Good Trouble

Congressman John Lewis of Georgia appeared on a recent episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and described his goal throughout his lifetime of activism on behalf of civil rights this way: “Sometimes you have to find a way to get in the way. Get in trouble. Good trouble.” He said he learned this tactic of getting in the way from people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., who came to leadership in the civil rights movement of the Fifties and Sixties because of their willingness to get into good trouble.

In fact, the tactic goes back farther than King and Parks. In Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film Gandhi, the great Indian leader explains, “The function of a civil resistance is to provoke response and we will continue to provoke until they respond or change the law. They are not in control; we are.” I have not been able to determine if this is an actual quotation from Gandhi or merely a part of the movie script, but it certainly fits within the spirit of the real Gandhi’s work and philosophy.

" Rep. John Lewis (sepia) " by  Chris Walton  is a Creative Commons image, licensed under  CC BY-NC 2.0

"Rep. John Lewis (sepia)" by Chris Walton is a Creative Commons image, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

But the tactic of getting in good trouble predates Gandhi as well. He was forthright about where he had developed his strategy of satyagraha, or “truth force”—he got it from Jesus. Theologian Walter Wink and others promoting Christian nonviolence have helped us to see that many of Jesus’s teachings, including that famous series in the Sermon on the Mount in which he counsels his disciples to turn the other cheek and so on, were actually brilliant strategies of active nonviolent resistance. They were the kind of tactics that people without physical power or clout could use to assert their humanity and oppose the indignities inflicted by those who by the world’s standards were more powerful. By refusing to respond in kind when given an insulting slap in the face, but rather to look the other person in the eye and offer the other cheek was a means of wresting control of the situation from the hands of the “powerful” party. It was a way of saying, “They are not in control; we are.”

Gandhi, and later King, Parks, and the SCLC adapted these methods to suit their own contexts, and John Lewis has done the same throughout his long career. He speaks with an unquestionable moral authority, as one who has paid a high price for his adherence to the principles of nonviolent resistance. When you nearly lose your life after having your skull cracked by police clubs on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, you have earned the right to speak and be heard on issues of race, economic inequality, and gun violence. Lewis served as one of the leaders of the congressional sit-in last June in which Democratic lawmakers occupied the House chamber and refused to move in an effort to force the Republican leadership to act on gun safety legislation. At age 76, Lewis’s pace has slowed a little, but that just makes it easier for him to get in the way.

Lewis’s talk of getting in good trouble reminds me of a prayer I started praying about twenty years ago. I noticed that I and others often asked God to keep someone safe—when traveling, or just going about one’s day-to-day business in an unpredictable world. It’s a legitimate prayer, and I still ask God to keep my daughters safe every morning. But being safe can also have the connotation of being non-threatening, and I would never pray for that outcome for myself or anyone else seeking to follow Jesus. The powers of the world certainly did not consider Jesus safe, and they should not consider us safe either. If those people trying to cross that bridge in Alabama in 1965 weren’t a threat to the powers, then why did that cop beat John Lewis almost to death?

So I have added an element to my prayers. I now say, “God, keep us safe … and keep us dangerous.” May God continue to lead us all to be dangerous in this best sense of the word. May we continue to get in the way. To get into trouble. Good trouble.