When visiting Detroit this past January, I had the opportunity to visit the Henry Ford Museum. One particular exhibit was very emotionally moving to me. The museum houses the Rosa Parks bus that she sat in on December 1, 1955 when she refused to give up her seat for a white man. I had the opportunity to sit in the very seat she sat in on the bus that fateful December day in Montgomery, Alabama, and as I sat there, so many thoughts came to mind.
Rosa Parks was known as a devout, law-abiding, hard-working Christian woman. What motivated her that day, and did she think through the personal cost before making that decision? So few people were willing to take a stand and question the injustice and powers that be, especially considering the violent repercussions that often followed in Montgomery – lynching, death threats, unemployment, and harassment, to name a few. In her refusal to give up her seat for a white man, she insisted that she be viewed as an equal human being instead of a member of a different or oppressed race. Her simple act of defiance had many personal ramifications, but it launched the nascent civil rights cause on a national level.
We also suffer from a conflicted and polarized society with elements of institutional discrimination. We can become enslaved to the conflict, with the hatred, bitterness, and the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality that come along with it. We can allow our group mentality to override our individual conscience. In times of conflict it is common for people to abandon their personal morals for a group cause; one would generally never perpetrate acts of violence against another individual when relating to them on a human level, but when ceding one’s individual identity to the group identity, and taking up the group’s cause, one can commit grave acts of violence against others. In other words, we can subject our personal moral and ethical standards to that of our group’s (oftentimes) questionable morals and ethics. We can become caught up in a way of thinking, whether it is a political ideology that puts others down, or a victim mentality limits our self-perception and ability to change our situation. Yet we also have to remember that even powerful oppressors are enslaved by their evil; indeed, as Jesus said, they know not what they do (Luke 23:34). They fail to fully comprehend how their actions destroy not only others, but themselves. These patterns of thought and action cause dehumanization. We can dehumanize others as a result of our way of thinking, and we can dehumanize ourselves both when we think negatively about others and when we internalize others’ negative thoughts about us. When we violate others, we also violate ourselves. However, we need to be willing to take a stand, to oppose the injustices around us with small acts of defiance, insisting that others see us as human beings, not as members of an inferior ethnic or racial group. We forget that we are all created in the image of God, and every time we sin against ourselves and others by not loving as God loves us, we blur our God-given image more and more, giving in to the destruction of sin.
As Passover and Easter approach this year, let us reflect on how we, through the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection, can make positive changes in our lives and in society. Jesus heeded the Father’s will to take up his cross and march toward Calvary; his act of obedience brought hope and salvation to the world. Rosa Parks helped spur a civil rights movement to put an end to institutional racism against African Americans. The past 60 years have yielded a great accomplishment and ongoing challenge in the United States. What I take from my experience reflecting on the Rosa Parks bus in Detroit is that we have to march onward and march forward. The seemingly small and insignificant decisions we make on a daily basis can have great ramifications, and Rosa Parks teaches us that we need to counter others’ dehumanization with humanization. We need to act in ways that respect others’ God-given image, and in ways that respect our God-given image.
By Salim J. Munayer