The Movement Must Begin Inside Each of Us

LewisA rare Sunday read. From Ric Hudgens. A reflection on the life of John Lewis. This is Quarantine Essay #58 from Hudgens, the Cal Ripken of RadicalDiscipleship.net.

When I want to understand the potential a human being might have or the difference that one person might make in this world, I don’t look to celebrities or billionaires. I look to John Lewis.

Someone who refuses to wear a face mask because it threatens their liberty doesn’t know the price of liberty. Their understanding of freedom is narrow and malignant. John Lewis understood. He paid the price, not once but time again, because freedom is not a one-time thing.

Perhaps America’s fate hangs upon who we model ourselves after. A “man without principles” (according to Mary Trump in her new book, “Too Much and Never Enough”); or John Lewis, a man of principle, who once said, “in rescuing other people you are saving yourself.”

Lewis died today at age 80. Born in humble poverty in rural Alabama, Lewis, as a young man, became a significant part of almost every landmark in America’s Civil Rights Movement: the Nashville sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, Selma. Lewis was there, not just as a participant or a spokesman. He was first in line, beaten, arrested, and going to jail repeatedly.

Born with no inherited wealth and attaining only a modest education, Lewis had none of the privileges many see as the key to worldly success. But worldly success was not his goal. John Lewis wanted meaning.

He had soul, not in the R&B sense, but in the soul-power sense of combining conviction, courage, and commitment. Nonviolent activist Michael Nagler calls this fusion “person-power,” and it is the key to social transformation. John Lewis grew up in the racially segregated South as a victim of American apartheid. “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept,” said Angela Davis. So “John put the force of his soul against the system,” observed Lewis’s colleague Bernard Lafayette.

Lewis tested the words of Frederick Douglass that we expand democracy through struggle and agitation. He demonstrated the teachings of his mentors, James Lawson and Dr. King, that nonviolence was the foundation of social change. And voting rights remained central to Lewis because voting is “the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democracy.” Lewis showed us the way by getting in the way. Business-as-usual must be disrupted by the unusual.

It is no virtue Lewis said (echoing Dr. King) to be well-adjusted in a sick society. The maladjustment of men like John Lewis set forth a template for what it means to be human in America. Justice is what love looks like in public. John Lewis was giving content to the word “love.”

Being fully human in America (or anywhere in fact) is not about living lives of self-indulgence or merely seeking personal peace and prosperity. I love the phrase “wholehearted living” used by sociologist Brene Brown. However, John Lewis expands our understanding of that phrase. Wholehearted living also involves “walking with the wind” (the name of his classic memoir) and getting in the way. In a half-hearted (or often empty-hearted) world, we must grow our souls (see Grace Lee Boggs) and impede forces that threaten, segregate, harass, oppress, and exclude others.

“The movement must begin inside each of us,” Lewis wrote. The movement of which he speaks is not merely the Civil Rights Movement. Historian Vincent Harding called it the “black-led struggle for the expansion of democracy in America.” (“To Redeem the Soul of America”, Sojourners, April 2013). Lewis committed his life to that Movement and kept his eyes on the prize.

The democracy he fought for is not the limited democracy of America’s founding documents. He sought the radical democracy that lies at the outer edge of a horizon farther than the founders could see. “Don’t get lost in a sea of despair” he counseled. Keep your eyes on the prize, the old spiritual says, and hold on.

All of us benefited from the life-long courage of John Lewis. If, during these dark days, you and I can also sound the depths of our souls, awaken our courage, stiffen our resolve, our descendants will look back upon us with celebration and thanksgiving. Our living will not be in vain.

Today, I celebrate and give thanks for the life of John Lewis.

Rest in power, my brother.

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