Before he died last month, John Lewis was (at least in my heart) the greatest living American. Born into poverty to a sharecropper family in rural Alabama during the time of segregation, he became a young leader in the Civil Rights Movement. He was one of the 13 original freedom riders, an integrated group who traveled by bus through the South to protest segregation. He was one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, which used civil disobedience as a tool in the fight for justice. He was the youngest member of the “Big Six,” the six Black leaders who organized the 1963 March on Washington. He stood at the front of the line at the first Selma-to-Montgomery march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on what has become known as Bloody Sunday. He had his skull fractured by a police baton that day and was beaten and bloodied by white police and white mobs more times than can be counted, not to mention that he was arrested 40 times for civil disobedience in the fight for civil rights. Later he served as a representative in Congress for more than 30 years (an office he held until his death) and in 2011 he was awarded our nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by Barak Obama.
John Lewis was a believer in the American dream, and he worked all his life to make sure that America lived up to her ideals for everybody. By all measures he was a tremendous patriot who was absolutely willing to lay down his life for his country, a country that he loved but that (because of the color of his skin) didn’t always love him. And, as he deserved, over the last few weeks, much has been said about his patriotism and his accomplishments for his country and I’m sure that you all have followed his memorials and remembrances in the news and that you’ve mourned for the loss of this great American.
John Lewis was a great American, but as the Church, we also need to remember him as a great Christian and a disciple of Jesus. John Lewis was not just incidentally a Christian. He didn’t just happen to be a Christian. John Lewis is an example of a person who lives out the fullness of their Christian faith and identity in their life.
John Lewis was born into a little boat on rough seas. And when God called, he jumped out of the boat and right into the storm. It was a big ask. But he did it and he stayed out in that storm because he had a faith that told him it was the right thing to do and that God would be with him no matter what.
When he was once asked about the spirituality of the Civil Rights Movement Lewis said, “The early foundation, the early teaching of the movement was based on the Scripture, the teaching of Jesus, the teaching of Gandhi and others. You have to remind people over and over again that some of us saw our involvement in the civil rights movement as an extension of our faith.”
One way to be a Christian is to be a Christian on Sunday only. Or to be a Christian in church only. Or to be a Christian for heaven only. This kind of Christianity can easily get disconnected from the rest of our lives—our work and our relationships and our life goals. We don’t turn away from God exactly, but we don’t give ourselves all the way over either. What we do in our lives and how we do it doesn’t necessarily coincide with our faith, with the needs of our neighbors, or with the deepest longings of our own hearts.
The other way to be a Christian is to work every day to fulfill your Christian identity—the promises of our faith, the world’s deep needs, and the deepest longings of your heart—fulfill your Christian identity in the fulfillment of your life’s mission. And it was exactly John Lewis’ Christian faith that motivated him to live a life fighting for justice and serving his country. And it was precisely his Christian faith that informed him about the best way to conduct that struggle—through nonviolent (but aggressive) Christian action—what Lewis frequently and famously called “good trouble.”
Three weeks ago, I was preaching to you on my summer reading (The Righteous Mind) and Jesus’ morality. I told you that Jesus wants us to be free from oppression, but the challenge of Jesus’ liberty is that as we fight for our humanity, we are not allowed to dehumanize ourselves by dehumanizing others because God also cares for those others. And that is a Christian principle that John Lewis brilliantly enacted in his life’s work.
In that sermon three weeks ago, I also told you that we’d need to come back to this “turn the other cheek” scripture. I told you that its often been interpreted to mean that good Christians are just supposed to take any old abuse that comes our way and be nice about it, and we were going to need more than one sermon for me to explain why this isn’t a good interpretation for what Jesus is saying.
So, this Sunday it turns out is the perfect time to return to this piece of scripture. Because what Jesus is actually asking us to do (when he asks us to turn the other cheek, to give our cloak, and to go the second mile), Jesus is asking us to get into “good trouble.” And this piece of scripture inspired John Lewis’ nonviolent (but aggressive) action. Listen to what he said in an interview from 2004.
“I’m deeply concerned that many people today fail to recognize that the [civil rights] movement was built on deep-seated religious convictions, and the movement grew out of a sense of faith—faith in God and faith in one’s fellow human beings. From time to time, I make a point, trying to take people back, and especially young people, and those of us not so young, back to the roots of the movement. During those early days, we didn’t study the Constitution, the Supreme Court decision of 1954. We studied the great religions of the world. We discussed and debated the teachings of the great teacher. And we would ask questions about what would Jesus do. In preparing for the sit-ins, we felt that the message was one of love—the message of love in action: don’t hate. If someone hits you, don’t strike back. Just turn the other side. Be prepared to forgive. There’s not anything in any Constitution that says anything about forgiveness. It is straight from the Scripture: reconciliation.”
