“That’s not your seat” is a phrase used by Morgan DePerno, a student in my church history class, as the title for her recent review of Martin Luther King Jr’s Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. For Morgan, “that’s not your seat” captures the essence of a once criminal, now iconic, moment on Dec. 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat to whites in the “middle section” of a city bus in Montgomery, Ala. On that fateful day, “that’s not your seat” was a legal mandate for an entire race of people. Rosa Parks wouldn’t budge. The rest is history.
In Stride Toward Freedom, King documents the result of Parks’ refusal to relinquish her seat — a yearlong bus boycott that marked the beginning of the end of “legalized” racial segregation and Jim Crow laws in America. As King saw it, her action revealed “that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, ‘I can take it no longer.’ Mrs. Park’s refusal to move back was her intrepid affirmation that she had had enough. It was an individual expression of a timeless longing for human dignity and freedom.”
With prophetic audacity, Dr. King linked that longing for dignity and freedom with the essence of the Christian gospel. Reading Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis, he realized that “any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the social and economic conditions that scar the soul is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for a day to be buried.” From the pulpit of Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Martin Luther King refused to separate Christian faith from civic justice.
Then as now, not everyone agreed. While many Southern evangelicals admitted that Jim Crow laws were unjust, some feared the implications of desegregation for public and theological order. Independent Baptist evangelist John R. Rice, editor of the periodical The Sword of the Lord, fretted that integration would undermine biblical mandates against racial intermarriage, writing: “If you had a daughter” would you want her to marry a Negro? Even if the man were a fine Christian … why would you want grandchildren who were mulatto children, unacceptable to both Negroes and whites?”
Rice warned that integration of public facilities would create numerous health risks, since it was “a carefully documented fact, known for many years that among Negroes venereal disease has ten times the incidence per thousand as among white people. Thus, I would rather … go swimming in a swimming pool not patroned [sic] by many Negroes.” After all, he concluded, there is a “distinction of race” which “God Himself” created and it was “unrealistic” to pretend it did not exist. The Supreme Court decision on integration was therefore “ill timed, political, [and] hurtful.” King’s actions, Rice declared, were not “of God,” since he “does not believe in the Christian faith nor trust in the virgin-born Savior.”
It’s not over yet. Sixty years after the Montgomery boycott, American Christians remain deeply divided over the consequences of the gospel in continued struggles for “human dignity and freedom,” not only against unresolved racism, but also gender and sexuality. Recent state legislation from “religious liberty” protections to “birth certificate restrooms” suggests that when it comes to matters of church and state many Americans cannot distinguish freedom of conscience from blatant discrimination. How often in Christian history has the church of Jesus Christ warned the marginalized — whether Gentiles, dissenters, women, people of color or LGBT-related individuals — that “that’s not your seat,” only to come out on the far side of grace?
And Jesus is no help at all. He keeps offering radical grace to everyone from “the woman at the well” to the “thief on the cross,” with publicans and Re-publicans, the impoverished and the disabled, the good Samaritans and those wretched “winebibbers” in between. But his patience wears thin with the really religious crowd who want to regulate the seating arrangements at God’s great dinner party.
Remember the story Jesus tells in Luke 14 about the man who gave a banquet and when the “normal” people “excuse themselves … one and all,” sends his servants into the “streets and alleys,” to invite “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame?” The dinner begins with one last, grace-full word: “Sir, your orders have been carried out and there is still room.” In the kingdom of God there is open seating!
In 1963, while jailed for protests in Birmingham, Martin Luther King wrote to a group of white clergy critical of his methods for pursuing racial justice. In that now classic “Letter,” King asserted: “So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent — and often even vocal — sanction of things as they are.”
Enough said, then and now.