Volume 5, August 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Congressman John Lewis (D—GA) on his Spiritual Cornerstones (Interview conducted by David TenBrook, FPI staff)



DAVID: Hi there, Congressman. How are you?

REP. LEWIS: Yeah, how are you doing, Mr. TenBrook?

DAVID: I'm doing very well. This is such an honor. I really appreciate you giving me some time.

REP. LEWIS: Well, I'm happy to do it, sir. Happy to do it.

DAVID: So, Congressman, the goal of the publication—at least, this version of it that we're going to be doing—is, we're focusing on spiritual cornerstones. So, contributors are talking about what it is that they found their very motivation for the work they do on. And so, there's a quote from your memoir that I wanted to read to you—

REP. LEWIS: Okay.

DAVID: —just because I found it to be a powerful section where it's kind of talking about where you seem to very first feel this sense of calling and purpose in life. It's when you're starting your nonviolence training classes at Clark Memorial. You wrote, "those Tuesday nights in the basement of Clark became the focus of my life; more important, even, than my classes. I'd finally found the setting and the subject that spoke to everything that had been stirring in my soul for so long. This was stronger than school, stronger than church. This was the word made real, made whole. It was something I'd been searching for my whole life." And, I just wanted to find out what it is that you felt that those training sessions really tapped into that would make you feel that way.

REP. LEWIS: The training sessions at Clark Memorial Church gave me a sense of calling, a sense of mission. In a sense, I was responding to the sign of the trumpet. It was saying to me, "John Lewis, you can do something. You can make a contribution. This is the way." I've always grown up or always wanted, I guess to—you know, I didn't know how to do what I wanted to do. Maybe for what techniques or what tactics or the philosophy that I should be governed by or use. But I knew and felt that it should be in keeping with my Christian faith. So, the sessions made me ready—prepared me to respond to a calling, to the sense of mission, to get out and do something and not be afraid.

DAVID: And how would you say that this technique and this philosophy, how did that so beautifully meld with your Christian faith that it seemed to bring those together in a way that you never thought of before?

REP. LEWIS: Well I felt that what I was being taught, that it was in keeping with the teachings of Jesus. But, I just couldn't talk about it. I just couldn't read the words of the Scripture, but I had to live it and make it real in my own life, and attempt to make it real in the larger society. You know, people say from time to time that we hear—and I'm not sure where it came from, maybe some philosopher or some scholar said it, about . . . I should know who said it, but I don't recall—I'd rather see a sermon lived than hear one preached. And, I believe that, that you have to live. And by living your life in a way of doing something in such a way in keeping with the teaching of Jesus.

DAVID: So, then, as you took that training and you applied it in a more formal capacity as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's president, during that crucible of living out that calling that you were feeling, what in your spiritual life nourished you in the midst of that?

REP. LEWIS: Well, with the Nonviolent Workshop and then getting involved as the chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, I became anchored. Uh, the music of the church, the reading of the Scripture, the sermons that I heard, and then, to have to make a decision of whether we were going to sit in or whether we were going to march and people would say, "Why would you get arrested? You get all these people in jail and you don't have any money to go on bail. And if you march, you may get hurt." But, I felt that what we were doing was in keeping with the calling and keeping with the mission and keeping with the water—the gospel song, that is one of my favorite songs, and I didn't know it back then, but I know it now. For all of my steps I felt, back then, that my steps, my actions, my words were being ordered and blessed by God Almighty. I saw, for an example, and one reason I argued so much with my colleagues that we should participate in the march, I felt like it was the right thing to do, but after I got involved in it, and really got marching and crossing that bridge, I felt like it was a righteous march—it was a holy march. And I felt almost like every step that we made was a step in his name, a step in his word. Do you understand what I'm saying?

DAVID: Yeah, I do, I do.

REP. LEWIS: And I felt the presence of the Almighty walking with me. So, when [I was asked] yesterday whether I was afraid, I said 'No.' You come to that point when you lose that sense of fear because someway and somehow you feel like the Lord will protect you. And we use to say, "He will see us through." And, I guess sometime we become, even in government, so patriotic and we come to that point when we take a little liberty and we were saying God is on our side. We own Him, like He's with us. And I felt on many occasions, whether it was sitting in on the freedom rides or marching from Selma to Montgomery or marching on Washington that God was on our side and He would see us through. We were really on his side.

