During the arduous moments of St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch’s boastful 20 minute defense of the murder of Michael Brown, the world’s emotions ran rampant. Social media became the emotional mirror of choice, as many utilized their preferred platforms to grab hold of their fleeting reflections and sift through what they thought was supposed to make sense. Anger, dismay, fear, confusion, and call to action have been felt yet not fully understood, as this isn’t the first time these feelings have been felt and left unaddressed. So like the split screen of the President and the enraged people of Ferguson, there are those rocking back and forth between the condemnation of community disruption, and the understanding that disruption may be the only plausible choice in a community distressed for so long. This internal conflict was personified as one brother said to me that Monday was the first day that he had to pray for his own peace.
I’d be lying if I did not say that I whispered that prayer many times to myself since the day I stood where Michael Brown was left lying in his own blood. These feeling and urges for action are also churning in my spirit. I cannot consciously adhere to the calls for peace secretly masked as commands to not step outside of current social constructs — the very constructs that were/are at fault for the perpetual destruction of young Black men. I cannot contend with the usage of Martin Luther King Jr’s philosophy of nonviolence as an excuse to tell hurting, oppressed, depressed and depraved people to calm down. I cannot.
Many, in this new age of civil rights movements have rejected the civil rights principles of old, but I do not stand on that side. In fact, I would go further and say it is our selective remembrance of the work of old that holds us back from identifying and articulating why we feel what we feel, and why our actions towards justice are justified.
Martin Luther King offers some clarity in a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia just five months before his death entitled But if Not. Very sure of the obstacles still in the way of the movement, he utilizes the biblical story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as an illustration of civil disobedience in the face of adversity and the unjust. He lays out the definition of civil disobedience as “the refusal to abide by an order of the government or of the state or even of the court that your conscience tells you is unjust. Civil disobedience is based on a commitment to conscience, and there comes a time when a moral man can’t obey a law which his conscience tells him is unjust.” In other words, if a community, city or nation’s laws and principles fail to be safe, grant equal opportunities and treat citizens as human beings, what should be the appropriate response? Shall we hope for change? Shall we lean on the moral aptitude of society? Shall we wait our turn? I think all of those questions deserve a resounding NO.
Martin Luther King takes the etymology of the text in the book of Daniel chapter three, further explaining that to engage in civil disobedience–like not bowing knowing that a fiery furnace is the punishment for the “crime”– displays a level of faith we need today. He explains that most people have an “if” faith — a faith that has certain contingencies. “If all goes well; if life is hopeful, prosperous and happy; if I don’t have to go to jail; if I don’t have to face the agonies and burdens of life; if I’m not ever called bad names because of taking a stand that I feel that I must take; if none of these things happen, then I’ll have faith in God, then I’ll be alright,” King sees this as lacking the needed level of sacrifice when facing impossible odds. In fact, I argue that to have the “if” faith is to admit that throwing the white flag is a part of your battle plan.
Instead, King offers the call for people to hold fast to the “though” faith saying, “Though things go wrong; though evil is temporarily triumphant; though sickness comes and the cross looms, nevertheless! I’m gonna believe anyway and I’m gonna have faith anyway.” That early chapter in Daniel shows us that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were so sure of what they believed to be right, that they were willing to suffer the consequences even if it did not result in change. There was no contingency, because their belief in their cause was not based on the guarantee of a shift but on the fact that there should be a shift and that was enough to stand strong.
What do you believe in so wholeheartedly that you will stand for even if change is not inevitable? What did you fiercely fight for before the verdict of Michael Brown was read that you began to question after? What has made you so silent in a moment that demands your voice to be heard? What if the belief you have is the right one?
A lot has already been said and done in the days leading to and after the Michael Brown verdict, but the urgent question remains–what do you stand for? Leaving you with the clarifying words of Martin Luther King Jr., he says, “somewhere along the way, you should discover something that’s so dear, so precious to you, that is so eternally worthy, that you will never give it up. You ought to discover some principle; you ought to have some great faith that grips you so much that you will never give it up. Somehow you go on and say “I know that the God that I worship is able to deliver me, but if not, I’m going on anyhow, I’m going to stand up for it anyway…”
Randall Keith Benjamin, II is a focused, action oriented leader who has dedicated much of his time towards the creation and cultivation of communities that politically, socially, and economically thrive in the most equitable manner. He has traveled the world identifying the keys to increasing livability, accesses, mobility and health of populations most disproportionately affected. He currently serves as the Street Scale Campaign Manager for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership and can be followed @rkbtwo