By David Carlson
The history of humanity is marked by rare individuals who, sometimes suddenly and sometimes over a period of time, wake up to a different way of viewing something that the rest of us take for granted.
When he was a young lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi was thrown off a train in South Africa because he refused to vacate his first-class seat because of the color of his skin. That experience changed Gandhi’s entire understanding of his life purpose and changed the lives of millions of people.
Not long afterwards, Rosa Parks refused when ordered to move to the back of the bus. She said later that her feet were tired, but her act incited a revolution.
Five hundred years ago, a brilliant monk and professor, Martin Luther, risked his career and life to nail to the door of his university 95 objections to accepted Church teachings of his day. His personal act also incited a revolution.
In all these cases, and those added below, these individuals weren’t trying to accomplish anything monumental. Rather, they were simply acting out of a personal need to live more fully in the truth as they understood it. And in every case, their acts infuriated the majority. The phrases “how dare they?” and “who do they think they are?” have a long history.
Infuriated people in our country today are uttering these same two phrases, as two highly public persons have risked waking up.
The first is Colin Kaepernick, the now out-of-work quarterback, who, after reading extensively about the African-American experience in our nation’s story, decided to kneel at the playing of the national anthem. As black men and women were being shot by law enforcement at an alarming rate, Kaepernick decided that he couldn’t in good conscience agree that the United States is the “land of the free.”
He wasn’t intending to set off a firestorm by his act but rather to live more fully in the truth that he was discovering and observing.
The second individual who has recently woken up is Jimmy Kimmel. Kimmel is not out of work, and he is the one person of those mentioned who accepted that his comments would set off a national debate and affect the voting in the U.S. Senate.
But his stand still was risky. He knew many would tell him as a comedian to stick with comedy and leave the politics to the experts. But what we now know is that Kimmel had a more accurate and honest understanding of the health care proposal than did the bill’s sponsors.
There is a cost to waking up, for no longer siding with the majority. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard understood this nearly 200 years ago.
“Truth always rests with the minority … because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion.”
Kaepernick has never demanded that anyone join him in kneeling during the national anthem. But what he has done is force everyone to think about the words they sing or refuse to sing.
Similarly, Kimmel has made no demand that everyone think about the health care proposal as he does. What he has demanded is that the truth be told about the bill and that people think seriously about how this bill could affect families with pre-existing conditions.
The point I am making should be obvious — when one person wakes up, others wake up whether they want to or not. Some wake up relieved to do so; others wake up angry.
When Luther woke up, Christians in western Europe were forced to wake up to issues that they’d never questioned. When Gandhi woke up, every Indian and every British soldier in India was forced to wake up to what hadn’t been questioned about colonialism. And when Rosa Parks woke up, everyone on that bus and all who heard about her refusal began to wake up to the issue of racial discrimination.
Kierkegaard’s warning is worth considering in our day. If we sleepwalk through life, going with the majority just to fit in and not cause a stir, we have wasted our human lives.
Franklin resident David Carlson is a professor of philosophy and religion. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.