Approaching from the southeast, pulling into town on Highway 80, I had expected more drama—signs and parking lots, some kind of obvious gateway to history, maybe even a crowd. But there was nothing of the sort.
Oh, the so-called National Voting Rights Museum and Institute sat on one side of the road but, as far as I could tell it was closed, maybe for good. Memorial Park was on the other side but, again, there really wasn’t much there, just a couple of artifacts naming some of the martyrs of the civil rights movement.
And so I faced the the bridge, its iconic steel trusses and girders looking much smaller, less imposing, than I had expected. I had driven 60 miles out of my way to walk across that bridge, but as I surveyed the scene, I decided to drive across it first. After all, the marchers had started from the other side, so maybe things would be more inspiring over there.
I crossed the wide Alabama River, once a vital link between cotton plantations and the slave trade, and parked on a broad, nearly deserted street where time seemed to have stopped decades ago. I had arrived in Selma, Alabama, at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of three civil rights marches that in 1965 had changed the course of American history.
First, some 600 African Americans had marched quietly and peacefully across the bridge, only to be beaten and bloodied by state troopers with horses, nightsticks, whips, rubber tubes and tear gas. Then, two days later, 2,000 marchers, including many white clergy and other supporters, headed across the bridge toward another contingent of troopers, only to stop, kneel, pray, and turn around. Finally, after the president had stepped in and provided federal protection, some 4,000 marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Over the next four days about 300 of them walked the entire 54 miles to Montgomery; by the time they reached the state capitol their numbers had swelled to 25,000, and the Voting Rights Act was on its way to becoming the law of the land.
As I stood at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a Saturday afternoon this past September, I was overcome with both grief and gratitude—grief for the oppression and suffering of so many millions of African Americans throughout our nation’s history and still today, and gratitude for the courage, vision, and faith of the many who risked and sometimes gave their lives to secure basic human and civil rights.
They were beaten and bombed, attacked by dogs and water cannon, shot at and spit on, jailed and jeered—and they willingly exposed themselves to it all.
All so they could vote.
So that they could vote.
So that 51 years later, in the heat of one of the ugliest, most divisive presidential campaigns in our nation’s history, a white woman could walk across that bridge weeping and giving thanks, weeping and wondering what had become of us, weeping and wondering what will become of us.
Nowadays when we think of voting, we think most often in terms of candidates. But the everyday heroes of the civil rights movement had not organized, protested, and marched so that they could vote Democratic or Republican or third party; they had not risked their lives, livelihoods, and homes to vote for this candidate or that one.
Even those who had never been allowed to vote understood that the ballot is much bigger than that. They were demanding the right to vote for their very freedom and dignity. They were marching to win the right to vote for what kind of country they would live in, what kind of future their children would have. They were marching for the right to determine which values would govern us, and who would decide. They wanted the power to make the rules and write the laws, to set guidelines for how we treat one another.
They demanded the vote. They risked their lives to get it. They and their allies were less concerned about candidates than with creating a new world—loosing the bonds of injustice, letting the oppressed go free, sharing the nation’s bread with the hungry, and bringing the poor and homeless into the heart of a Beloved Community. They demanded the vote but they also understood that it was not a magic bullet. They were going to have to keep marching and working and taking risks to build a better land, with freedom and justice for all. Their struggle would not be an every-four-years or two-years kind of project; they would have to keep lifting their voices and singing, every day, till earth and heaven would ring with the harmonies of liberty.
I don’t need to tell you we’re not there yet. But Election Sunday is always a good time to remember why we vote and what we’re voting for. It is a good time to consider the powers and principalities, empire and kingdom, church and state, and—dare I say it—Jesus and the prophets and the realm of God.
Seek first the kingdom, Jesus said.
Not the power of empire to divide and oppress. Not military might or the false security of wealth.
Now it is worth remembering that Jesus was speaking to a powerless people living under brutal military occupation. He understood that they wanted power; he knew they were calling for revolution. And so he told them how to get it, and what it would be like.
Seek the heart of the One who made us and loves us, he said, the One who longs for us and wants our wholeness. Seek to lift up the lowly, find the lost, feed the hungry, and house the homeless. Understand that in God’s realm it is the poor and hungry, the discriminated against and the hated who will be blessed—because that is where our suffering God is to be found. Seek even to love your enemies, because that is how you shall overcome, that is how you shall become whole, that is they way to become one, and it is in your loving the other that God’s wondrous love will be made manifest.
To a people looking for a new king, someone who would make them great again, Jesus said, Seek first God’s world. Love one another.
Friends, I don’t need to tell you that we live in scary times, that this presidential campaign has exposed real fears, raw hatred, and deep and troubling divisions among us. I don’t need to tell you that in the final tumultuous days of this election it feels like we are living in a powder keg—and that some people are threatening to blow up if things don’t go their way. I don’t need to tell you that many Americans are voting their fears and their anger. I don’t need to tell you how disempowering cynicism is or how hateful rhetoric has so distorted the truth that many of us don’t know or care what it is any more.
I know I don’t need to tell you to vote.
But let me say this:
I find it interesting, that in first-century Palestine, the writer of the Gospel of Luke has Jesus speaking both blessings and woes to his audience. He has Jesus using not the third-person pronouns of Matthew’s beatitudes—Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God, but the second-person pronounce of Blessed are you who are poor. Luke goes on to have Jesus say Woe to you who are rich.
You who are poor, you who are rich. You who are empty, you who are full. It’s enough to make us think that all those kinds of people were there together in Jesus’ audience and in the early church. That the oppressed and the oppressors were all there, sitting at opposite ends of the same pew.
I find it interesting that Luke has Jesus following his exposition on Kingdom of God values with a tutorial on how to love our enemies. As if to say that we cannot do justice if we fail to love one another, as if to say that God’s realm comes not through judgment and division but by love and mercy, not through victory over the other side but in walking together, side by side. As if to say that we worship God and experience God’s blessings by loving and caring for each other.
In 1965, African Americans were sick and tired of being sick and tired, oppressed and enslaved, held down,locked up, and locked out. They came together and put their lives on the line to work for justice and freedom. They saved and strengthened our nation.
But here’s the thing: That bridge in Selma was (and still is) named after a Civil War hero and a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. That highway they walked all the way to Montgomery on was (and still is, in places) named after a slave holder, the one and only president of the Confederate States. The places where they marched and camped overnight were lined with gun-toting haters who would have just as soon seen them dead as to let them vote.
Which is to say: The bridge to freedom crosses troubled waters. The journey to justice passes crosses enemy lines and makes camp in dangerous places. The way of love marches head-on and head-high into hatred and makes a way through.
If we want to come out of this election as one nation, if we are going to bridge our present-day divides, we may have to wade into some murky waters and and walk through some scary places. We will need to respect and engage with people with whom we disagree. We will need to love our enemies. We will need to be more committed to the hard work of building the realm of God than we are to defeating the other candidate at the polls.
We are going to have to love God by doing justice and loving one another. We will need to bless those whom God blesses and lift up those with whom God dwell.
We will need to vote our faith, not our fears.
We will need to open our hearts to one another and to all God’s gifts. We will need to trust in the power of prayer to change us and our world. The journey to justice begins not in the voting booth but on the day after Election Day.
So let us march together, walking arm in arm, crossing each bridge as it comes, meeting our opponents with mercy and love, walking into each new day filled with the hope and the blessings of God.