Both the limited-print edition of ONEING: Nonviolence and the downloadable PDF version are available now in our online bookstore.
In 1995, I spent an afternoon speaking with civil rights activist and Georgia Congressman John Lewis (1940–2020), one of the world’s greatest teachers and practitioners of nonviolence. Below is an edited excerpt of our conversation.
John Dear: John, let me start by asking you: What does nonviolence mean for you and how did you get involved in and committed to the life of Christian nonviolence?
John Lewis: I grew up in rural Alabama during the 1940s and 50s. I grew up in a Christian home, where there was a great deal of love. At an early age, I came to appreciate the philosophy and discipline of Christian love. So, I view nonviolence as Christian love in action. It is a part of my faith. It is believing that love is the most powerful force in the universe—and somehow, some way, you have to live it.
JD: Tell me how you got involved in organizing sit-ins against segregation in restaurants and how you formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
JL: I was deeply inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) and Rosa Parks (1913–2005). When I was a young child in Troy, Alabama, I would visit Montgomery, about fifty miles south. I saw signs which said, “white men, colored men,” “white women, colored women,” “white waiting, colored waiting.” Segregation was the order of the day, and I resented the system of segregation. I wanted to do something about it.
So, as a student in Nashville, I started studying the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. I got involved in a series of what we called sit-ins and I emerged as one of the student leaders. I literally grew up on a lunch-counter stool when I was nineteen years old in 1959.
In 1960, we started sitting in on a regular basis, and I got arrested and went to jail. That was a great triumph, because jail sort of became a way out. I grew up at a time in the American South when young blacks were not supposed to come in contact with the law. You were supposed to stay out of jail. It was a bad thing to go to jail. But there was something redemptive about going through this process. I remember being beaten and a lighted cigarette being put out in my hair. I was thrown off a lunch-counter stool before I was arrested, and I had the power, because of my belief in Christian love and nonviolence, not to strike back.
JD: How about the first Freedom Ride? What were you trying to do there? What happened?
JL: On the Freedom Ride, we were out to test a decision of the US Supreme Court, outlawing segregation in the area of public transportation. So, it was an effort on the part of thirteen of us, seven whites and six blacks, to ride a bus from Washington, DC to Jackson, Mississippi, and on to Louisiana. We were using all of the public facilities, not just the bus: the waiting rooms, the restrooms, and the lunch counters.
I will never forget: The night before we left, we had dinner at a local Chinese restaurant in Washington, DC. I had never had Chinese food before. We were sitting there eating, and someone said, “You should eat well tonight because this may be like the Last Supper.” Little did we know, as we traveled into Virginia, through North Carolina, into South Carolina, through Georgia, into Alabama, one of our buses would be burned and people beaten, and later a group of us would be beaten by an angry mob at a Greyhound bus station in Montgomery. I was left lying unconscious, bleeding, at a Greyhound bus station in Montgomery in the year 1961.
JD: Perhaps one of the turning points in our country’s history was the famous march from Selma. You were one of the leaders of that march on Sunday, March 7, 1965, and you were severely beaten. Tell me about that day.
JL: Well, the Selma march was an attempt to dramatize to the nation and to the world that people of color, not only in Selma, but throughout the state of Alabama and throughout the South—eleven Southern states really, from Virginia to Texas, in the old Confederacy—that these people wanted to participate in the democratic process. They wanted to register and to vote.
But on that day, when 600 of us marched through the streets and came to the apex of the Edmund Pettis Bridge, we saw a sea of blue: Alabama state troopers. They told us, in so many words, that this was an unlawful march, that we should disperse and go back to the church. In less than a minute or so, they said, “Troopers, advance!” They came toward us, beating us with nightsticks and bull whips, trampling us with horses, and using tear gas.
I was at the head of the march, as one of the march leaders. I was hit in the head with a nightstick, and I got a concussion right on the bridge. But it was the turning point, because there was a sense of righteous indignation when people saw nonviolent people being beaten. We weren’t armed with guns or sticks. Some of us had knapsacks with an apple, an orange, some books, the Bible. We were bearing witness to something that we thought was right. We all were committed to the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. Most of us had just left church.
JD: Part of the challenge of nonviolence is to respond nonviolently to personal assault, but to keep insisting on the truth of justice and peace. Jesus epitomized this and Gandhi taught us this. How did you respond personally to these police who were beating you and to all the people who threatened you during those years in the struggle? What was it like for you to deal with this violence nonviolently?
JL: Well, I believe in the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. I accepted it not simply as a technique or as a tactic, but as a way of life, a way of living. We have to arrive at the point, as believers in the Christian faith, that in every human being there is a spark of divinity. Every human personality is something sacred, something special. We don’t have a right, as another person or as a nation, to destroy that spark of divinity, that spark of humanity, that is made and created in the image of God.
I saw Sherriff Clark in Selma, or Bull Connor in Birmingham, or George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, as victims of the system. We were not out to destroy these men. We were out to destroy a vicious and evil system. So, our attack had to be directed against customs, traditions, and unjust laws—but not against these individuals.
JD: Unfortunately, most people and most Christians don’t see Jesus as nonviolent, or God as a God of nonviolence. Yet our faith is calling us to uphold the sanctity of life through nonviolence. How do you understand Jesus and God in light of nonviolence?
JL: I happen to believe that God is love, that love is God. Hate is too much of a burden to bear. If you start hating, in the end, how are you going to decide who you are going to hate today and love tomorrow? The Christian doctrine of love and nonviolence is a way of life, not merely a tactic. Love in action, Christian love, is a better way, a more excellent way, and it’s more redemptive. I don’t know how to explain it, but I somehow came to that point, as I grew in my faith, that this is the way, this is the way out, and the way out is the way in.
