John Lewis and the Genius of Nonviolence

Read how the late John Lewis practiced peace and nonviolence his entire life, and why we should follow his example.
(Photo credit: Spider Martin | National Archives)

Redemptive suffering is rarely a topic I bring up on car rides — even long car rides. But it was all my wife and I talked about as we drove up I-95 to Pennsylvania.

“Can you imagine that kind of courage?” my wife asked. “Taking that kind of risk?”

I shook my head no.

We were listening to an episode of the New York Times podcast “The Daily” entitled “The Life and Legacy of John Lewis.” Both of us had deemed ourselves woefully ignorant of the details of the late congressman’s life and had hoped to fill in our educational gap during the two-hour trip.

What we hadn’t expected was a crash course on nonviolence. And we certainly hadn’t expected to wrestle with the term redemptive suffering — a term more at home in a theology course than a family road trip.

John Lewis, of course, is well-known for being the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. He was only 23. On that day, he declared: “To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait,’ we have long said that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now! We are tired.”  

These are discomforting words — whether in 1963 or 2020 — to those of us who enjoy the comforts of the status quo. Those with something to lose inject fear into the public discourse: They’re coming for you. They’re coming to hurt you, to take what is yours, to ruin your lives. Everything you love will be destroyed.

Of course, painting a them and an us is necessarily done in black and white ink. The system of racism against which Lewis and his contemporaries fought in the 1960s is the same system against which #BlackLivesMatter and its allies fight today.     

And yet, as was made so painfully visible on the Edmund Pettus Bridge — and as was consistent with his entire life and career — Lewis was not leading an armed mob; he had no weapon. The principles of nonviolence undergirded all he did and ultimately led him to be beaten, harassed, and jailed again and again.

My wife and I were familiar with these images, as tragic as they are. We knew Martin Luther King, Jr. preached nonviolence; we’d seen Black bodies beaten in the streets.

What is so often missed, though, in this chapter of high school textbooks is that drawing out violence is precisely the point of nonviolence. The weapons of nonviolence are the weapons of the oppressor.

Standing firmly, peacefully, against injustice ultimately pulls away the curtain on the violent regime that keeps injustice in place.

That’s what happened on March 7, 1965 on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Nonviolence clashed with bloody violence — and it was a scene that shocked viewers around the world. For those still clinging to a false dichotomy of us and them, a reckoning was at hand: Did we want to be part of the group that beat peaceful protestors, fellow human beings, to within an inch of their lives?

Of course not. And thus a crack emerges in the violent systems of our time.

Because when we talk of redemptive suffering in the tradition of nonviolence — in John Lewis’ tradition — we’re not just talking about giving the oppressed their fair share. We’re talking about reimagining the entire system.

“Suffering puts us and those around us in touch with our conscience. It opens and touches our hearts. It makes us feel compassion where we need to, and guilt if we must,” shares Brent Staples of the New York Times in his reflection on “The Daily” podcast. It has to do with “embracing the biblical prescription that one must love one’s enemies.”

This kind of suffering dismantles the us/them dichotomy. It does so by recognizing that both the oppressed and the oppressor are trapped in the same violent system. It holds up human dignity as sacred; we’re all part of one family. Violence, then, only perpetuates unjust systems: racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia — you name it. Nonviolence disrupts them. Nonviolence shakes us all out of complacency, forces us to look at our personal and social demons, and to build something new.

It’s easy to see how all of this points to Jesus, crucified on the cross. Here we see another man who embraced nonviolence, whose final act was to lay down his life — to bear the full, violent force of the Roman empire so as to point to the kind of just world God intends.

Christianity has not always lived up to that example, but it is undeniably part of our founding.

John Lewis is one of many examples of this kind of life well-lived. But remembering that it is the life we are all called to — that John Lewis is the rule, not the exception — gives me a bit more courage. Certainly, more hope.

Let us follow his example.   

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