.

In Montgomery, Alabama, the law that was officially on the books was that the bus driver had the right to assign seats on the bus, which could seem like a reasonable law…if you’re never given a reason to question it. In practice, bus drivers were self-enforcing segregated busses. The boycott of public busses in 1955 began when Rosa Parks was ordered to move to allow a white passenger to sit, but she refused. She objected.

She was arrested and accepted peacefully the penalty. It was a few days after her arrest that Dr. King and Coretta Scott King discussed whether the boycott should go ahead. That evening Dr. King recalled Thoreau’s words, “We can no longer lend our cooperation to an evil system.” And together they clung to just slightly better than average odds—sixty percent—that good would come of the boycott.

And hanging on to that sliver of hope, the call went out for black people to boycott the Montgomery city busses on the day of Rosa Parks’ trial on December 5th.

But then something started to happen. To prepare for the boycott, members of the community organized carpools to get people where they needed to go. Taxi drivers began charging boycotters only ten cents a ride instead of the 45 cents a ride was supposed to cost. But a lot of people just walked.

And the boycott that was supposed to last one day was so well organized and so well executed that what began with a single day was a stretch that would span more than a year. So those people who were walking…they walked a lot. People were walking so much and so far that they started to wear out their shoes.

And black churches from all over the South supported the boycott not only with money, but with new shoes. A grand jury indicted Dr. King and 89 of his fellow organizers on charges of violating a statute prohibiting…well…boycotting. And prosecutors singled Dr. King out from the group, choosing to bring him to trial first among his colleagues. Needless to say, being charged with organizing a boycott was a hard charge to defend for Dr. King, so he was convicted and fined $500. King appealed his conviction, and it was overturned.

But the boycott continued throughout all of the long battles in court. It continued for 381 days until the Supreme Court ordered the state of Alabama to desegregate all busses. 381 days of a community committed to bringing about systematic change through personal choice. 381 days of choosing to wear out the soles of shoes, rather than spend another ride on the bus with indignity as a companion. 381 days apart from “lending cooperation to an evil system.”

Dr. King’s leadership and his genius for organizing and enlivening the spirit within people gave shape to the pain and suffering of people living in an unjust system. And the shape it took was the shape of justice. And fittingly, it was the “justice” system of Birmingham, training its focus so narrowly on Dr. King, which started to make a wider nation take notice of what was happening there. It was the mistaken belief of prosecutors and politicians that their system of justice could stifle the movement objectors began in their city; it was their mistaken belief that their system of justice could put a stop to Dr. King’s work; it was their mistaken belief that their system of justice could hold back an idea whose time had come. For “there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.”

The bus boycott was not the last time Dr. King had to work against racist segregation in Birmingham. It was more than seven years later, in April of 1963, when the images of massive violent police and citizen brutality against peaceful protesters across the South reached the rest of the nation, when King was arrested for organizing a march in violation of a court order prohibiting marches. And it was in his jail cell in Birmingham when he addressed the complaints of a set of white moderate clergymen who called on Dr. King to restrict his quest for justice to the courts and not the streets.
In his letter to these clergymen, penned in his cell, King set down a cornerstone of civil rights that sings and speaks to us today in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King writes: “Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was even sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks, before submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman empire. To a degree academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience.”

