TAKING A STAND
The Exodus:5 Project
And He said, “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. Exodus 3:5
There is a place on the wide expanse in Tiananmen that is sacred ground. A protestor of still-unknown identity planted his feet in front of advancing tanks that had come to disperse a political demonstration. The tanks halted; the world was electrified. The protestor, “Tank Man,” as he was called, was named to Time’s list of the 100 most important people of the twentieth century.
In a museum maintained by Troy University in Montgomery, Alabama there is an ordinary city bus. It was on that bus that Rosa Parks took a seat in the “colored section” during the days of segregation. When a white man wanted her seat, the driver ordered her to stand. She refused. By doing so, Mrs. Parks fanned the spark that eventually ignited the conscience of a nation.
Billions of people have traverse that avenue in Beijing and thousands sat in the seat of that bus, yet we honor the two individuals whose insistence on stopping and, literally or figuratively, taking a stand changed the world. The places were unremarkable. The actions were unique. The results were sacred.
My colleague Rabbi Ronne Friedman called to my attention what he described as “a classic case of misdirection” in the Bible. Most of us who do not read carefully have the impression that when Moses noticed the burning bush and heard God’s call, he was instructed to remove his sandals because the ground around the bush was holy ground. Isolating the verse above, it is obvious that the instructions are very different. The miraculous bush was not situated on holy ground. It was the place on which Moses was standing. It was the place where Moses stopped and noticed what was askew. It was the place where Moses answered the call.
Reports from Beijing on that day in 1989 included eye-witness accounts of other protestors blocking the path of tanks. In 1955, Rosa Parks was not the first and not the last to refuse to give up her seat. And who knows if God chose Moses by appearing where Moses stood, or if Moses chose God by noticing what others overlooked. (Rabbi Lawrence Kushner makes the point that you have to stare a long time at a fire to concluded that it is or is not consuming what is burning.)
But the fact is that the courageous actions of the individual have the ability to transform an everyday patch of asphalt, vinyl or sand into holy ground.
I don’t believe someone needs to be named to the “Time 100,” to provoke social transformation or to star in the Bible to imbue a place with sacred significance. I do believe that it is the act of stopping, noticing and bearing witness that can change the ordinary into the special. Sometimes doing so in the company of the many to repel noxious ideas and the people who promote them is what is called for. Sometimes stepping out of the shadows to call out the bad behavior of otherwise good people is what is necessary. Sometimes placing yourself steadfastly between a friend and a place of danger is the act of holiness.
The place where you take a stand, literally or figuratively, is the holy ground. Most of the time, the opportunity to act with courage and conviction is in plain sight; what will set you apart is paying attention to it. Once you notice, once you act, you will not just sanctify the place; you will consecrate your life and set a standard for others.
And if standing alone can be transformative, imagine the power of standing together.