ON THE MORNING after John Lewis' passing, renowned U.S. historian Jon Meacham, Lewis' official biographer, said that Lewis was a "saint" who manifested the Kingdom of God through his words and deeds. Meacham also revealed that Lewis' given (birth) name was Robert—he took the name John (no doubt, after the Baptizer, Jesus' forerunner, and after the Apostle, Jesus' beloved disciple) in the late 1950's, because he understood the movement for civil and human rights to be a kind of "spiritual warfare," whose goal is to establish God's Kingdom, on earth and in people's hearts.
Lewis' life is a reminder that the struggle for equal rights and human dignity is never finished. We never get merely to rest on others' accomplishments. As it is with the progress of the soul, so it is with the progress of societies (which, of course, are simply communions of souls): namely, we must remain ever vigilant, and we each must personally make the effort to move forward, or else we necessarily will fall behind. As Islamic Sufism teaches, "the greater jihad" is the battle against the false self, the deceitful and lying self—that which exalts itself over and against the others. This self-exaltation (whether individual, or collective—as in racism, sexism, classism, nationalism, or religious zealotry) is the first expression of that lie, that delusion, whereby one somehow believes that we are not "all one in the One." Robert Lewis took the name John because, from his youth, he understood and lived these truths, and I celebrate that he "kept the faith" (which was one of Lewis' favorite phrases, from 2 Timothy 4:7) until the very end. Indeed, I celebrate him, because I am confident that, right now (and despite his past sins and shortcomings, whatever they were), he is with the Lord.
Now, I believe that it is important that we celebrate John Lewis as a man of faith. "Faith," as Christians know, "is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). It was certainly faith that kept John Lewis and so many greats on the path of nonviolent social activism, even while they were having their heads bashed in! He was not just fighting for his rights and the rights of all African Americans; he was "loving his enemies" (cf. Matthew 5:44) and "filling up what is lacking in Christ's sufferings" (cf. Colossians 1:24) for the salvation and liberation of the land of his birth, and also the world. Therefore, we cannot really understand, much less celebrate, John Lewis' life, unless we understand and celebrate—and, preferably, also imitate—his faith. And we should not be shy about declaring this, much less be ashamed or apologize for doing so (or for attempting to do so). Faith is vision. And if we are to maintain the struggle ("the greater jihad") without being overcome by anger, hatred, bitterness, or sheer grief, we need vision. Faith, and faith alone, fills this need.
Finally, we should not shrink from proclaiming the centrality of John Lewis' (and our) faith to the struggle, because we are afraid of seeming intolerant in a pluralistic society, or to be seen as proselytizing others (i.e., compelling others through psychological manipulation) to join our faith. This is not about joining a faith; it is about having faith. Surely, adhering to someone else's vision and having vision are two entirely different things. It is one's quality of faith that matters, not merely one's belief system. That is why Jesus said, of a Roman soldier (who was as yet a pagan), "I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!" (Luke 7:9; cf. Matthew 8:10). This is the faith that saves us (cf. Luke 7:50); the other "faith" is nothing greater than that of demons (cf. James 2:19).
Indeed, the telos of the "gnosis of true faith"—and of the Incarnation of God's Word, par excellence—is to build the New Man, the One Human Being, the Christ, both individually and collectively. Especially now—in our globalized, pluralistic, post-nuclear, environmentally unstable world—this task has taken on a special urgency. Therefore, let us flee from all "spiritualities" that consist merely in navel-gazing, that is, in numbing escapes from the sufferings and crises of this world. Clearly, the Christ who commanded us to "take up our cross daily" (cf. Matthew 10:38, 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23) did not teach this! Let us rather embrace this "gnosis of true faith"—such as John Lewis lived, and in whose light he died—in the context of today's struggle for equal dignity and rights, both here in America and across the globe.
Now, if any assertion of equal dignity and rights is not coming from a genuinely spiritual "place" within (and therefore, is not implicitly an assertion on behalf of all persons denied such rights and dignity), it is only an assertion of one's—or one's own group's—will to power. It is, therefore, different (if at all) only in degree from similar assertions made by other (competitor or adversarial) groups, and not in kind. This is why, while I (presently) consider the Right a much greater threat than the Left to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," the fact is that neither conservatism, libertarianism, and capitalism, nor liberalism, progressivism, and socialism—presently epitomized and understood—comprise a permanent solution to our sociopolitical-economic and ecological problems.
Unless and until humanity evolves, I am afraid that our history will continue to be a series of race- and class-related, cultural, religious, national, and international skirmishes, until either a great conflagration of violence destroys us all, or a great crisis (such as a pandemic, or a falling asteroid, or rapid environmental collapse, etc.) catches humanity flatfooted—that is, too divided and too busy pointing fingers and playing the blame game to do anything about it. Indeed, I suspect that humanity's demise will be a combination of both factors, with (perhaps) the latter leading to the former, or, while less likely yet still quite possible, vice versa. Either way, a vicious circle will be formed (or rather, a "circular firing squad"), with one event cascading into the next until we are all destroyed.