The momentum King gathered through successful direct action and conscious, thoughtful objection to unjust laws grew until in 1964 and 1965 the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Right Acts were passed.
In his book, The Third Reconstruction, Dr. William Barber, President of the North Carolina Chapter of the NAACP, names the period leading to passage of these pieces of legislation the Second Reconstruction. The coalition building that was necessary for their passage and eventual success was widespread and crossed many lines of ethnicity, color, and creed. Dr. Barber writes, “The Second Reconstruction’s power was in cross-racial, cross-class solidarity, embracing Chicano workers, Jewish students, Native American sister and brothers, Malcolm X’s challenge, and the Poor People’s Campaign.” But he is quick to point out that since the Second Reconstruction embodied in the passage of this legislation through coalition building, new battles were already fast approaching.
And we stand now, together, each one of us, facing a daunting period of a new reconstruction. We are now in what Dr. Barber calls the midst of a Third Reconstruction, a time when voices from different corners of resistance and objection are coming together under banners that unite and do not divide. “Moral fusion” is what Dr. Barber calls it. We are rethinking what we have known both of our neighbors in this country and of ourselves. We are looking anew at ways to be part of a movement to build sustained, lasting, and manifest justice into our communities as well as into our very being. And we are remembering what worked in the past as we look toward the future. We are remembering the faces and the names of times when things seemed more hopeful, and we wonder what walking a mile or more in their shoes might be like.
One of those names from the past is Rosa Parks. Many of us remember what we learned about the unassuming, quiet and dignified spirit of Rosa Parks that lit the smoldering fuse of cooperation and coordination in Montgomery. But what most people think they know about Rosa Parks…is a myth.

Those famous photos of her being finger printed, for instance. Those are not actually from the day of her arrest on the Montgomery bus. They’re from another arrest when she was participating in direct action. The Montgomery boycott was not her first or her last direct action.

Also, she is often portrayed as a humble seamstress. Yes, that was her day job, but her other job was serving as the Secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. She engaged that chapter to be more and more active, convincing members to support non-violent direct actions in the Montgomery area.

We are told she was just fed up and tired—that being ordered to move was the last straw, a kind of moment when fate intervened. Well, fate might have intervened, but Parks gave fate a hell of good start. In her own words, Parks said, “Some people say I was tired…. The only tired I was was tired of giving.”

Weeks before her objection on that bus, she was trained at an intensive, professional program in building coalitions to practice direct action offered by the Highlander Folk School. When she got on that bus, she was prepared, focused, and sure of what she was doing.

And people may not like hearing this because it is one of the most enduring images we are taught, but Parks was not ordered all the way to the back of the bus. She was ordered to move one row back, the distance of maybe two feet, when a white man boarded the bus.

Two feet. But that was two feet, too far.

Parks knew the law. But she objected to it. Parks was convicted of breaking the law. And she objected to that. She kept objecting, conscious of everything she was doing, until the unjust law was changed. Yes, the time of the idea of civil disobedience had come, and it arrived in the person of Mrs. Rosa Parks.
The new period of reconstruction we are facing will take a lot. It’s already taking a toll on many hearts and minds and souls. How we are going to take part is really between each of us and the person we face every day in the mirror. We will search inside ourselves for the real answer to the questions: “What can I do?” “What will I do?” “What must I do?”

For some people, the answers are already clear. Some have said that they need to detach from politics and unrest for a time and care for loved ones more fully. And I say that is beautiful. Other people are taking this time to volunteer and organize on behalf of groups they support. We all know we need as much of that support as we can get.

And some of us…are lacing up our shoes…because we’re getting ready to march.
My friends who sang love to people spewing hate at our sanctuary doors, my friends who wrapped this block in love in response to institutionalized hate, my friends who are only here in this place because a group of women more than 150 years ago wanted a welcoming place to be in community together, my friends, we will join the coalition, the moral fusion, of people who proclaim the inherent worth and dignity of all persons this Saturday at the Women’s March.

Now, we should have no illusions that a march will solve anything in an afternoon. There will be more work we will each have to do. But sharing with this, our Beloved Community, everything we see, all that we learn, and the friends we meet along the way will be a good start.

We might start out with shoes we got fresh from the cobbler, fitted with brand new soles. And our soles might get worn out from the walking, and maybe worn clear through, but sometimes, just two feet is what makes all the difference.

In the words of Dr. King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The change we want to see in the world begins in the mirror, but together we lift our eyes to the horizon to glimpse at the roads we will take together. And wherever our gaze may guide us, wherever our roads may take us, we will stand together, each with our own soles planted firmly, standing on the side of love.

May it be so.




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