Like civil rights icon Parks, Mary broke traditions of her time, place

11/16/2005

By Rev. Lamar Massingill

 

More than 40 years ago, Rosa Parks claimed her human right to sit where she wanted on a bus, and when she sat down, the entire country stood up. Why?

 

To begin with, she was seated in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Second, most white Southerners who couldn’t let the Civil War go (and some still can’t) lived under the ignorant paranoia that the black person was inferior, so we separated ourselves from them. They had different seats, restrooms and even water fountains.

 

Rosa certainly made a difference by choosing to sit, and stay put when it wasn’t popular to do so. But in spite of the difference she made, things are still not where we want them to be, for there is still ignorance and paranoia among Americans, regardless of color, creed or social status. Even in the highest echelons of government, it is there.

 

So fare thee well, Rosa Parks. When we were ignorant and fearful (a dangerous combination that always leads to violence), you sat down. You knew you were right, and, truth be told, we knew you were right, too, but did nothing.

 

The magnet of status quo is always powerful. It sucks us into doing wrong with the crowd — even while knowing it — for fear of being ostracized. Although it seems incredible now, we were controlled by the fear of what others thought of us, the fear of losing our “way of life.” So much so that we tried to separate ourselves from those gifted ones who are different from us instead of celebrating the gifts they had to give to the nation.

 

We were scared. We gave in to the cheerleading of our culture, no questions asked. We professed to follow the “Don’t just sit there, do something!” line of thinking when in fact, we did nothing but participate in fearful, ignorant paranoia. But your sitting down as you did was genius. Who knew that being seated and claiming your human right to do so would be that powerful? But because it was, I’m using your great example to chat with my readers about another woman who had the same courage as you did.

 

In scripture Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, was in a similar situation, seated at the wrong place at the wrong time. The difference this time, however, was not color or the politics of freedom but gender. Mary’s sitting had radical implications, too. While Martha chose to prepare the meal, Mary chose to sit still and listen to Jesus.

 

To us, Mary’s choice may not seem so surprising, so radical; we may even think that she seemed lazy, choosing not to help Martha. We have to understand that Mary was sitting in the position of a disciple at the feet of her rabbi. You may still be wondering what was so radical about that. It is this: that position in the first century was reserved only for men. Women were not even allowed to study the scriptures, let alone talk with and listen to a teacher. They were forbidden from having a simple public discussion with men. In fact, the Jewish historian, Josephus, quoted one first century religious leader as saying, “Rather should the word of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman.”

 

Yet, Jesus affirmed Mary’s choice as the right one. It was as if Jesus were saying, “Mary, have a seat, let’s chat.” And it made a difference. Talk about women’s lib! But this was not a shallow political issue for Jesus. His encouraging her to be there showed that it was not only her natural right but also the moral way to treat a human being regardless of the adjective that described her: female. To Him, there was no such distinction. He made everyone equal in Himself.

 

So, Mary and Rosa, although it took us nearly two millennia to get the point He was making, perhaps we finally have. And while we realize that many still don’t get it, both of you helped us along the road to healing and equality. And for that we remain deeply grateful.

 

A published author, Lamar Massingill is pastor of the United Methodist churches at Richton and Sand Hill and also the religion editor at the “Magnolia Gazette.”