A Lesson from John Lewis
Four years ago, when I had the honor of awarding the Bishop’s Cross to Nell Gibson, I referenced a passage in her memoir Too Proud to Bend in which she reflected on the long struggle of her generation of Civil Rights soldiers, now as that generation has begun to pass on with so much of the work still unfinished. She likened her generation to Moses, who led the Hebrew people through the wilderness, but who would die on the mountain, with the Promised Land in sight, but before crossing the river. She noted that it was her work—their work—to traverse the privations of the wilderness, and all that suffering, in order to make possible the Joshuas who would come after, and who would enter the Promised Land.
I have never forgotten the poignancy of her words. I cannot. And in these days when we see the great men and women of the Civil Rights era passing out of our sight, while the struggle and protest against unfettered institutional racism and violence continues apace, I think of all those Moseses, and the price they paid, and of the privilege of sharing time with them for a while. And of the teachings and cautions that flow from the witness of their labors and suffering for a new generation which, it seems, must press on a little longer before crossing the river.
Martin Luther King was Moses, and on the night before he was murdered, he invoked that mantle for himself as he spoke of the cost of seeing with his eyes the Promised Land, the pursuit of which had defined his life, but which he knew he would never enter. This summer we lost U.S. Congressman John Lewis and the Reverend C.T. Vivian, both on the same day. They too were Moses. Both were pivotal figures, who have left legacies which will long survive them. But it was the death of John Lewis that caused a nation to suck in its breath for a moment. Not only in mourning for the man, but in grief too for hopes unfinished, sacrifices not yet redeemed, and dreams in danger of slipping away.
After John Lewis died, Congressman James Clyburn reflected on the life of his old friend and told of the two of them attending together a gathering of Civil Rights leaders in the days following King’s assassination. They met to talk about the work still before them unfinished, and asked the question of whether, in the face of the shattering cost of nonviolence it could still be that the movement could embrace nonviolence as a defining principle. And they decided that they would continue to espouse a nonviolent movement. Clyburn added that for many in that conversation, nonviolence was seen to be an effective tactic or strategy by which they might achieve the goals of the movement. But he said that John Lewis was different. He said that John Lewis had fully internalized nonviolence, and that he lived it in everything he did and everything he was. It was not a strategy but a way of life.
I had the privilege of meeting John Lewis only once, and I was struck and profoundly moved to see still on his face and head the signs, now long faded, of the beatings and violence that were inflicted upon him as the reward for his life of peaceful struggle, and which stand as icons of the true and high cost of nonviolence. Lewis was a founder and leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and he spoke of that work and said that “Some of us came to the conclusion that means and ends are inseparable. If we are going to create the Beloved Community, an open society, if that is our goal, then the means and the methods by which we struggle must be consistent with the goal, the end we seek.” If we seek a world at peace, we must understand that we cannot achieve peace by warfare or violence. If we seek a world of equality, we must accept that we cannot achieve that by belittling or demeaning anyone. If we seek a world of inclusion, we cannot shut anyone out or define anyone out of our communion. If the end is equality and peace, then those things that we do to achieve that end must embody those same principles. So Lewis added, “You never become bitter. You never become hostile. You never try to demean your opposition.”
Those were the principles, and they were, for Lewis, absolute. As I looked upon Lewis’ face, once battered and broken, imperfectly healed, I remembered, “And then Jesus showed his disciples the nail holes in his hands and feet, and the spear thrust in his side, and said ‘Peace be with you.’”
John Lewis died in the middle of a national protest and struggle for racial justice and equality. He died even as people were making the simple, elegant claim that Black Lives Matter and receiving violent and vicious response. In the context of protest, countless people raised up John Lewis’ command to get into “good trouble,” but I think not everyone has been able to see that what Lewis meant by that was inextricably bound up with his nonviolent convictions, and his rejection of bitterness and hostility and his refusal to demean the opposition.
John Lewis’ life and witness will say many things to many people. Like all prophets, and certainly all martyrs, his message is laden with complexity and deep meaning and will come to every human heart and be interpreted by that heart and lived out according to the inner virtues and principles of the person. It seems to me that part of John Lewis’ witness was that if you want to live truly as a nonviolent person, then you have to be willing to take a punch. By which I mean, not to take the violence of illegitimate authority personally, and rise back up in rage, in revenge, in recrimination, but to understand and accept that the violence which may be done to us is an essential and inescapable part of the process of transformation. To rise, to fall, to rise again. Still loving your enemy. By the nature of the world we live in, nonviolence will necessarily take one deeper into the dangers of the world, and the threats of the adversary. Not all by any means will be put to that test, but should the hour come, it is good to remember that the witness of Jesus Christ, of Martin Luther King, of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and of John Lewis, comes not in the proclamation of nonviolence, but in the willingness to pay the cost of that nonviolence by accepting as inevitable the beating that comes with it. And bearing the scars for the rest of your life.