DAVID: Right, right. Yes, yes exactly. So, then moving forward a bit more in terms of chronology, joining the House of Representatives and becoming a Congressman and becoming a part of the establishment that you had been actively working with and against in some cases in order to achieve liberties and rights, I'm wondering what sorts of foundations in your work in the civil rights movement do you see being really applicable to the work you do now as a Member of Congress?

REP. LEWIS: Well, I try my best—whether I cast a vote, make a statement, asked a question—I try to keep in my mind what I consider—sometimes I ask this question to myself. I have what I call an executive session to myself. What would Jesus do? What would Jesus say? And sometimes I think being in Congress and casting a vote, that we spend millions and billions of dollars on certain projects and programs, and I have to ask myself whether this is going to help to the least of these. What about the children? What about the most wonderful people in our society? What about the poor? So, when I'm in a committee meeting, sitting on the floor there sometimes, I wonder, "Is this leading toward the building of a beloved community? Will this take us farther down the road toward a society at peace with itself?" And, like I questioned, growing up during the 50s and 60s that I had the questions sometimes today, whether we're doing those things that is in keeping with kingdom—building. And you just have to have this sense of faith and belief that we're doing the right thing. As a person, as a believer, I just have faith that somehow and someway, God Almighty is still involved; that He's not on vacation, He's not taking a leave, and that He actually uses us humans to help build a kingdom, to help build a beloved community, to help build a society at peace with itself. A society that recognizes the dignity and the worth of all human beings.

DAVID: Yes, yes. With the tragedy that befell Representative Giffords, and then the vitriol and the rancor that preceded and then proceeded that event, with your experience in nonviolence and upholding those with whom you might even disagree absolutely, do you have any thoughts or words of wisdom to share about living out that faith in the midst of this tragedy that has pushed people apart and made people point fingers and generally caused unrest and distrust.

REP. LEWIS: Well, I just think we have to follow the teachings of the great teacher. And not bow to hate and mistrust or distrust. Try to be kind and loving to everyone. And, even the words that we speak, the way we look at someone, we should just—maybe we all cannot be saints, maybe we all cannot be angels, but we all are sons and daughters of the Almighty. And we should treat each other like we wish to be treated, but we also should look upon each other as brothers and sisters—that we are family, we are children of the King—that we can have our disagreements, but we should never, never, ever come to that point where we hate or we put someone down because we disagree with them. The way of love, the way of peace, the way of the great teacher is the better way.

DAVID: I imagine retirement's not too terribly far off in the future—I'm not asking you to predict anything, necessarily, but I'm just curious, how do you see—the spiritual cornerstones that we've been talking about—how do you see those continuing to develop after you're done being a public servant in this capacity?

REP. LEWIS: Well, I think it's a part of my life. Whether I'm a member of Congress or in some other capacity in American life, I will continue my way of living. It's me. I cannot deviate from what I believe. It's part of my coexistence. So, I don't say things or do things because I'm a Member of Congress just because it's who I am, and if I come to that point where I'm retired and I live a less public life I will still be the same person, the same human being.

DAVID: And do you see any particular areas that society needs to be more at peace with itself that you might want to be involved in?

REP. LEWIS: Oh yeah, well, even today a lot of the work that I do when I'm traveling or speaking, talking to people, especially young people, and people not so young, I talk about building the beloved community—building a society where we can lay down the burden of hate and building a society where we can be reconciled to each other and not live in a place with its division, schism, separation.

DAVID: And is it—would you say that the way past feeling all the schisms and feeling divided is to recognize everyone being family?

REP. LEWIS: Yeah, I think we got to continue to do that in American society, and in the world society. There's been too much "them" and "us" and putting people down. It's race, it's class, it's color, it's nationality, it's partisan, whether someone is Democrat or Republican or Independent. We need to—as a society—talk about being one people, one family, one house. We all live in the same house, the world house, and we all are brothers and sisters.

 

 

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