The Hon. John Lewis: Racial Reconciliation and Justice Week
I want to thank you, Dean Lloyd, for inviting me to be here on this important and special occasion. I am both honored and humbled to stand in this great pulpit and begin a discussion on some of the great issues of our time. I am more than lucky but very blessed to be here. I know my message today is meant to pay tribute to one special moment in the outstanding and long history of this great church.
On March 31, 1968, 40 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., stood where I am standing and delivered his last Sunday sermon. Just a few days later on April 4, 1968, he was taken from us by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Tennessee. Somehow, somehow it was so fitting and appropriate and maybe, just maybe it was divine providence that this great minister who would deliver his last Sunday message in the heart of the nation’s capital, in a church that sees all America as its congregation.
Throughout this coming week, you will encounter many opportunities to think about the last words of in the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., the greatest moral leader of the twentieth century. Perhaps none is so profound as the opportunity we have today to meditate on the meaning of his final national message to the members of the American community and members of the world community. We begin with Revelation chapter 21, and let’s take a look at verses 2 and 3, reading from the King James Version: “And I, John, saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, ‘Behold the tabernacle of God is with men.’”
When I recall this sermon that Martin Luther King gave from this great pulpit 40 years ago, when I think about what Gandhi was saying more than 100 years ago and what those who are pressing for peace, for environmental justice, for universal health care and human dignity are saying today, I believe that they are saying what John said and they are telling us that the tabernacle of God is with us. They are saying that it is our responsibility; it is our duty; it is our job to create the tabernacle here on earth. We are the children of God and as people of faith we are called to actualize the fruits of the Spirit to make them real in our nation, in our government, and in our own lives.
How do we accomplish this holy mission, to manifest the Spirit of God here on earth? St. John the Divine gives us a clue. He says, “Behold, I saw a holy city coming down from God out of heaven.” John starts with a vision. Early in the 1960s through the ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr., with the leading of the Holy Spirit an entire generation had a vision, and an entire generation had a dream. We knew in our hearts and our minds that there was a more perfect way, a more excellent way, a better way, and we believed that our nation founded on principles, a nation founded on a philosophy of freedom, equality, and justice had the potential to make this dream come true.
We also knew what our eyes could not deny, we saw those subtle signs that said that white men, colored men, white women, colored women, white waiting, colored waiting, tasted the bitter fruits of segregation and racial discrimination, and we did not like it. We asked why segregation, why racial discrimination and our friends and family would say, “That is the way it is, don’t get in trouble, don’t get in the way.” When we heard the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., when we studied the teaching of Gandhi and Thoreau, we tried to walk in the way of Jesus Christ, and when we followed the way of the Holy Spirit, we were inspired to get into trouble. We were inspired to get in the way. It was good trouble and necessary trouble.
We truly believed that through the discipline and nonviolence, through the power of peace and the power of love that we could transform this nation into something Martin Luther King, Jr., called a Beloved Community. This was our conscious goal. We worked; we struggled and we suffered to make that dream a reality. Consider those two words: Beloved Community. Beloved meaning not hateful, not violent, not uncaring, not unkind, and community meaning not separated, not polarized, not locked in struggle; the Beloved Community is an all-inclusive world society based on simple justice, the values, the dignity, and the worth of every human being, and that is the Kingdom of God.
Those of us who believed in a nonviolent message to be effective took to the heart what the Apostle Paul said in Ephesians: we believe that ours is not a struggle against flesh and blood but a struggle between the forces of the division and the forces of reconciliation. It is the struggle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. It is a struggle between the forces of hate and the forces of love. It is a struggle between the buildup for war and the preparation for peace.
My beloved sisters and brothers, if we are to build a tabernacle of God here on earth, the means and the end must be inseparable. If our goal is a Beloved Community of peace, love, and justice, then our message cannot include war, hatred, and bitterness against our fellow man. The means by which we struggle must be consistent with the end that we seek, centered to our philosophical concept of the Beloved Community with an affirmation of our faith in humanity. The willingness to believe that man does have the moral capacity to care for his fellow man.
