As I travelled the country I had an audio-book (15 1/2 hours!) of Michelle Obama’s new book “Becoming” which I really enjoyed and heartily recommend, but one character from Americas history stood out for me from the background of her story, that was Rev. Jessie Jackson.
Santita Jackson, Jesse’s daughter became friends with a young girl, Michelle Robinson (later Obama), as a child and teenager Michelle recalls how she saw Jackson tirelessly for years campaign for what many thought was a thankless task, the cause of freedom, equality and opportunities for all people irrespective of race. Jackson, gave up a promising career as a base-ball player to devote his life to serving Christ -ordained as a Baptist Minister- but working out his calling and vocation in the civil rights movement, for Jackson -like King Jr- politics and theology were not separate spheres but rather the same vocation approached from different angles. Jackson believed that one day he would see a black president of the United States, he was prepared to stand, knowing that he was unlikely to be elected, but probably didn’t notice who was watching him -the future first lady of the united states -inspired by his example.
I once saw a facebook meme which had a picture of a grown lion walking with a lion-cub and underneath the picture was written some words which said something like “I was going to give up until I realised who was watching!” Whose watching us? Who might our example influence and inspire?
Jackson himself was a protege of the great civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr, and is rumoured to have been the last person who spoke to him before King was assassinated (some reports even say that King died in Jackson’s arms) in 1968. Jackson devoted his life to keeping alive Kings’ dream: “…that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”.
Jackson tirelessly encouraged to black american community to keep on hoping and believing that the future could be changed and different for the generations to come. It was a long wait -50 years- before the America had its first black President in Barak Obama; I worry that the history books will probably move from Martin Luther King to Barak Obama with barely a paragraph between and ignore the work of people like Jesse Jackson that kept people waiting well and with expectancy; Obama himself wrote of the immense power of the belief of corporate longing which he described as “the audacity of hope”. Yet, there were many within the black community (and even more in the ruling white elite) that had been knocked down and disappointed so many times that they refused to believe that things could change and be different, indeed some of them even opposed people like Jackson and later Obama labelling them trouble makers, rabble rousers, naive dreamers and deluded optimists.
The story of Jackson reminded me of a modern-day tale of Nehemiah, who persevered with building the walls of the city of Jerusalem even amid persecution those around him including those who should have been on his side, and sadly this is a story that many of us in Christian leadership can probably chime with. Perhaps, stretching the bibical similarities too far that Jackson had something of a John the Baptist role in so much as was called to prepare the people to be ready for what he believed in faith was about to happen (in the biblical narrative the coming of the Christ and in this case the first black president) which caused me to reflect on the number of parables and teaching Jesus gave on the need to be ready, to wait well and with expectancy and faith.
As I pondered my hearts desire for the vision of the School of Mission, I wonder if a call for today is a call for the Church to get themselves ready, to be audaciously hopeful, to be expectant and prepared. As I thought of Jackson, I thought of the challenge he offered to live in such a way that we break the cycles of history, to pioneer new ways of being, to smash glass ceilings and to invest in a new generation that will go beyond our wildest dreams of what we believe is possible; a view of a different future will effect and affect the choices we make in the present, we will live differently because of our motivating vision; something true of both the civil rights movement and something I believe could be true of the Church of Jesus Christ in this country is we are prepared to be challenged and changed and live differently.
This will change our relationships, when the faithless ‘nay sayers’ begin their pessimistic talk do we rebuke them with the Holy Spirit’s words of faith, life and hope? Are we prepared to take on systems with a strong status quo bias and be “the grit in the oyster, which becomes the pearl” and say what the culture says in the unsayable? The call to be light that when we are used to darkness can hurt our eyes? The salt that stings when things have got infected or rotten? Sometimes we have to challenge those whom we struggle with whom we profoundly disagree (which takes courage) and also those whom we love and respect (which takes perhaps more courage).
Most of us might not feel we are Martin Luther King’s -or for that matter Barak Obama’s- but we can all learn from Jesse Jackson who was transformed by a vision that caused him to live differently -both as an individual and as a leader- and also behind closed doors in his home when he could have thought no one was watching!