Four major democratic primaries are tonight, but I’m still reeling from this interview.
Why? Why did Civil Rights stalwart Rep. John Lewis feel the need to trivilize Bloody Sunday by comparing the historic march from Selma to his decision to withdraw his endorsement for the Hillary Clinton campaign?
I can accept that it was a very difficult decision to make, but to emphatically assert that marching in Selma was easier than switching his support to Barack Obama’s campaign suggests that he is so beholden to the interests of white political power brokers, that he is willing to trivialize his own persecution as recompense for thinking and acting independently.
I don’t want to believe that he has become so emotionally (and some would argue politically and economically) invested in the Clintons, that he is numb to the civil rights activism that gives him such political capital in contemporary US politics.
I don’t want to believe that Lewis is so disconnected from his own story that he would embarrass himself on national television by allowing an astonished young white journalist to remind him that he was physically beaten and bloodied in the cause for racial and human justice.
I don’t want to believe that his “love” for the Clintons is deeper than his “love” for black people and the black freedom struggle.
But the truth of the matter is that this interview suggests all of this and more.
In these comments, Lewis re-historicizes himself as an accidental activist who blindly “did what he was told” rather than one who resisted injustice with courage and intention. One whose motives may not have been as noble as I first thought.
A couple of Sundays ago, I preached a sermon from Exodus 17:1-7. In this passage, Moses has lead the Israelites out of Egypt, but now the people are in the wilderness dying of thirst. Moses, apparently unaware of their suffering goes to God and asks, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me?” Obviously, Moses had plenty to eat and drink. He isn’t complaining. But only gets worried when his neck is on the line.
John Lewis, apparently, was “unaware” of the degree to which his constituency was dissatisfied with their condition and his leadership. Like the Israelites, they “cried out” and he’s left dumbfounded, going to the Lawd/Clintons asking “What shall I do with these people?” Unlike Moses, though, since the Lawd ain’t in a position to save him, Lewis has to save himself. He chooses sides, but needs to let the Lawd know, that he didn’t want to do it and had to in order to save his life. They were going to kill me! (Sounds like Aaron, huh?)
In verse seven, the place where this event occurs is named Massah and Meribah because the people asked “Is the Lord with us or not?” Every commentary I read stated emphatically that the people should not have cried out and “tested” Moses/God. They needed to be patient. I argued in the sermon that we need to cry out and test God and the leaders who claim they are the ambassadors of God’s truth. The condition of the people was not Moses’ ultimate concern. They had to let him and God know their discontent in order for anything to be done about it. I said that we have a responsibility to “cry out” and that God can handle our cries.
Just like it’s possible that we’ve refashioned Moses as a liberator in the tradition, the text suggests that his motives may not be as pure as we’d like to think. The same can be said for many so-called civil rights leaders.
If I’m right, then John Lewis ain’t no different from Catcher Freeman.