As the nation marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Rosa Parks, we should avoid the temptation to see her as merely a historical figure, a heroine of the past. It would be easy to do so. After all, no city in America segregates its public transportation system by skin color, not even Montgomery, the capital of the old Confederacy, where Mrs. Parks famously refused to give up her seat to accommodate Jim Crow. Even so, Rosa Parks’ example is about the future as much as the past.
First of all, the memory of Rosa Parks ought to remind us that she didn’t live in what we refer to as “the civil rights era,” as though racial justice was achieved and can now be ignored. True, the awful state oppression against African-Americans, both north and south, was knocked down with legislative triumphs in areas of public accommodations, employment non-discrimination, and voting rights. Thank God. But racial reconciliation is never a finished project, at least not between Eden and Armageddon.
Beyond that, Christians especially ought to reflect on what Rosa Parks’ civil disobedience reminds us about our life together in society.
When Mrs. Parks refused to give up her seat, she was affirming an ancient truth of the reality of natural law.
The bus boycott, sparked by her, was a revolt against an unjust law. Mrs. Parks, and the activists she motivated, never argued the law wasn’t supported by the majority. They argued the law was wrong. As Martin Luther King Jr. also communicated in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” civil law rests on a broader foundation of a law that is written in the heart, a law that transcends human cultures and majoritarian whims.
That natural law, embedded in the conscience, is the reason the power of the state, any state, is limited. Herod had some legitimate authority as ruler, but it was, as John the Baptist pointed out, “not lawful” that he should have another man’s wife (Matthew 14:4). Caesar had the legitimate authority to wield the sword against evildoers, an authority the Scriptures affirmed (Romans 13:1), but he had no authority to dictate worship (Revelation 13:16). The temple leaders had a legitimate authority, an authority Jesus affirmed (Matthew 23:2), but they had no authority to forbid the preaching of the gospel (Acts 4:18).
The natural law stands above human law, and gives its legitimacy. The law maintains order precisely because it is not the arbitrary expression of a ruler or of a mob. The law must give an account to a more ultimate Lawgiver. That’s why Jesus, in his famous discourse on Caesar’s coin, distinguishes between duty that must be rendered to government and that which must be rendered to God.
Rosa Parks’ protest also affirms the persistence of natural rights.
When she refused to give up her seat, deprived to her on the basis of her skin color, Mrs. Parks defied a law that based human dignity on some devilish idea of white supremacy. This idolatry was encoded in law and embedded in culture. White children were taught not to give a lady like Rosa Parks the recognition of the title “Mrs.” or “Ma’am.” And the legal code designated what water fountains she could use and where she could sit.
Mrs. Parks, though, believed the old American creed that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” That Jeffersonian principle is grounded in a concept of dignity older than the Enlightenment, the concept of a common human race made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). This is why God, the Bible says, “shows no partiality” (Deuteronomy 16:19; Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11).
All human beings reflect his image, and are worthy of respect. And no human being is a god, with the power to exercise dominion over human nature itself. Human dignity isn’t “purchased” by voting power, commercial wealth, sexual attractiveness, natural ability, or anything else.
Finally, Rosa Parks pointed to the sacrifice of neighbor-love.
In refusing to give up her seat, Mrs. Parks wasn’t struggling for her own position. She did so on behalf of millions of others, many yet unborn. There’s a difference, in a truly Christian ethic, in fighting for our own prerogatives and in working for justice for others. Jesus calls us to give up the cloak, to walk the extra mile, to turn the cheek (Matthew 5:38). And yet, he also led the Apostle Paul to appeal to his rights as a Roman citizen not to be prosecuted for preaching the gospel (Acts 16:37). Why? It was because the issue wasn’t Paul’s personal comfort but the advance of the church as a whole.
Rosa Parks was a great heroine who deserves our honor. But let’s not consign her to the museum. Her heroism still speaks, and points to some old, old truths that are needed in a new century.
Russell Moore is Dean of the School of theology and Senior Vice President for Academic Administration at the southern baptist theological seminary and executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Dr. Moore is the author of the kingdom of christ: the new evangelical perspective (Crossway, 2004) and adopted for life: the priority of adoption for christian families and churches (Crossway, May 2009). Visit his website at russellmoore.com.