JD: You had the privilege of working with so many people in the Civil Rights Movement, but especially with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Can you tell me what you learned personally about nonviolence from Dr. King?
JL: I learned a great deal from Dr. King. This man, in his own way, taught me that love in action is the strongest force, that nothing is more powerful than love in action. He taught me to have hope, not to give up, not to give in, and not to give out. In the philosophy of nonviolence, in the way of Christian love, you have to have an element of hope, an element of faith. He taught us that. He would say, from time to time, that if you don’t have hope, you’re already dead, you’re really not here.
It’s very much in keeping with our Christian faith that if you really believe in love, you have to live it. If you believe it, you have to live it. When I was working with Dr. King, after a while, I began to believe that maybe, just maybe, we could create the Beloved Community. That’s the thing: It is possible to create, in this world, in this life, a Beloved Society, a Beloved Community, a Beloved World.
JD: Dr. King was cut down right in the prime of life. What would you say is his greatest legacy, his greatest contribution?
JL: I think his greatest legacy and contribution is that he taught us how to love, how to live, and, really, how to die. You live your life by giving, by serving, by sharing, and, in the process, you don’t worry. You are consistent, you are true to your faith, to your belief. I often think about Dr. King, that if it hadn’t been for this man, I don’t know where our world would be today.
JD: Could you say a word about how you see nonviolent civil disobedience specifically as a tool in the struggle for social change?
JL: Nonviolent civil disobedience is a very powerful weapon. It’s probably one of the most powerful weapons that we have in the arsenal of nonviolent action because you’re literally putting your body on the line. You’re saying you’re willing to disobey a custom, a tradition, or what you consider to be an unjust law. You’re willing to pay the price. You’re willing to suffer. You’re willing to go to jail if necessary and serve your time.
I think there’s something very redemptive about it. There’s something very cleansing about it, to go through all that. In keeping with the philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience, you come to that point where you have to educate the larger society, and you keep trying, over and over again. Then, sometimes, it’s only a core group that’s prepared to go the distance with that. I think it’s being true to the heart of the faith, and to the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence.
JD: In your opinion, how can Christians use nonviolence to help to end war, end poverty, eradicate hunger, and abolish nuclear weapons? How can we use nonviolence to attack all these big global issues of injustice?
JL: There are so many things we can do as Christians. We can lead the way, even as a nation. Those of us who believe in the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence, who believe in Christian love, who believe that it’s redemptive and powerful—we can say to the leaders of our own country that there is a better way. We can take the lead.
The death penalty is not something that a great nation should be proud of. Putting people to death is barbaric. It represents another period in history. We can do better. We can lead the way. We can lay down the tools of war and all the tools of violence. War is an obsolete tool of our foreign policy.
Christians, religious leaders, and all people have to say to our elected officials: “Let’s use our resources to end hunger and poverty, to find cures for the diseases that afflict humankind, to improve the standard of living and the quality of life for all people on this little planet.” I think we have to take the lead in saying all that. I hope, in the future, people will have a deeper appreciation of the philosophy of Christian love and nonviolence.
JD: As you know all too well, racism is alive and well in our country. What would you suggest to Christians, particularly to white Christians in our country, about turning to nonviolence and using nonviolence to fight the sin of racism?
JL: I think that all of us as Christians must use everything at our disposal to speak out against racism and bigotry. The scars and stains of racism are still deeply embedded in our society. When we acquiesce, when we’re silent, we’re helping racism to continue to prosper and to grow. We should say, as Christians, that we’re one family, that we’re sisters and brothers, that we’re one community, that we’re one house.
JD: What is your hope for future generations, given your life in the movement of Christian nonviolence?
JL: I’m very hopeful, very optimistic, that in the days and years to come, more and more people—not only in America, but around the globe—will come to accept Christian nonviolence as a way of life, as a way of living; that somehow, some way, humankind will evolve to a higher level, where people will accept that violence and hate are too great a burden to bear; that more and more people will lay down the burden of hate and violence; and that we will move to a new period in history where we will be quick to negotiate, to discuss, and to solve our problems around a table rather than in the streets, by shooting and bombing.
JD: I hear many people who are despairing say, “Well, this is very idealistic and wonderful, but there’s no evidence of any change happening.” What signs of hope have you seen?
JL: John, I must tell you—I have seen a lot of changes in my lifetime. I have witnessed what I like to call “a nonviolent revolution” in our country. The signs that I saw growing up, saying “White” and “Colored,” are gone, and they will not return. There was a tremendous amount of fear in the South, and that fear is now gone. At one time, hundreds of thousands of people of color could not register and vote, could not participate in the democratic process. But today, they can register, and they are voting.
In the South, less than thirty years ago, there were only about fifty black elected officials. Today [in 1995] there are almost seven thousand. We’ve made a lot of progress. We’re not there yet, but I think we’re on our way to the Beloved Community. There are going to be setbacks and disappointments here and there, along the way, but I think that, as a nation and as a people, we’re going to move toward the Beloved Community.
Christian nonviolence came from Jesus and was spread by Gandhi, but it has now been picked up by so many other different peoples and religions around the world. I think it will continue to live on as a message and spread far and wide, so I’m hopeful.
Established in 2013, ONEING is the biannual journal of the Center for Action and Contemplation. Renowned for its diverse and deep exploration of mysticism and culture, ONEING is grounded in Richard Rohr’s teachings and wisdom lineage. Each issue features a themed collection of thoughtfully curated essays and critical perspectives from spiritual teachers, activists, modern mystics, and prophets of all religions.