John Lewis on Redemptive Suffering, Grace in Practice

“We Must Honor our Suffering, that there is Something in the Very Essence of Anguish that is Liberating”

Mockingbird / 7.21.20

Famously called “the conscience of the House,” the late congressman John Lewis began his career of activism at the American Baptist Theological Seminary. The following is an excerpt from his memoir, where he describes what he learned from his seminary professors:

We talked a lot about the idea of “redemptive suffering,” which from the first time Jim Lawson mentioned the phrase made me think of my mother. Often, when I was growing up, I would hear her groan and moan while she was praying. “The seeds of the righteous must never be forsaken …,” she would recite. I didn’t know what she was talking about then, but now I was beginning to understand. What my mother was saying, in her Old Testament phrasing, was that we must honor our suffering, that there is something in the very essence of anguish that is liberating, cleansing, redemptive. I always understood the idea of the ultimate redeemer, Christ on the cross. But now I was beginning to see that this is something that is carried out in every one of us, that the purity of unearned suffering is a holy and affective thing. It affects not only ourselves, but it touches and changes those around us as well. It opens us and those around us to a force beyond ourselves, a force that is right and moral, the force of righteous truth that is at the basis of human conscience. Suffering puts us and those around us in touch with our consciences. It opens and touches our hearts. It makes us feel compassion where we need to and guilt if we must.

Suffering, though, can be nothing more than a sad and sorry thing without the presence on the part of the sufferer of a graceful heart, an accepting and open heart, a heart that holds no malice toward the inflictors of his or her suffering. This is a difficult concept to understand, and it is even more difficult to internalize, but it has everything to do with the way of nonviolence. We are talking about love here. Not romantic love. Not the love of one individual for another. Not loving something that is lovely to you. This is a broader, deeper, more all-encompassing love. It is a love that accepts and embraces the hateful and the hurtful

Dr. King would often say that we’ve got to love people no matter what. Most of all, he would say, we must love the unlovable. Love the hell out of them, he would say. And he meant that literally. If there is hell in someone, if there is meanness and anger and hatred in him, we’ve got to love it out.