On Franciscan Peace, The Death of John Lewis

Photo by Lorie Shaull

This past Saturday, I was watching the golf tournament and I fell asleep after being out in the sun all morning.  I woke up as the broadcast was ending for the day.  The local news (Chicago for me) was next on the schedule.  I can probably count on one hand the number of times I have watched mass media news in the past ten years, but a headline about the death of Congressman John Lewis caught my attention as I was about to turn the TV off.  Congressman Lewis rose to prominence as a leader of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

I watched the opening story and heard him lauded as a proponent of peaceful, non-violent protest.  Because we have this formation series on Peace open, I thought I would stay tuned.  I was intrigued enough that I listened all the way through not only the local news, but the national news that followed.  On Sunday morning, I searched out clips on Congressman Lewis from the morning talk shows.  Monday, I spent time looking for information on the Internet and ordered a book by Dr. Martin Luther King entitled Stride Toward Freedom.

The mention of the terms “non-violence” and “peaceful” made me curious at first, but my interest was captured more completely when another story came on.  This story showed video of ongoing Black Lives Matter protests somewhere in California, perhaps San Francisco?  What won my full attention was a prominent sign held up by one of the protestors that read, “No Justice, No Peace!” 

For the balance of Saturday and all day Sunday I had this juxtaposition bouncing in and out of my awareness.  I was wondering if that sign meant that the peaceful methods of Dr. King and Congressman Lewis had been largely abandoned?  This is what sent me searching the Internet on Monday.  To what extent has peace lost its ascendency as a primary component of the protests that are happening today?

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The video that accompanied the stories on Congressman Lewis was compelling.  It was immediately clear that it was the violence of those desiring to maintain the status quo that did them in.  Grainy black and white images of protestors being blasted by fire hoses or peaceful marchers being beaten on Bloody Sunday made it clear beyond doubt who was in the right and who in the wrong during that time.

Born in 1963, I am not old enough to have witnessed any of this directly.  But watching a few minutes of video educated me more about the civil rights movement (especially about its roots in the non-violent methods of Gandhi and ultimately Jesus) than anything I had experienced in the previous 56 years of my life. 

The peacefulness of the demonstrators was clearly instrumental in the victories they won.  The ultimate expression of this is of course the death of Dr. King, reminiscent of the death of Jesus himself.  In Chapter 15 of the gospel of John, Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  Dr. King was not a Franciscan, but in this he followed directly in the footsteps of Francis.  He lived out this gospel passage literally and, I would argue, intentionally.  He may have hoped otherwise, but he accepted that his chosen course of public action could ultimately lead to his early death. 

Franciscans believe that conversion is an ongoing process that never reaches its completion. 

Dr King’s impact has not been as immediate or far reaching as one would hope, but it is still unfolding.  Hopefully, unlike conversion, it will reach completion, but it is likely to take a long time.  The hearts and habits of men are not easily changed in a single or even a couple generations.  The struggle requires patience and endurance. 

Are the principles of peace that Dr. King championed critical to the pace of progress?  Is the legacy of Dr. King best served by adhering to the tenets of non-violent protest that were integral to his approach and clearly instrumental in his success?  If devotion to his doctrines is allowed to wane, is the cause well served?

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According to Wikipedia, the phrase “No Justice, No Peace” first came into wide use in the mid-1980s in response to racist violence in New York City.  The same article goes on to say that the phrase has two different interpretations.

The first is conditional.  In the “if-then” scenario, Justice must proceed Peace.  If Justice is absent, then those who experience injustice will ensure that Peace is disrupted until the time that Justice has been accomplished.  According to the article, this was the context of the use of the phrase when it became prominent in the eighties.

The second is conjunctive.  In this more philosophical approach, Justice and Peace are codependent.  Neither can exist without the other.  Injustice is caused by the absence of Peace.  At the same time, Peace cannot thrive if Justice is absent.  The two are linked in such a way that each needs the other to flourish.

The two definitions might seem like splitting hairs, but they are not.  If the second is true, if peace is in any fashion a pre-requisite to justice (which codependency requires), then the if-then scenario is doomed to failure.  The disruption of Peace cannot logically lead to the implementation of Justice because the absence of Peace inherently leads to the opposite, to an absence of Justice. 

In other words, Peace and Justice must be pursued concurrently. 

Wikipedia, at the end of the article, references Dr. King using a similar phrase in 1967 in a speech against the Vietnam War.  Unfortunately, this Wikipedia reference is incomplete.  With just a little digging I found this audio on YouTube, in which Dr. King clearly states (at the 3:10 mark), “There can be no justice without peace and there can be no peace without justice.”

Dr. King embraces the conjunctive form of the phrase in this speech.  Given his passionate embrace of peaceful, non-violent protest, this is expected.  But it is nice to be able to hear him say the words in context so that his meaning cannot be misunderstood.

Dr. King clearly places himself on the side of Justice and Peace being codependent.

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There can be no doubt that the death of George Floyd and so many others in similar circumstances represent a grave injustice.  There is also no doubt that violence (in other words, a lack of peace in the broadest terms) on the part of police officers is at the root of this injustice.  The violent actions responsible for these injustices must be addressed.  Individual officers must be held accountable for the wrongs they have committed.  Police forces in general must find a way to proactively eliminate the occurrence of these events so that these offenses end.

There can be no compromise in that.  The police must adapt and maintain an attitude of peace as the predominant principle in every action they take before their perpetrations of injustice will cease.  This does not mean that they cannot use force when necessary.  But it does mean that the decision to use force is governed by an overarching devotion to peace that seems absent in the broad philosophy of policing right now.

It may mean that, like Dr. King, police officers need to accept the risk of peace in their everyday duties.  In order to become “peace officers” in the fullest sense, they may need to consider “laying down one’s life” not just for one’s friends, but also for the greater good and harmony of a fresh culture where everyone (regardless of race, etc.) must be considered not just a friend but a sister or brother.

