Bayard Rustin, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and the Art of Holy Troublemaking – Rev. Caitlin Cotter-Coillberg

Our kids recently started a new curriculum- because as much fun as it is to talk about superheroes, we realize that what we really need when we think about how we are centering love and listening to the call of love is something else. What we need is troublemakers.

What Bayard Rustin called Angelic Troublemakers- or what our new curriculum calls holy troublemakers.  Folks willing to make what John Lewis called, Good Trouble. I love good trouble and I love this term- holy troublemakers, because it leaves so much room. Room for humor. Room for mistakes. Room for trying again when we don’t quite make enough trouble the first time. And room for lots of us to be accomplices and active agents of trouble. 

Accomplices is a term my mentor, Elandria Williams, who worked for a long time at the Highlander Center where Rosa Parks trained. E said to white UUs to let go of claiming to be an ally and strive to do the work of being an accomplice instead. I love that, in part because it sounds a bit fun- right- being an accomplice- like we’re part of a heist film, working to right injustice in creative and unexpected ways.  Maybe with a theme song or two playing behind us. It’s a good reminder that this work is hard and dangerous, but also fun and rewarding and joyful, that those who came before us also had fun and were joyful.

When you see Hollywood portrayals of the civil rights movement, it’s all very stern and sepia toned, right? But nobody lives in sepia tones, we live in color. We forget that Rev. Dr. King  lived not that long ago that he loved to go swimming and was a huge Star Trek fan! He did not live a life in black and white, or sepia tones, he lived in color.  And every anti-racist anti-oppression activist I’ve ever known, everyone I’ve known who has decided to commit their life to justice, has been a person committed to joy and sacred silliness as well. 

And that’s true for so many greats- the theologian Howard Thurman watched the world series with Dr. King. Rev. Dr. Thurman also taught himself the clarinet late in life, just for the fun of it, and collected penguin figurines, just because he liked them.  One of the great justice centered Unitarian Universalist theologians of the 20th century we often cite- James Luther Adams- loved Kung Fu movies.  

Joy has to be a part of the work we do and the lives we lead and the trouble we make together. Joy helps remind us to keep centering love. And Holy troublemaking comes from love. The anger that unites and drives us to make things better, to make good trouble, comes from love, not hate.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr himself was quite the troublemaker, right? Sometimes he gets praised so much- we have a whole holiday about him!  A giant monument on the Tidal Basin right next to the FDR Memorial! Our society often seems to forget, these days, how much he was hated, and how much horrible stuff was said about Rev. Dr. King, during his life.  

He talked about peaceful means by peaceful ends, but doing things with integrity and courage the way Bayard Rustin, who trained with Mahatma Gandhi and lived a life of Quaker values,  taught him, does not mean he was being compliant with systems of power or doing things that powerful people liked.  

Rev. Aisha Ansano points out that “As a society, we tell activists that their protests are too unruly, their demands too harsh, their voices too strident, their methods too stringent. We have decided as a society that there is one way to struggle for justice, and it’s the way we like to imagine King struggled for justice — even though it’s not the way he actually did.” He was considered by the FBI to be the most dangerous man in America, and he was far from alone  in that work of making good trouble.  

This history matters, these stories of troublemaking matter, because these are not problems that magically got solved in the sixties, right? There’s a reason why the same kind of people who hated Dr King in the 60s are trying to repress the true history of the civil rights movement now, trying to convince young folk that segregation wasn’t that bad, and neither was the mass kidnapping and enslavement of folks from Africa, and neither was the genocide against first nations people- because that violence is part of the ongoing struggle in this country, and that history is dangerous to those who want to keep profiting from inequity and inequality and white supremacy.

They want us to think these were minor distractions and sepia toned problems that were gracefully solved, not an ongoing struggle, not something that lives in all of us. Yes all of us- sometimes the people profiting off inequity is folks on the left as well. One of the things Bayard Rustin taught is that we have to do that internal work. That anti racism is ongoing work because it’s also about what we’re dealing with on the inside. 

None of us are perfect, none of us get to rise smugly above the bigotry baked into our society and it’s rules and laws and violent capitalism. White folks, you are going to have racist thoughts, and accidentally do little micro aggressions, and profit from white supremacy. What matters is your second thought, what matters is how you counteract that micro aggression and improve your behavior and work to change the system and apologize when you do harm, what matters is that you refuse to do what is harmful and comfortable. Be dangerous, instead. Make trouble. Make Trouble, even within yourself.

Act from love, like Bayard Rustin, refusing to pretend that it was okay he was forced into the back of the bus, refusing to go into the closet, like Rosa Parks, like Howard Thurman and all of their friends and accomplices. And remember that this can look like a lot of things. Sometimes this looks like being in the streets. Sometimes it looks like sitting down with the teenagers, or looking after the toddlers. Showing up at a school board meeting to oppose a book ban. Taking bystander training and practicing what to do when harm is happening in front of you. 

We have to be committed to never letting that white child on the bus think that racism, homophobia, or systemic injustice in any form are okay, even when they are the law- especially when injustice and forced ignorance is the law-, we have to live into the legacy of the agents and accomplices of the sixties and beyond, knowing they were hated, knowing what they did was dangerous. Knowing that their troublemaking was also joyful, and full of song and solidarity and righteous mischief making.

We don’t need superpowers to be agents of change, don’t need to fly or shoot laser beams from our eyeballs to be angelic troublemakers. We have all we need, we are enough, and we are ever becoming something we can only begin to imagine- accomplices and agents for a better tomorrow that lives far beyond ourselves.