John Lewis (whose life the nation celebrated this week) has been one of the greatest Christians and Americans of my generation. (He was born just a few months after I was.) He was a giant working to battle racism. And Lewis believed nonviolence was an essential part of that struggle.
The column that Lewis asked the New York Times to print on the day of his funeral is a wonderfully powerful statement (July 30, 2020.) He tells of hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. promote nonviolence while listening on an old radio as a young teenager. Lewis embraced nonviolence as the Christian way to combat the ghastly white racism that he experienced as a youth in a poor black family of sharecroppers in rural Alabama. “In my life,” he wrote in the column, “I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence, is the more excellent way.” (For the nonviolence of Dr. King and the civil rights movement, see my book Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands But Most Christians Have Never Really Tried .)
Lewis’ nonviolent challenge to white racism was vigorous, daring and costly. When he helped lead the courageous civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma on March 7, 1965, white officers clubbed him and fractured his skull. Thank God he survived and continued getting into what he called “good trouble.” He was arrested scores of times as he protested nonviolently against white racism.
Lewis became a leader and then president (1963 -1966) of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that confronted white racism and registered black voters in Mississippi and across the South. They did so at the risk of their lives. But when Stokely Carmichael shouted “black power” and began to defend the use of violence, Lewis remained firmly committed to Dr. King’s vision of nonviolence--and he lost the presidency of SNCC to Carmichael. Lewis believed that Carmichael’s rhetoric and defense of violence would destroy the movement that he, Dr. King and others had built.
I believe that history is helpful as we think about the present struggle against racism. Something truly amazing, wonderful and new is happening right now. The murder of Gregory Floyd by a white policeman has evoked a massive movement where, perhaps for the first time, large numbers of white Americans are joining African-Americans to protest not just police brutality but the larger issues of structural racism in our economic, educational and healthcare systems. Perhaps for the first time in sixty years, we have a genuine opportunity to make substantive changes to battle racism and promote justice for all.
The weeks and weeks of daily protest all across the country since Gregory Floyd’s death have been largely nonviolent and peaceful. But there has also been some looting, burning and physical attacks on the police. (The police of course have often acted with unjust violence against the protesters.)
I believe John Lewis’ life and words are helpful in our present situation.
In an important article in the National Interest (June 29, 2020), Professor Amitai Etzioni (George Washington University) praises the Black Lives Matter movement for “mainly peaceful demonstrations and for working hard to limit looting and violence.” But Etzioni also notes that a recent CNN poll found that 27% of all Americans think that violent protests are justified. And he cites a number of public intellectuals who justify that violence.
Etzioni fears that even the limited violence in the recent demonstrations will undermine this important movement for genuine, lasting change. (He cites a Princeton university professor’s research that shows that in the presidential politics of the 1960s, “proximity to black-led nonviolent protest increased white Democratic vote-share whereas proximity to black-led violent protest… likely tipped the 1968 election from Hubert Humphrey to Richard Nixon.“)
The same could happen in 2020. Donald Trump is already tweeting and running ads saying that the looting and violence in our cities demonstrates that they are out of control. He claims only his reelection can save the country from violence and anarchy. Instead of leading the nation to lament and dismantle racism, he stokes racism and further divides the nation. He will do all he can to use the limited violence in the recent protests against police brutality and racism to justify his own racist policies.
Let me be clear. Looting and burning buildings (public or private) is morally wrong regardless of political consequences. (And it is a special tragedy that a number of small, black-owned businesses have been destroyed by the looting in the last couple months.) Precisely the people who understand the depth of the present structural racism and want major changes to end that injustice – – precisely those people must dare to condemn the limited looting and violence.
But our far more important task is to ask a hard question of white Christians. (Over 50% of all white Christians – – not just white evangelicals but also white Catholics and white mainline Protestants – – voted for Donald Trump in 2016.) We must beg all white American Christians to ask themselves this question: Is voting again for a man with Trump’s racist history compatible with the biblical teaching that every person is created in the image of God, every person is loved equally by God, and every person deserves equal treatment and a just society?
Our vote in November will be our answer. John Lewis is right. In his column, he said: “Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. “
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