“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”
This passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans seems tailor-made for this weekend that we mourn the deaths of two Civil Rights heroes, the Rev. C.T. Vivian and Congressman John Lewis, and remember their rich faith-soaked legacies.
Both Vivian and Lewis died Friday. So much of their lives were spent working together on the cause of justice that it seems fitting that they marched together into glory.
Both of these giants in the faith knew that God had not given them a “spirit of slavery to fall back into fear.” That assurance that they were children of God gave them the courage to fight for justice, no matter what the personal cost was.
Lewis and Vivian first met in Nashville, where they were both students at the American Baptist Theological Seminary. It was there that they met the Rev. James Lawson, a disciple of the teachings of Gandhi and nonviolence. They studied and trained with him in preparation for the movement that would change America.
They first put that training to the test in Nashville, with sit-ins for three months at downtown lunch counters that refused to serve African Americans. The protesters were met by whites who hurled obscenities and insults at them, and who became violent.
The white perpetrators of violence were never arrested, but the demonstrators were, the first arrests for both Lewis and Vivian. Ultimately they prevailed, and the lunch counters were desegregated.
The two men also were leaders the next year of the Freedom Riders, a group of blacks and whites who boarded buses in Washington DC and rode them through the South, challenging the illegal segregation of waiting rooms, restroom, and restaurants at bus stations throughout the region.
Once again they were met with violence. Lewis was hit in the head with a wooden crate at the bus station in Montgomery. Vivian joined the riders in Alabama and went to Mississippi, where he was arrested and taken to Parchman, a notoriously dangerous prison, where he was beaten by guards.
Four years later their paths crossed again in Selma, Alabama. In February 1965, Vivian stood on the courthouse steps there, arguing for the right to vote for Black Americans.
Sheriff Jim Clark approached Vivian and punched him in the face, knocking him to the ground. Vivian got back up, and with blood streaming from his face, kept talking. He would later require 11 stitches. “I had to show them I wasn’t afraid,” he said.
Just a few days later a Black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was killed in nearby Marion for trying to register to vote. That murder was the impetus of the 54-mile voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery.
On the marchers’ first attempt they were met on the Edmund Pettis Bridge by deputies who attacked the peaceful protesters. Lewis was knocked to the ground and beaten in the head on what became known as Bloody Sunday.
Beaten, punched, knocked to the ground. Stitches, concussions. The suffering that these two men of faith endured, much of it at the hands of white law enforcement officials, is almost unimaginable.
Both of these men of faith were clear that they were suffering with Christ, and like Christ they never let themselves be provoked into violence.
After he was punched in the face by the sheriff in Selma, Vivian said, “I got down on my knees and said, ‘Thank you, Lord’ — not because I was alive, but because I’d done what I should, and I’d done it well.
“Even when I got knocked down, I stood back up. I’d stood up to the powers that be, and I did it nonviolently.”
“The Civil Rights movement was based on faith,” Lewis said. “We saw our involvement as an extension of our faith. We saw ourselves doing the work of the Almighty.
“The prayers, the songs, the hymns fortified me, made me stronger, gave me the power and ability to keep moving, to pick’em up and put’em down. If it hadn’t been for my belief in God Almighty, the Civil Rights movement and my own participation would have been like a bird without wings.
“We felt like God Almighty was on our side.”
Years ago a reporter asked Lewis how he steeled himself for such suffering, and how he could always responded nonviolently.
“You study the way of peace,” Lewis said. “You study the way of love. You study the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. We have been taught never to hate or become bitter, never to lose the sense of hope.
“In the process, you might get arrested a few times. You may be beaten and left bloody and unconscious. In Montgomery I was hit in the head with a wooden crate and in Selma I had a concussion on that bridge.
“I saw death. I thought I was going to die.
“But you keep going. You see something that is so necessary and so right. You have to be hopeful. Be hopeful, keep going! Don’t get lost in a sea of despair.”
Ultimately what is so powerful about both of these men is that despite all the suffering, all the indignities, all the injustice they experienced and witnessed they did not give into that sea of despair.
As Paul says, they heard “the whole creation groaning in labor pains,” trying to give birth to a more just world, and they responded.
They both died knowing that there was more work to be done, that the Beloved Community, the Kingdom of God, has not yet reached fruition.
But they believed the suffering they endured was not worth comparing to the glory that would be revealed. They still had hope that day would come.
“In hope we were saved,” Paul says. “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what was seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
This kind of waiting is not a passive activity. It is working to help bring about the hoped for change.
“You just be able and prepared to give until you cannot give any more,” Lewis said. “We must use our time and our space on this little planet that we call Earth to make a lasting contribution, to leave it a little better than we found it, and now that need is greater than ever before.
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair, do not become bitter or hostile. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.
“We will find a way to make a way out of no way.”
The lives of John Lewis and C.T. Vivian give us hope for that world that has not yet been realized, but which is a closer dream because of their work and sacrifice.
May we have the courage to follow in their footsteps, picking them up and putting them down, marching on until victory is won.