Last week's story of the "Panel of Firsts" at Desert Vista High School reminded me of one of my own firsts. In the late 1970s I moved to Chicago's south side to attend seminary. For the first time, I was part of a racial minority in a neighborhood that still carried the scars of racial violence that had happened a decade earlier.
Assigned to teach catechism in a congregation set in a mostly white suburb, I was both late and nearly out of gas on a frigid February night. The self-service era had yet to arrive and I pulled into a gas station near my ramp on the Dan Ryan Expressway. I sat for some time, but no one came out to pump gas. Two other cars pulled in and the attendant braved the icy wind to fill their tanks. I then figured it out: He was not going out in that wicked weather to pump gas for a white guy.
Filled with righteous indignation, I risked running out of gas and made my way to the church where I told my class my harrowing tale of discrimination. There was one African American in my class. I looked at him and noticed he had a very knowing smile on his face. "You deal with this all the time don't you?" I asked. He just nodded. "I just learned something, didn't I?" His reply: "Oh yeah."
As our attention remains focused on the developments in North Africa, it serves us well to remember those in history who bravely challenged the status quo. They stood up against powerful and often deadly forces because of their deeply held convictions, and their courageous witness led to social changes we now take for granted. They have been, to borrow St. Luke's phrase, "a cloud of witnesses" that has placed what they believe to be right ahead of their own safety. It makes sense that the biblical word for "witness" is the same word as "martyr."
We look with caution to North Africa. As Americans we prize our freedoms and our sympathies tend to be with those who stand against totalitarian rule. At the same time we worry about power vacuums in what has often been a volatile part of the world and who might fill them. The end of these events is far from clear.
Because we live in relative abundance and security, it is far less likely that we will have to put our lives on the line for basic human rights. This does not mean, however, that we are not called upon to serve as witnesses to the values we hold dear. Our witness may not be in the form of civil disobedience or public demonstration, but we are daily called to witness by the way we conduct ourselves.
As we continue to find ways out of the recession, should we also be witnesses when it comes to public policy. Jim Wallis, founder and editor of Sojourners has rephrased an old Christian question to ask, "What would Jesus cut?" As people of faith, do the values of our various religious traditions inform not only the way we live as individuals, but also the policies and programs we seek and support in the public sector? Put in another way; are the causes we serve in both public and private life spiritual issues? I believe that they are.
Steve Hammer is the pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.