by Cynthia Price
The Western Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) made what some might consider an unusual choice for speaker at the Grand Rapids celebration of ACLU’s 50 years in Michigan.
The choice was Pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville.
The connection might be a little clearer if one knew that the pastor’s full name is Robert Holmes Bell Jr.
The senior Bell, one of the State Bar of Michigan’s Champions of Justice in 1982, is the well-known judge of the Western District of Michigan United States Court.
His son chose a different path.
Bell Jr. started an evangelical church in Grandville that draws an estimated 11,000 people to its Sunday services. The Chicago Sun-Times once wondered if he is “The Next Billy Graham?”
Bell is a powerful speaker who strayed somewhat from his reported topic at the ACLU annual meeting. Instead of focusing on “The True Meaning of Tolerance,” Bell spoke about the challenges inherent in standing up for what is just.
Bell, along with State ACLU Executive Director Kary Moss in her welcoming speech, drew attention to the contrast between himself and the speaker people might have expected. As Bell told the story, “ACLU is celebrating 50 years in Michigan and they hold this public celebration and gathering. They ask a pastor of a bible church to speak and they give him a microphone – This is the end of the world.
“Or … it’s the start of a new one.”
Bell added that he was raised with a profound respect for the law, and told of going along with his father to Washington in 1987 for confirmation hearings. “So from an early age,” he continued, “there was this respect I picked up for the law. At a deep level I resonate with the ACLU.”
His message was biblically-based, focusing on an Old Testament story about Queen Sheba visiting King Solomon. Impressed by his riches and vast kingdom, the queen tells Solomon, “I know why you were given all of this. It was so you could maintain Mishpat and Tzedekah.”
Bell said that Mishpat, roughly translated as justice, actually refers to the judicial process. He explained that Tzedekah, or righteousness, is more open-ended, referring to the common good and rights of all people. He said it was possible to substitute “that you might use it to bless, protect and fortify those on the underside of the empire.”
Bell told his audience, “I know why you’ve all been given the education and expertise you’ve been given, it’s so you can practice mishpat and tzedekah.”
He went on to say that sometimes when one is “captivated by justice,” it can be daunting. “When you find yourself standing for certain things, you may also find yourself deeply misunderstood.”
He talked about the negative reactions among conservative Christians when he appeared at a conference to honor the Buddhist Dalai Lama, and of observing the awe-inspiring friendship between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He also used the example of Nelson Mandela, who, when he was released from years of imprison-
ment, decided to forgive his enemies to serve the greater good.
Bell concluded with stirring words encouraging the ACLU members to stick with their great work. “May you find friends in all sorts of unexpected places, may you when it gets lonely in the struggle know that many stood up before you and that you join a great company of people who were seized by justice and righteousness. May you not become bitter, cynical or burned out; may you not just tolerate your enemies — may you love them.”
That evening the ACLU also gave its annual Civil Libertarian Award to Owen Bieber, a well-known national figure in labor union work whose careet started in Grand Rapids. Bieber spoke passionately about the justice work he had done in South Africa before apartheid ended.
This was the fourth ACLU celebration of its 50th anniversary in Michigan. In 2009, the organization launched a Legacy Lecture series, and Professor Jeff Sachs of The Earth Institute spoke in Farmington Hills. The ACLU’s 2010 big bash Annual Dinner featured Arianna Huffington, and the second lecture in the series was by Dustin Lance Black, writer of the screenplay for Milk, both in Detroit. The fourth Legacy Lecture will also be in Grand Rapids: Newsweek contributing editor Eleanor Clift will speak at the Wealthy Theater on September 16. More information can be found at http://mi.aclu.org/site/Calen