In Memoriam: John Lewis

by | Jul 21, 2020

“John Lewis is Dead.”

I saw that headline right after I tweeted about the deaths of Reverend C.T. Vivian and Dr. J.I. Packer. I noted their biblical faith, which worked itself out in their words AND their actions. Then, I read about the death of Lewis, another one who took seriously Jesus‘ command to love your neighbor (Matthew 22:39).

John Lewis was introduced to the civil rights movement at a young age – he met Rosa Parks when he was 16 years old, and met Dr. King when he was 17 years old. Visually, he is sketched in the American memory as a young man whose skull was fractured on the Edmund Pettus Bridge protesting for voting rights in 1965 Alabama. Audibly, he is remembered as one of the younger speakers at the 1963 March on Washington.

As I consider his life and death, I think about him as a Christian and, particularly, a Baptist. He studied at American Baptist College in Nashville, a school affiliated with the historic National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. He attended that school in an era, like my late-pastor, when the school had theological partnership with the Southern Baptist Convention (a relationship that lasted from 1924 well into the ‘80s). Based upon his upbringing in church and his education, he believed in the image of God in all humanity and an ethical obligation to neighbor-love. His Christianity was not merely rhetorical orthodoxy, but also sweaty, painful, even bloody, orthopraxy.

When I was in high school, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives, representing a district in Atlanta, Georgia. Then he did something unusual–he served in the U.S. Congress and maintained the character, principles, and transcendent Christian ethic that he had when he was first elected. I grew up around Washington, D.C.; I know it has a way of changing people (for the worse). He was a Democrat (I’m an IND), a politician, like the rest, wanting to be re-elected. But never merely that – always someone with a higher, more transcendent, calling. He would attribute that to Christianity (although many try to celebrate his Christian virtues, without attributing biblical Christian teaching). Also, like many black freedom fighters in U.S. history, he sought to provoke the country (and his political colleagues) to live up to our founding, God-invoking, rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence. So, I thank God for him, and pray that the Great Commandment would be more formative for Christianity in the U.S., particularly our perception of ethical obligations. Too many Christians are less fruitful in their witness due to an unnecessary false dichotomies– truth vs love, or loving God vs loving your neighbor. The Head of the Church (Jesus Christ) tells us to be BOTH in Matthew 22:40.

John Lewis’ death, and what he is most noted for (Edmond Pettus Bridge), remind us of the racial divisions and sin that has characterized, and still characterizes, the U.S.. Even more, I’m reminded that those same things exist in professing churches in the U.S.. How shall we be salt/light witnesses for Christ (Matthew 5:13-16) if the racial unrighteousness of the world is, likewise, named among those professing to be “a holy nation, a peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9)? How shall we bear Great Commission fruit if we are perceived to be unloving and hypocritical in our proclamations about the love of God (Romans 2:24)? If you don’t like the way some Christians address the sin of (racial) partiality in our society, then put forth a better model. As for me, I’m thankful that as a young man in his early twenties, John Lewis, the Baptist, thought loving his neighbor was worth risking bodily harm.

 


Prayer Requests:

  1. Pray that the Spirit would lead you to examine whether you obey, genuinely and substantially, Jesus’ command to love your neighbor.
  2. Pray for Christ’s churches to be loving neighbors wherever those congregations gather – geographically, demographically, and socioeconomically.
  3. Pray that you would truly believe Genesis 1:27 and Galatians 3:28.

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Author

  • Kevin Smith

    Dr. Kevin Smith leads the staff of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware. He has experience as a pastor, chaplain, church planter, conference speaker, and short-term missionary. He has studied at Hampton University, the Church of God Theological Seminary, and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, subsequently serving on Southern’s faculty for over a decade. In 2015, while serving the Highview Baptist Church in Louisville (KY), he was elected president of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Kevin and his wife, Patricia, have three adult children and two great-nephews. His hobbies include whatever sports his kids were playing and riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. His ministry is animated by Jesus’ prayer for the unity of His followers in John 17.

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