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 American imagination.
Yes, the election of Obama represent(ed) a significant step, but it (was) not an ending. It was not even a beginning; it (was) one important act on a continuum of change. It (was) a major down payment on the fulfillment of a dream. It (was) 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 high on a distant plateau where we can 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. The work of love, peace, and justice will always be necessary, until their realism and their imperative take hold of our imagination, crowds out any dream of hatred or revenge, and fills us our existence with their power.”
Start Close in By David Whyte
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first thing close in,
the step you don’t want to take.
Start with the ground you know,
the pale ground beneath your feet,
your own way of starting the conversation.
Start with your own question,
give up on other people’s questions,
don’t let them smother something simple.
To find another’s voice,
follow your own voice,
wait until that voice
becomes a private ear
listening to another.
Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
don’t follow someone else’s heroics, be humble
start close in,
don’t mistake that other for your own.
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first thing
the step you don’t want to take.
I had the inestimable privilege to meet John Lewis several years ago. It was during our UU General Assembly, and the occasion was the honoring of our own Clark Olsen with the UU Distinguished Service Award.
As Clark’s minister and the person who had nominated him for the honor I was given a seat at a small luncheon held in Clark’s honor, and Lewis was there. He was gracious and kind. He warmly congratulated Clark as a “brother” in the Civil Rights movement, and, as in the reading you heard, he spoke of the work yet to be done in the movement. We nodded and applauded him.
John Lewis’ words came back to me as I struggled to frame how we as religious people might respond to this time just a couple of days before a pivotal election. It feels like a unique moment of challenge: the frightening rise of nationalism and the demonizing of immigrants and refugees in this country and other nations, and here at home watching our government abandon generations of commitments to the environment and the poor, to voting rights and civil rights, while turning a blind eye to a gathering storm of climate change that threatens our long-term future as a species.
All these issues and more are before us in this election. So, if you haven’t yet, I urge you to vote, exercise your franchise, your share in the decision-making responsibility that is core to our form of government. Democracy is like a muscle: to endure it must be exercised. And the wider it is exercised, the stronger it will be.
Still, as important as this election is, it also feels like there’s something deeper at stake. We know, after all, that elections only accomplish so much. And all signs are that however, this one turns out it’s going to leave a lot unsettled, leaving many of us saying, “OK, now what?”
Our worship theme of Memory this month gave me a place to start. John Lewis, who famously was nearly killed at the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, marching for equal voting rights, has made a point throughout his life of saying that the Civil Rights victories of the 1960s were but the initial skirmishes in a deeper struggle.
“Freedom,” he wrote, “is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can 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.” Pushing memory back a little further, it’s a theme we see resonating across the last century. Liberation movements across the globe – not only in the American South but in India, Poland, South Africa, the Philippines and more – had at their core commitments to the broadest possible freedom for the broadest possible populace over against those who used power to try to limit it. They were movements that found success by widening the effectiveness of participatory democracy and using it to develop campaigns that had broad support of an informed and inspired populace that forced oppressive government to change.
Power seeking to block this movement took the form of repression in some places and violence in others. We see the same pattern emerging now. Violence begins in words, images or Internet memes, but gets translated into assault and even assassination by fearful and unstable followers of public figures.
Those figures may deny their complicity. But as we saw in the shootings in Pittsburgh, the community’s outpouring of grief and support defied the denials and shifted the narrative, leaving those behind the verbal assaults isolated and defensive.
There’s no question, though, that it can get discouraging. Assaultive words, lies, and misrepresentation push people to respond in kind. The latest pushback came against Michelle Obama’s famous line in the last presidential campaign – “When they go low, we go high.”
One frustrated politician responded, “When they go low, we kick them.” I appreciate what leads to that sentiment, but I can’t help but return to John Lewis’ words: “I have been rejected, hatred, oppressed, beaten, jailed, and have almost died only to live another day,” he wrote.
“I have witnessed betrayal, corruption, bombing, lunacy, conspiracy, and even assassination – and I have still kept marching on. And despite every attempt to keep me down, I have not been shaken.”
Lewis is very clear on the source of his equanimity. “I doubt that professors who teach history of the (Civil Rights) movement today would say that if you boiled down our intent into our all-encompassing residual word the remaining essences would be love,” he wrote. “But I am here to tell you that among those of us who were in the heart of the movement who fully imbibed the discipline and philosophy of nonviolence who accepted it not simply as a tactic but as a way of authentically living our lives – our sole purpose was, in fact, love.
“We would settle for the proceeds of justice and equal rights, but the force guiding our involvement was the desire to redeem the souls of our brothers and sisters who were beguiled by the illusion of superiority, taken in and distorted by their false god that they were willing to destroy any contradiction of that faith. If we were pawns of an unjust system, they were also so complicit in their own degradation that they justified wrong as a service to the right.”
