Saturday, July 18, 2020

"Where is the Sense of Decency? What Does It Profit a Great Nation to Conquer the World, Only to Lose Its Soul?" — The Legacy of John Lewis

Willingness to risk his life for civil rights was essential to the quest for justice. … These young demonstrators chose to underscore the barbaric nature of racism by placing themselves at risk of being shot, gassed or clubbed to death during protests that challenged the Southern practice of shutting Black people out of the polls and "white only" restaurants, and confining them to "colored only" seating on public conveyances.

As Lewis himself said when he talked about his pancreatic cancer in 2019. "I have been in some kind of fight—for freedom, equality, basic human rights—for nearly my entire life." How could anyone be sure they were on the right side of history? If they were fighting alongside John Lewis.

Michael Carson, "John Lewis obituary": 

Lewis’s philosophy might be summed up in a question he asked while opposing Bill Clinton's neoliberal welfare 'reform' bill in 1996: "Where is the sense of decency? What does it profit a great nation to conquer the world, only to lose its soul?" That he lived to see Confederate monuments topple as a vast majority of the nation rose in protest supporting the Black Lives Matter movement after the police murder of George Floyd was a tribute to his life of struggle.

Heather Cox Richardson, "Letters from an American, July 17, 2020": 

[John] Lewis said he had a warning for Trump. "Mr. President, the American people are tired and they cannot and will not take it anymore. They have a right to organize the unorganized. They have a right to protest in a peaceful, orderly, nonviolent fashion. You cannot stop the people with all of the forces that you may have at your command. You cannot stop people when they say 'no.'"
This, of course, is exactly what Trump is afraid of. … 
The administration's actions in Portland are a major red flag for democracy. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi has called the law enforcement officials "stormtroopers." 
As the administration escalates its attacks on democracy, many of us are weary. In June, reporter Jonathan Capehart asked Representative Lewis "what he would say to people who feel as though they have already been giving it their all but nothing seems to change." Lewis answered: "You must be able and prepared to give until you cannot give any more. We must use our time and our space on this little planet that we call Earth to make a lasting contribution, to leave it a little better than we found it, and now that need is greater than ever before."
"Do not get lost in a sea of despair," Lewis tweeted almost exactly a year before his death. "Do not become bitter or hostile. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. We will find a way to make a way out of no way." 
Thank you, Sir. May you rest in power.

"Speaking as a white Christian, we have inherited a Christianity that was by design built to be compatible with slavery, segregation and white supremacy," said Robert P. Jones, founding chief executive officer of the Public Religion Research Institute. 
"We've inherited that. It's in the DNA. … We really do have to find the will and conviction to have the hard conversations, to tell the stories, to really rescue the faith from the distortions that history has brought forward to us."

In the white Baptist church in which I grew up, John Lewis's name was never mentioned. What happened at Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma was never spoken about — not in a sermon, not in a Sunday School class. Never.

We could not name John Lewis or any other African American working for civil rights as I came of age in that church. For one thing, there were no Black people in the church. 

None. Not anywhere.

You cannot call the names of people who are not among you in any visible, bodily form.

The sermons we heard were not about peace, justice, and human rights. They were about our souls. And saving them. By being washed in Jesus's blood.

We were told that if we came forward when the sermon ended and yielded our lives to Christ (that was a favorite phrase), we'd go to heaven and one day be held in the Savior's arms, our sins washed away, our garments white as snow.

The Civil Rights movement did not exist — though it was roiling my very own hometown in south Arkansas, a town with many wealthy people due to its oil wells and oil industry. A town with the highest percentage of millionaires per capita in the entire nation at one point in my growing-up years, I was told….

We were not backwards, isolated, untraveled, uneducated people. We knew better.

But we did not intend to do better, because everything we wanted to believe about "our" world would be turned upside down if we questioned or changed. Religion became our bulwark against change, with its focus on pie in the sky by and by and non-demanding faith that did not require us to risk our lives marching across bridges, but to "yield" our lives to Jesus and be washed in his blood — and then carry on as before, go about our business.

So, yes, what Robert P. Jones tells Adelle Banks about how white Christianity in the US is "by design built to be compatible with slavery, segregation and white supremacy" is absolutely right. It's gospel truth.

And then — coda — I left that white Baptist church when I saw that it intended to be intransigent about all of these matters, and went to the Catholic church up the street, believing it to be "woke" when it came to matters of human rights. Only to discover that what Rachel Maddow says in the video at the top of the posting is also gospel truth: she tells John Lewis that her Catholic faith has given her an intense passion for human rights, but growing up gay in that church has also taught her that her own passion for human rights is often deeply at odds with the church that has nurtured her commitment to human rights. (Nor, God help us, are white Catholics in the US by any means any less racist than any other white Christians in the US — another story.)

Now that the plinths are empty, with statues that so much needed to be toppled consigned to the dustbin of history, I can think of one recently deceased American who sorely needs to be honored with statues to fill those empty plinths.

Because his life embodied what is best about us….

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