That is, again, unless we finally evolve, psychologically and spiritually.
Often, I hear people say: "Tribalism is in our nature." Yes, this is true. After all, we are primates, evolutionary cousins of the great apes. However, apes are not capable of releasing and transmitting pathogens across the globe in months. Apes are not able to incinerate the planet (or otherwise decimate Earth's ecosystems) in hours or even minutes, through the use of fission and fusion bombs; or over a few decades, by means of burning fossil fuels. The human capacity for destructiveness is almost godlike in its scope, duration, and degree of violence. And yet, conversely, there is another, decisive difference:
Apes do not possess freedom (of will and intention) to integrate and redirect their violent and tribalistic passions toward constructive ends (unless those ends are already given by nature itself).
If, indeed, the aforementioned observation about the human proclivity toward tribalism is somehow construed as an excuse for human depravity, or as a kind of resignation that such wickedness must manifest inevitably, then we might as well give up the struggle for equal dignity and integral justice altogether, as nothing but a fantasy, foisted (ultimately) by the world's "losers" upon its "winners" (as some notable persons, who shall as yet remain nameless, might say...).
However, as long as most of us continue to look for a better day, then—unless we are all simultaneously content to condemn ourselves as hypocrites (i.e., those "play-acting" at concern for our nation's and the world's future)—we also better get to work at constructing a new and better human. This, therefore, should be our new meme: Not merely "Make America Great Again," or "#MeToo," or even "Black Lives Matter" (as much as I believe in all three, properly understood), but "Humanity, Evolve or Die." For me, it really is that simple.
All the time, I meet people who have no shortage of opinions when it comes to politics. Many, if not most, claim to be "devout" members of this or that religion, or, at least, "spiritual, but not religious." However, in many cases, when anyone challenges them merely to expose themselves to a real, transformative spiritual discipline, they balk. And that, finally, is the problem—the very problem that John Lewis avoided! In other words, it is not ultimately about Left and Right. Were the circumstances of our births, of our subsequent lives, or of general history just a bit different, each of us might easily find ourselves embracing the very ideologies we now claim to despise. Nor is it about making the false choice of compromising with evil in order to keep the peace. (Certainly, no prophet ever recommended that as the path to salvation and liberation!) It is really about our willingness (or unwillingness) to grow beyond our tribal selves, and to become something new.
Just the other day, during a lengthy phone conversation with a dear Muslim friend about John Lewis' Christian faith, I related Jesus' teaching about the splinter in one's neighbor's eye and the beam in one's own (cf. Matthew 7:1-5). And I asked her, "What does a splinter in one's own eye look like?" She was silent. I answered: "It looks like a beam!" I went on to explain that Jesus is teaching us that we are all much more closely flawed than we think. However, for some reason, we make beams of our neighbor's flaws, and splinters of our own. It should be the opposite! If, therefore, we are not investing at least as much energy in fixing ourselves as in fixing our neighbor, then our worldview is twisted. "First, remove the beam from your own eye, and then you will see clearly enough to remove the splinter from your neighbor's eye" (cf. Matthew 7:5). Jesus is not saying that we should not correct our neighbor; only that we should first get to work on correcting ourselves.
Finally, I pointed out to this friend that Jesus does not go through the trouble of exposing our hypocrisies in order to cripple our spirits (as hypocrites themselves try to do); he does it in order to teach us humility and compassion. Inasmuch as he was full of both virtues, John Lewis was a great man: the quintessential community organizer, social justice warrior, and public servant. From his youth, Lewis knew that the battle for justice is, again, a spiritual battle. It is not just about changing laws or even changing attitudes; it is about changing humanity, of building us into something new. After all, as Lewis might say, we are all on the same rough seas, in the same (leaking? sinking?) boat; rather than drowning together, let us together fix the boat! Indeed, Lewis (probably) was not a biblical scholar, but he was definitely a biblically-formed man. He understood, seemingly intuitively (and certainly by grace) that justice is not merely giving the other his or her due, but that it is the spiritual power or divine energy, by, through, and in which God makes human beings just. This is why St. Joseph, for example, who treated the Virgin Theotokos with compassion (by refusing to expose what appeared to be her "shameful" pregnancy—thereby, effectively making himself seem somehow blameworthy), is proclaimed to be a "just" or "righteous man" (cf. Matthew 1:19). In this sense, then, "just" and "righteous" are simply terms describing persons metamorphosed by self-sacrificial love (agape). And John Lewis, ever the fiery prophet, burned with flames of that very justice-which-is-love.