John Lewis’ life is proof that when Jesus tells us not to hit back, it doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to just resign ourselves to being beaten. And when Jesus asks us to forgive, he’s not asking us to accept injustice, he’s asking us to act up for a repaired and reconciled world. And, in fact, what the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s believed and demonstrated is that there was a moral force in not hitting back that was powerful—powerful enough to be able to transform the consciousness of a nation and to lead to major victories for Black people in America.
So, let’s look a little more closely at the ways Jesus is pointing out this power in our first scripture reading. My understanding here was informed by the great Biblical Scholar and theologian Walter Wink. He points out the cultural contexts of Jesus’ teachings.
First, notice Jesus’ says if you are struck on the right cheek. In Jesus’ day there were two kinds of strikes—the fist and the backhand. The fist was a punch for social equals. The backhand was an especially insulting slap used by a social superior to hit a social inferior. A single blow would have been dealt with the right hand because the left hand was the hand you used in the toilet and so there were rules about not using the left hand to touch things like food or people. So, if you follow all that in your imagination, you see that Jesus’ audience knew that a single slap across your right cheek was a backhanded slap. And when you rise up from that backhanded slap and turn the other cheek, you turn your left cheek which can then only be struck with the open palm (or fist) of the right hand—but that’s a respectable way to fight with your equals, it’s not how you slap down your inferiors.
So, yes, Jesus is teaching us nonviolence, but he’s not asking us to cringe in the corner and to accept abuse. Baked into the command to turn the other cheek is a subversive, nonviolent, aggressive resistance to unjust power—a rising up in a self-affirmation of equality that affirms an oppressed person’s humanity without dehumanizing anyone.
In Jesus’ day a poor person would have owned two pieces of clothing. An undergarment and an overgarment. Let’s call them a shirt and a coat just to make it easier for us. At that time a poor person could literally be sued for the shirt off their back by a creditor or landlord, but the creditor or landlord couldn’t take their coat because that would have left this person naked and in danger of freezing.
In Jesus’ culture they felt a little differently than we do about nakedness. In our culture, if I were standing up here naked in front of you, I’d be mortified and ashamed and you all would be a little embarrassed but also maybe laughing and making fun of me. In Jesus’ culture it was flipped around. If I were standing here naked in front of you I would probably be a little embarrassed, but you all would be mortified and ashamed and you would feel like the transgression was yours for seeing me naked, rather than mine for being naked.
So, when Jesus asks a poor person to strip off their coat in court after their shirt has been taken away, he’s asking them to stand there naked. He’s asking them to remind the rich and the powerful of God’s law which forbids taking everything from the poor. And if the powerful are unable to feel shame for their actions, then perhaps they will be confronted with their own shame when they are forced to see the human being that they sued naked in front of them. This was nakedness as a disruptive protest against injustice—revealing to the world your own human vulnerability and confronting the powers that be with their sins.
If you’re having trouble imagining nakedness as a protest, consider the naked Quaker. In 17th century Massachusetts, our Puritan ancestors made it illegal to be Quaker. Some Quakers were even put to death by our spiritual forebears for not conforming. Quakers were expected to attend a Puritan church. We know that at least one Quaker woman, Lydia Wardell, would come into a church on Sunday morning, take off all her clothes, and sit down in the front pew for the Sunday service. You can imagine just how much our stodgy, puritanical, Puritan forebears didn’t appreciate this. And you can begin to imagine what an effective disruption nakedness can be given the proper context.
In Jesus’ day Roman troops were legally entitled to gang press local peasants into carrying their packs for them. But military discipline was strict, and troops were only allowed to force someone to carry their equipment for one mile—no more. A friendly Judean or Galilean peasant marching a second mile would have put the Roman soldier who forced him to carry his pack in the first place at risk of punishment from his commander. Again, we see that even going the second mile was a way of taking control and subversively resisting injustice.
John Lewis never hit back. Much was taken from him by his country and by white people, but he kept giving the best he had, even when it laid him out. John Lewis went the second mile. He accepted Jesus’ way as his way, as the guiding principle of his life’s work. We know that it wasn’t an easy decision to make. It wasn’t easy to put life and limb on the line over and over again for freedom and for justice. It wasn’t easy to turn the other cheek again and again when it would have seemed like justice demanded punishing those who were so cruel and so wrong. But John Lewis was a believer.
Believing in Jesus’ way and believing in justice and non-violence in an intellectual way are one thing. True belief, real faith, requires something more than intellectual assent. It requires us to jump from the boat into the storm. It requires courageous action. John Lewis lived a life of courageous Christian action. I wonder, what would courageous action look like in your life? What would courageous action look like in our life together as a church?
This is what Lewis said about courageous action:
“When we’d go out to sit in or go out to march, I felt, and I really believe, there was a force in front of us and a force behind us, ’cause sometimes you didn’t know what to do. You didn’t know what to say, you didn’t know how you were going to make it through the day or through the night. But somehow and some way, you believed—you had faith—that it all was going to be all right.”
What would it look like if we all believed like John Lewis believed? And what would it look like if we all lived like John Lewis lived?
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations