The Hon. John Lewis: “A Message of Peace, A Message of Hope”
Good morning. I want to thank Dean Baxter and the members of this great fellowship for the invitation to be with you this morning. I would like to call your attention to the Gospel of Matthew 10:34: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on Earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword.”
The past few years have been one of the most dramatic, moving periods in human history. We have seen all humanity aroused, including the homeless, the toilers, the underfed, the underpaid and unlearned. We are in the midst of a worldwide revolution of ideas and values. The struggle is being waged in every nation, among every people, by peaceful means, by propaganda, diplomacy, financial pressures, bluffs, strikes, ballots, bullets and even by votes in Congress where a battle is being waged over the shortcomings and failings of our president.
We have seen men and women sacrifice truth, deny truth, hide truth for a false and negative peace. All of this bears out the teachings of ancient Greek philosophers and modern day scientists who share the view that everything in the universe is in constant change. The beginning becomes the end; today becomes yesterday; the future becomes the past; the young become the old; life becomes death, ideas become realities; and the old gives way to the new. As we gather here this morning, the spirit of history is upon us and the future of our great nation is before us. We are the keepers of a new world for our children and for unborn generations. We are a nation troubled by scandal and the politics of personal destruction. We as a nation are not at peace with ourselves. Our national community is sick and her heart is very heavy. Her soul is aching and her spirit is low. I believe that we, as men and women who follow the Great Teacher, must bring peace and order to a society on the edge of chaos. We must choose, as Martin Luther King, Jr., once wrote, between community and chaos. By being here today, you have chosen community. Your community—this national community—has made Washington, the nation and the world a better place.
The coming of Jesus into the world was revolutionary. We call him the Great Teacher because his life, his death, his resurrection is our greatest lesson. He came at a time when humankind was not ready. Even the teachings of the Great Teacher were extremely radical, seemingly contradictory and paradoxical to many people of his day, and—still today—many cannot comprehend and understand his words and his teachings.
In the Sermon on the Mount, the Great Teacher said: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.” A few days later, he said: “Think not that I come to bring peace, but a sword.” And then his great command came in the Gospel of Matthew: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
The cry for peace is as old as the dawn of civilization and as fresh as the rising sun. As followers of the Great Teacher, our divine duty in this society has tracked us down—we must right wrong, do justice and love mercy.
Several centuries before the coming of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah broke forth into lyric, longing, saying: “How beautiful upon the mountain are the feet of him, who brings good tidings, who publishes peace.”
When the Hebrew prophets foretold the coming of Jesus, they said his name would be: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Then, in due time when Christ was born, the note struck by the heavenly host: “On earth peace among men with whom God is well pleased.”
So the prophets and heavenly host proclaimed peace in the coming and birth of Jesus. What does Jesus mean when he said: “I come not to bring peace, but a sword?”
In today’s language, law officials would accuse Jesus of disturbing the peace—they would accuse Jesus of disorderly conduct—they would find Jesus guilty of malpractice for healing without a license and guilty of civil disobedience for doing it on the Sabbath. Probably, many said of Jesus that he was a menace to society, for he had no respect for law and order.
Jesus knew what it was like to live in a period when naked power seemed to prevail. Like men and women today, he faced the problem of how to deal with evil.
The life of Jesus teaches us to overcome evil with good. If we look at the life of Jesus and if we turn the pages of history, we will see that no physical warfare has ever guaranteed us peace, that violence has never assured us of nonviolence, that paying the terrible price of hatred has never bought us one ounce of love.
The struggle as we see it in our world today is not simply between physical forces, but it is one between ideas and ideologies. We are now fighting a spiritual battle because there are those who profess to know the words of Jesus but act to destroy the power of his love. There are those who hide behind the gospel, who proclaim their faith loudly for all to see. But quietly they use the gospel to advance the politics of hate, fear and personal destruction.
In the late fifties, I met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for the first time. We became friends. We became brothers. We became colleagues in a struggle. And, ever since, my life has not been the same. From my youth until now I have devoted my life to making our nation a Beloved Community, a truly interracial democracy.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke to the heart and the conscience of all of us who believed peace and love offered a more excellent way.