Now, if you have read this far, and you have not yet made a commitment to strive to become something new by grace (charis)— which is always given to those who seek it—please make it now (kairos). If you have made such a commitment, please persevere. If you are afraid, or your commitment to evolution-by-grace is weak, please connect with others committed to the same path. If you are already strong, and you are not already part of a living community of persons committed to evolution-by-grace, please join one—so as to remain strong and to strengthen others. Whether or not you are Christian, please read (if necessary, daily) and practice 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. Follow the Way with an active faith, hope, and love.
Reject that inner lethargy, and sense of aimlessness and hopelessness, that are the "spiritual pandemic" of our age. Pray. Encourage others. Do good works, yet remain "invisible" doing them. Be kind, especially to those who do not appear to "deserve" it. Be generous, especially with your presence. Help someone in need. Listen to someone who needs listening to. Stand for something right. Reach out to the poor, the lonely and rejected, and the weak and defenseless (most importantly, among those closest to you, whose faces you see and voices you recognize); and resist ingratiating yourself with the wealthy, the popular, and the powerful. And if you are the "unfortunate" one, discover your true dignity by making yourself a gift to others. In other words, day by day, one step at a time, conquer yourself. Gradually begin to experience the deep joy and satisfaction that come from knowing that you are evolving into something new.
Yes, there will be setbacks. First of all, quite predictably, "something old" within will resist your efforts to grow and change. When, ineluctably, you hear the voice of the "inner adversary"—the "confuser" or "divider"—do not argue with it. (Indeed, it wants and needs the extra attention.) Just lovingly yet decisively ignore it, or dismiss it with a Word (cf. Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13); and if it will not be ignored, then "expose it to the light": Seek counsel (and, if necessary, forgiveness) from someone proven in the Way. However, specifically with this last point, be careful; first, pray for wisdom, guidance, and discernment. And be forewarned: People who do not have your best interests at heart—especially secretly miserable people, who might appear happy, but who deeply resent, envy, and feel personally threatened by your burgeoning "inner light" (and sometimes, even your family, friends, and loved ones)—will try to tempt you, distract you, and/or otherwise ignore you. They will make every attempt to take advantage of your ignorance, immaturity, fears, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities—firstly, to keep you from advancing (spiritually) beyond themselves, and, secondly, to maintain control over your life. (As the wise saying goes, "Misery loves company.") Some such people do these things almost habitually, even instinctively; the worst among them, however, are dyed-in-the-wool parasites. If at all possible, avoid such people, and, if that is unlikely, (at least) minimize contact with them; and do not respond in kind when, inevitably, their teasing, taunting, gaslighting, pressuring, and even downright persecution begin. Use their foolish, fumbling, furtive (and increasingly futile) attempts at your "spiritual slowness" to your advantage, thereby becoming stronger in the process. Just keep your eyes on the prize: namely, your evolution and transformation into something new. And above all, pray earnestly and humbly for (and have compassion on) such people; after all, you might have been like them once, and if you are not vigilant, you might yet become so again.
Remember: We are all One Human Being. We are reflections, even hidden aspects, of each other. Endeavor to build up the Whole Christ—choose your own spiritual metaphor; by faith I believe this one is the best—with your every thought, word, and deed. Make this your life's project, and stick to it. Let the aforementioned headline lead your thoughts in the morning, and prepare your dreams at night. Do not expect to be free of flaws (to believe otherwise is delusional thinking), but strive to cleanse your conscience and discover that "peace that surpasses all understanding" (cf. Philippians 4:7).
Indeed, none of us knows the day when we will take our final breath on this plane of existence. Six years ago, my sister and I were with my father—one on each side—when he breathed his last. I will never forget this for as long as I live. Now think: All of us will one day undergo the same "passing over." It is just a matter of time. Whether or not we will be surrounded by loved ones, is not for us to decide. So let us live lives of preparedness, inasmuch as it is possible to prepare for such an awesome moment as one's own death: If I die today, at this very moment, how do I die? How am I remembered? Who or what embraces me? Is it love (agape), or fear? Fullness (pleroma), or emptiness? Light (phos), or darkness? Limitless life (zoe), or final death? Into what or whom do I evolve, transform, and ascend? Life's purpose is not to "make ourselves great" (whether "again," or for the first time!—cf. Genesis 11:4). If greatness finds us, wonderful, but worldly greatness without ultimate meaning is a sham. We exist to discover goodness, truth, and beauty, and to Become... (cf. 1 John 3:2-3). We are like caterpillars, living two-dimensional lives, awaiting our transfiguration into butterflies, no longer bound by the planes of existence that once enslaved us....
Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.
—1 John 3:2-3
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
—1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Alfred D. Turnipseed is an African American Orthodox Christian whose primary avocation is religious education. A beloved brother, uncle, and father to one terrific cat, he lives in South Bend, Indiana.