In the end, he says, “Our implacability grounded in love was ultimately what disarmed the weapons of fear and thwarted intentions of our violators to annihilate us.”
This language of the Civil Rights movement is something that we have not heard for some time. And, given that John Lewis is one of the last survivors of the generation of prophetic leaders who guided that work, we may not hear it much longer. And yet it awes and humbles me to bring it to you today.
Once we’re done with this election, we’ll have work to do. It is work that goes beyond partisan politics, beyond this current electoral cycle. It is, frankly, spiritual work, work that challenges us to get in touch with our values and invites us to live as if they guided our lives.
In some quarters this has been framed as learning to be more civil, willing to hear different points of view. That’s certainly a dimension of it. Niceness helps. But that only opens the door a crack.
I’m intrigued by radio host Krista Tippett’s observation after interviewing Lewis that, in her words, “at every turn, I hear the word ‘love’ surfacing as a longing for common life.” And behind it, she said, is something like deep grief.
“There’s a bewilderment in the American air,” she added. “We don’t know where to begin to change our relationship with the strangers who are our neighbors – to address the ways in which our well-being may be oblivious to theirs or harming theirs. We don’t know how to reach out or what to say if we did. But we don’t want to live this way. I don’t want to live this way.”
Me neither. I’m the first to admit that my blood boils at much of what is emerging in this election season. But, I recognize within me the same fear and grief, a sense that we are tumbling toward some rough and unforgiving way of life together.
But, of course, the truth remains, however hard it is to hear, that how we respond, how we behave is our choice. John Lewis reminds us of that, and he doesn’t sugar-coat the consequences of that understanding. Peace, love and justice are not just nice ideas. They are ways of being, practices we must weave into our lives. And they take time to make an impact.
So, we must be, using Lewis’ term, “implacable” in applying them. That means giving up our self-righteousness anger, our own demonizing narratives and paying attention to the work that will bring us to our goal.
“Love, muscular and resilient, does not always seem reasonable, much less doable, in our most damaged and charged civic space,” says Krista Tippett. And yet, it is our way forward.
It occurs to me that if we insert love into the narrative it opens up new space. It defines, for example, the difference between nationalism, devotion to our nation’s interests, and patriotism, devotion to our nation’s values.
Nationalism is grounded in covetous clutching, in a me-first, zero-sum calculation, that selfishly puts our interests above all others. Patriotism, on the other hand, is centered in a vision of common concern. It is expansive, compassionate, hopeful.
We hear its terms in the poem by Langston Hughes that was at the center of our choir’s anthem. Written in 1943 at the height of the Second World War, “Freedom’s Plow” tells his reading of our nation’s ethos. It begins with an image of people who start with nothing but their own hands, in his words, “empty and clean,” who together came to build what he called “a community of hands.”
Free hands, slave hands, indentured hands, adventurous hands, guarding in their hearts one powerful word: freedom And finding it, he says, in the dream of a nation: “not one man’s dream alone, but a community dream,” “not my world alone, but your world and my world, belonging to all the hands who build.”
Echoing in words of our founding, “All are created equal.” “None is good enough to govern another without their consent.” Stumbling at times, bloodied by war, faultily put into practice, nonetheless ,freedom has come.
Always the trying to say, “together we are building our land, a dream nourished in common.” “Who is America?” Hughes asks. “You and me. We are America.”
And driving the poem throughout is the image from the old slave song: keep your hand on the plow! “The plow plowed a new furrow,” Hughes wrote, “across the field of history, and into that furrow the freedom seed was dropped. From that seed a tree grew, is growing, will ever grow. That tree is for everybody, for all America, for all the world. May its branches spread and shelter grow until all races and all peoples know its shade. Keep your hands on the plow! Hold on!”
At the time it was published, Hughes’ poem has such a hit that it was broadcast to a nationwide radio audience. Seventy-five years later, have we become so jaded that his stirring words no longer move us? We struggle at times with what patriotism calls for from us. We watch with disappointment and even alarm what the government sometimes does in our name. But on the brink of Election Day we are reminded of the blessing of freedom that we assume as our right – a right that is still poorly realized and constantly under assault but that still powers the dreams, the hopes, the ambitions of all our people in their beautiful diversity.
And now what? In Langston’s Hughes words, we get back to the plow, breaking up the fallow hard pan of hatred, selfishness, and oppression, starting close in with that first scary step, the step we fear to take that we know, still, to be ours, back to the furrows of our callings and our communities, back to our families and neighborhoods, back to the work of love.