What does it mean to be “unapologetically just,” and why is it so important to pursue that goal in the face of the world’s injustice?
Regina Shands Stoltzfus, professor of peace, justice and conflict studies at Goshen College, sought to explore those questions and more during a special convocation service Monday morning at College Mennonite Church.
Her speech, titled “Justice Speaks,” was part of the college’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration, which this year featured the theme “Unapologetically Just: Rooted in the Way of Jesus.”
Shands Stoltzfus began Monday’s speech by touching on the concept of “heroes,” and particularly the damage that can be done by mythologizing those heroes, and thus making their achievements seem unattainable.
“We love a good hero story, right?” Shands Stoltzfus said. “We want to hear those stories. They encourage us. They model for us that impossible things can be done.”
She noted that there are generally two broad categories when it comes to hero stories — one being the solitary figure that is born into unusual circumstances.
“They might experience a traumatic event that leads them on a quest: the thing that must be done,” she said. “Or, they might have a special weapon that only they can wield. They hold the power that no one else has, or some other supernatural power of some kind.”
Then, there is the everyday hero: the ordinary person who is met with extraordinary circumstances over which they masterfully prevail.
“And then we find out, oh, they’re not so ordinary after all,” she said. “We love a good story, and we love a good hero. And while there are indeed stories of real heroes — real, live people who do extraordinary things — we don’t do ourselves favors by mythologizing those people, and making them otherworldly.”
A perfect example of this, Shands Stoltzfus said, is the story of famous civil rights activist Rosa Parks and the part she played in the Civil Rights Movement.
“You are likely familiar with one of the biggest hero stories of our time, the story of the Montgomery bus boycott, the series of events that launched the civil rights career of Dr. King. The success of the boycott is undoubtedly one of the biggest movement success stories of the 20th century, if not the biggest,” Shands Stoltzfus said. “And so, I don’t make light of it at all when I talk about it being mythologized. What I mean is that it is truncated so severely that we miss the power of the big story. And this is a story whose power we need.”
That, she said, is the story of how Rosa Parks was not in fact the meek, tired seamstress who bravely — yet accidentally — refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, one fateful day in December of 1955.
“How very impossible for someone like me to emulate. I wouldn’t know what to do. I know I’m not that brave,” Shands Stoltzfus said of how Parks’ story has been mythologized to a degree that it almost seems nonreplicable.
In peeling back that mythology, Shands Stoltzfus noted that Parks was actually a well-read, rebellious activist who came from an activist family.
“Her own definition of herself as she reflected over her life, over her childhood and her teenage and young adult years, was that she was a rebellious person,” Shands Stoltzfus said. “And the circumstances around her, that she was born into, helped shape this sense of her self-named rebelliousness.”
Shands Stoltzfus noted that the women in Parks’ family, in particular her mother and her grandmother, raised her to not think of herself as inferior to any person.
“And this is in a context where the society around her was telling her, ‘You come from an inferior people. You are an inferior person,’” she said. “And her family spoke into her that this is not true.”
Parks’ family also sought to teach her the concept of “controlled anger,” a survival strategy that balanced compliance and militancy, Shands Stoltzfus explained.
“Parks would constantly have to battle these two forces. Militancy could get a person killed, and yet resistance, however dangerous, pushed back on the oppressions, and at times, made it diminish,” she said.
Jumping forward to Parks’ adult years, Shands Stoltzfus noted that she became an organizer and an investigator for the Montgomery NAACP. And in the 1940s, Parks used her passion for justice to investigate incidents of sexual assault against black women — something that law enforcement at the time systematically ignored.
That spirit of activism would continue for many years, leading Parks to her most well known moment of activism — the Montgomery bus boycott.
On Dec. 1, 1955, Parks refused to give up her seat for a white rider. According to Shands Stoltzfus, she was the third African American woman within a year to do so.
Like the other women before her, Parks was arrested and fined. However, the day after her arrest, the Women’s Political Council — which had been strategizing about buses for over a year — called for a one-day boycott.
And as people began to mobilize, then 26-year-old pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr., was elected as the president of the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association.
Under the leadership of King Jr., the MIA was instrumental in guiding the Montgomery bus boycott, a successful campaign that focused national attention on racial segregation in the South and catapulted King into the national spotlight, Shands Stoltzfus explained.
“Think about all of the organization that had to happen for the boycott to last not the one day that was planned, but 380 days,” Shands Stoltzfus added of the movement’s early days. “Many of the citizens of Montgomery, Alabama, who depended on public transportation to get to jobs they could not afford to lose, did not ride the bus.”
In the end, the boycott would be successful, leading the federal district court to eventually declared segregation unconstitutional, a decision the Supreme Court would ultimately uphold.
“However, one of the ironies of this situation is that by the time of the mass meetings to organize the protest after Parks’ arrest, her voice kind of takes a back seat in the narrative that is played out,” Shands Stoltzfus said. “And some of the work that we have today by scholars that unfolds that story for us is why we can know more about her and push away that mythology of this meek, timid woman who just one day decided she’s not going to do it today. It’s kind of the story, but it’s not the real story.”
While much of the visible leadership of the Civil Rights Movement were often men, Shands Stoltzfus noted that women were also present, as were many young people — scores of ordinary people who helped make the campaign a success.
“And I strongly, firmly believe that it could not have been a success were it not for the pooling of all of that collective energy over a long period of time,” Shands Stoltzfus said. “And this is the genius of movements: they are made of people. There is no lone superstar that single-handedly pulled this campaign off. It is so important for us to remember this, because we face the work for our own time.”
For Shands Stoltzfus, the long, expanded story of Parks and her impact epitomizes the college’s 2020 MLK Day theme: “Unapologetically Just.”
“Justice is about right relationships: relationships with each other; relationships with the earth; relationships with the creator,” she said. “Our current social climate calls for, demands, an active reinterpretation of faith for the present context.”
Moving forward to today, Shands Stoltzfus noted that while there is much to be learned from the struggles of the past, they must be reinterpreted in order to have true impact in the present.
“Battles that we thought were long won lay unfinished,” she said. “Yeah, that bus boycott was a win, but injustice we still deal with; ground we thought we gained has rolled back. So, what do we do in the meantime? What is the strategy? Who are the people? Where is the network?
“It’s there. Some of you know full well it’s there. You’re engaged in it, and you’re involved in it,” she added. “I think that our history tells us that we can’t get tired, and we can’t give up. At the end of the day, justice calls.”
ABOUT SHANDS STOLTZFUS
Shands Stoltzfus began teaching at Goshen College in 2002 and teaches courses in race, class and ethnic relations; personal violence and healing; peacemaking; women and gender studies; biblical studies; and transforming conflict and violence.
She attended Goshen College and earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Cleveland State University in 1988. In 2001, she earned a master’s degree in biblical studies from Ashland Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in theology, ethics and contemporary culture from Chicago Theological Seminary.
Shands Stoltzfus previously served as an associate pastor at Lee Heights Community Church in Cleveland, Ohio, as campus pastor at Goshen College, as minister of urban ministries with Mennonite Mission Network, as staff associate for urban peacemaking with Mennonite Conciliation Service and as director of admissions at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.
In 2016, Shands Stoltzfus was awarded the State of Indiana Civil Rights Commission’s Spirit of Justice Award, the commission’s highest honor.