SELMA: Reflection from a Pakistani Pastor

Who is Selma? That was my first reaction after hearing about the movie Selma without knowing that it is the name of city in the USA. In Pakistan Selma (Salma) is a popular name of girls. Salma Hayek is a famous movie actress in Hollywood and there was another actress Salma Agha in Pakistan as well. Bollywood films (Indian film industry fashioned after Hollywood) produced songs that use this name in their lyrics.

The movie Selma was released on Martin Luther King day in the USA and is based on the marches that occurred in 1965 from Selma to Montgomery Alabama in support of voting rights for persons of color. These marches began on Sunday, March 7 when 600 marchers assembled in Selma, Alabama planning to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge en route to Montgomery when they were stopped by local police and state troopers who met their peaceful protest with tear gas and beatings hospitalizing over fifty people. This day became known as Bloody Sunday. 

After watching the movie about this non-violent movement and the famous speech by Martin Luther King about his ‘Dream’ I began to wonder about the driving force behind this non-violent, non-retaliate, anti-racism movement (still at work in the USA). Are there any other movements in the other parts of the world? What was the inspiration behind those movements? 

I found three more persons in the twentieth century who had a similar vision. Mahatma Gandhi a Hindu from India, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, known as Bacha Khan a Muslim from Afghanistan/Pakistan and the third is Nelson Mandela a Christian from South Africa. It is interesting that all three belonged to the Global South of non-western origin.

Gandhi and Badshah Khan

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) protested and pioneered a non-violent civil movement against racism first in South Africa and then later in India (see photo of Gandhi and Bacha Khan in Peshawar rally). Bacha Khan (1890-1988) followed Gandhi's notion of Satyagraha, a form of active non-violence and founded the Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) movement in 1929 in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The success of both movements triggered a harsh crackdown by the British Empire against them and their supporters, and they suffered some of the most severe repression of the Indian independence movement. The two had a deep admiration towards each other and worked together closely till 1947.

The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah called Gandhi “that Christlike man”(E.Stanley Jones, The Christ of the Indian Road [New York:Abingdon Press, 1925], 58) Gandhi rejected the force of sword and bomb and use the power of suffering. Though Hindu Gandhi was inspired by Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. Bacha Khan told his members a story of Jesus without mentioning his name, "I am going to give you such a weapon that the police and the army will not be able to stand against it. It is the weapon of the Prophet, but you are not aware of it. That weapon is patience and righteousness. No power on earth can stand against it."

Martin Luther King as an ordained minister and Christian leader was also inspired by and followed the pacifist model of Jesus Christ to start a movement against racism and social injustice. But he was also a great admirer of Gandhi. MLK first heard about Gandhi during his studies at Crozer Theological Seminary. In July, 1959 in his article “My Trip to the Land of Gandhi” he states “While the Montgomery boycott was going on, India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of non-violent social change.”

Call to The Un-comfort Zone

Whether the world, Gandhi or Bacha Khan agree, the reality is that our sovereign Lord Jesus is the mover and shaker behind these movements that reshaped human history. Martin Luther King may have had a dream but it was Jesus who shifted the paradigms of power. Jesus Christ is the mission and suffering love of God. He is the bruised beauty of the Divine who attracts others by hanging up in the air. The same Jesus who wept over Lazarus (John 11) and the old city of Jerusalem (Luke 19) will wipe every tear from the eyes of his people in the new Jerusalem (Rev 21:4).  Jesus didn’t open his mouth to his executioners, yet opened the mouth of graves.

The acceptance of passive death was a process of Jesus’ humility and submission to God (Phil. 2:1-8). So the suffering represents the Glory of God. He was sent to sinners, the poor, and to those who were rejected and neglected, to those who were living at the fringes of society, Jesus was sent without any army, wealth or worldly influence. He was sent to a particular culture, time and space. We can’t imitate Jesus fully we can only participate in his finished work. We can adopt his model and apply it to our context.

Scott W. Sunquist in his book Understanding Christian Missions: Participation in Suffering and Glory on p. 209 calls the suffering savior the “paradox of all creation and the irony in the entire world.” He goes on to explain that through the cross of Jesus Christ “the deceiver is deceived, thinking that he has killed ‘life’, and the powers of the air are defeated when God is lifted up to die in the air, and hubris is conquered by humility.”

Selma and Selah

Selma reminds me of another word selah which is a Hebrew word used in various Psalms (46:10; 42:1-2; 51:1-10; 65:9-13; 40:1-3; 119:148.) The possible meaning of this word are “silence, pause, interruption, accentuate, exalt, or end”. How would a selah moment help us be silent and listen to the voice of God in our busy and hectic schedule during Lent? How might it interrupt our unintuitive understanding of following Jesus? How might it lead us to stand against injustice like the marchers at Selma?

The problem arises when we deceive ourselves and try to possess the power to insulate ourselves from suffering. We struggle to hide the irony of suffering and death under ultimate victory that is expressed in many hymns and gospel songs. Jesus rebuked Peter’s denial of the cross (Matt16: Mark: 8:27-35). Stephen’s faith was crowned by martyrdom (Acts 7:51-60) and martyrs are part of heavenly worship (Revelation 6).

The challenge is for Christianity in the twenty-first century to conform to Christ’s teaching. We are challenged to soak our prayers in tears. Before that we need to pray for the gift of grief and tears. How will our worship react in times of oppression and persecution? How will our songs shape our concept of beauty during lent? What is our response to injustice and racism?

Fifty years later which side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge will you be found?

Eric Sarwar is a ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan and founder and director of the Tehillim School of Church Music & Worship in Karachi.