CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Wedged between a walkway and an Episcopal Divinity School building here, a statue entitled Christ in the Garden of Gesthemane and a plaque commemorate the life of a former divinity school student, Jonathan Myrick Daniels.
Daniels was killed during the Civil Rights struggle in Hayneville, Alabama, in 1966, by a shotgun blast meant for an African-American teenager named Ruby Sales, who he pushed out of the way.
Rev. Ed Rodman, who became an Episcopal priest in 1967, attended school with Daniels. And if you look closely, past the figurine and the iron peace symbol Rodman wears on a leather cord around his neck, the cigarette smoldering in his fingers, the eyes half-closed in concentration in that strong, weathered face on a Boston fall afternoon, you might see all the way back to the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s – movements centered in large part around issues of racism that tore and split much of a country.
Rodman, 65, grew up in Virginia and, like Daniels, was part of the student movements that helped desegregate public schools, lunch counters and other public places.
He is now an Episcopal priest and professor at the Episcopal Divinity School, where he studied as a student 40 years ago. The school has a strong history of social justice activism.
Rodman retains his convictions about the need to work for social justice, peace and mercy. “I have faith in the power of God working in and through human beings to bring about change,” he said.
Still, he believes the Civil Rights movement was born on the backs of students, not “church people,” despite the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“We did not do this out of any religious conviction,” Rodman said. “We did it out of social analysis about the nature of segregation and the economic disparities of this country and the need to confront it and try to change it.” Rodman learned from his experience that it was possible to be a “radical change agent” using nonviolence. He tries to pass that knowledge along to his students in courses that teach how to bring about change.
Although he opposes violence, Rodman himself is not blind to the cynicism and frustration that tempt some people to violence as a means of social change. He said his students jokingly call his social change course “Terrorism 101," because it outlines what can sometimes be a thin line between zealous engagement and the act of becoming a terrorist.
“There were occasions, certainly, in my early ministry when I was still engaged with groups like the Black Panthers and the Weathermen and other groups that I worked with over the years where that was always an option,” he said. “And I had to wake up every morning and make a decision -- a spiritual decision, grounded in faith -- that I would continue to be faithful in my vows and my commitment to nonviolence, and not go to the dark side.”
I asked Rodman whether he thought today’s young people, the students he sees in class every day, could rise up in the face of racial or any other kind of injustice like the students of the 1960s did.
Rodman says no.
He believes today’s students, the ones who come through his doors, are simply much more conservative than his generation and are not as likely to connect faith with activism.
“The notion of the people from here going to a Selma or the equivalent today -- doing the harassing of the World Trade meetings and all of that -- is almost unthinkable,” he said. “That understanding of the connection between social justice, activism and one’s religious faith is essentially nonexistent.”