This summer, the United States lost a great hero. When John Lewis, a civil rights leader and long time congressman, died in July, many people were moved by reading his article, “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation.” In his writing, he tells us that in his last hours the people of the United States inspired him with their commitment to demanding justice for Black Americans.
I reread this article recently for class, and I was struck by the first three words of the title, “Together, you can…”
In the first word, “together,” Lewis is reminding us that each of us are only doing a small part of the work of building what Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to as “the Beloved Community.” No one of us is going to single handedly “save the soul of our nation,” and the weight of the work ahead will be too heavy if we try to carry it alone. Lewis clearly learned this through his experience of working together with others during the Civil Rights movement and in his career in Congress, and as he wrote, we can learn from the lessons of those who have gone ahead of us.
The second word that struck me was “you.” Lewis was recognizing that it is no longer, “Together, we.” The work he engaged in so closely with so many others – the “togetherness” that he had learned – is in the past. In the word “you” alone, he is passing the torch to a new generation. My generation needs to know that this country is now our responsibility, and we can no longer simply look to others to make the changes we want to see. I imagine this could have been painful for Lewis, but I feel consolation in knowing that we did inspire him in his last days, which hopefully made it a little less difficult to do.
Finally, the word “can.” In East of Eden by John Steinbeck, one of the main characters has a lengthy discussion of the translation of the word Timshel in the Bible. He studies the translation of the Hebrew word in the story of Cain and Abel, when God is telling Cain that he can rule over sin (Genesis 4:7). In one translation, it was phrased as an order to rule over sin. In another, it was phrased as a promise that he would rule over sin. Yet, the original Hebrew actually means “though mayest” rule over sin.
I think John Lewis was making a similarly intentional choice with his wording – he was not ordering us to redeem the soul of our nation. He was also not promising us that we will. He is simply saying that we can do it if we are willing to do the work of building peace and justice. Over and over again, we must choose love of neighbor over self-interest, understanding over ignorance, and speaking up over staying quiet.
Together, we can.