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Remembering Rosa Parks:
The Radical Faith of a Rebel Christian

For Sunday April 7, 2013

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)

Acts 5:27–32

Psalm 118:14–29 or Psalm 150

Revelation 1:4–8

John 20:19–31

           Two months ago Beacon Press released a new biography of Rosa Parks to coincide with the 100th anniversary of her birth on February 4, 1913: The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis. Remarkably, it's the first comprehensive and critical biography of one of the most important women in American history.

           Parks's many awards included a Presidential Medal of Freedom (1996), the highest award given by the executive branch of government, and the Congressional Gold Medal (1999), the highest honor bestowed by the legislative branch. When she died in 2005 at the age of 92, Parks became the first woman, the second black, and only the third private citizen to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda.

Rosa Parks, 1955, with MLK.
Rosa Parks, 1955, with MLK.

           Most people remember Rosa Parks for her iconic act on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. After working all day as a seamstress at a department store, at about 6PM Parks boarded a bus to go home. She paid her fare and sat down in the first row of seats that were reserved for blacks. When the front of the bus reserved for white people filled up, the bus driver moved the "colored" sign behind Parks, then told her and three other blacks to move to the back to accommodate the white passengers. Her three seat mates moved; Rosa Parks did not.

           "When that white driver stepped back toward us," she later recalled, "when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night."

           "When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up, and I said, 'No, I'm not.' And he said, 'Well, if you don't stand up, I'm going to have to call the police and have you arrested.' I said, 'You may do that.'"

           The bus driver did call the police, who arrested Parks for violating Montgomery's segregation laws. She was also fired from her job. About twenty-four hours later, a friend bailed her out of jail. Her quiet act of civil disobedience jump started the Montgomery Bus Boycott three days later on December 4. The non-violent protest lasted 381 days, until the Supreme Court ruled in Browder v. Gayle (1956) that bus segregation was illegal.

           Theoharis's new biography dispels two common myths about Rosa Parks. First, she was no meek or accidental heroine. In fact, Parks had been an active member of the civil rights movement since 1943. "People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in."

Rosa Parks booking photo.
Rosa Parks booking photo.

           And second, her refusal to give up her seat was not the random act of a single day. Earlier that summer, for example, she had attended a school in Tennessee for civil rights training. Rather, Theoharis shows how Parks dedicated sixty years of her life to political activism in the cause of social justice. In Parks's own words, "I had almost a life history of being rebellious against being mistreated because of my color" (and thus the title of Theoharis's biography).

           Her political activism and civil disobedience were rooted in her Christian faith.

           Theoharis describes Parks as "a staunch and active Christian." She carried her Bible with her, and was a lifelong member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. "That's sort of in my family background, too," said Parks, "the Lord's power within me to do what I have done."

           She led a life of "rich and active worship" in both Montgomery and Detroit (where she was a deaconess). Her Christian faith nourished her beliefs in human dignity, equality, the long struggle against racism, and the "Christian responsibility to act." She responded to death threats with a prolonged period of prayer in church, after which, writes Theoharis, "an intense calm swept over her."

           "From my upbringing and the Bible," Parks wrote in her autobiography, "My Story," "I learned people should stand up for rights just as the children of Israel stood up to the Pharaoh."

           Parks lived the truth of two texts from this week's lectionary, that "we must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29), and that Jesus is "the ruler of the kings of the earth" (Revelation 1:5).

Rosa Parks.

           If Jesus is King and Lord over all earthly rulers, then the Roman caesar was decidedly not lord at all, despite his claim that the Roman state was divine and his cult of imperial worship. The two readings remind us that Christians should never confuse the relative claim to "render to caesar what is caesar's" with the absolute and unconditional claim to "render to God what is God's" (Matthew 22:21). As much as is possible, we "honor the king" and the laws of the land, but as Rosa Parks so bravely demonstrated, it is God alone whom we "fear" (1 Peter 2:17).

           To obey God rather than man, wrote the Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan, "and to protest that human laws of the state and nation cannot contravene the divine law of the sovereign God, has been the unanimous teaching of both the Old and New Testament, as well as the subsequent history of the church since the earliest centuries. Moses before Pharaoh, Elijah before Ahab and Jezebel, John the Baptist before Herod, Paul before the Sanhedrin and before Festus — and Ambrose before Theodosius, Theodore of Studios before Constantine the VI, Luther before Charles V at the Diet of Worms, and Martin Luther King before the power structure of White America — all were expressing this obligation to appeal from the abuse of political power by human authorities to the ultimate sovereignty of God."

           And so too Rosa Parks.

Image credits: (1, 2); (3) Academy of Achievement.

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