I first watched the movie Selma when it was in theaters last year. At the time, the movie played a role in a bigger process that I was undergoing. I was thinking through what it meant to have a sense of purpose in life. At the time, I was taking an EDS class on change and innovation, and one of the books we read was Change the World: How Ordinary People Can Achieve Extraordinary Results by Robert Quinn. Quinn (a non-Christian) used the examples of Jesus, Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. as examples of people who achieved major changes through personal sacrifice. He talked about being willing to undergo discomfort and change yourself in order to achieve change in our societies.
The Selma movie shows in detail one episode from King’s career: a march from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights for African Americans. It depicts some of the political wrangling that went on behind the scenes, as well as the violence that erupted. King faced a number of fears as he was physically attacked, received threatening phone calls, and dealt with the deaths of supporters. As Quinn remarked about King, leaders who are driven by fear cannot lead change. He had to decide to continue to move forward despite natural fears.
After the first attempt at a march ended after state troopers attacked the marchers, King issued a call to pastors from around the country to join them on the next march. Many pastors did come in support and one of them was killed. I was struck by the symbolic power of this gesture by the pastors. One of the roles a pastor can play is as a moral example in our society. This action communicated to the watching country that it was morally right to support the protesters. Unfortunately, this moral example can go both ways. Pastors can also assuage guilty consciences and help to maintain a status quo, as many pastors also did at that time.
According to Quinn, working toward change also involves facing one’s own moral failings. The movie just lightly touched on King’s indiscretions with women. It did not seem that King was addressing this as a problem that needed to change, and in the movie recordings were used as an attack against his family. This was not a good thing, but it is encouraging to me that there can be change even if a leader is not perfect and has sins in their life. Throughout the Bible, God used sinful humans to achieve his plans.
Whatever your political stance on various issues, it is important to remember the moral imperative to be working toward healthy change in our society. To do this, we must be willing to undergo some discomfort and change ourselves in the process. Quinn said that “Real change comes from our willingness to own our own vulnerability, confess our failures, and acknowledge that many of our stories do not have a happy ending.” In some ways, King’s story did not have a personally happy ending; he was killed three years later. However, he had already faced that fear as a possibility and decided that it was worth continuing to take action. Hopefully he would think what was accomplished was worth the sacrifice.
Before going to see the movie, I ate at Chipotle and on the bag was a quote from Steven Pinker that impacted me and which I cut out and still have hung on my fridge: “We will never have a perfect world, but it’s not romantic or naive to work toward a better one.” Theologically, we know that we won’t achieve a perfect world through our own efforts before the new heavens and the new earth. However, God still calls us to be working to make our current world a better one. It can be discouraging to face one’s own fears and shortcomings and not to be sure whether sacrifices will accomplish anything. And there is no guarantee that there will be significant change as a result. However, I am coming to see that it is worth still taking risks and trying to make a difference, even in small ways in my small settings.
See if Selma is available to check out here.