The “Good Trouble” of John Lewis and Jesus

“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate, to stand up, to speak up and speak out, and get in the way, get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”

John Lewis

In seeking to cause “good trouble” John Lewis (the civil rights activist and one of the last surviving members of Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle) deployed Christ-like challenges to evil. He understood that the Gospel does not teach non-resistance to evil, though this is often the interpretation given to Jesus’ words (in Matt. 5:38-41), in spite of the fact that everything about Christ is resistance to evil. What we have in the life of Lewis is the embodiment of Jesus’ mode of “nonviolent resistance” (the correct translation – and in accord with Paul’s direct command in Ephesians to resist evil). In this verse Christ provides the sort of examples Lewis would employ in his 40 odd arrests and in being nearly beaten to death on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

As Walter Wink notes, each of Jesus’ three examples is a specific mode of exposing the underside of an unjust law or an evil situation.  In the first, “By turning the cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again: his nose is in the way.” The shame and degradation are absorbed and overcome by the unyielding servant standing firm. “The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists . . . and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality.” This is no passive acceptance but a form of defiance which renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance.[1] Or in Paul’s description, here is one standing firm and resisting evil, not through violence, but through the armor of nonviolence. Paul explains, if one takes up this full armor of God, they will be able to resist evil (Eph 6:13).

The master could do what the police did to the civil rights marchers (beat the slave), but the violence is itself a defeat (the slave is not cowed and the marchers cause is proved just). The violence done to the civil rights marchers exposed to the world the inherent racism of this legal violence. Troopers swinging clubs and throwing tear gas canisters, charged the marchers and ran them over as they broke bones and cracked skulls, Lewis’s among them. Yet, less than ten days later, and after the world witnessed the horrific lengths racists would go to, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. The Act banned the use of literacy tests and poll taxes – the goal of the protest.

The nonviolent movement for civil rights, like the nonviolent movement of Mahatma Gandhi, discovered the form of resistance inherent in going the second mile, turning the other cheek, giving both cloak and undergarment, and culminating in taking up the cross.  If a creditor takes a poor man to court over an unpaid loan, he had the right to take his outer robe as collateral (Deuteronomy 24:10-13). Jesus is not suggesting people should simply confound their problem in offering the undergarment as well; rather he is suggesting that the injustice of being stripped naked exposes the inherent injustice of the situation. Here is the legal equivalent of letting the blow land and turning the other cheek. “He is telling impoverished debtors, who have nothing left but the clothes on their backs, to use the system against itself.” Exorbitant interest on loans (25 to 250 percent), and high taxation levied by Herod Antipas, was being used by the powerful to dispossess Galilean peasants of their land. Jesus counsels them to give over their undergarments as this would mean being left naked in court. Nakedness was taboo in Judaism, and shame fell primarily on the person viewing or causing the nakedness (Gen. 9: 20–27). By stripping, the debtor exposes the injustice of the situation and brings shame on the creditor.[2]

So too, the civil rights marchers who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, forced the authorities to decide between allowing the blacks to march and thus acknowledging the legitimacy of their protest; or they could violently stop it, thus exposing their own race hatred to all the world. The equivalent of turning the other cheek and allowing them to expose their helplessness or the equivalent of being stripped naked of their rights, simultaneously exposed the ugly underside of those who covered themselves with the law. Far from the usual interpretation, that Christians do not use the law to their advantage, this reading accords with Paul’s use of his Roman citizenship to extract an apology from city officials, or Christ’s exposure of the perverseness of the law on the cross. There is a way of “suspending the law” (in Paul’s description of the work of Christ) and exposing its perverse underside. There is an excess to the law that brings about sin, but this is at once a personal and corporate predicament, exposed and relieved by the love of Christ.

Lewis devoted his life to exposing the perverse underside of racist laws by deploying both Christ’s nonviolent resistance and love, with the aim of creating what he called the “Beloved Community.” This sort of challenge to evil is not for the faint of heart or cowardly. As Gandhi pointed out, it is easy enough to make a violent person nonviolent but it is impossible to teach a coward nonviolent resistance. Perhaps one of Lewis’s greatest acts though, and one that confirmed the effectiveness of his love of enemies (he cautioned against becoming hostile or bitter toward enemies) was his acceptance of repentance and granting of forgiveness to a former Klansmen.

In 1961, Lewis as part of the Freedom Riders, entered the white waiting area in the Greyhound bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, to protest segregation. Elwin Wilson was one of a group of white men who beat Lewis upon this infraction. Lewis did not fight back and declined to press charges. According to Wilson, “What happened was, after he was beat and bloody and all, the policeman came up and asked him, he said, ‘Do y’all want to take out warrants? [Press charges].'” “He said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘We’re not here to cause trouble.’ He said, ‘We’re here for people to love each other.'” Wilson would never forget the statement and he would eventually discover the man he had beaten had become a congressman and he would seek him out to ask for forgiveness. Years later, Lewis and Wilson appeared together in an interview with Oprah, and in the still of the interview Lewis has his hand gently resting on Wilson’s.

Perhaps this is an instance of Jesus example of going the second mile. Any bystander could be pressed into service, with the only limitation being one of distance. Carrying the pack or burden a second mile was an infraction of Roman military code and the offending soldier could be flogged, receive reduced rations, forced to camp outside the fortifications, or forced to stand all day before the general’s tent clutching a clod of earth. The oppressor has opened himself to punishment should the civilian file a complaint. The very possibility means that the one oppressed by the law has turned the tables, not to oppress in turn, though Lewis or the anonymous citizen could act vindictively. But in Jesus command and in Lewis’s example, love is the final arbiter. Love is not averse to turning round the oppressive momentum, but not for revenge but to create the mutual recognition of humanity (perhaps fostering uncertainty and anxiety in the oppressor) and creating the possibility for repentance.[3]  

The great dignity and love of John Lewis demonstrate that nonviolent resistance works toward justice through a heart overflowing with love – up to and including love of enemy. This is a hard love and is in no way otherworldly or impractical. As Wink concludes, Jesus is not giving a nonpolitical message of spiritual transcendence. His is a worldly spirituality in which the people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of power learn to recover their humanity through nonviolent resistance.[4]

 John Lewis devoted a lifetime to demonstrating and modeling the power of nonviolent resistance to defeat evil. In his own words, which indicate his legacy, “The irony is that a bridge named after a man who inflamed racial hatred (Pettus was a Confederate brigadier general and leader of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan) is now known worldwide as a symbol of equality and justice. It is biblical—what was meant for evil, God used for good.” Lewis’s deployment of Christ’s nonviolent resistance insured he could be so used for God’s good purposes.


[1] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be, 102. Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale. Kindle Edition.

[2] Wink, 104.

[3] Wink, 108.

[4] Wink, 108.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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