Friday’s unfortunate passing of longtime Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) could echo the end of an era in multiple respects. On a basic level, Lewis, often referred to as the “Conscience of Congress,” represented one of the last living links to the civil rights era of American politics.
Lewis, the youngest organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, worked closely with figures like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Julian Bond, Roy Wilkins, and many others to help end the South’s system of institutionalized discrimination.
Lewis’s death also should remind Americans of one of his most important character traits, one some in our nation seem to have lost: The ability to forgive. While Lewis always fought for justice, he leavened that fight with a willingness to show mercy—a willingness that some in succeeding generations may have forgotten.
Beaten in Body but Not Bruised in Spirit
Politico’s obituary of Lewis, who died at age 80 following a bout with pancreatic cancer, ended with a story both humbling yet fitting of the man:
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In 2009, Lewis met with a white man named Elwin Wilson, who was among those who assaulted Lewis and other Freedom Riders in 1961. Following Obama’s election in 2008, Wilson said he had an epiphany and traveled to Washington to apologize for his violent acts and seek Lewis’ forgiveness. Lewis gave it freely.
‘It’s in keeping with the philosophy of nonviolence,’ Lewis later told the New York Times. ‘That’s what the movement was always about, to have the capacity to forgive and move toward reconciliation.’ (emphasis added)
Lewis’s words and the actions that followed provide a contrast to the current debate regarding policing and race relations. The outrage following the killing of George Floyd has prompted much talk of the need for justice, but precious little mention of how to move towards reconciliation.
The Need for Healing
Two other examples in recent weeks highlight searing contrasts regarding forgiveness. Amidst racial unrest following the Floyd killing, ABC re-aired “Let It Fall,” filmmaker John Ridley’s 2017 documentary chronicling the Rodney King beating in 1991, and subsequent riots in Los Angeles in 1992.
Ridley recounted the horrific beating suffered by Reginald Denny, a truck driver attacked by several African-Americans during the 1992 riots for no other reason than that he drove through the wrong intersection at the wrong time—a white man in an African-American community seething with rage.
His assailants, known as the “L.A. Four,” beat him savagely, kicking him and hitting him with a claw hammer. One threw a cinder block into Denny’s face, followed by a touchdown-style “victory” dance next to his unconscious body. The beating, captured via video helicopter and broadcast live on national television, left Denny with 91 separate skull fractures, and so much blood loss it remains a miracle he survived.
Yet amazingly, Denny not only lived to tell the tale, he forgave his attackers. He noted that four African-American individuals—none of whom knew Denny—drove him to safety at great danger to themselves, and that African-American medical staff at Daniel Freeman Hospital had helped save his life. He hugged the mother of the man who had thrown the cinder block in his face, said one of his assailants had suffered enough while imprisoned awaiting trial, and accepted that assailant’s apology on national television.
Compare Denny’s actions to those of Lexie Gruber and Lyric Prince, and the disparity becomes starker. The two attended a 2018 Halloween costume party hosted by Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles, at which one guest showed up in blackface. The costume, a poor attempt to satirize journalist Megyn Kelly for comments she had made about blackface days previously, drew remarks and indignation at the party for its offensive (to say nothing of idiotic) nature.
In the wake of the Floyd killing, Gruber reached out to Toles, demanding to know who had worn the offensive costume two years previously. When Toles offered to set up a private meeting between Gruber, Prince, and the woman in question, Gruber rejected the offer, demanding a “public apology.”
The Post, for reasons that remain mysterious, published on June 17 a 3,000-word story on the 2018 party. When the woman who wore the costume told her employer of the impending publicity about her poor choice two years ago, they fired her. The woman in question told the Post that “with this story, [Gruber and Prince] will get the public humiliation they want, but it won’t foster any dialogue between us. I wish they would talk to me. I made a mistake.”
Whereas Denny, like Lewis, would willingly—and publicly—forgive individuals who quite literally beat them, Gruber and Prince refuse to forgive a woman for wearing a boorish costume to a party, who yearns for the healing their forgiveness would bring.
While it doesn’t necessarily require religious conviction or faith to forgive others, American society’s increasing secularization might have something to do with the absence of mercy in many modern discussions. As with Martin Luther King and many other leaders of the civil rights movement, Lewis’s commitment to nonviolence came from his deep religious convictions. Lewis graduated from American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville.
As someone raised Catholic, who attended parochial schools from kindergarten through high school, I often heard the phrase “Offer it up” from teachers or parents. In the classical doctrinal sense, the phrase referred to offering up one’s own sacrifice and suffering to liberate souls in purgatory. But more broadly, the saying admonishes individuals to subsume their own self-interest in the service of others.
At its core, forgiveness requires a sense of humility, of sacrificing one’s own sense of injury, or desire for vengeance, to give others the sense of healing they seek. Our current, self-centered society, with its emphasis on Instagram likes and Twitter followers, and its seemingly perpetual outrage over some indignity (real or imagined), seems to have made the concept of forgiveness outdated, even obsolete.
But belief in a power above oneself provides myriad examples of individuals loving enemies and forgiving enemies, even when those enemies lack remorse: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Reparations versus Reconciliation
The recent racial outrage has prompted new calls for reparations for the enslavement of African-Americans. But the policy arguments for and against reparations obscure a larger truth: No amount of money can ever repay the injury suffered by generations deprived of their dignity and held in bondage. Some horrific events, such as slavery and the Holocaust, exacted an incalculable price from society, to say nothing of millions of individuals.
At its core, the debate should therefore turn on a different question: What will it take for individuals, and communities, to forgive and to heal? Lewis’s tireless efforts in the service of the civil rights movement provide a lasting example of how to forgive, and the importance of forgiveness. Americans can and should further his legacy by remembering it, and putting it into action.