What were you doing when you were 23 years old?
I ask this question every time I give a public presentation about my experiences serving as a police officer in St. Louis.
People usually respond they were just graduating from college, just entering the workforce or still trying to figure out what they wanted to do in life.
I respond, “At 23 years old, someone gave me a gun and badge and told me to go save the world.”
As I think about the legacy of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, I would not dare ask him that question because he was already preparing to change the world at a much younger age.
By the age of 21, he was already considered an important leader within the civil-rights movement.
He had already made an indelible mark on our nation by being the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, a feat that surpasses what most of us could only hope to accomplish in a lifetime.
By 25, he was helping to lead a group of civil-rights activists across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. That act of defiance left him with physical and psychological wounds.
Although he carried the physical wounds received on Bloody Sunday for the rest of his life, he never let them deter him from Jesus’ teaching to forgive and treat others with the love mandated by our common Creator.
Later in life, he wrote the book, “Across that Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change,” which chronicled the challenges and triumphs of trying to make this mandate of forgiveness and love his daily practice.
It is a worthwhile read if simply to see the relationship between how his philosophy, some would say theology, of equality was shaped by the words of Jesus.
For Mr. Lewis, the decision to follow Jesus was about more than just securing his soul’s salvation and going to heaven. It was about following Jesus’ teachings and making an impact in the world based on them.
It was also about understanding God’s love for all creation and God’s desire to restore the damaged relationships between God, creation and between humans.
When I reflect on the legacy of Mr. Lewis, I’m reminded of the leader described in Psalm 72 – a psalm that seems to be an attempt to answer that question, “What does a leader after God’s own heart look like?”
The leader’s first responsibility was to represent God and God’s desires for the nation and land they served and to lead the people of that land in faithfully following God’s precepts.
The leader’s second responsibility was to protect God’s people. To shepherd them and, ultimately, keep them safe from spiritual and physical harm.
The godly leader would also need to be honest and fair with the people, as God was.
The groups that most needed a leader’s protection were:
- The poor and homeless
- Those who lacked enough resources to be able to care for themselves or those they loved
- Those who did not own land or animals and those who did not have inheritances
- The outcast
The godly leader was to protect “the least of these” and not see them as a nuisance to the community. The leader was to ensure they were protected.
The leader’s righteousness, their intent to live into God’s expectations, would be exemplified first, not by possessions accumulated, the size of an army or in the number of treaties negotiated with foreign powers, but by how the leader viewed and cared for those who did not have enough in life.
Psalm 72 adds the leader’s righteous actions toward those who did not have enough would benefit the entire community.
The writer implied that caring for the poor would lead to blessings for the rest of the nation.
The anticipation was that not only would the leader be blessed for doing what God wanted, but the entire land would also benefit.
Because of the leader’s righteous care for the poor, their reign would be long, the kingdom’s borders would expand, the land would be fruitful and even other rulers would acknowledge the leader’s authority by coming before the throne and bowing in subjection.
I think this psalm adequately describes Mr. Lewis and the service he gave, not only to other Christians, but also to the world.
He was one who actively and publicly proclaimed his desire to live out his faith in tangible ways, which led to him serving the poor and oppressed for most of his life.
He did so from a deep commitment that God created all people in God’s image and that meant all people were deserving of fair and righteous treatment.
The world could be a much better place if more of us decided to follow his example as he chose to follow the example of Jesus.
A pastor, author and educator living in St. Louis, Missouri, he is the author of several books, including The Gospel According to Broadway and Taking Apart Bootstrap Theology: Gospel of Generosity and Justice.