How important is John Lewis’ legacy?

Former President Barack Obama gives the eulogy at the funeral service for the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., at Ebenezer Baptist Church on July 30, 2020, in Atlanta, Georgia.
Former President Barack Obama gives the eulogy at the funeral service for the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., at Ebenezer Baptist Church on July 30, 2020, in Atlanta, Georgia. | Alyssa Pointer-Pool/Getty Images

What an extraordinary week we have just witnessed. If you are an American of a certain age (old enough to remember the images of  “Bloody Sunday” in Selma in March 1965), you stared in wonderment as the television projected images of Alabama State Troopers, now a fully integrated force, standing at attention as an honor guard for the late Congressman John Lewis. Was this really the same organization that charged on horseback into the crowd of non-violent demonstrators and fractured John Lewis’s skull on “Bloody Sunday”? Yes it was.

John Lewis lying in state in the Alabama State Capital in Montgomery, where Gov. George Wallace had proclaimed, “Segregation Now! Segregation Tomorrow! Segregation Forever!” is a powerful image for people of my generation.

One of the consolations of advancing age is a heightened perspective that can only come with length of years. Born in 1946, the first year of the “Baby Boom,” I have been particularly grateful for that chronological perspective this week. In the past few weeks, it has been increasingly difficult not to despair of ever achieving Dr. King’s dream of a post-racial, post-ethnic culture where people are not “judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

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The arc of John Lewis’s life from victim of a brutally racist society to being a beloved national leader inspiring people to continue striving, with their “eye on the prize” of bringing Dr. King’s dream to fruition, should inspire all people of good will to keep striving.

In fact, the Rev. John Lewis never lost hope. In a love letter penned to the American people in the last hours of his life, he told his fellow countrymen that they “inspired” him. He went on to say that “as a young teenager he was searching for a way out” of the racist society that was imprisoning him. Then, he said, “I heard the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” and his Christian “philosophy and discipline of nonviolence.” (“Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation,” John Lewis, New York Time, July 30, 2020).

In this “last will and testament” to the American people, Lewis testified, “In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”

To the last hours of his life, he continued to embrace his Christian belief in the redemptive power of nonviolent protest and love of your enemy to redeem all concerned, victim as well as victimizer. As Dr. King had so aptly put it, “Those you would change, you must first love.”

Lewis was the last of the giants of the original Civil Rights generation of the 50s and 60s to leave us. And his life reminds us that like Dr. King and others in that movement, he was an ordained Christian minister. The philosophy behind the original Civil Rights movement was undergirded by Christian theology’s proclamation of the transformative and healing power of redemptive love, not cultural Marxism.

And we must never underestimate the corrosive and dehumanizing nature of the enemy we have confronted, and continue to confront, in racism.

Unfortunately, many of us have believed that those who are the object of racial prejudice are the only victims. This is false. All of us, perpetrators and victims, as well as comparatively innocent bystanders, are shackled by the chains of prejudice. All of us are victims.

Lillian Smith writes with breathtaking, broken-hearted pathos of the Georgia girlhood experience of this joint victimization. Recognizing that she penned these words in 1949, I trust that you will accept her heart-felt words and forgive her dated ethnic terminology.

The mother who taught me what I know of tenderness and love and compassion taught me also the bleak rituals of keeping Negroes in their “place.” The father who rebuked me for an air of superiority toward schoolmates from the mill and rounded out his rebuke by gravely reminding me that “all men are brothers,” trained me in these steel-rigid decorums I must demand of every colored male. . . . So we learned the dance that cripples the human spirit, step-by step, we who were white and we who were colored, day by day, hour by hour, year by year until the movements were reflexes and made for the rest of our lives without thinking. . . . Something was wrong with a world that tells you that love is good and people are important and then forces you to deny love and to humiliate people. . . . in trying to shut the Negro race away from us, we have shut ourselves away from so many good, creative, honest, deeply human things in life. . . . the warped, distorted form we have put around every Negro child from birth is around every white child also. Each is on a different side of the frame, but each is pinioned there. . . . What cruelty shapes and cripples the personality of one is as cruelly shaping and crippling the personality of the other.  (Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream, 1949)

Sadly Lillian Smith despaired that the victims could ever overcome these deformative experiences. Even when they summoned the strength and knowledge to escape the frame, she viewed them, and herself, as “stunted and warped and in our lifetime cannot grow straight again.”

Happily, John Lewis, like Dr. King, did not believe that. They believed that while the victims were deformed by racism’s toxicity, they were not trapped and doomed by it. Dr. King eloquently articulated this in his “I Have a Dream” speech:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. (Martin Luther King Jr, Washington, DC, August. 28, 1963)

Thank God these men showed America the path to overcome its original sin, enabling us to continue to strive with our “eye on the prize.” These Civil Rights heroes showed us that with enough faith, we could all be liberated from racism’s dehumanizing and crippling impact, white and black alike.

As former President George W. Bush said in his eulogy to John Lewis at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church yesterday, “John Lewis . . . always thought of preaching the gospel, in word and deed, insisting that hate and fear had to be answered with love and hope.”

Why did Congressman Lewis do this? As former President Bush explained, “John Lewis believed in the Lord, he believed in humanity and he believed in America.”

As President Bush concluded, “We live in a better and nobler country today because of John Lewis and his abiding faith in the power of God, the power of democracy and in the power of love to lift us all to a higher ground.”

As a Christian, I believe that as well. And so, I will continue to strive toward the dream with my “eye on the prize.” I hope you will do so as well. John Lewis has left all of us both a sterling example and a stirring challenge.

Dr. Richard Land, BA (magna cum laude), Princeton; D.Phil. Oxford; and Th.M., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, was president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) and has served since 2013 as president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC. Dr. Land has been teaching, writing, and speaking on moral and ethical issues for the last half century in addition to pastoring several churches.

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