Download: 14 Good Trouble

A couple of weeks ago, we recorded the passing of John Lewis whose eventful life was marked with eulogies from three past Presidents among many others. Lewis gave us his own memorial when he described his life as one of causing 'good trouble'. What did he mean by those two brief words? How can trouble ever be called good?

He stands as a significant figure in the story of 20th Century democracy, in a tradition of peaceful protest started by Ghandi at the beginning of the Century in opposition to British rule in India. His dignified example was to inspire movements for civil rights and freedom around the world in subsequent years. 

 

He led nationwide campaigns to ease poverty, developing women's rights, building religious and ethnic  tolerance ending untouchability, and above all for achieving self-rule.

 

His march against the Salt Tax in 1930 was his peaceful way of expressing opposition to a perceived wrong. He lived a modest life in a self-sufficient community, ate simple vegetarian food, and often fasted as a means of self-purification and political protest. He experienced arrest and periods of imprisonment on numerous occasions.  Some Indians thought Gandhi was too accommodating. This led to his assassination at the end of January 1948. His life was brought to a violent end but his life- long example of peaceful protest endures and has been in subsequent years the inspiration of many. 

 

The right to peaceful protest is enshrined in democratic principles around the word. It was the guiding light of the Civil Rights movement in mid-century America. The simple act of refusing to give up her seat during the Montgomery transport protest in 1955 to a white bus passenger, earned Rosa Parks arrest and a place in history. Who would have imagined then that later the United States congress would call her 'the first  lady of civil rights' and 'the mother of the civil rights movement'?

 

Upon her death in 2005, she was the first woman to lie in honour in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington DC. Her non-violent protest was recognised in the dignity of her passing, her example, like that of Ghandi, remains for others as an example to follow.

 

It is within this tradition that we find John Lewis who as a young man led the march on Selma, Alabama, only to be struck on the head by a police baton as he walked across the Edmund Pettus bridge. Little did he know then that his whole life would be an example of peaceful protest in the cause of freedom. it was this pattern of protest that gave rise to his memorable phrase 'good trouble'

 

Now in our time we have seen further protests in the cause of democratic principle in many parts of the world. In recent months we have witnessed large crowds filling the streets of Hong Kong protesting their liberty and collective responsibility. The consequent crackdown was inevitable but still their voices were raised.

 

The voice of conscience demands our attention, often speaking out in defence of the rights of others at personal risk to ourselves. The words of the German Lutheran pastor Martin Neimoller (1892-1984) reflect the cowardice of clergy and intellectuals-and by his own admission, himself, following the Nazi rise to power  and subsequent purges.  Many variations and adaptations in the spirit of the original have been published in the English language. His words deal with the themes of persecution, guilt, repentance and personal responsibility. A version by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, a charity established by the United Kingdom government is as follows.

 

'First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.'

 

These few graphic words establish firmly the collective responsibility  that we all share in raising our  voice in the face of injustice.

 

Closer to home came the news a few days ago of the death of another great peace maker, John Hume, the founder and leader of the SDLP in Northern Ireland. His voice and his leadership over many years emphasised the need to talk and to listen. Always a determined negotiator, this son of Derry brought together those who, in opposition, had fought a protracted conflict across the towns and countryside of his native land. His non-violent principles were the foundation of the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to a troubled land. His personal commitment was recognised with the award of the Nobel Peace prize, together with the Unionist politician David Trimble, in 1998. John Hume stands shoulder to shoulder with the great peace makers of the 20th Century. His fearless voice brought peace after conflict, his willingness to stand tall won widespread respect and appreciation of the community he served throughout his life.

 

In the early years of this century, the decision was taken by the US and the UK governments to invade the Middle Eastern country of Iraq. It is estimated that during the first four months of 2003, some 36 million people across the world took part in almost 3000 demonstrations of protest. They followed their conscience and made their presence felt on the streets of many cities.

 

Taking to the streets obviously involves a risk of involvement by others bent on using the occasion of protest as an opportunity for violence. This was clearly the case during the yellow jackets protest in France last year which resulted in many clashes with the Gendarmerie.

 

Within our own country, the protest in London against the introduction of the poll tax in the 80s resulted in conflict and injury, and needless damage to property.

 

That has been the charge laid against the street protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, the vast majority of which were peaceful and orderly. Those intent on violent direct action have used the cover of the peaceful protest to loot shops and burn cars in a reckless and destructive manner, in spite of which the democratic right to protest remains sacrosanct.

 

The willingness to be arrested in defence of a just cause has been the price that many have been prepared to pay. It was the price paid by the Christ whose teachings led to Gethsemani 

his arrest and subsequent death. The icon image that accompanies this article was written recently by a Russian iconographer, Philip Davydov. It depicts Christ confined by prison cell bars, helpless in the face of adversity. It is a powerful statement of trust in our Christian faith.

 

Yet even within our Church, the history of dissent is a sorry tale of persecution and mistrust. Faith asks for personal honesty and integrity; the price demanded can be high. Ask those who suffered the ravages of the Inquisition in previous centuries or those in more recent times whose writings have been condemned or whose ministry has been restricted and you see the price of dissent.

 

Within a family there is a bond of love, a bond that allows for healing when disagreement causes pain. Our baptism gives us the strength of Christian commitment. When we ask questions

we do so from within the family we care for and that should also care for each one of us.     

 

In the early days of the Church, disagreement between Peter and Paul was resolved in the Council of Jerusalem. After discussion, the Church came together and continued the journey of faith.

 

We should never be fearful of good trouble in a just cause. It takes courage to follow the voice of conscience and to accept the consequences in good faith with trust in the Lord.

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