John Lewis in the Footsteps: ‘Good Trouble’ & Non-Violence

“Justice and peace will kiss,” psalm 85:11

Saint Clare

Today is the memorial of Saint Clare of Assisi, the first woman to join Saint Francis in his new Gospel movement of the early thirteenth century. The story is told of Clare that she turned back the violence of mercenary soldiers of Emperor Frederick II, who were besieging the city of Assisi. As the soldiers broke into the cloister of the sisters’ convent of San Damiano, which lay directly in the path of the upper city, Clare went to meet them bearing in her arms a ciborium with the sacred host of the Eucharist. We know nothing of what was said on this occasion, only that the soldiers turned around and lifted the siege. Clare’s was the way of peace in the face of mercenary depredations.

Clare web statue
Saint Clare, National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi in San Francisco, 20th century

Worldly Wisdom

The world of legend, however, is lost in the historical reality of a time of change like our own. There is a sympathetic understanding of violence, played out in looting and even in physical aggression, as a means of protest against injustice. The call for violence in return for violence as a tool against oppression can come from anywhere along a spectrum. At one end, there is a bursting forth of frustration by people who can see a better society but are constantly reminded by institutional violence just how distant that vision remains. Much further on is the ideology of revolutionary violence that embraces the destruction of both property and lives as a necessary means of breaking through the endemic violence of social and economic institutions. At this latter end, are the execution of teachers, like the Christian Brother martyrs of the French Revolution and the Spanish Civil War.

The Really Real

But both legend and a more realistic assessment of history itself teach a different path. As Pope Francis said in response to threat of escalating international participation in the Syrian Civil War, Never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake. War begets war, violence begets violence” [1]. The pope spoke from a prophetic tradition that embraces and transcends the Christian Gospel. It is a truth that was known by Thoreau, Addams, Gandhi, Day, King, Jr., the Berrigan brothers, Hunthausen, and Saint Oscar Romero. The Christian tradition of nonviolence is as old as the Church. It was tested and found wanting during the medieval crusades and inquisitions, so eloquently addressed by Saint John Paul II in 2000, and again during the colonization of the Americas, for which Pope Francis asked pardon in 2015 [2]. But time and again the path of non-violence has received the magisterial stamp of the papacy. The link between justice, peace, and love was the theme of Saint Paul VI’s message for the Celebration of the Day of Peace in 1976. “Peace expresses itself only in peace, a peace which is not separate from the demands of justice but which is fostered by personal sacrifice, clemency, and love” [3].

Óscar_Arnulfo_Romero_with_Pope_Paul_VI_(4)
Saint Oscar Romero (1917-1980), Archbishop of San Salvador, and Saint Paul VI (1897-1978), 262nd pope. The two prelates were canonized together on October 14, 2018.

What at first seem to be competing goals—action on behalf of the irruption of the oppressed onto the stage of history versus living always into agapic love for the oppressed and oppressor alike—are not really at odds with each other [4]. Agapic love is Christian love that has no place for violence. It is the love of Clare and Francis and all of the prophets of non-violence. Boethius, the late imperial Roman author, taught the wisdom of resolution of seeming opposite beliefs. “Let us set our arguments against each other and perhaps from their opposition some special truth will emerge” [5]. He lived in turbulent political times and eventually died a martyr, speaking truth to power in the defense of an unjustly accused civil servant. Boethius’s vision of the resolution of seeming opposites is born out in the life of the statesman, Representative John Lewis, who knew and lived the complete compatibility of justice and love working together.

Boethius Preti
Mattia Preti, Boethius and Philosophy, ca. 1680, Museum of the Order of Saint John, Malta

The Witness of John Lewis

John Lewis saw the need for change in a society, whose white majority is immune to the quotidian violence perpetrated on people of color. In his last testament to America, he gave a reminder of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s prophetic call to protest. “We are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something” [6]. Lewis called this getting in “good trouble.” At the same time, Congressman Lewis drew a line between legitimate peaceful protest and ever-unwarranted violence. His closing remarks gave love—contextually Christian agapic love—as the reason for nonviolence. “In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring” [7].

A Lasallian Tradition

The community of Saint Mary’s College is called on to take a stand today in the great American movement to end white supremacy culture. The Lasallian Catholic tradition, fortified by the wisdom within the classical liberal arts tradition found in both its philosophy and history, leads us to accept and teach nothing less than the path set out in our own day and time by John Lewis. Saint Francis of Assisi, whose conversion to non-violence inspired Saint Clare of Assisi to follow him, told his disciples that they were walking in “the footsteps of Christ” [8]. As Lasallian educators, we must do the same. But there is a chorus of voices today all leading us in that path. Former President Obama’s assessment of the peaceful revolution under way gives us our call as a community.

“Watching the heightened activism of young people in recent weeks, of every race and every station, makes me hopeful. If, going forward, we can channel our justifiable anger into peaceful, sustained, and effective action, then this moment can be a real turning point in our nation’s long journey to live up to our highest ideals. Let’s get to work” [9].

Barack_Obama_hugs_John_Lewis,_2015
President Barack Obama hugs Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. after his introduction during the event to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., March 7, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) 

Notes:

[1] Pope Francis, “Angelus,” Sept. 1, 2013.

[2] Saint John Paul, Homily, Day of Pardon, March 12, 2000,

https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/2000/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_20000312_pardon.html and Pope Francis, Address to the Second World Meeting of Popular Movements, July 9. 2015, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2015/july/documents/papa-francesco_20150709_bolivia-movimenti-popolari.html

[3] Saint Paul VI, “Celebration of the Day of Peace,” January 1, 1976.

[4] For the ideas of the “irruption of the poor” and agapic love, see Joseph Drexler-Dreis, Decolonial Love: Salvation in Colonial Modernity (New York: 2019), pp. 51-52 and especially chapter 7, pp. 135-157. The view expressed in the present blog veers away from the consideration of violence as a legitimate Christian expression of love. See further the essay cited by Drexler-Dreis, by Jorge A. Aquino, “Revolutionary Ambivalence: A Dialogue between U. S. Third World Feminism and Liberation Theology on the Limits of ‘Love’ as an Axis of Radical Change,” Critical Sense, 11:1 (fall 2002), 11-46, https://www.academia.edu/4169929/_Revolutionary_Ambivalence_A_Dialogue_Between_U_S_Third_World_Feminism_and_Liberation_Theology_on_the_Limits_of_Love_as_an_Axis_of_Radical_Social_Change_Critical_Sense_11_1_11_46_Fall_2002_

[5] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, 3 pr. 12. 25, quoted in Penelope Reed Doob, The Idea of the Labyrinth (Ithaca, N.Y.: 1990), p. 39.

[6-7] https://www.ajc.com/john-lewis/john-lewis-last words/GGQ6MKJTIBHGHJ7RQXZVLQFHUA/

[8] Saint Francis of Assisi, Regula Non-Bullata (The Earlier Rule).

[9] Barack Obama, https://www.elle.com/culture/career-politics/a32730429/barack-obama-black-lives-matter-protest-tips/. See further, https://www.obama.org/anguish-and-action/


Photo credits: Brother Charles and Wikimedia Commons

2 thoughts on “John Lewis in the Footsteps: ‘Good Trouble’ & Non-Violence

  1. Ellen Rigsby says:

    The connections made in this blog post between the legendary and the real, between oppression of the poor and racism, between the traditions of violence and non-violence are going to stay with me for quite a while. Thanks so much for writing this.

    Like

  2. Brother Bernie LoCoco says:

    Brother Charles, this is one of the most profound and challenging columns ever presented. Thank you and reflection and pondering are needed. Thank you

    Like

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