Further Lessons from John Lewis on What It Means to be Human

The body of John Lewis lying in state in the capitol rotunda with congressmen and women gathered around was an appropriate setting for a leader who grew up in deep poverty and stood up for justice his entire life. 

Civil rights leaders meet with President John F. Kennedy after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963. John Lewis is fourth from the left. Official White House photo by Cecil W. Stoughton on Wikimedia Commons.

From his meeting Rosa Parks at the age of seventeen, and joining Martin Luther King, Jr’s ranks at eighteen, his vocation was clear to him. He underwent many rites of passage and severe initiations in his coming of age.  His co-leading the march over the bridge at Selma, still named after a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and his being beaten there to an inch of his life by batons at the hands of the police who cracked open his head, was one of many initiations.  As were his forty trips to jail. 

John Lewis speaking at a meeting of American Society of Newspaper Editors, 1964. Public Domain from U.S. Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division, ID ppmsc.01270, on Wikimedia Commons.

His speaking at age twenty-three on the occasion of the March to Washington, he being the youngest person invited to speak and preceding MLK’s iconic “I have a dream” speech, was another kind of initiation.  His commitment to non-violence and to treating others with respect never wavered his whole life long.

At the capitol ceremony yesterday, House Speaker Pelosi had the wisdom to let John Lewis speak one more time.  And in his address, taped from a sermon he gave some time ago, he invoked the prophets and the Book of Revelations and much more. 

But he wrote his own epitaph when he said: “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to stand up. Speak up, speak out, and find a way to get in the way and get in trouble.  Good trouble. Necessary trouble.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi offered emotional praise for Congressman John Lewis and his civil rights legacy before deferring to Lewis’ own words. Uploaded to YouTube by Global News

Those words contain everything one has to know about one’s prophetic vocation.  Rabbi Heschel, whose iconic work on The Prophets came out at the height of the civil rights struggle in 1962, when Lewis was twenty-two years old, summarizes the prophetic vocation as: Interfering. 

John Lewis puts the flesh on those bones as his mentor Dr. King did time and time again, King of course in paying the ultimate price that prophets often have to pay, Lewis in just escaping that ultimate sacrifice and instead committing himself to making laws that might keep justice alive.

John Lewis (far left) walks in the third Selma Civil Rights March with Rabbi Abraham Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr. From “Heschel Selected Photos” courtesy of the Trustees of Dartmouth College Department of Religion. On Wikimedia Commons.

Lewis was a walking incarnation of what it means to be human.  Standing up to injustice is integral to what it means to be human; not remaining silent when women are abused, when the Earth is being raped, when the climate is going into paroxysms of radical change that are affecting all life forms on earth, when racism rules and the ever growing gap between haves and have-nots keeps enlarging and much more.

To stand up and speak out for justice is the deepest meaning of Compassion — one of the 10 C’s — and “compassion means justice,” as Meister Eckhart insists, drawing on the teachings of the prophets.  John Lewis demonstrated by his life and work the courage (another C ) without which there is no standing up and being counted. 

See Matthew Fox, The A.W.E. Project: Reinventing Education, Reinventing the Human, pp. 121-126.

Banner Image: “Rep John Lewis / President Obama portrait” Congressman John Lewis is embraced by President Barack Obama after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Painting by Dan Lacey on Flickr.

Have you practiced “standing up, speaking out, and getting in the way” as Lewis encourages us to do?  How has it worked out over the years?  What do you anticipate for now and the future?

The A.W.E. Project: Reinventing Education, Reinventing the Human

The A.W.E. Project reminds us that awe is the appropriate response to the unfathomable wonder that is creation… A.W.E. is also the acronym for Fox’s proposed style of learning – an approach to balance the three R’s. This approach to learning, eldering, and mentoring is intelligent enough to honor the teachings of the Ancestors, to nurture Wisdom in addition to imparting knowledge, and to Educate through Fox’s 10 C’s. The 10 C’s are the core of the A.W.E. philosophy and process of education, and include: compassion, contemplation, and creativity. The A.W.E. Project does for the vast subject of “learning” what Fox’s Reinvention of Work did for vocation and Original Blessing did for theology. Included in the book is a dvd of the 10 C’s put to 10 video raps created and performed by Professor Pitt.
An awe-based vision of educational renewal.Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality and Practice.

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3 thoughts on “Further Lessons from John Lewis on What It Means to be Human”

  1. Avatar

    The courage to stand up and do what needs to be done even if the consequences are harsh, even if you are
    riddled with fear, push past those limits and be the greater good by the action you take to make the difference
    wherever injustice and its counterpart of violence, rests. John Lewis was this man who at a young age had a vision which he pursued and continued to speak out, because it is encumbered upon those, who want to leave this world with a conscious awareness that resonates clearly to all. We can love in a more expansive way, knowing that, we are all one in Unity with everything and everyone here on this magnificent planet living in awe and wonder.
    That information ignites the imagination, which is a sacred gift , conscious mind is the imaginative mind, our bodies are its instrument. Thank you from my heart to yours, sacred activism and the goodness of caring because the world can never have enough precious souls who work for, and on behalf of, who we may be and a more perfect Union with all aspects of the Divine. Love in this time of transition. Thank you Matthew and thank you, John Lewis, celebrating your life and the many gifts you brought to us here.

  2. Avatar
    Elizabeth Stamp

    John Lewis~Truth to Power….Non-Violence, Peacemaking in Love and Compassion,
    A loving and compassionate agent for peace,
    He rests with God, the Angels, all People, and the Universal Whole,

    Elizabet Stamp

  3. Avatar

    Thank you Matthew Fox for this article on John Lewis. Even in death, John Lewis spurs me on to be more aware of injustices in our world, especially where women are concerned. And as I read what is written about John , I give thanks for the small changes that have taken place where “Black matters” for which he toiled.

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