Review: His Truth is Marching On

His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope, Jon Meacham (Afterword by John Lewis). New York: Random House, 2020.

Summary: An account of the life of Congressman John Lewis, focusing on the years of his leadership in the civil rights movement and the faith, hope, commitment to non-violence and the Beloved Community that sustained him.

We lost a hero this summer in the death of Congressman John Lewis. We may remember the last photos of him, days before his death on Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC, one more expression of the arc of a life spent in the hope that the nation would recognize the gift that his people are and that one day, his hope of Dr. King’s Beloved Community would be realized. We might also remember the image of him being clubbed to the ground on the approaches to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, a day he nearly lost his life. There is so much that came before, and between these images. In this new work, historian Jon Meacham offers a historical account coupled with Lewis’s recollections, that helps us understand not only the heroic work of this civil rights icon, but the wellsprings of motivation that spurred his long march.

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Meacham begins with his ancestry, great-grandchild of a slave, child of sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama, growing up deep in the Jim Crow South in segregated schools, where a look, an inappropriate word might cost one’s life if you were black. Lewis was a child of the black church who knew he wanted to be a preacher, and practiced on the chickens on his parents farm. His faith, and early uneasiness with the inequities that did not measure up to the American dream meant “that the Lord had to be concerned with the ways we lived our lives right here on earth, that everything we did, or didn’t do in our lives had to be more than just a means of making our way to heaven.” Then he heard the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio and heard someone who gave voice to his growing calling and conviction., leading to pursuing seminary studies at the American Baptist Seminary in Nashville.

Meacham accounts how this led to sit-ins at restaurants, the Freedom Rides, the Children’s Crusade and the March on Washington, where he gave one of the most impassioned speeches as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), refusing to back away from criticism of the Kennedy administration. Meacham describes the death of Kennedy, the civil rights leadership of Johnson, and Lewis’s growing exile from SNCC, from those like Stokely Carmichael who had tired of the slow progress of non-violent protest, that left him to go to Selma alone rather than with the SNCC. Again and again his principles led him to get into “good trouble.”

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Through it all, including the deaths of King and Bobby Kennedy, he persisted, through multiple beatings and arrests. Much of this work chronicles his years in the civil rights movement, leaving the final chapter to summarize his years in Congress and legacy. What Meacham focuses on throughout are the theological convictions, rooted in Lewis’s belief in the Spirit of History, his faith in a loving God, and his belief that America’s ideals would prevail over America’s failings. Second is a focus on Lewis’s bedrock conviction of pursuing non-violent resistance rooted in a belief of the dignity of all people in the image of God, even one’s enemies, developed from the Bible, Dr. King, James Lawson and the Highlander Workshops, and the principles of Gandhi. The narrative is one of how Lewis “walked the talk” bearing numerous beatings without retaliation, sacrificing his leadership for his principles. Finally, Lewis lived toward a vision of America as Dr. King’s “Beloved Community.” From marches and activism to his years in politics, Meacham shows how he strove for the peace with justice that would overcome divisions between black and white. Meacham gives John Lewis the last word in his afterword:

We won the battles of the 1960’s. But the war for justice, the war to make America both great and good, goes on. We the People are not a united people right now. We rarely are, but our divisions and our tribalism are especially acute. Many Americans have lost faith in the idea that what binds us together is more important than what separates us. Now as before, we have to choose, as Dr. King once put it, between community and chaos.

John Lewis never lost faith that what binds us together matters most and never stopped pursuing community rather than chaos. Meacham’s book leaves us the question of what will we believe and pursue in the days ahead. How we answer that may be decisive not only for our lives but also for our country.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Month in Reviews: April 2015

April’s book reviews covered both a significant span of time and geography as well as genre. I reviewed an academic debate on free will from the sixteenth century and a conversation about Christology published last year. There was a decided international flavor to these books, whether it concerned a historical novel of the British campaign in Flanders during World War II, a discussion of immigration, narratives of nonviolent action around the world in the last fifty years, or the last fifty years of African history. I reviewed genres as diverse as Walter Wangerin’s fantasy taking place in a barnyard of animals to Max Planck’s scientific autobiography and essays. I explored both the formation of the inner virtues of faith, hope, and love, and the interesting idea that the complexity and beauty of the world is a profound apologetic for the Christian faith.

