Bystanders in history

Bystanders in history

Fifty years ago last Friday JFK was shot. On the same day, CS Lewis and Aldous Huxley (author of ‘Brave New World’) died, and Doctor Who made its first appearance on our TV screens. What a day in history!

I spent the anniversary evening in the cinema seeing The Butler, a film about a black American who served as butler in the White House from the Eisenhower administration through to the Reagan years, and was himself a witness to some incredible moments in hsistory.

Based on a true story, the film’s tag line is “One quiet voice can ignite a revolution.” While that may be true, it isn’t really an accurate summary of the main character, Cecil Gaines’, role in history. For the better part of his life, Gaines was just a bystander. He stood by in the Oval Office, true, but even with its artistic license the film never suggested that he was anything more than a witness to history and the decisions and dilemmas of some of its most pivotal leaders.

After decades of working in the White House he did manage to secure equal pay for black and white staff members, but that was the result of a revolution, not the start of one.

But that is a criticism of the marketing company, not the film – and not Cecil himself. Films, books and stories about bystanders are at least as interesting, in my opinion, as those about the great men and women who did change history. Perhaps it’s because most of us identify more with the ‘ordinary’ citizen than with the world-changer. I watch a film like Amazing Grace and find it interesting and inspiring, but ultimately so far distant from who I am, what I do, what I, even with God’s help, could ever be capable of, that in some ways it doesn’t really resonate.

To be in the background of history, though, that is attainable and exciting.

At one point during The Butler, Cecil and his wife stand on their front porch watching smoke rise above Washington DC as the race riots are enacted there as elsewhere in the country. Although they were both upset by what was happening, and doubtless afraid of its possible implications for them and their home, I was struck by how amazing it must have been to live through those times – to have seen so much change, and to be seeing more and more unfolding every year. It must have been incredible.

Yet bystanders aren’t only bystanders. None of us has the luxury of merely observing life and its ups and downs. There came a point when Cecil had to decide whether to continue to quietly serve in the background of history, or take a stand himself, and I think that’s a choice we all have to make at some point (and often at several points). You may not be able to become a Head of State, or to write books challenging some of the thinking of your society, or to hop into a time-machine and take on the baddies who are trying to exterminate your planet, but you can sign petitions, write to your MP (or Congressman/woman), speak up in your office or among your friends, raise money for charities, or whatever other (legal) avenues you can find to help those in power see and do what is right.

One quiet voice can ignite a revolution, true, but more often revolutions are caused by hundreds of people joining their quiet voices together and asking, over and over, for change. There are plenty of issues out there that need your voice. Which is on your heart? Which are you going to start talking about? Or will you just stand on your front porch and watch history pass you by?

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