John Lewis and What it Means to be a Human Being

Speaking of “What does it mean to be a human being,” Congressman John Lewis, who died at 80 years old on Friday, has a lot to teach us by his very life and work.  One historian who worked with him over the years and knew him quite well said that he was the only one he knew personally whom he would call a “saint.”  He was that courageous and that cheerful and that open to others, willing to listen deeply, to forgive, and to go to fight for justice. 

The late U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-GA), 1940-2020. Photo from the U.S. House of Representatives, on Wikimedia Commons

He went to jail, by his own count, forty times in his life protesting injustices.  But no one ever saw him angry at other persons, only at lies and cover ups and obvious injustices (such as locking up children in cages).

I was struck by a small but telling story that John Lewis himself shared.  Growing up in a tiny rural community in Alabama, he went to the small, local library one day and was denied a library card as a child.  Because of the color of his skin.  This taught me what “white privilege” means.  I often made the two-mile walk each way to a public library when I was a kid—especially to read Dr. Seuss books as I recall—but I was never denied nor was I threatened to be denied access to the books and to a library at large.  And to be denied entrance due to the color of my skin?  That truly drives home the lesson of white privilege to me.

Lewis lived a life staying true to his principles and endured so much travail, beatings, opposition, suspicion, but he did not waver.  He was in every sense of the word a spiritual warrior. 

Rep. John Lewis recalls his “This is It” moment in 1963, speaking on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before 250,000 people at the March on Washington. Uploaded to YouTube by OWN.

When I was a young Dominican, a renowned British Dominican came visiting our “stadium” or priory school and said to us, “a Dominican should be the opposite of a lobster.  A lobster is hard on the outside and soft on the inside.  We should be soft on the outside and hard on the inside.” 

That is how I, following some of the many stories about him, conceive of John Lewis: He was soft, that is to say gentle and open and a good listener, on the outside.  But inside, in living out his values, his principles, his vocation to rid the world of injustice and especially racial injustice, he was like steel.  And that proved necessary, as he had to face so much opposition and institutionalized hatred and violence over so long a period of time, to fight the good fight. 

Civil rights leader and former ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young joins “CBS This Morning: Saturday” to remember the legacy of Congressman John Lewis.

This is the kind of spiritual warriorhood we are all called to today as we face the perils of our time whether about climate change or its baby, coronavirus; or racism and colonialism; or the dregs of imperial capitalism and a superiority complex vis a vis other creatures, Mother Earth included; and standing up to pseudo-religion and the rest.

See Matthew Fox, “Spiritual Warriorhood,” in Matthew Fox, One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faith Traditions, pp. 404-421.

Banner Image: “Two Minute Warning: On March 7, 1965, 600 civil rights protesters attempted a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, the state capital, to draw attention to the voting rights issue. Led by Hosea Williams (at right front in dark raincoat) and John Lewis (at right in light-colored coat), the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River on their way to Montgomery. There they encountered Alabama state troopers and local police officers who gave them a two-minute warning to stop and turn back. When the protesters refused, the officers tear-gassed and beat them. Over 50 people were hospitalized.” Photo from GPA Photo Archive on Flickr.

What are your reflections on the passing of John Lewis and what he had to teach us in the work we face together and ahead?

One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths

Matthew Fox calls on all the world traditions for their wisdom and their inspiration in a work that is far more than a list of theological position papers but a new way to pray—to meditate in a global spiritual context on the wisdom all our traditions share. Fox chooses 18 themes that are foundational to any spirituality and demonstrates how all the world spiritual traditions offer wisdom about each.“Reading One River, Many Wells is like entering the rich silence of a masterfully directed retreat. As you read this text, you reflect, you pray, you embrace Divinity. Truly no words can fully express my respect and awe for this magnificent contribution to contemporary spirituality.” –Caroline Myss, author of Anatomy of the Spirit

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3 thoughts on “John Lewis and What it Means to be a Human Being”

  1. Avatar

    Thank you for your beautiful words about John Lewis. He was a great man and your description of him being “Soft on the outside and hard on the inside ” is so wonderful. As white people, we have “sinned” and more and more, I am becoming aware of our role in this drama. In Canada, we have “sinned” against native people but also against the Blacks, , women, French people ,etc. etc. Hopefully we are becoming more aware , more awake to other human beings, and to all the Beings of this planet. How we have “abused ” the water, the air and the soil of our Earth is shameful.
    I ask the blessings of Goddess on you this day…

  2. Avatar
    Gregory Chaney

    Matthew, you will be pleased to know that in his backpack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, John Lewis carried a book by your dear old friend, Thomas Merton … ‘New Seeds of Contemplation’

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