The tributes to Cong. John Lewis are richly deserved. They will focus on the public man and his admonitions to people to “get into good trouble.” And well they should. As an inspiration to activists over the course of more than sixty years, he always set the example of what my late mother-in-law, Carol Davidson, used to say: You have a mouth; use it. John Lewis felt the same way about his body, using it whenever necessary to “get in the way.”
I was in no way a friend of this man, though he greeted me and treated me like one. It does not make me unusual, but it gives me a couple of unique stories to tell. I say “unique,” but that’s because they are unique to me. For John, they were typical.
I have long been active in the Faith and Politics Institute, the most important organization you never heard of. Faith and Politics works primarily with elected officials and their staffs on Capitol Hill to help them actualize their individual and collective commitments to public service and personal values. Most especially, the focus has been on race (though not only on race). For more than thirty years, senators, representatives and others have joined in a pilgrimage to the civil rights south, especially Alabama, where they heard from “luminaries,” veterans of the movement. Those encounters have taken place in Birmingham, Montgomery and, on Sunday morning, in Selma. The host and guide was always John Lewis.
I met him on my first pilgrimage and thereafter many, many times. I heard him speak so often, I could tell the familiar stories about preaching to the chickens, holding down the house, meeting Martin Luther King and crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge with an apple and a toothbrush in his backpack. Yet, every time he told those stories they concluded with a fresh message that drew a straight line from faith or opportunity or preparation directly to the matter at hand.
No one is always right. John Lewis came close.
But here are three of my stories that have less to do with John Lewis the public figure than John Lewis the man. Set aside your interest in his life of public service. Here was a life worth emulating.
More than a dozen years ago, I found myself on a bus with John on our drive from Selma to Montgomery. Also on the bus was Susannah Heschel whose father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, had marched with Dr. King in Selma. She and her husband had brought their baby along. I took a picture of John Lewis cradling that child as if it were his own grandbaby. The emotion he exuded was profound. Later that same day, we disembarked from a plane at DCA. My photograph from that moment was from behind John, just after he had gently taken the hand of Ethel Kennedy – a gesture of respect and support.
Many years later, I was dispatched by my alma mater, the Jewish Theological Seminary, to deliver a letter asking John to agree to receive an honorary doctorate. Hoping simply to hand him the envelope, I made an appointment to visit his congressional office. When I arrived, he was waiting for me, and asked me to come into his private office. He brought no aide, set no time limit, ordered his calls held.
He engaged me in conversation that was at once personal and respectful, setting at ease a guy still able to be star-struck at sixty. Then he opened the envelope, read the letter, and asked me about one detail it mentioned: this was Rabbi Heschel’s seminary? I said yes. He put the letter down and said, “Then I would be privileged to accept this honor.” No scheduler, no political advisor, no other question. We were finished in fifteen minutes, but he asked me if I would like to see some of the mementos on his wall. He proceeded to walk me through a gallery of photos that chronicled his presence in modern American history. To him, this casual acquaintance who came to impose on his time was, at that moment, the most important person he knew.
The last time I was with John was at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. A year ago, I went on the pilgrimage again. At the end of Sunday’s march across that bridge, John volunteered to have his picture taken with anyone who wanted it. I held back – the elected officials went first, then the sponsors, finally the hangers-on. By the time I stepped up, he had taken individual photographs with hundreds of people. He was glad to see me and remembered the visit in his office and the honorary degree. Yes, we were posed for the official photo. But the guy who volunteered to use my cellphone captured the moment that you see illustrating this column.
John Lewis never for a moment forgot his public responsibilities. The policy positions he took were often unpopular, and he did not shy away from the controversy he therefore had to engage. I know enough people in public service to know that is not unusual.
But first and foremost, he was a man who saw the image of the Creator in whom he deeply believed in every person he met – including his opponents – and the opportunity to lift up the Divine Presence in every encounter, no matter how incidental.
His was a life to emulate.
If there is a single aspect of support for President Trump by faith communities that is most disappointing to me, it is the rationale that “he has been so good to us.”
I am certainly an imperfect vessel for the teachings of my own Jewish tradition, but I try my best to live life according to the essential messages of my faith. While many of those messages are about personal conduct – we have 613 of them, just to start – the folk medicine of my rabbinic ancestors provides a pithier perspective on what it means to live in community.
Millennia ago, people believed that the heart was the center of human thought and behavior. The ancient rabbis posited that it was made up of two chambers and that a single impulse was contained in each. In one chamber was the impulse to goodness. In the other was the impulse to evil.
The more I learned about those two impulses, the less satisfied I was with their designations. For example, a fanciful story was told about the day that a band of pious people captured the evil impulse so that the world would be entirely good. On that day, no one built a house, no business was conducted, and the chickens didn’t lay eggs.
Is there anything evil about those activities? Not inherently, of course. But each one is an activity that is self-serving. (The chickens are euphemistic for human reproduction!) The tale concludes with the affirmation that the world cannot survive without the “evil” impulse.
When I learned this story, I began to call the two impulses altruism and selfishness. We mortals cannot survive this world without meeting our hierarchy of needs. We need food, shelter, safety and, of course, someone to care about us. No person can only give, never receive. Religious folk (like me) posit only one such being in the cosmos – a self-sufficient God.
So it is no surprise that faith traditions find different ways to encourage adherents to emulate the altruism of the divine being. The power of this selfish impulse seems never to abate. A consciousness of the impulse to selflessness – that is, to Godliness – is necessary to hold it in check.
In the current political climate, nothing is holding the selfish impulse in check, especially among those in the faith communities who are sycophants of the president. They are satisfied to have received support for their own narrow desires.
In the conservative evangelical community, in the politically right-wing Jewish community, in the racially-driven supremacist community, the willingness of the president and this administration to feed their selfishness without regard for others strikes me as exactly the opposite of what participants in creating “a more perfect union” ought to be about.
In the Jewish community, I hear a lot of how there has never been a president who was better for Israel and the Jewish community. The claim is based on symbolic acts of doubtful effectiveness – moving an embassy, singling out Jews on campus for special protection, reneging on a agreement to control nuclear proliferation that enjoyed wide support.
In the end, pandering to the selfish desires of any group makes one an agent of that second chamber of the heart, the one that impels us to take, never to give. Cloaking such activities in the language of piety or framing the desires as inherently good circumvents the character development that genuine religious faith is supposed to encourage. The person who receives abundance and turns their back on those who receive less than they need or deserve is not blessed. Rather, they are unfairly privileged.
A famous activist once said, “A person who does not vote in self-interest is a fool. A person who votes only in self-interest is a scoundrel.” In political terms, that formulation is the same as the ancient understanding of the two chambers of the heart. While too often we cynically view our electoral choices as the lesser of two evils, we might have a greater impact on turning our society away from its current political misery if we framed our choices as the greater of two goods. A balance is necessary between self-interest and unlimited generosity. The question to ask of candidates – and of those in office, high or low – is not “whose interests will you serve,” rather “how can we make this a more perfect union.”
When “he has been so good to us” is a code phrase for “he has disadvantaged others for our benefit,” the result is a betrayal of admirable faith values. It is a capitulation to the wrong chamber of the heart, the one that contains the impulse to selfishness at the expense of altruism. It is the opposite of Godliness.
Each tradition has a name for the agent of selfishness. It should never be President of the United States.
While everyone is focused on the state-wide election results in Virginia, it is a local contest that gives me encouragement that Americans have had enough anger and divisive rhetoric from the top.