‘When you pray, move your feet’

In recognition of the lifework of John Lewis, including his commitment to loving “people in particular,” not just “people in general,” here’s an article from our archives that points to the spiritual basis for racial equality.

“Walking With the Wind,” John Lewis’s 1999 memoir of the civil rights movement, details the efforts of pacifists, in the late 1950s and the 1960s, to integrate lunch counters, buses, and public restrooms, and to register Black people to vote. Every time they tried to claim the rights of full citizenship, these mostly young, freshly-scrubbed people put life and limb on the line, as did the white people who later joined their ranks.

Now, segregation no longer delineates with bold brushstrokes between Black and white. It draws thin lines with a pencil, subtly shading experience according to tradition, education, income, and opportunity. The effect? De facto segregation. Families live in areas where their neighbors are, for the most part, of their same race. Children attend schools where their peers are, for the most part, of their same race. People go to jobs where those with whom they work (though not necessarily those for whom they work) are, for the most part, of their same race. This is a far cry from the “Beloved Community” civil rights activists sought to establish.

Did their efforts fail? No. There can be little doubt that the struggles they waged and won have improved the lives of Black and white people alike. But victories in battle don’t necessarily signal the war’s end. As Mr. Lewis succinctly puts it, “Combating segregation is one thing. Dealing with racism is another.” Attitudes are harder to target than behaviors. That’s why racism is harder to outlaw than segregation. Ultimately, though, unless racist attitudes are annihilated, no amount of effort will permanently establish equal rights.

How, then, do we eradicate racism? Surely a first step in this effort is prayer. One launching point for that prayer is the First Commandment. Following this commandment would of necessity destroy the roots of racism, for honoring only the one God, who is all good, precludes believing that ignorance or hatred is more powerful than God or that some aspect of His creation might fail to express Him. Instead of justifying either superiority or inferiority, acknowledging the perfection of God, the divine Parent, requires us to admit that God’s children, made in His likeness, are perfect as well.

In her book on healing, Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, affirms the link between the First Commandment and brotherly love. She writes, “One infinite God, good, unifies men and nations; constitutes the brotherhood of man; ends wars; fulfils the Scripture, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ ...” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 340). Reasoning from this basis, we arrive not only at each individual’s unbroken relation to God but also at the interconnectedness of all His children.

But how do we get from this spiritual understanding to the “Beloved Community,” to the “kingdom of God on earth”? The answer once again: prayer. Prayer as Mr. Lewis defines it with this African proverb: “‘When you pray, move your feet.’”

And Mr. Lewis did move his feet. Whether marching from Selma to Montgomery, plying the back roads of the Deep South in a voter registration drive, or striding the mile and a half to his own victory celebration following his election to the U.S. Congress, Mr. Lewis walked the walk. Shoulder to shoulder with people of various colors, classes, and creeds, he counts no one his enemy, not even his attackers. Far beyond advocating tolerance of others, even beyond urging respect, Mr. Lewis practiced “a love that recognizes the spark of the divine in each of us.”

Not surprisingly, Mr. Lewis couldn’t live this kind of love in isolation. Nor could he live it surrounded only by those of his own race or class. When it comes to eradicating racism, the prayer that makes you move your feet requires you to forsake the comfort of familiarity for life among a variety of people.

Toward the end of his memoir, Mr. Lewis observes: “Yes, all politicians love people in general. ... But many of them are very uncomfortable with people in particular ....” With a touch of humor, he reminds us here that “love” is an action, a verb. And he reminds me that if I am to help create the “Beloved Community,” I must do more than love God’s perfect child in general. I must also love people in particular – never forgetting their spiritual nature, ever appreciating their humanity.

Adapted from an article published in the February 2000 issue of The Christian Science Journal.

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