As always, the links on this page are to my full reviews. Many of the reviews have links to the book publisher. So, without further ado, here’s the list:

True Paradox8th Champion1. True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of our Complex World by David Skeel. David Skeel argues that far from being a problem for Christians, the complexity of the world is in fact something best explained by the Christian faith.

2. The Eighth Champion of Christendom by Edith Pargeter. A historical novel set at the beginning of World War Two exploring the growing realization of the horror of war that “heroic warriors” face. The plot centers around Jim Bennison, an English soldier and Miriam Lozelle, a Jewish refuge farm holder in Boissy whose husband is away at war.

Jesus without BordersEducating for Shalom3. Educating for Shalom by Nicholas Wolterstorff. This collection of essays and talks written or given over a 30 year period traces Nicholas Wolterstorff’s journey of thinking about Christian higher education, the integration of faith and learning, and his growing concern that education result in the pursuit of justice and shalom.

4. Jesus without Borders ed. by Gene L. Green, Stephen T. Pardue, K.K. Yeo. Eight theologians from different parts of the world came together for a theological dialogue on Christology, engaging the Chalcedonian definition of Christology and reflecting on the unique perspective they bring on Christology from their part of the world.

ImmigrationPlanck5. Immigration: Tough Questions, Direct Answers by Dale Hanson Bourke. Third in “The Skeptics Guide Series” and like others in the series it provides a concise overview of basic facts about immigration and discusses the challenges of immigration policy in the United States.

6. Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers by Max Planck. This is a re-issue in e-book form of Planck’s Scientific Autobiography and other papers on some of the “big” issues of science including causality, the limits of science and the relationship of science and religion.

Luther Erasmusnonviolent action7. Nonviolent Action by Ron Sider. Ron Sider argues from a number of instances over the past seventy-five years that nonviolent action can work and bring about political change.

8. Erasmus and Luther: The Battle over Free Will edited by Clarence H. Miller, translated by Clarence H. Miller and Peter Macardle. This work is a compilation of the argument between Erasmus and Luther over the place of free will and grace in salvation, excluding most of the supporting exegesis but giving the gist of the argument.

Christ Shaped CharacterDun Cow9. Christ-Shaped Character by Helen Cepero. Cepero, through personal narrative and formational teaching and practices, traces a path of growing to be more who we truly are as reflections of Christ through the embrace of love, faith and hope.

10. The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr. This modern animal fable portrays a conflict between the beasts of the Earth and Wyrm of the underworld and his evil surrogates, and the heroism of a rooster, a dog, and the other beasts.

Fate of Africa11. The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith. Meredith, a foreign correspondent who has made a lifelong study of Africa, chronicles the last 50 years of African history from the hopes of independence from colonial rule and promising beginnings through the heartbreaking instances of corruption, economic pillaging, and various slaughters and genocides including that of AIDS.

Best of the Month: This is a tough pick this month, but on the basis of the “I will read it again” test, I have to go with The Book of the Dun Cow. This apparently simple fable has layers of meaning and depths of insight into the struggle of good and evil, and the qualities of character and grace needed to meet that struggle.

Best quote of the Month: I would choose this quote from Max Planck’s essay on science and religion. While I did not agree with all he wrote, I think he gets the balance right here:

“Religion and natural science are fighting a joint battle in an incessant, never relaxing crusade against scepticism and against dogmatism, against disbelief and against superstition, and the rallying cry in this crusade has always been, and always will be: ‘On to God!’ “

I so appreciate all of you who read and comment on my reviews! I appreciated the comment I received today on Facebook from one reader: “I like your habit of reading books with view of reviewing for the benefit of community @large (I am a beneficiary of it).. I am trying to make it a discipline .. Thanx 4 da work.. Keep doing Bob…”

One of the delights of blogging and the internet is to find oneself part of a global community. I really do hope these reviews are a benefit, whether in finding your next “good read” or in becoming familiar with writers and writing of whose work it is helpful to know more.

All “The Month in Reviews” post may be accessed from “The Month in Reviews” link on the menu bar of my blog. And if you don’t want to wait a month to see my reviews, consider following the blog for reviews as well as thoughts on reading, the world of books, and life.