The Content of Their Character

September 24, 2020 by

John Lewis
John Lewis

Recently we have seen two men leave this earthly life for the life that they witnessed to in everything they did: C.T. Vivian, age ninety-five and a true soldier of the struggle for right, and John Lewis, a humble but forthright stalwart of the vision for peace. The depth of character that filled these men and the others who occupied the stage in their time was of great significance. It brought something to all of us and to the atmosphere in which we lived. In their fight against racism and injustice they had no countenance for violence or recrimination. Of course, there were others who tried to hijack the movements for their own agendas, but Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King kept a clear direction in the way he worked and planned and others, like John Lewis, held fast to that. I believe that was actually the reason that this time was possible. There was a tide of history that was measured by this atmosphere of character. It went way beyond anything we could have imagined in the face of the tensions that trembled beneath the surface.

However, out of that tension – of life trying to find ways to overcome an unjust way of life – there came an awareness of how far that injustice went beyond issues of racial discrimination. First to the poor, the genuinely poor; first in the South, but then much farther; on to one of the other great injustices of that time – the Viet Nam war. And that is where Dr. King led brothers and sisters, all of us actually, to realize that we had to confront the grievous needs throughout the world.

I was born in 1946 in Georgia. Segregation was a part of daily life as I grew up, yet my parents challenged it by their deeds. Civil rights, anti-war efforts, and the needs of the poor informed a critical part of my formative years. In my late teens and early twenties, my family read and spoke about the efforts of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, whose peaceful focus touched all of these issues. His death, then Bobby Kennedy’s, and the continuing steady focus of Southern Christian Leadership Conference, left a lasting mark on me. My search for justice and peace ultimately led me to the Bruderhof.

CT VivianPresident Barack Obama awards the 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom to C.T. Vivian

Recently we have heard quite a lot about John Lewis and others in the civil rights era. Each tribute, brief as they are, gives an idea of the God-given strength and fortitude of the brothers and sisters of that time. One senses the urgency of this hour, not so much because different people have died, but because an era, a message, a way of peace and resolution and hope is being destroyed as other powers try to wedge in. We can see the shallowness and superficiality of the voices that are trying to overcome real life on this earth.

Running counter to that are these men, people we read about who stood against the tides and efforts of the far extremes. As with everyone, each had their failures and shortcomings, but there was this vision for peace in their hearts that drew us to a new vision in that era – and continues to draw us all together.

We may be lost in the tides of history, but we need to remember that we are put here with a purpose, a point from which we do not dare shrink back.That is why it is so important for us to take a stand. I don’t want to look back – I hope we don’t focus too much on the way things were – but we need to remember that others have stood up for the same spirit. Think of the early Christians, followers of the way, who went out unnamed and yet with a message that shook the whole world. We are not heroes or major figures, but we have a task that goes way beyond our individual weaknesses or personalities. We may be lost in the tides of history, but we need to remember that we are put here with a purpose, a point from which we do not dare shrink back. However small, we need to do our part.

There is something that stands behind all of this, and that is what John Lewis and others spoke out and lived: the power of forgiveness. They had to turn to that over and over, often in the face of suffering far beyond anything that many of us have experienced. Forgiveness is the key to another person’s heart, and in that one finds the unity of two or three gathered, and that then makes community. Our task is to pursue that with every fiber of our being. Let the power of forgiveness be what moves people in their response to the injustice of the world, something for which we are all ultimately responsible. In a remarkable way that can actually draw us all together.

In that coming together we are speaking of a hope, a vision, a different way that is diametrically opposed to the way that has caused all of the need and suffering. That way leads to the positively radical step of letting go of human efforts and allowing something – Someone – much greater to be our beacon and light. That is the bond that needs to be there in every action to find the new way; not the violence that can so quickly take over demonstrations (sometimes because of protestors’ understandable anger and frustration at injustice).

The bond of protest is important, but in that moment the power of a different way is what needs to fill us. Dr. King, C.T. Vivian, John Lewis, all of them pointed to the peace that comes when injustice is confronted by a radical commitment to a new life, forgiveness, and new justice. There is a great leveling available for the whole world, and in that, all injustice will cease.

Jesse Barton lives at Beech Grove, a Bruderhof in Nonington, Kent, in the United Kingdom.


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