Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Faith Works 10-29-05
Jeff Gill

Justice, Public and Private

To Christian thinkers of the classical and medieval period (which is to say millennia and a half), justice was a personal quality, a way of being for an individual.
One of the marks of the modern era is the idea of social justice, where culture and government are called on to shape and make the circumstances for justice as an ideal to flourish.
There is a place for that kind of justice, but the prominence of social justice has blunted the edge of justice as the measure of the human person. Are you just? Whether a judge, lawyer, police officer, or everyday citizen, can you say of your acts, your speech, your choices that you have lived justly?
Rosa Parks represents a key figure in returning social and personal justice to the same level of significance, even if our culture is still trying to catch up with her, decades after the particular act which brought her to national attention and 92 years after her birth.
For those interested in detail, Taylor Branch’s magisterial "Parting the Waters" can fill you in. What bears repeating is what Mrs. Parks never tired of telling audiences: her feet were not tired; she was not at the front of the bus; it was not a white passenger who told her to move.
A hard working woman, she was indeed at the end of a long day, and boarded well to the back of a bus driven by a man who had thrown her of "his" bus before. The rule in Montgomery, Alabama 50 years ago was that if the rows in the front were filled by white people, blacks not only had to board, pay, and get off to reboard through the back door (while paying the same fare, of course), but if the white seats were filled and more whites boarded, blacks in the middle were supposed to stand up and dangle from the overhead bars so whites could sit. The driver was the enforcer of this unofficial but quite formal system.
What Rosa Parks encountered was this: a surge of new riders evoked a call from the driver for seats to open up (exactly how he phrased this is a long standing debate we won’t get into). Three other African Americans quietly rose and moved to the aisle. A white man remained standing, while Mrs. Parks sat quietly.
You know the story from here, but I want to pause and wonder about that guy standing in the aisle. Right, he’d been raised this way in the South and all that, but still: didn’t he feel a twinge expecting a young woman to stand and straphang while he sat down? Did something tug at his sense of, um, justice? Just a little?
I do not excuse the driver, but he was a paid employee where the system expected his behavior, even if all accounts agree he enjoyed that part of his work a bit too much. He was a tool, a blunt instrument in heavier hands. A triple-refined sense of justice, aware of the social and personal dimensions of his acts, might have led him off his seat, or at least to work the rules differently.
But the fellow who stood there, waiting for the driver to "clear his seat" of the stubborn woman who sat there in hat and gloves and steel spine . . . what was he thinking? Did he realize he was standing near the pivoting axis of a changing world, or was he just annoyed at the uppity girl in "his" seat?
Rosa Parks knew that her personal sense of what is right and true and just intersected with a social moment where justice was long overdue, but ready to "roll down like waters." And it is simple justice that history records her name, but consigns to oblivion the fellow who, as it turns out, never got her seat.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; sing your song of freedom or whisper a prayer for justice to

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