I finally got around to watching The Butler, in which Forest Whitaker plays the fictionalized role of Eugene Allen, a White House butler who served eight U.S. presidents, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. An African-American, Allen stood at the edge of the room as President Kennedy discussed with his brother Bobby when to send federal troops to force integration in the South, and as Lyndon Johnson and his aides (often with Johnson sitting on the toilet) debated the political risks of civil rights bills.
What do those people want? the Washington power brokers wondered aloud as blacks and their white supporters marched in Mississippi, Alabama, and Washington, D.C. No doubt Eugene Allen could have told them, but as a loyal servant he offered opinions only when asked. Once, President Eisenhower asked if Allen knew why one of his favorite TV shows, hosted by Nat “King” Cole, had been canceled. The butler explained that the show had trouble lining up advertisers, who worried about the possibility of white Southern boycotts.
In the movie version, the butler’s son had a more confrontational response to racial oppression. After training in nonviolent resistance, he joined the demonstrators who staged sit-ins at department store lunch counters. Angry whites doused the demonstrators with mustard and ketchup, then punched, kicked, and spat on them. The protesters’ nonviolent response to such abuse helped change the national mood.
As I watched the intertwining stories of father and son, it occurred to me that the oppressed have a peculiar advantage, a kind of double vision. Eugene Allen returned home at night longing for justice after listening to white politicians debate the pros and cons of granting it. Likewise, antebellum house slaves spent their days among white masters of the plantation and retired to the slave cabins at night; they understood the nuances of both worlds. And African-American protesters in Alabama could easily predict how the white sheriffs would respond to their marches and protests—Martin Luther King Jr. planned his strategy around their violent reactions—while the sheriffs had no clue about what to expect from the black protesters.
Jesus’ own stories reveal this double vision. He spoke with equal ease about beggars and the wealthy, masters and servants, rabbis and crime victims. Meanwhile, his encounters with rulers like Herod and Pilate left them scratching their heads in confusion. Jesus understood them while they were clueless about him. Paul wrote, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15). A public spectacle it was indeed when the very powers and authorities that men and women took such pride in were exposed as false gods by Jesus. The most refined religion of the day accused an innocent man, and the most far-reaching justice system of the day carried out the sentence.
In Vanishing Grace I use the term Holy Subversives to describe Christians’ strategy in a secular culture. “I am like a spy in a higher service,” wrote Kierkegaard about his role. He could see right through the hypocrisies surrounding him, and how they failed to measure up to Jesus’ ideals. Now we live in a celebrity and success culture that judges worth by such qualities as beauty, power, fame, and wealth—the antithesis of Jesus’ message. To resist that message requires constant vigilance, and a dedication to Jesus’ countercultural way of life. “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” Paul told the Romans.
We are “foreigners and exiles” in the world, according to 1 Peter, called to subvert whatever dishonors God or God’s image bearers. “The world looks with some awe upon a person who appears unconcernedly indifferent to home, money, comfort, rank, or even power and fame,” said Winston Churchill. “The world feels not without a certain apprehension, that here is someone outside its jurisdiction; someone before whom its allurements may be spread in vain…”
I would add that the world looks with awe on someone who responds to injustice not with the normal reaction of revenge or hate, but with the power of grace. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached a sermon on “Loving Your Enemies”:
To our most bitter opponents we say: “… Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.”
After the massacre at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, there were no riots or outbreaks of violence. Instead, relatives of the victims stood before the racist killer one by one, and in the midst of their grief extended to him forgiveness. The victims’ families understood hate, and violent oppression, but they understood something deeper as well: the power of grace. Within weeks politicians who had long resisted calls to remove the Confederate flag from state properties in South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia changed their minds. What happened in South Carolina “calls upon us to look at this in a different way,” said the governor of South Carolina. “By removing a symbol that divides us, we can move forward as a state in harmony and we can honor the nine blessed souls who are in heaven.”
Our confused society badly needs a community of contrast, a counterculture of ordinary pilgrims who insist on living a different way. We can make those around us at least question our society’s slide toward violence and polarization. We can subvert our celebrity culture’s emphasis on success, wealth, and beauty.
Richard Foster, a Christian theologian and author in the Quaker tradition, cites a Jewish story about a little boy who went to a prophet and said, “Prophet, don’t you see? You have been prophesying now for fifteen years, and things are still the same. Why do you keep on?” And the prophet said, “Don’t you know, little boy, I’m not prophesying to change the world, but to prevent the world from changing me.” To resist requires a spirit something like subversion. And sometimes, as happened in Charleston, it also helps change the world.