Sermon: Back to Work (Audio and Text)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister


From “If There Is No Struggle, There Is No Progress” by Frederic Douglass

“The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

From “Across That Bridge” by John Lewis

“During the Civil Rights movement, our struggle was not about politics. It was about seeing a philosophy made manifest in our society that recognized the inextricable connection we have to each other. Those ideals represent what is eternally real, and they are still true today, though they have receded from the forefront of the American imagination.

“Yes, the election of Obama represents a significant step, but it is not an ending. It is not even a beginning; it is one important act on a continuum of change. It is a major down payment on the fulfillment of a dream. It is another milestone on one nation’s road to freedom.

“But we must accept one central truth and responsibility as participants in a democracy: Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched him on a distant plateau where we finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.”


            You know how it is over the Christmas season – there you are in some store or other, moving down your shopping list when your eyes light on something that isn’t on anybody’s list, not even yours, but you know suddenly that you need it. That’s how John Lewis’ magnificent new graphic novel trilogy, “March,” ended up in my hands at the check-out counter at Malaprops. It didn’t hurt that this copy had been signed by the author.

            Lewis is a fascinating member of the roll of Civil Rights leaders from the 50s and 60s. He was never one of the stirring orators, never drew much attention to himself.

After serving as a key player in the battles that won the most significant Civil Rights legislation, he found his niche in Congress representing Georgia’s 5th district, essentially comprising Atlanta, which he’s served for the past 30 years. In that time, though, he’s won a reputation as one of the most consistent and insistent voices for justice and healing in this nation’s struggles over race.

Each year I make a point of using this moment when the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life is celebrated to invite us to reflect on the work of building racial justice to which we too are called. This year, though, I want to take a little different tack. Instead of dwelling on King’s inspiring words, I want to use this opportunity to direct us to what John Lewis has to teach us about the power of deeds.

 And the reason for that is plain: in recent years as we’ve been celebrating a half century of Civil Rights victories – the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and more – we’ve also watched as piece by piece the laws enacting these achievements are being dismantled. What had seemed towering ramparts against injustice are being revealed as fragile waystations that need shoring up and in some cases even reenvisioning to fully serve the cause of justice.

In other words, we need to get back to work. We can no longer rest on the laurels of our predecessors. It’s not enough to celebrate King’s “dream.” We need to reflect on and rededicate ourselves to the work of this generation. And John Lewis, I want to suggest, offers us a bridge, with a foot in the Civil Rights generation and an eye to a future that might someday serve us all.

What is so powerful about Lewis’ trilogy is that it carries us in the most dramatic way back to the great moments of the Civil Rights campaigns, not as iconic events in an inevitable march toward victory but as chancy gambles full of risk and uncertainty. The graphic format cuts through the mass of words that surround this story and centers on the action. That makes his work more the blueprint of a movement than a standard history centered on its soaring rhetoric. He walks us through one decision point after another, and doesn’t hesitate to air the dirty laundry of conflict and division along the way.

 Lewis doesn’t spare himself either. He introduces himself as the boy who had a soft spot for the chickens on his parent’s tenant farm: giving each a name, preaching to them as they settled down at night, then pouting as one by one they were hauled off for the family dinner.

But he says it was a trip to integrated Buffalo, New York with an uncle who was a teacher that opened his eyes to a different side of the world. Returning to the dilapidated segregated school he attended back home left him sad until he got word in high school that the Supreme Court had outlawed segregation in public schools. Surely, things would change! Not so fast, his family cautioned. But the Montgomery bus boycott the next year suggested something different.

The trilogy then guides us over the next 10 years through advance and retreat, victories and losses from the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins to the integrated buses of Freedom Riders headed into Alabama and Mississippi to the tumult of the 1964 election and ultimately the Selma voting rights campaign.

And at each step of the way, we see, come new twists that add new challenges. Lewis’ own turn from the ministry to the movement alienates family members back home. Back at Nashville, sit-ins that were first ignored later provoke beatings, abuse and eventually jail time.

In one chilling series of panels, he tells of sitting-in at a restaurant where staff turned off the lights, locked the doors, and turned on a fumigator with Lewis and another man still inside. In others, he recalls the bombing of a freedom rider bus the day after he had left it and many other beatings and bombings of that campaign.

In the end, though, violence is not at the center of these books; it is on the periphery. The through line of this tale is how a deeply interlinked and growing cadre of people negotiated one obstacle after another, enlisting the aid of authorities where they could, challenging them where they couldn’t.

It doesn’t diminish the tragedies along the way, and Lewis faithfully recounts many of them, from Emmett Till and Medger Evers to Jimmy Lee Jackson, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo, and the four girls at the 16th Street Church in Birmingham – Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair. But he gives equal place to achievements gained and the hearts that were won, including among them Bobby Kennedy, who Lewis later was to work for, and Lyndon Johnson.

“March” draws attention to the often grinding dailyness of the campaign and the patience, forbearance and determination required of its participants. It’s easy to forget, for example, that a year and half of meeting and organizing preceded the Nashville student sit-ins of 1959, or that the Selma voting rights campaign had been underway for two years before Bloody Sunday in March 1965.

Lewis’ experience being savagely beaten by police while leading 525 marchers across the Edmund Pettis Bridge on that spring day bookends his trilogy. It was, he said, when he came closer than ever to dying in the service of the movement. And he writes that “there was something in that day that touched a nerve deeper than anything that had come before.”

