John Lewis on “Soul Force” as Both a Political Strategy and Way of Life

A lot of powerful remembrances have been shared in the media this week about John Lewis, who, as was announced yesterday, will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol. I particularly enjoyed hearing excerpts from several speeches he gave – including his rousing speech at the March on Washington in 1963, and his reflective but no less inspiring speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Both are worth a listen.

Anyway, with all that’s been said about Lewis this week, I felt inspired to dip into his (massive tome of a) biography, which has been sitting on my shelf untouched for years (like most of my books!). I skimmed around a bit and ended up reading the fifth chapter – called “Soul Force” – describing his early education in the ways of nonviolence and gradual entry into the civil rights movement while studying at the American Baptist Theological Seminary and then Fisk University in Nashville in the late 1950s. He had the enormous good fortune of being able to attend regular workshops on nonviolence taught by one of the few icons of the movement who is still alive, Rev. James Lawson. Here’s how he introduces Lawson:

I could see that there was something special about this man. He just had a way about him, an aura of inner peace and wisdom that you could sense immediately upon simply seeing him. He was tall, bespectacled, and about to turn thirty. He’d grown up in Ohio, where he had a life-changing experience when he was eleven: He slapped a white boy who called him n****r. When he went home and told his mother what had happened, she proceeded to give him the first lecture he had ever heard about the concept of Christian love. It was like a conversion experience, said Lawson. From then on he was committed to what he called New Testament pacifism.

He practiced what he preached. When he was twenty-two the Korean War began, and he filed for conscientious objector status rather than register for the draft. This was in 1951, when such protests were extremely rare. Lawson spent fourteen months in jail for his refusal to serve. Upon his release, he traveled to India as a Methodist missionary and became consumed by the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi.

Eventually, in 1958, Lawson settled in Nashville, where he started teaching nonviolence workshops in the basement of Clark Memorial United Methodist Church. It was there in that basement that John really found his entry point into the movement and the strategic and philosophical tools he needed to sustain his commitment the rest of his life. We’ll let John tell the rest of the story—of his own pilgrimage to nonviolence:

Those Tuesday nights in the basement of Clark [Memorial United Methodist Church] became the focus of my life, more important even than my classes. I’d finally found the setting and the subject that spoke to everything that had been stirring in my soul for so long. This was stronger than school, stronger than church. This was the word made real, made whole. It was something I’d been searching for my whole life.

I was an eager student for this stuff, just voracious, and I couldn’t have found a better teacher than Jim Lawson. I truly felt—and I still feel today—that he was God-sent. There was something of a mystic about him, something holy, so gathered, about his manner, the way he had of leaning back in his chair and listening—really listening—nodding his head, saying, “Yes, go ahead,” taking everything in before he would respond. Very patient. Very attentive. Very calm. The man was a born teacher, in the truest sense of the word.

And we learned. We learned about Reinhold Niebuhr and his philosophy of nonviolent revolution. We read Thoreau. We studied ancient Chinese thinkers like Mo Ti and Lao-tzu. We discussed and debated every aspect of Gandhi’s principles, from his concept of ahimsa—the Hindu idea of nonviolent passive resistance—to satyagraha—literally, “steadfastness in truth,” a grounding foundation of nonviolent civil disobedience, of active pacifism.

We talked a lot about the idea of “redemptive suffering,” which from the first time Jim Lawson mentioned the phrase made me think of my mother. Often, when I was growing up, I would hear her groan and moan while she was praying. “The seeds of the righteous must never be forsaken…,” she would recite. I didn’t know what she was talking about then, but now I was beginning to understand. What my mother was saying, in her Old Testament phrasing, was that we must honor our suffering, that there is something in the very essence of anguish that is liberating, cleansing, redemptive. I always understood the idea of the ultimate redeemer, Christ on the cross. But now I was beginning to see that this is something that is carried out in every one of us, that the purity of unearned suffering is a holy and affective thing. It affects not only ourselves, but it touches and changes those around us as well. It opens us and those around us to a force beyond ourselves, a force that is right and moral, the force of righteous truth that is at the basis of human conscience. Suffering puts us and those around us in touch with our consciences. It opens and touches our hearts. It makes us feel compassion where we need to and guilt if we must.

