St. John Lewis

JULY 22, 2020
“Donald Trump is not my president,” said John Lewis. I rejoiced because that is how I felt. I felt validated hearing it from a person of unquestioned integrity—John Lewis. The words “president” and “Trump” do not fit together as one phrase; the office is respectable; the current holder is not. I hate saying or writing “President Trump.” It seems wrong.

Some years ago I turned on the radio to an interview that struck me as unusually fine and wondered who the inspiring speaker was. Ever after, I have recognized John Lewis’s voice after hearing only a few words.

Lewis preached love and forgiveness. Nothing remarkable about that, but John Lewis modeled them in remarkable ways. Elwin Wilson physically attacked Lewis when Lewis was marching for civil rights. Wilson was gleeful in his frequent attacks on Negroes. Lewis forgave him. Trent Lott declared that civil rights turmoil could have been avoided if racist Senator Strom Thurmond had become president. Lewis forgave him.

The death of this giant in moral courage has greater significance for its timing at this moment, when the country is reckoning with our sordid history of white supremacy. The nobility of John Lewis contrasts with the stoking of racial resentment by Donald Trump. “I’m the least racist person there is anywhere in the world,” he lies.

Refreshing are the words of John Lewis: “My philosophy is very simple. When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, stand up. Say something. Speak up and speak out." When you do that, he says, “you get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.” He motivates me to keep working for justice.

After listening to John Lewis on NPR being interviewed by Gwen Ifill, I feel weepy and think, “Wouldn’t it be great if Pope Francis declared John R. Lewis a saint. It would be a super-courageous thing, canonizing someone outside of the Catholic Church. St. John Lewis.  Hmmm.

JULY 29, 2020
A Congressional colleague of his said that John R. Lewis was the most Christ-like person he has ever known.

Lewis was beaten nearly to death when he led civil rights marchers across the Edmond Pettus Bridge in 1965, as every American by now should know. He had been arrested and jailed up to 40 times before. “I don't like pain,” he said.
I don't like to suffer in a hospital. But if that's the price you have to pay to make things better for others, I was willing to pay that price. 
This is my idea of a martyr.
Christlike, Lewis preached and modeled love and forgiveness, earning the title “conscience of the Congress.” He forgave enemies of civil rights marchers.

His philosophy, he said, was very simple.
When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, stand up. Say something. Speak up and speak out. [Then, he says,] you get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble. 
Saint-like, he motivates us to keep working for justice.
Lewis’s words in an On Being interview with Krista Tippett brought “Christ-like” home to me. [Excerpts]
We studied what Gandhi attempted to do in South Africa, what he accomplished in India. We studied Thoreau and civil disobedience. We studied the great religions of the world. And before we even discussed a possibility of a sit-in, we had role-playing . . . we would act out.
There would be Black and white young people, students, interracial group, playing the roles of African Americans, or be an interracial group playing the roles of white. And we went through the motion of someone harassing you, calling you out of your name, pulling you out of your seat, pulling your chair from under you, someone kicking you or pretending to spit on you.
And we would tell people, whether young men or young women, that if you’ve been beaten, try to protect the most sensitive part of your body. Roll up, cover your head and look out for each other. So when the time came, we were ready. We were prepared.
Tippett: I also read somewhere that you were trained even if someone was attacking you to look them in the eye, that there was something disarming for human beings.
We did go through the motion, the drama, of saying that if someone kick you, spit on you, pull you off the lunch counter stool, continue to make eye contact. Continue to give the impression, yes, you may beat me, but I’m human.
Be friendly, try to smile, and just stay nonviolent. And during the nonviolent campaign in a city like Nashville and so many other parts of the American South, you never had one incident of someone striking back or hitting back.
 . . . you have to grow. It’s just not something that is natural. You have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. And in the religious sense, in the moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being, there is a spark of the divine. 
Forgiveness without limit:
If you see someone attacking you, beating you, spitting on you, you have to think of that person, you know, years ago that person was an innocent child, innocent little baby. And so what happened? Something go wrong? Did the environment?
Did someone teach that person to hate, to abuse others? So you try to appeal to the goodness of every human being and you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone.
. . . a nonviolent revolution. It was love at its best. It’s one of the highest form of love. That you beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that, I’m going to still love you. I know Dr. King used to joke sometime and say things like, “Just love the hell outta everybody. Just love ’em.”
Sacrifice unto death.
I thought I was going to die. . . .  But in all of the years since, I’ve not had any sense of bitterness or ill feeling toward any of the people. I just don’t have it. I guess it’s not part of my DNA to become bitter, to become hostile.
you have to be prepared to literally put your physical body in the way to go against something that is evil, unjust, and you prepare to suffer the consequences. But whatever you do, whatever your response is, is with love, kindness, and that sense of faith.
Love is more than words.
When we went on the freedom ride, it was love in action. The march from Selma to Montgomery was love in action. We do it not simply because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s love in action. That we love our country, we love a democratic society, and so we have to move our feet.
Tippett: That phrase, an African proverb, when you pray, move your feet.
I see my involvement in American politics as an extension of my faith, not simply as an extension of my involvement in the civil rights movement. My life, whether in the civil rights movement or whether in American politics, is an extension of my faith. 
The calling.
It’s the sense that you believe that somehow and some way with love and a sense of I got to do it. You have been caught up. You have been led.
You have been not necessarily forced, but something caught up with you and said, “John Lewis, you too can do something, you too can make a contribution, you too can get in the way, but if you’re going to do it, do it full and with love, peace, nonviolence, and that element of faith.”
I didn’t want to go to jail.
Tippett: I know [laughing].
Jail is not a pleasant place, but jail became one of the ways out. To be arrested, to go to jail when it’s unearned suffering, it sent a message. It helped make the person who’s suffering better. I felt so good the day I was arrested.
When John was slated to speak at the March on Washington, before what would be the famous Dream speech by Martin Luther King, civil rights leaders were nervous. John’s speech was too confrontive for them and he had to compromise.
Here’s what he had planned to say:
We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own ‘scorched earth’ policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground — nonviolently. We shall fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy.
The reference to Sherman was deleted. Years later with Krista, John laughed,
You don’t change the world, the society, in a few days, and it’s better. It is better to be a pilot light than to be a firecracker.  
But at the March on Washington he roused listeners with the words,
You tell us to wait. You tell us to be patient. We cannot be patient. We want our freedom and we want it now.
You can hear the voice of  John Lewis at On Being.  I don't expect the institutional Catholic Church to declare him a saint, but wouldn't it be great?


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