St. John St. James Church, Roxbury

July Study Group Discussion Topic: Social Activism and Non-Violence

Yesterday, July 17, 2020, two icons of the civil rights movement died on the same day.

On Friday, July 17, 2020, the leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives announced that U.S. Representative John Lewis had died, of pancreatic cancer, at age 80. Online profiles describe Lewis: "John Lewis, who represented the Fifth District of Georgia, including most of the city of Atlanta, was a leading figure of the civil rights movement who endured brutal beatings as he led non-violent protests to end racial segregation in the 1960s, and then went on to a career in Congress as one of its most enduring moral voices."

Earlier in the day on July 17, the Rev. CT Vivian, a civil rights veteran who worked alongside the Rev Martin Luther King Jr and later led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), died at home in Atlanta of natural causes at age 95. According online biographies (see links below): "His civil rights work stretched back more than six decades, to his first sit-in demonstrations in the 1940s in Peoria, Illinois. He met King soon after the budding civil rights leader's victory in the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Vivian helped organize the Freedom Rides to integrate buses across the south and trained waves of activists in non-violent protest. It was Vivian's bold challenge of a segregationist sheriff while trying to register Black voters in Selma, Alabama, that sparked hundreds, then thousands, to march across the Edmund G Pettus bridge."

As we continue our study-series, the July topic is therefore "social activism and non-violence." Both of these leaders embraced a philosophy of non-violence, courageously using non-violence as an active, not passive, tool for social change.

In his web page for the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. John Lewis wrote:

As a student of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela, I have long believed that peace is the true way for change. In recent years, this belief has been further validated through studies which examine the economics of peace. Countries which are more peaceful internally and with their neighbors are often wealthier nations.

I believe that generations have forgotten how effective peace and nonviolence can be as an ideology and as a tool. If we prevent acts of violence on our streets, in our schools, there is no need to incarcerate. If we prevent war, there is no need to cut education and social insurance programs to cover the costs.

Over the years, I have sponsored briefings examining the economic benefit of peace and looking at movements of nonviolent protests around the world. I also am a proud supporter of protecting the U.S. Institute of Peace which teaches conflict resolution around the world and is a key partner to the Departments of State and Defense.

For consideration:

  1. What are the biblical foundations for a philosophy of non-violence? What biblical books or passages do you think of when you think of non-violence? [We can share some of these for an August study group.]
  2. Follow the first link below to look at Representative Lewis's web page. What were the issues he was working on most recently? How did his philosophy guide this work?
  3. Follow the additional links below to look at the biographies of these two men. How does their work intersect with the work of St. John's and St. James in the 1950s and beyond?
  4. Sometimes when we read about the lives of great heroes, it is hard to see connections to our own life and work, which is often more local, often less visible. Yet both of these men have challenged all citizens to exercise their own voice and leadership. Over the next few weeks, think about ways that the work of these leaders inspires everyday work in our communities.

Sources / Reading:

Rep. John Lewis: Peace and Non-Violence

John Lewis, US civil rights hero and Democratic congressman, dies at 80

CT Vivian, Civil Rights Veteran, Dies, The Guardian, July 17

Black Past: CT Vivian

Black Past: John Lewis

CT and Octavia Vivian Museum and Archives

Visionary Project: CT Vivian

July 18, 2020