Longtime Democratic congressman John Lewis passed away from pancreatic cancer on Friday at age 80. Lewis was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to help organize civil rights protests in the 1960s. In 1965, Lewis was beaten by officers during a voting rights protest on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama. This incident became the catalyst for the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It also turned Lewis into a civil rights icon.
Many consider Lewis’ ability to forgive others a teachable moment. He has been especially forgiving toward those that have transgressed against him personally. Lewis’ stance on forgiveness isn’t particularly admirable by any stretch of the imagination.
Make no mistake: Lewis is perfectly within his rights to offer forgiveness. It should be noted that missing from Lewis’ stance on forgiveness is his advocacy for actual punishment for those that have transgressed against him. Forgiveness without actual punishment is unreasonable since there would be no deterrent from those acts continuing.
Lewis was an advocate for protecting the rights of illegal immigrants and members of the LGBTQ community. Advocacy for these particular groups isn’t noteworthy, as human decency dictates this should be a given. Where is his advocacy for policy that punishes law enforcement and private citizens that wantonly kill black people in America? Surely if such policy existed and were actually enforced, there would be no protests for black racial equality.
Lewis’ death can be a teachable moment. There was no mention of any punishment administered towards Lewis’ perpetrators in the 1960s. We can learn how to enact punishment against those that have transgressed against us. Lewis was an advocate for nonviolence. He can teach us to be violent in self defense. And we can forgive: only after the perpetrator has been actually punished. That would be the greatest lesson of all, worthy of getting into “good trouble”.