During the 1960s, during the days of Martin Luther King, Jr., when we suffered violence and abuse, our concern was not for retaliation, but we sought to understand the human condition of our attackers and to accept the suffering in the right spirit. While nonviolence was for some merely a tactic for social change, for many of us it became a way of life. Nonviolence is the way of peace, the way of love and became one of those immutable principles. During the past few days the issue of race and the need for reconciliation have emerged through the presidential campaign, and we all know that it is not a secret that America has a dark past of division and separation, but if we are to emerge from our struggle unscarred by hate, we must learn to understand and forgive those who have been most hostile and violent toward us.
Martin Luther King, Jr., said it another way when he said, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.” As I have traveled and worked throughout the South during the 1960s, I saw civil rights workers and indigenous people whom we were trying to help, with their heads cracked open by night sticks, lying in the streets weeping from tear gas, calling helplessly for medical aid. I have seen old women and young children involved in peaceful, nonviolent protests run down by policemen on horses, beaten back by fire hoses, and chased by police dogs; yet those people were still able to understand and sing, “Ain’t going to let nobody turn me around.” Dr. King inspired us to sing, “Keep your eyes on the prize and we shall overcome.”
Over the years even in the Congress, when I travel around America, so many people have asked me, “How can we forgive, how can you forgive? How can we possibly forgive injustice that is visited upon on us?” But as Christians, as men and women of faith, we can forgive because, oh yes, the Master forgave us and forgave us over and over again. We can forgive because we have a dream. We believe that the canon of God is in us, and through our work, through our deeds, through our witness, through our testimony, our suffering, and our victories, we can move our whole society toward realizing this dream.
In the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., during his lifetime, during the 1960s here in America, we witnessed what I like to call a nonviolent revolution. A revolution of values, a revolution of ideas that have helped to redeem the soul of America but the struggle to build a Beloved Community to build a tabernacle of God, to see heaven here on earth is not yet done. The sermon that Martin Luther King, Jr., gave from this pulpit on March 31, 1968, is still so timely, so relevant, and so fresh. If I had simply read the same sermon he preached 40 years ago, it would still be a progressive message. It would still be a relevant message. If Martin Luther King, Jr., were here today, he would still be asking whether we are sleeping through a great revolution.
And he spoke then of three great revolutions occurring in 1968: a revolution in technology, one in weapons, and a revolution in human rights. There is no question that technology and weapons are more advanced today than they were 40 years ago. What about the cause of human rights? Have we continued the advances that Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement sacrificed to achieve? Have we moved forward in our mission to respect the dignity and the worth of all humankind? Does what Dr. King said from this pulpit still ring true today?
There is no question, he said, through our scientific, technological genius, we have made this world a neighborhood, and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make it a brotherhood. He said that we must learn to live together as brothers and sisters or we will perish as fools. In his sermon 40 years ago he mentioned racism, poverty, and war as some of the key barriers to building the Beloved Community. The reality is these are the same problems we confront today and right here in this pulpit he said that we must face the sad fight that at 11 o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing and cry “there is no east or west,” we stand in the most segregated hour in America. And it was in that speech, in that sermon that he here 40 years ago, that he talked about a rich man who passed a beggar named Lazarus every day but never really paid him any mind. Dr. King said that there is nothing new about poverty; what is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is, do we have the will?
If Martin Luther King, Jr., were here today, he would still be saying we are all in this together. Maybe, just maybe he would say to us today that our forefathers and our foremothers all came here in a different ship to this land, to this great country, but we are all now in the same boat. Maybe in a different ship but we are all now in the same boat. He would be saying that it doesn’t matter whether we are black or white or Hispanic or Asian American or Native American, whether we are Democrats or Republicans or independent, that we are one people. We are one house. We are one family. It doesn’t matter, we have to find a way to live together. We have to find a way to understand each other. We have to find a way to make peace with each other.