This good man, this God-fearing man gave us hope in a time of hopelessness. This good man, this man of God, this son of America, this citizen of the world produced light in dark places. Martin Luther King, Jr., had the ability to bring the dirt and filth from under the American rug, out of the cracks and corners into open light in order for us to deal with it.
Dr. King, more than any other American of the twentieth century, had the power to bring more people together to do good—black and white, Protestant, Catholics and Jews, young and old, rich and poor. Martin Luther King, Jr., knew the power of love. His weapon was truth. His method was creative non-violence. His goal was the Beloved Community—a community of justice—a community at peace with itself.
This man that I got to know was so caring. And I’m not talking about something I read in the Washington Post or saw in the New York Times. He was a beautiful man. He was a patriot. He loved our nation. And he must be looked upon as a founding father of the new America. He personified the best of humankind. He could speak and the masses understood from his words that they were “somebody.” He was a gentle man who used the teachings of Jesus and the tools of Gandhi. In a sense, he spoke a strange language—the philosophy of passive resistance to evil and the use of nonviolence in the struggle for good. In a sense, he was a radical Christian—far too advanced in his concepts of love and peace for the violent times in which he lived.
Our challenge, our responsibility as believers is to build a Beloved Community. Consider those two words: Beloved means not hateful, not violent, not uncaring, not unkind. And Community means not separated, not polarized, not locked in struggle. This dream for a Beloved Community will require the creation of a community truly at peace with itself.
Where are the prophets?
The men and women who are followers of the Great Teacher, the followers of Gandhi or Moses or the followers of Martin Luther King. We need prophets who are committed to serve, to witness, to love, to speak to the needs of our time.
I am here to tell you that the spirit of Dr. King lives with us. Dr. King and those of us working in the civil rights movement brought about a nonviolent revolution—a revolution in values, a revolution in ideas. Our desire to insist on equality, our dream to demand freedom, caught on like wildfire around the world. To this day, the revolution has brought about radical changes in the Soviet Union, in East Germany, in South Africa. In every hamlet, in every village, in every state, we have witnessed change. The soul force of this movement enabled America to find its moral compass. From this place we cannot falter for we know what is right and what is wrong. We know what is just and what destroys the most basic notions of fairness. Our moral compass comes from God, it is of God, and it is seen through God. And God so loved the world that he gave us Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. God gave us the countless men and women who lost their homes and their jobs for the right to vote. God gave us the children of freedom who lost their lives in a bombing in Birmingham or the three young men who were killed in Mississippi.
But above all else God gave us courage—the power to believe that the spirit of history behind us is stronger than the terror of hatred in front of us.
We must believe that the peace of the Great Teacher can lift us from the lowest valley of hate to the highest mountain of love. Only the peace of the Great Teacher can make us love one another and live in peace with one another. Only the peace of the Great Teacher can still the troubled waters in the land.
Let me close with a story. One day while growing up outside of Troy, Alabama, I visited the home of an aunt of mine. Aunt Seneva lived in what we called a shotgun house. Most of you don’t know what a shotgun house is. A shotgun house is a house where you can fire a gun through the front door and the bullet would come out the back door. Her house had a tin roof.
We were out in the yard playing—my sisters and brothers and a few of my cousins. There were about 12 or 15 of us. Suddenly, this unbelievable storm came with strong winds blowing, the thunder rolling and the lightning flashing. My aunt suggested that we all should come into this house. And we all went in. She told us to hold hands. I could tell my aunt was terrified. She started crying. She thought this house was going to blow away, and we all stared crying.
When one corner of the old house appeared to be lifting from its foundation, we would walk to that corner and then another, trying to hold down this house with our tiny bodies.
So we were walking with the wind.
Friends, the storms may come. The wind may blow. The thunder may roll. The lightning may flash. And rain may beat down on this old house we call America. But we must never, ever leave the house. All of us must stay together and walk hand in hand. During the past thirty years, we have joined hands and walked from Montgomery to Birmingham to Selma to Nashville to Washington, D.C.
Let us walk with the spirit and the let the Great Teacher be our guide. Peace be with you.