Rev. James Lawson Gives New Year’s Message to America

Civil Rights Leader Rev. James Lawson focused on the power of vision and nonviolence in his presentation for a McClendon Scholar in Residence webinar on Feb. 10.

Our nation’s founding documents provide “monumental and miraculous” visions for our nation, but forces of sexism, racism, violence and “plantation capitalism” have prevented the United States from realizing these visions, said Lawson. And the “nonviolent campaign” of the mid 20th century provides a model for realizing those visions today.

The Gift of Vision. Rev. Lawson, the architect of nonviolence of the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century, began his talk with a focus on vision. Drawing on the King James translation of Proverbs 19:18—“Where there is no vision, the people perish”—Rev. Lawson suggested adding a verse: “Where vision flourishes, the people prosper.”

“The God of history gave we the people of the USA visions,” said Lawson, referring to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These documents represent “monumental, miraculous vision in the midst of a world that was largely under the domination of tyrannies.” And the visions of these documents can heal our community today, he argued.

According to Lawson, our current political divides stem from “the tension of a promising future against the reality of our not wanting to use the visions we have.” Four interconnected forces hold us back: sexism, racism, violence, and plantation capitalism, he said, adding to and modifying Martin Luther King, Jr.’s triad of racism, materialism and militarism.

Sexism and Plantation Capitalism. In listing his four forces, Lawson listed sexism first, emphasizing its importance, and said that each of these four forces relies on the others, with violence permeating them all, especially what Lawson calls “plantation capitalism.”

“We do not have a free market, we do not have entrepreneurship, because we are an economy that worships wealth and fame and the power and the political domination that comes from the wealth. And we are more of a plantation capitalist society today than we were in 1787 or 1789.” Currently, our nation’s politics are “more connected to these forces than … to a vision of the equality of all humankind,” said Lawson.

A Model for Today. But what John Lewis termed the “nonviolent campaign of America” from 1953 to 1973 is a model for realizing our founding visions today. Lawson called the civil rights movement an umbrella term that originates in 1866 civil rights legislation, and said the nonviolent campaigns of the 1953 to 1973 form one part of this bigger movement. These “direct action campaigns,” from the Little Rock Nine to the Montgomery bus boycott to sit in campaigns in Nashville and across the nation, were “dramatic manifestations of our determination that the United States will end its experiment with becoming a racist nation, especially in the light of the Constitution and ‘we the people.’”

Rev. Lawson made a distinction between education and training for these nonviolent campaigns. Education focused on the “why and how” of nonviolence, while training, especially the preparation immediately before an action, focused on “preparing our emotions” for the physical/psychic threats which the protestors were likely to endure. It was a disciplined people who engaged in the struggle, and part of the education was to discover the humanity of those who opposed us, he said.

The Work of the Church. Lawson prefers Lewis’ term “nonviolent campaign” to refer to the 20th century civil rights movement, but noted that these campaigns could also be called “the Black Church Movement.” They provide “an illustration of engaging Jesus’ primary teaching of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven … a major example of what it means to be the people of God, he said. “I lay it before you – if you want to talk about what the work of the church … ought to be. There it is. … That’s the message.”

This model can be updated, and that work has already begun in the Black Lives Matter movement, which, he emphasized, has been largely nonviolent. Asking Martin Luther King’s question, “Where do we go from here?”, Lawson said academia and unions, in addition to religious organizations, all have a role to play. “What the world needs is nonviolent campaigns that make the 20th century look pale in comparison,” he said.

After his talk, the program included questions and dialog between Lawson and Rev. Joe Daniels of Emory Fellowship United Methodist Church, who is a family friend of Lawson, along with Civil Rights Leader Bernard Lafayette and Historian Taylor Branch. Asked what vision should be lifted up for our nation today as the program came to a close, Lawson returned to his theme: “We hold these truths to be self evident,” he said. “That’s the most important vision and the most teachable.”

Lawson concluded the evening:

“Nonviolence is the creative energy of the universe, that created the universe, that created the human race and spread us across the earth, and it is the power we must learn if indeed we appreciate the gift of life and want to exalt that gift in every way we can.”

You can watch Lawson’s full webinar here.

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