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Good Trouble

"...get in good trouble, necessary trouble," tweeted Civil Rights icon John Lewis. John passed away last week after sharing 80 good years with us. The majority of those 80 years was spent making noise and making good trouble, necessary trouble. It was the kind of noise for which those who were comfortable with racial injustice considered as trouble-making. But for those who longed for, and whose ancestors have been fighting for transformational change, it was good trouble, necessary trouble.

You may wonder if there ever was such a thing as "good trouble". Like many of you, I have gotten into lots of trouble. And none of those was a good trouble because each had some consequences to it. I remember traveling to a different town during recess from boarding school. My mother wasn’t in town; she, herself, had traveled. And so when my friend - who had lived in that town before, and had acquaintances in that town - invited me on this trip, I was over the moon. I went on this trip without seeking permission from my mother. I thought I knew that I would be back before she returned from her trip, but we ended up staying longer than we had planned. And when I returned, my mother was furious and acted very violently towards me. Believe me, that’s a nice way of saying that she beat the crap out of me! Has trouble ever been good?

John was beaten more than a few times. John was roughed up more than a few times. John was locked up more than a few times. John knew how to make trouble, necessary trouble. I am not sure where he got the idea of making good and necessary trouble, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he got that idea in the open letter response his mentor, friend, and fellow Civil Rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King wrote to the clergy of Alabama, who had branded him a troublemaker for all the protest in Birmingham. In the Letter From the Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all.” To make noise is to shed light on an unjust law. To fight an unjust law is to make good trouble, necessary trouble, and John Lewis did exactly that. And for that, I am grateful.

As a young boy, he was shaped by the oratory of African-American preachers who constantly awakened his consciousness about the unjust laws and the social strata those laws have produced in places like Troy, Alabama. His experience at Buffalo, New York, which had integrated by then, not only alerted him to the tragedy of life in Troy, Alabama, but it convinced him of the need to transform the unjust systems of racism and Jim Crow which invariably diminished one race - the African American. For those who believed, and thus propagated the myth of White supremacy, John knew that he had to cause some trouble, necessary trouble, if he were to change not minds, but hearts.  

To change hearts is a little more challenging than to change minds. The mind can evaluate data and make decisions based on that data, but the heart is in a totally different category. To change hearts, you have to constantly remind people, prod, encourage, and motivate. To change hearts, you have to offer more than data or tangibles. I used to travel to North Dakota for Mission Trips with youth from my former parish. The work we did wasn’t about brick and mortar, it was a different kind of ministry, where we were supposed to make friends with our Native American brothers and sisters, hold conversations and share our experience of life in Philadelphia. Each year after the trip, the youth will ask me “Father Manny, what did we come here to do?” The idea of making friends and helping change the narrative of other people appeared as alien to them as the story about Bigfoot. But year-in and out, they would accompany me on these trips, not only to change others with our narratives, but to change our own selves, as well.

And so, for the son of sharecroppers who gathered together the family’s chickens to preach to them, the son who yearned to be a preacher, he was keenly aware that human transformation isn’t a day’s work. To change the heart isn’t a week, a month or a year’s worth of work, it has to be an ongoing work. And even in the midst of despair, you constantly have to press on. This was his tweet: Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble."

I heard about him when I lived in Atlanta, and I have followed this Troublemaker ever since. His imagination had no limitation. His zeal had no boundaries. His resolve knew no inhibitions. His passion knew no restraint. His quest and strong belief in non-violence was as strong as his desire for racial justice. His faith, which was shaped in the Jim Crow South was fervent, strong, and a sustainable guide. The one thing that gave him pause to be grateful was the breath of the fresh air of justice. A single incident of injustice was one too many, though, and to fight it, he had to make good trouble, necessary trouble.

As we mourn his passing, we should be reminded that the battle for racial justice is not over. Although we have made progress, there are still pockets of injustice among us, but guess what? There may be times when we’re tempted to offer excuses as to why we may not have to be as involved in the fight as we should be, but I read somewhere that excuses are what a lazy person offers for what he/she knows they have to be doing.

And so I invite you, today, to make some noise. If you believe in racial justice and transformation, then make some noise. And not only that, but make good trouble, for without that necessary trouble, the transformation you wish to see may not ever happen.

Go ahead, and make some good trouble. 



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