Burma protests in front of the White House

Photograph by Michele Turek

Past the paralysis

Rev. Michele Turek 

February 27, 2024

At the end of January, over one thousand people came from around the world to the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington D.C. This gathering brought attention to religious freedom violations around the globe. The 2023 US Commission on International Religious Freedom annual report described persecution of religious minorities in many countries — for example in Afghanistan under the Taliban, China persecuting Uyghur Muslims, Nigeria, where Christians are targeted in some parts of the country, and India, where Hindu nationalism underpins discriminatory laws, vigilante violence, and razing of mosques and churches.

I was struck by my very human reaction to hearing about global atrocities, including the injustices we see in our own country. I feel helplessness and paralysis, something I suspect that many others feel too, when I hear about things that go wrong in the world. However, I want to change the situation; I want to fix the problem. I want to see things become better, but then I seem to hit a wall, thinking, “I am just one person. What could I possibly do to change this?” It seems impossible — too enormous of a task to even know where to start. 

Then I look around me to see the people who are doing something, and they’re making change in the world. They don’t get paralyzed, or at least they don’t linger in paralysis. They take the next step. They find collaborators. They use their networks and resources to make an impact. They make phone calls, write letters, make appointments, do the research that can be taken to policy makers who can make the “big picture” difference. At this conference, I was surrounded by courageous souls who are consistently making a dent, reshaping the world and its systems.

The day before the IRF Summit, I attended a congressional hearing on the current situation in Myanmar (Burma), which just reached the third anniversary of its military coup. I bore witness to hardworking and dedicated American Baptists and other ministry partners from the Burmese diaspora. It was in a small room, confined by its institutional four walls and small windows, but they were fighting for their cause. Young and old, across religious, national, and language barriers, they were united in this common goal: to call for the leaders of the United States to take action for the sake of lives saved, freedoms won, and a legitimate government to be restored. It was an inspiring thing to witness.

I told a colleague once that I have found great inspiration in the musical “Hamilton” by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Beyond the music that gets stuck in your head, the flash of costumes and lights, there is a story of individuals striving to make a difference in their own ways. The members of the audience might identify with one character and see their own experiences and thoughts mirrored on stage. In the three times I have seen the musical, I always find that I identify more with Aaron Burr, as he is portrayed. He plays the game and stays in his lane; he is hesitant to speak his mind and waits for the opportunity to come to him. When Alexander Hamilton rushes forward and aggressively takes the initiative, Burr is often seen in the margin of the main events, waiting, baffled, as he so often gets left behind.

Even if I do feel paralysis in the face of injustice, or when my natural tendency is uncomfortable making waves by speaking out or taking action, occasions arise when the opportunity needs to be created or demands my attention.

God has not given us a spirit of timidity or fear, but of power, of love, and of self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7). Sometimes we need to take matters into our own hands. Sometimes you need to take the initiative so that you can be in “the room where it happens.” Christ followers are not called to shrink into the shadows, but to take one step after another. In the face of Empire, powers, and principalities, we declare the power from our Holy Source and keep walking to forge the path for ourselves and our neighbors in love.

In my same trip to Washington DC, I went to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. There, on the wall in the final steps of the exhibit, the following quote by Martin Niemöller (a Lutheran minister and early Nazi supporter, later imprisoned for opposing Hitler’s regime) is displayed:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

This dramatic call to solidarity with others, especially those who are oppressed for other reasons than we are, resonates strongly with me. Oppression should matter to us regardless of whether we experience it the same way. In the words of the Jewish American poet and activist Emma Lazarus, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”

Rev. Michele Turek is the national coordinator for Asian Ministries at the American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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