I keep praying and I keep hoping that one day maybe, just maybe as politicians, as ministers, as religious leaders, members of the academic community, as ordinary citizens of this great nation, maybe, just maybe we will come to the place where we will say that the violence is obsolete. We will come to a place where will say that war is no longer a necessary part of our foreign policy. We will come to a place where we cannot hurt each other anymore. We will come to a place where we cannot kill each other anymore. The people across this world can look to our nation and look to the American community as a beacon of light and a beacon of hope. They have not been inspired by our bullets, our guns, or our bombs. They were inspired by the nonviolent efforts in our country and other places around the world. They were inspired by philosophy of peace, by equality in human dignity.
I want to close my brief message with a story from my childhood, a parable of our nation’s struggle to overcome the issues of race and other issues that divide us. When I was growing up outside of Troy, Alabama, about 50 miles from Montgomery on a farm, I had an aunt by the name of Sineva, and my Aunt Sineva lived in a shotgun house and I know what I am talking about this morning because I was born in a shotgun house. I know you do not know what I am talking about because you have never seen a shotgun house. My Aunt Sinvea lived in a shotgun house. She did not have a green manicured lawn. She had a simple plain dirt yard and sometimes at night you could look up through the holes in the ceiling of the tin roof and come to stars. When it would rain, she would get a pail, bucket, or tub and catch the rain water. From time to time she would walk out into the woods and take branches from a dogwood tree and tie these branches together and make a broom, and she called that broom the brush broom. She would sweep this dirt yard very clean and sometimes two and three times a week but especially on a Friday or a Saturday because she wanted that dirt yard to look good on the weekend.
My Aunt Sineva lived in a shotgun house. For those of you who may not know what a shotgun house is, and in a nonviolent sense a shotgun house is an old house with one way in and one way out, where you can bounce a basketball through the front door and it would go straight out the back door. Or in a military sense, an old house with one way in and one way, out with a tin roof, where you can fire a shotgun through the front door and the bullets would go straight through the back door. My Aunt Sineva lived in a shotgun house.
On one Saturday afternoon a group of my bothers and sisters and a few of my first cousins (12 or 15 of us young children) were out playing in my aunt Sineva’s dirt yard and an unbelievable storm came up. The wind started blowing. The thunder started rolling. The lightning started flashing and the rain started beating on the tin roof of this old shotgun house. My Aunt was terrified. She thought the old house was going to blow away. She got all of us children together and told us to hold hands, and we did as we were told. The wind continued to blow. The thunder continued to roll and the lightning continued to flash and the rain continued to beat on the tin roof of this old shotgun house. We cried and we cried and when one corner of this hold house appeared to be lifting from its foundation, my aunt had us walk to that corner to try and hold the house down with our little bodies. When another side appeared to be lifting, she had us walk that side. We were little children walking with the wind, but we never left the house.
My friends, I am trying to say what Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to say 40 years ago: We must not lose faith. We must not give up. We must not give in. Understand, my friends, the storms may come, the wind may blow, the thunder may roll, the lightning may flash and the rain may beat down on this old house. You can call the house the National Cathedral, call it the house of Washington, call it a house of justice, or call it a house of peace; we must never ever leave that house. We all live in the same house. We are one family. We are one people of the American house or the world house. My beloved brothers and sisters, we must not let another 40 years pass without taking on the problems of our time. We must not let another 40 years pass without redeeming this nation from the perils of poverty or racism and war.
We may no longer have a leader like Martin Luther King, Jr., but his legacy lives. He is gone and now it is up to all of us to do our part to help build this tabernacle of God. We all have the power to lead a revolution of values, a revolution of ideas and not just in America but around the globe. I say to you this morning if you use your power to love and not to hate, to build and not to tear down, heal and not to kill we would continue to pursue a standard of excellence in your daily lives, in your homes, in your communities, your work, in your hearts, if you hold on to this dream, this manifestation of faith and keep your eyes on the prize, then a Beloved Community, a tabernacle of God, is yours to build.
So I say to you walk with the wind and let the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and let the spirit of love, the spirit of peace, and the Holy Spirit of God Almighty be your guide. Peace be with you.