Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon wrote a book entitled, Resident Aliens. That book is over thirty years old now, but a story within its pages is more compelling and timely than ever. It was the 1960s in the Deep South, and the issue of desegregation of schools came crashing onto the shores of a small town. In this particular town, an organization formed and a community meeting was held to craft a plan to stop this “commingling of the races” by the courts.
On the night of the meeting, the local high school auditorium was packed to the rafters with the mobilized, angry citizenry. It was explosive, mean, ugly, and heated by both the summer temperatures and the crowd’s temperament. After the meeting had gone on for some time, and the atmosphere being racked with tension, an older man stepped to the microphone.
He had a presence, was distinguished, and it was obvious that he was well-known and well respected in the community. It turned out that he was the pastor of the Baptist church in town. The crowd quickly fell silent in order to hear what he had to say.
“I am ashamed,” he began with solemn tones. “I have labored here for many years. I have baptized, preached to, and counseled many people in this room. I might have thought that my preaching of the gospel had done some good. But tonight I think differently. I cannot speak to those who are not of my congregation, but to those who are, I can only say that I am hurt and ashamed of you, and I expected more.”
His short, sincere sermon given, the pastor departed from the microphone and left the meeting. Awkwardly, over the next hour or so, other people began leaving as well until the meeting adjourned having lost its bluster. Schools integrated a month later without incident. Hauerwas and Willimon conclude: “Here was a pastor, an ordinary person, who had labored for decades doing ordinary things among ordinary people, for the privilege of being a witness on one night in August.”
This is an invaluable lesson for those of us struggling to stand against systematic injustice; who are disheartened by those within our own religion who seem to have missed the entire plot; who are gutted by the anger, hate, and malicious attitudes of the heated crowds. What can we do? We can be our true selves, living and bearing witness to the higher. We can take the redemptive stance of Richard Rohr who says, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.”
As people of faith, particularly those of us whose faith is in a Jewish rabbi who was murdered by an empire’s irredeemable system of oppression; who taught us to join the “least of these” in hopeful solidarity; and who said the greatest spiritual principle was to “love your neighbor as yourself,” the answer is clear: Be ordinary people who live out extraordinary love among other ordinary people.