Friday, October 14, 2011


It is the responsibility of spiritual guides to frame reality in such an honest, straightforward way that people grapple with it at a heart level.

Try this principle on for size: “the first revolution is internal.”  Think about it.

While you’re thinking about it, read this story and consider an answer to the question: “at what point in this story do you think an internal revolution takes place?”

The story is a familiar one.  It takes place in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955.  A 42-year-old African-American woman catches bus #2857 and takes a seat on the fifth row--the first row of seats that are designated for “colored people.”  The bus fills up as it follows its route.  With the bus full, four white people board the bus.  Bus driver James F. Blake hollers back for non-whites to stand so the white passengers than take a seat.  But, while three people around her give up their seats, this woman does not.  She decides to remain seated.  Blake comes back to where this woman is seated and asks her if she is going to give up her seat.  “No,” she says.”  “If you don’t stand, I will call the police and you will be arrested,” says Blake.  “You may do that,” the woman replies.

You know this woman as Rosa Louise McCauley Parks, who, on December 1, 1955, was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person—a simple, profound act that galvanized support for the Montgomery Bus Boycott that played a critical role in springboarding the nonviolent civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. onto the national stage.  When asked why she did not give up her seat, Rosa Parks said, simply, “I was tired.”  Not physically tired, she later clarified, but “tired of giving in.”

Was this the moment of internal revolution in Rosa Parks?

Before you answer, here’s a bit more of the story: Four days earlier, 14-year-old Emmett Till had been brutally murdered by a gang of white men in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman.  Rosa had attended a rally calling for justice after Till’s murder.

Consider that in 1942—13 years earlier—Mrs. Parks became the volunteer secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP.  She attended training institutes in community organizing and nonviolent resistance and was by 1955 quite familiar with the challenges and opportunities of the emerging movement for civil rights of blacks.

Consider that as a young married woman, she had worked at the nearby Maxwell U. S. Air Force Base where segregation in any form was not allowed.  She had ridden fully-integrated buses on the airbase many times.  “Maxwell really opened my eyes,” she would later say.

When did the internal revolution occur for Rosa Parks?

Before you answer, consider, also, that she was from childhood an active member of the African Episcopal Methodist Church in her community.  She worshiped weekly and participated in the vibrant life of the church.

Consider that she had witnessed atrocious racial bigotry as a child and young woman: Klansmen marching down her street while her grandfather stood at the door with a shotgun; watching white children ride by in a bus headed for a new school while she and her black classmates walked to an old school without books; seeing the school she attended burned down—twice.

So, when do you think the internal revolution occurs in Rosa Parks?

Don’t you think it might have been long before that moment on December 1, 1955, when she decided not to give up her bus seat to a white person?

What about other people who have been change agents in our world?  When did an internal revolution occur in Martin Luther?  Or Sojourner Truth?  Or the Quaker abolitionist John Woolman?  Or the Methodist founder John Wesley—what drove him from behind the sanctuary pulpit and into the fields and mining communities for open-air preaching and social justice organizing?  What about the young people who are right now camping out and organizing and lifting their voices together in “occupy” assemblies across the country in response to unbridled Wall Street corruption and its influence on elected officials—when did a revolution happen in them?

And what about us?  When and how does revolution—internal revolution—begin in us?

“The first revolution is internal.”

Internal revolution manifests itself in the heart.  It is precipitated by a wide range of awareness-raising personal experiences and frequently upsetting challenges.  In education, it’s called cognitive dissonance.  In leadership development, it’s called creative dislocation.  In spiritual terms we talk about the Spirit agitating us.  Parker J. Palmer writes about the process of “dis-illusioning”—of being slowly but surely stripped of our illusions until we see clearly.

In food preparation terms, this internal revolution seems more like a pressure cooker than a baking oven or a frying pan.  It takes a while for pressure to build and for the creative mix to boil.  But then something happens—the pressure value releases and nothing can again ever be quite the same.

“The first revolution is internal.”

Let’s be clear: No one can manufacture an internal revolution in or for someone else.  Nor should anyone try to precipitate such a spiritual crisis.  Nothing good is served by pressure or hype or false pretenses.

However (and this is critical), it is the responsibility of spiritual guides and change agents to frame reality in such an honest, straightforward way that people grapple with it at a heart level.  Underline this. Asterisk it. Memorize it.

In my faith tradition we talk about “the Spirit of truth” who will “guide us into all truth.”  We talk about truth being sharp enough to lay issues open quite revealingly.  We talk about such truth piercing illusion.  It recognizes elusive games.  It gets to the heart of a situation.  It wades through obfuscating and justifying and blaming.  It discovers what’s going on—really.

Such truth shows me that my neighbor and my response to my neighbor is at the heart of community and responsible action.  It is the truth that we are all alike created in the image of God.  It is the truth that we really do belong to one another.  It is the truth that what impacts one affects all.  That I cannot be who I ought to be until you are who you ought to be.  That when you one part hurts, the whole cannot be healthy.  That when you are suffering or are treated unjustly and I ignore it, I betray myself as much as I betray you.  That when we ignore our sense of doing the good we ought to do, we begin to try to justify ourselves and distort reality—blaming others, telling false stories, distancing ourselves from one another, and colluding with others in relationships and organizations that systematize, empower, and defend distortion.

That’s why the age-old question “am I my brother’s and sister’s keeper?” is so critical.  And that’s why a second enduring question, “who is my neighbor?” must be continuously surfaced.

When we tackle these realities honestly and let the Spirit of truth gently, persistently help us connect the dots, internal revolutions can happen.  I might begin to see my own reality, to see my own self-justifications and distortions, and to see my disconnection.  In response, I may seek personal purification, seek forgiveness, and seek reconciliation.  And I might begin to see my neighbors in a new light, to see us together on the same side, and to see “the powers that be” that act to sabotage our communion.

“The first revolution is internal.”

There is something of a personal, internal “tipping point” that leads us, finally, to say: “Enough.”  “No more.”  “It’s time.”  “I am convinced.”  “I’m all in.”  “We are in this together.”

Sometimes this internal revolution comes well before one can explain it or give reason for it.  It’s something the heart knows and believes before the mind conceives.  Sometimes, when someone else experiences a crisis or we see a group being mistreated, it connects with something we have felt but haven’t been able to explain—but all of a sudden we know, and we act in full consistency with our heart.

“The first revolution is internal.”

This principle has a corollary: Personal internal revolution occurs in a small but critical mass of people before outward change and community transformation occurs.  There comes a collective readiness of heart.  There is a recognition of common ground.  There is a solidarity with others that sets in motion acts of care and compassion long before a specific wrong is identified and collectively addressed or a new way of expressing community among us is birthed.

Whenever the internal revolution happened in Rosa Parks, when she finally acted on that revolution, it connected with internal revolutions that were occurring in others.  That flashpoint ignited a fire of nonviolent civil disobedience and careful strategizing that led, ultimately, to unprecedented breakthroughs in civil rights for African-Americans and many minorities in our country.

So, try to attend honestly and straightforwardly to what is going on in your life and the lives of your neighbors near and far.  Dare to be dis-illusioned.  Perhaps there’s a revolution taking place closer to you than you think.

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