Suffering, though, can be nothing more than a sad and sorry thing without the presence on the part of the sufferer of a graceful heart, an accepting and open heart, a heart that holds no malice toward the inflictors of his or her suffering. This is a difficult concept to understand, and it is even more difficult to internalize, but it has everything to do with the way of nonviolence. We are talking about love here. Not romantic love. Not the love of one individual for another. Not loving something that is lovely to you. This is a broader, deeper, more all-encompassing love. It is a love that accepts and embraces the hateful and the hurtful. It is a love that recognizes the spark of the divine in each of us, even in those who would raise their hand against us, those we might call our enemy. This sense of love realizes that emotions of the moment and constantly shifting circumstances can cloud that divine spark. Pain, ugliness and fear can cover it over, turning a person toward anger and hate. It is the ability to see through those layers of ugliness, to see further into a person than perhaps that person can see into himself, that is essential to the practice of nonviolence.

One method of practicing this approach, when faced with a hateful, angry, aggressive, even despicable person, is to imagine that person—actually visualize him or her—as an infant, as a baby. If you can see this full-grown attacker who faces you as a pure, innocent child that he or she once was—that we all once were—it is not hard to find compassion in your heart. It is not hard to find forgiveness. And this, Jim Lawson taught us, is at the essence of the nonviolent way of life—the capacity to forgive. When you can truly understand and feel, even as a person is cursing you to your face, even as he is spitting on you, or pushing a lit cigarette into your neck, or beating you with a truncheon—if you can understand and feel even in the midst of those critical and often physically painful moments that your attacker is as much a victim as you are, that he is a victim of the forces that have shaped and fed his anger and fury, then you are well on your way to the nonviolent life.

And it is a way of life. This is something Lawson stressed over and over again, that this is not simply a technique or a tactic or a strategy or a tool to be pulled out when needed. It is not something you turn on or off like a faucet. This sense of love, this sense of peace, this capacity for compassion, is something you carry inside yourself every waking minute of the day. It shapes your response to a curt cashier in the grocery store or to a driver cutting you off in traffic just as surely as it keeps you from striking back at a state trooper who might be kicking you in the ribs because you dared to march in protest against an oppressive government. If you want to create an open society, your means of doing so must be consistent with the society you want to create. Means and ends are absolutely inseparable. Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred. Anger begets anger, every minute of the day, in the smallest of moments as well as the largest.

Dr. King would often say that we’ve got to love people no matter what. Most of all, he would say, we must love the unlovable. Love the hell out of them, he would say. And he meant that literally. If there is hell in someone, if there is meanness and anger and hatred in him, we’ve got to love it out.

I had no doubt that this could be done. Gandhi showed it could be done. This one little man, armed with nothing but the truth and a fundamental faith in the response of human society to redemptive suffering, was able to reshape an entire nation without raising so much as a fist. And he did it not by aiming high, at the people in power, but by aiming low, at the downtrodden, the poor, the men and women and children who inhabited the streets and the fields of his country…

This was the social gospel in action. This was love in action, or what we came to call in our workshops soul force. Jim Lawson knew—though we had no idea when we began—that we were being trained for a war unlike any this nation had seen up to that time, a nonviolent struggle that would force this country to face its conscience.

The is one of the most powerful texts on the philosophy of nonviolence I’ve read, right up there with MLK’s own “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”. I especially like how Lewis shifts away from its purely political purposes and explains how nonviolence is something we can and must make a way of life. That’s something that I really feel like I’ve been struggling with lately myself in this time of COVID-19 – controlling my anger and frustration, both with the general circumstances we are facing and with the few people I actually get to interact with on a regular basis these days. It’s something I needed to hear.

Of course, this passage also made me think about the BLM protests that have swept the country and world, and have continued up to the present in many cities, including my own. When the massive protests first started in Minneapolis in late May, I was quite worried about some of the property damage that had occurred – NOT because I cared about the damaged property, but because of my fears that that sort of thing might provoke white political backlash and enable greater violence on the part of police.

Well, almost two months later, I’m happy to report that two things have happened: (1) the country has shown surprisingly broad support for the BLM protesters (so far) – and that includes large majorities among both left-leaning and independent white people, and (2) whatever “rioting” was actually going on in late May and early June has mostly died down and the “rioting” narrative has been replaced in the non-conservative media by a narrative about police excesses. This shift has occurred partly because the police have of course been using extreme force against protesters, but also because the protesters have been peaceful, making it so much harder for police to establish any justification or garner public support for their tactics. The brave and inspiring “soul force” exhibited by millions of protesters – making it possibly the largest movement in American history – has helped lay bare for us all the brutality of local police and federal armed guards that have been deployed around the country.

In other words, I just want to say thank you to the protesters. They have given the rest of us a gift. These tireless folks who have been able to endure so much “redemptive suffering” day after day, week after week this summer, are helping to save the soul of our country. Their powerful acts of nonviolent witness are forcing us as a nation to face our own conscience, but also are giving us a moral example. We could all learn a thing or two from them about how to deal with strain and suffering in our lives – namely, by loving the hell out of people.  

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