There’s strength in numbers. There’s safety in numbers – two maxims I’ve heard often. However, today an image comes to mind, inescapable, burned in my brain some thirty years ago. I carry it with me still. It has not lost its clarity nor its call. I see it still in my mind’s eye, this photograph of a single, solitary figure standing alone in a great, empty expanse of a town square, face to face with a military tank, a tank which is the first in a single file line of tanks approaching as the lone figure stands his ground.
The year was 1989 and the place was Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. The person who faced the line of military tanks alone has not been positively identified to this day. He was arrested and carried away, never to be heard from again. (there were rumors he was executed shortly afterward) Ironic – his action was in protest of the lack of free speech in his country, China. The response to his protest was to silence his voice permanently. He was not heard from again. But the image of his courageous action could not be silenced nor erased. The photograph lives on, inspiring future generations around the world. In this case, one picture is worth a thousand words and so much more.
But here’s another irony. While people around the globe have seen this iconic image often in the thirty years since his protest was captured on film, his own countrymen do not have access to this photo because it is banned in China as are all memories of the protests and subsequent massacre that took place in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989. (a memorial to the Tiananmen Square massacre of ’89 was recently taken down from a Hong Kong university because it commemorated all those who lost their lives protesting government censorship and the accompanying lack of free speech in China)
So there is a generation growing up in China today that knows nothing of the Tiananmen Square protests because the government has attempted to erase through censorship every trace of what occurred there, even to removing memorials and banning photographs of the event. It is as if it never took place. Out of sight – out of mind. But I doubt even a Communist regime can erase the memory of this event from the minds of the million or more people who were those protesters in April, May and June of 1989. Those that survived the massacre carry the truth of what happened with them even though they are not allowed to share that truth with others. Fear is a powerful silencer.
The protests that had begun with such promise as the crowds grew large, ended with one person alone, facing a line of tanks. After weeks of protest and confrontation, which did not end in the victory of freedom for all (nor for any) nor of free speech, this final image of a small man facing down a huge tank, was all that was left. But this is not an image of defeat. It is an image of the courage and resilience and perseverance of the human spirit. It is an image of hope. It is an image of the power of one.
How often we underestimate the power of one! There is a song I remember singing growing up, which contained the words, “though none go with me, I still will follow.” The reference is to following Jesus even if others don’t come with me, meaning it may be an unpopular choice and I may be alone in my decision. Jesus even said as much to those thinking about following Him –
“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Me will find it.’ ” (Matthew 16:24-25)
You don’t get a lot of takers with that kind of an invitation. Consider what else Jesus said when He had this conversation with a would-be follower,
“Then a teacher of the law came to Him and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.’ Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.’ ” (Matthew 8:19-20)
Again, not a big inducement to leave everything and follow Jesus. But Peter did. He left everything and followed Jesus. The power of one. Jesus said, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18) Never underestimate the power of one.
The lone man facing the line of tanks in Tiananmen Square reminds me of another brave man who faced something and someone bigger than himself all alone. This is David facing down the giant Goliath, all by himself. The Israelites were afraid to fight their enemies, the Philistines. They lived in fear of them and were being conquered by them. No one would stand up to the giant Philistines. Then David volunteered for the job.
“David said to Saul, ‘Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; (Goliath) your servant will go and fight him.’ Saul replied, ‘You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a boy, and he has been a fighting man from his youth.’ ” (1 Samuel 17:32-33)
Now Goliath was described as over nine feet tall and we are told that all in Israel were scared of him. “On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.” (1 Samuel 17:11)
But David went out to face the giant, Goliath, who had been terrorizing Israel, and David won! He killed Goliath and this gave the rest of the men in Israel’s army such courage that they then faced their invaders and conquered them, driving them from their land and setting themselves free from the harsh rule of the Philistines. It took one to stand up and face the enemy alone. Then others followed. Never underestimate the power of one.
The power of one can change the world. Martin Luther stood alone against the established church of his day and the world when he nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenburg church in 1517. One stood up to the accepted way of thinking at the time and the world was forever changed. Thus began the Protestant Reformation.
A few centuries later, another one would stand up to the prevailing powers of his day. And how fitting that this one should share the name of his predecessor, who, like him, sought to change the world for the better and often found himself standing alone in the struggle. World changing is most often a lonely business, requiring more courage than most believe they have within them. However, Martin Luther King, Jr. showed no shortage of courage as he stood face to face with the giant of the injustices of his day and sought to right what was wrong. Like the “tankman” from Tiananmen Square, he was killed for taking a stand for freedom for all. But his words cannot be silenced. His “I have a dream speech” lives on, encouraging each one of us today to judge each other by “the content of our character, not the color of our skin.”
The power of one. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy lives on. In Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, he said “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” but how wrong he was! We still know the words of the Gettysburg Address to this day. I had to memorize them in fourth grade, we all did. It was a requirement. Why? Why do we need to remember? So that we don’t forget. Because when we forget what freedom is, what it feels like, what it looks like, what others did to secure it for us, we lose it. We let it slip silently away while we are busy pursuing other lesser things.
Lincoln stood alone in his time. He stood for freedom for all and he stood for preserving this country. The Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War resulted from these desires. Lincoln was killed by those who opposed the freedom and unity he wanted for this country. Still, his vision became reality over time. Not without great cost, however. Lincoln cautioned in his address,
“we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
That’s why we remember. So that we don’t forget the price that those who came before us paid to purchase the freedoms we enjoy today, even as we take them for granted and hold them so loosely that they slip through our fingers and eventually fall beyond our grasp. Then we will understand too late why the rest of the world risks their lives to come here. Those that come will then find a place so like the one they have left, they will wonder why they ever came here.
The pledge of allegiance, the National Anthem, the Fourth of July, the Lord’s Supper – we remember the cost and we celebrate our freedom and our forgiveness, respectively. We can’t celebrate if we don’t remember that we have something worth celebrating. These things also remind us that we have something worth fighting for, too. No wonder those that would take away our freedoms want memorials gone and history erased, lest we be inspired once again, by an image of a lone man facing down a tank, which causes us to remember the power of one and take a stand ourselves.
In every era, it seems, there has been an individual who would stand up and face down the giant. I am wondering today, in this post-truth time of censorship and suppression, who will be the truthtellers? Those who speak out today, quickly find that they are standing alone. But if history is any judge, the power of one should not be underestimated. I hope I have the courage that Isaiah did in this conversation,
“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I (Isaiah) said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’ ” (Isaiah 6:8)
We all face giants that challenge us in our daily lives. Perhaps by standing up for what is right and what is true, even at our own peril, we will inspire someone else to stand up, as well. I can’t wait for another Tankman or another Martin Luther King Jr. to come along before I decide to stand up and speak out. The time is now. The power of one to change the world for the better is mine and is yours, dear reader, today and every day. I don’t want fear to stop me from standing up for what is right or from speaking truth even when it puts me in danger.
The power of one to change the world cannot be underestimated.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10)
sincerely, Grace Day