It is a heroic request but being a police officer is often seen as a heroic calling.  How can we help police officers live into this enriched vision of themselves?

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Protest and demonstration are apropos given the situation.  But what is the role of peace in these protests?  If protestors dare to ask police officers to risk Peace, will they be willing to risk it themselves?  Will Peace be sought through Peace?  Will today’s leaders ground their actions in Peace as Dr. King and Congressman Lewis did?  

In other words, will the phrase “No Justice, No Peace” be employed in its conditional or conjunctive form? 

If the conditional interpretation is chosen, if the response to injustice is violence and a disruption of Peace, what will the outcome be? 

One already prevalent outcome is video of the response being aired right along with video of the original injustices.  It is just as likely that video of looters breaking shop windows or cars being burned will be shown as any other.  All constitute news and in the modern world of communication, all sides can emphasize whatever they wish to emphasize.  Those who ought to be stuck on defense have their own regular and social media outlets and often their own dedicated audiences.  Any instance of retaliatory violence captured on tape allows them to go on the offensive, thereby clouding and confusing the picture as well as reinforcing the viewpoint of persons already partial to the status quo.

In the original civil rights movement, videos of violence by the government against peaceful protestors were the best weapon the protestors had.  The first link above (about the use of fire houses in Birmingham) makes it clear that videos of unwarranted violence catapulted the civil rights movement to success.  As each instance of governmental violence was videotaped and added to the existing record, the accumulation of injustice provided momentum to the movement until it could not help but culminate in victories such as landmark Civil Rights legislation.

Racism may not have been completed defeated and eliminated by that legislation (legislation does not possess the power to change the hearts of individual men) or the accumulation of other victories in the 1960s, but progress was made.  How then to learn from these lessons of history so that more progress can be made?

How can Peace be used as a tool today just as it was used in the original movement?

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It is clear from the audio that Dr. King and Congressman Lewis embraced the second, conjunctive interpretation of the phrase “No Justice, No Peace.”  They believed that embracing Peace was imperative to progress against injustice.  Justice did not precede Peace but existed in close cooperation with it, each building the other up.  The more the protestors embraced Peace (in contrast to the embrace of unjust violence by the forces of the entrenched) the more successful the movement became.

The result of this embrace of Peace was that there was no competing video story to derail the story of injustice that the entrenched were writing themselves.  Only one side of the story, the side of the story grounded in Peace, was compelling enough to be captured on tape and thus to secure the attention and sympathy of the nation.

Contrast that to current circumstances.  Videos of violence done to black men at the hands of police abound.  Yet, they have not had the same effect.  Is this because the storyline is clouded by the abundance of videos on the other side?  Does a lack of peacefulness make the current effort its own worst enemy just as the entrenched were their own worst enemy sixty years ago?

What if now, like then, there was only video on one side of the story?  How would that change the dialogue?

One injustice cannot correct another.  More acts of violence cannot cure a culture that is addicted to violence in so many ways.  They only serve to enable and excuse the next round in a never-ending cycle of pain and hostility. 

Only Peace can break that cycle.  If the police will not embrace Peace, then the opposition must if it hopes to overcome them.

The protests themselves must not increase the amount of injustice in the world as they are carried out.  Acts of violence on the part of the protesters (looting, destruction of property, treating all police officers as unethical instead of as individual human beings) constitute the opposite of Peace and, because of their indiscriminate nature, are in and of themselves undertakings of injustice. 

They supply pretexts for maintaining the status quo and muddy the waters making it much more difficult to achieve progress.

They are contradictory to the goals that Dr. King and John Lewis set so many years ago.  They are harmful to the cause of ending racism and establishing equality.

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So, what does all of this have to do with Franciscan formation?

The gospel of Mark (5:9) says,

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” 

The epistle of James (3:18) reads,

Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”

Article 19 of the OFS Rule says,

Mindful that they are bearers of peace which must be built up unceasingly, they should seek out ways of unity and fraternal harmony through dialogue, trusting in the presence of the divine seed in everyone and in the transforming power of love and pardon.”

Francis, in Admonition XV (Peace), quotes the verse above from Matthew and then continues,

“Those people are truly peacemakers who, regardless of what they suffer in this world, preserve peace of spirit and body out of love of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Thomas of Celano, in The Second Book of The Life of St. Francis, chapter V, says this about Bishop Hugolino, who Francis chose as father and lord over his whole religion: 

“That lord conformed himself to the ways of the brothers…………….The Lord gave him a learned tongue.  With it he confounded the opponents of truth, refuted the enemies of the cross of Christ, led strangers back to the way, made peace between those in conflict, and bound together those in peace in a stronger bond of love.”

One of the biggest challenges I am confronted with as a Franciscan is how to live out my vocation in the real world.  Fraternity meetings are a place of great solace and comfort.  They allow me to explore my profession with like minded people in an atmosphere of security and peace.  I love that about our meetings, and I miss it tremendously in the absence of gatherings forced by the pandemic.

But to truly live out my calling, I must find ways to leave the comfort of that fraternity cloister and take Franciscanism into the world.  As I listened and investigated the stories of John Lewis and Dr. Martin Luther King, I found myself confronted by peace in action in a real-world setting.  These men were true peacemakers and I found myself wanting to follow their example.

Read the quotes above again, this time with the example of these men in mind.

Do you find them fulfilled in their lives?

Does this inspire and challenge you to seek ways to become a peacemaker in these troubled times?

2 thoughts on “On Franciscan Peace, The Death of John Lewis

  1. Back in 1972, Pope Paul Vi, in his message for the World Day of Peace, declared, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Very prophetic words.

    Like

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