Still, it brought about perhaps the movement’s greatest victory, The Voting Rights Act. And to make the point of how significant that achievement was, throughout “March” he interjects scenes from the inauguration of Barak Obama, where Lewis himself was giving a place of honor.

Of course, we live at a different time today. We in North Carolina are among several mostly Southern states that have seen the protections of the Voting Rights Act chipped away so that many minority voters are losing their voice, and gerrymandered voting districts are preventing them from gaining it back. And this is only the opening wedge of attacks on a host of legal protections that are looming in the months ahead. How ironic that amid all of this yesterday John Lewis found himself the latest target of the incoming president’s Twitter feed

This makes the words that John Lewis has to offer us all the more important to heed. As you heard earlier, he tells us in a book reflecting on the lessons of his historic march, in his words, “Across that Bridge”: “We must accept one central truth and responsibility in a democracy: Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched on a distant plateau where we finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must to its part to create an even more fair, more just society.”

So, what might our part be? Mulling over this, I reflected on an address I heard a couple of years ago at an annual minister’s meeting. The speaker was Marshall Ganz, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard who got his start in the Civil Rights campaign and later worked for the United Farm Workers in California.

The subject we asked him to address was: How can we be leaders amid change? Ganz answered that question by inviting us to consider the famous questions of Rabbi Hillel, the Jewish leader from the 1st century BCE: If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?

Here’s how he teased out learnings from these questions. First, if I am not for myself, who is for me? To achieve social change, we need to be clear on who we are and what our own values are and be able to communicate them. The Civil Rights movement established this early with its commitment to non-violence and the worth, the equality of all and our inextricable interconnection. Even amid setbacks and division there was no doubt what they stood for.

Second, if I am for myself alone, what am I? We need to recognize that we live not as atoms, but in relationship. As Ganz put it, the first principle in organizing is not, what is my issue, but who are my people? With whom are we in relationship? In building relationships, people find a reason to work together. It’s how we make the whole greater than the parts. Through relationships, he said, we transform communities into constituencies, into people who stand together.

In Across That Bridge, John Lewis shows how this principle emerged in the 60s. “The Civil Rights Movement was more than a struggle over legal rights,” he said. “It was a spiritual movement . . . to confront the erroneous belief that some of us are more valuable and important than others. They did not fight or debate about this. They did not threaten or mock. They did not malign or degrade their opponents. They simply took action based on the transcendent unity” of all.

And, finally: If not now, when? This implies, he said, that learning proceeds from action. It sounds contradictory, almost like saying leap before you look. Yet, Ganz said, the fact is that it is in acting that we learn what is effective. In the 1950s before they began regular sit-ins the Nashville student group tested what the response of luncheon counters would be. Once they observed it, they knew how to craft their campaign.

Creating change, he said, requires that we convey a sense of urgency, a feeling that the problem that faces us cannot wait. It must be addressed by action, and now.

People need to be motivated to move out of the inertia of the day-to-day rhythms of our lives and act. And when we act, we can’t expect it to be on the basis of certainty, but on the basis of hope. And by hope, he said, he didn’t mean vague good feelings, but how the philosopher Maimonides framed it: as belief in the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable. Let me repeat that: hope is belief in the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable.

John Lewis and the other Nashville students could not be sure that their sit-ins would persuade city leaders to end the segregation of lunch counters. It was probable that they would fail, and they did, at least at first. The tipping point came from the dissonance they created, their own humble presence and outsize response of their abusers.

Ganz noted what he considered a troubling trend in our culture. We are, he said, “imbibing a steady diet of exit,” a response to the dissonance we find in the world not by taking action but by checking out. We experience it in the choices we make about where we live, who we socialize with, how we structure our Facebook feeds.

We constrict ourselves to echo chambers with narrower and narrower amplitudes. And in these happy little silos we grow increasingly disconnected from others outside of them and with it oblivious to the deterioration of the social capital that joins us as communities, as states, as a nation.

A couple of years ago many of us in this congregation took time to read together and discuss Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. She made the point that the phenomenon of mass incarceration was devastating a generation of young, black men. But she also argued that it was also a symptom of a larger and more frightening trend: giving up on, dismissing anyone unlucky enough to be marginalized in America – low-income whites and blacks, as well as those struggling with mental illness, disability and chronic health problems.

At a time when the ties between and among us are fraying, the topic of the conversation, she said, “should be how us can come to include all of us,” how we reimagine the Civil Rights movement’s goal of “a society that is capable of seeing each of us, as we are, with love.” As James Taylor put it, ties between us, all men and woman, living on the Earth.

But we fool ourselves if we think this will come about through hope as happy feelings. Frederick Douglass understood this better than any of us ever will: human liberty and justice are won as the result of earnest struggle – exacting, enduring, determined and resolute – for without struggle there can be no progress.

This is the work to which we are called, we who proclaim the truth and supremacy of justice, compassion and love, we who insist we will widen our circle til it includes, embraces all the living, we committed to acting for hope, for that seeming improbable possibility that lies on the edge of our consciousness, of the world as one and its people free.

If not now, friends, when?


I close with the chorus from a song written by Bernice Johnson Reagon that was based on the words of Ella Baker, who with John Lewis was one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a towering figure in the Civil Rights movement.

“We who believe in freedom cannot rest.

“We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”