Since my father died nine years ago, I’ve had the sad but inevitable experience of attending successive funerals of his brothers and sisters as his generation passes away. The eulogies at each of these services have covered common ground - a deep love of family, a character deeply rooted in common decency and respect for others, and a life spent contributing to community. When I remarked on these likenesses to my aunt, she replied, “Of course, they were all hewn from the same rock.”
Watching the funerals of John Lewis and John Hume over the last few weeks has evoked sad memories of my father’s passing, but it has also served as a reminder of the hard lessons that these two figures have taught us about the role of moral leadership in progressive social change.
Rooted in community.
The first lesson is that leaders such as Hume and Lewis don’t stand apart from the communities from which they rise. The morality they stood for is a morality that imbues many others in and beyond their generation. At Hume’s funeral, his son John Jr summed up this shared morality as follows:
“If dad were here today in the fullness of his health, witnessing the current tensions in the world, he wouldn’t waste the opportunity to say a few words. He’d talk about our common humanity, the need to respect diversity and difference, to protect and deepen democracy, to value education, and to place nonviolence at the absolute centre. He might also stress the right to a living wage and a roof over your head, to decent healthcare and education. If he were here now, he might quote his friend, Congressman John Lewis, who sadly passed away a few weeks ago, appealing to the ‘goodness of every human being and never giving up.’”
Hume’s passing forces us to reflect on the paradox that he, like Lewis, grew up in a society that was deeply immoral. In both instances - the North of Ireland and the American South in the 1960s - structural violence was woven into the political and economic fabric, and formed a straitjacket of discrimination and oppression for Catholics and Black Americans respectively. Yet both men based their lifelong fight for justice on the solid rock of a simple and unshakeable morality that they developed within such an unpromising milieu.
Moreover, they both derived their core base of support from the many, many people within these violent, hate-filled societies who rejected such negative values and shared instead the beliefs that differences should be celebrated, that peace was the only means to resolve conflict, and that the measure of our worth lies in what we contribute to others. Hume and Lewis spent their lives building on this core to engage with those who opposed them in an effort to change their opponents’ hearts and minds.
Processes of change.
A second lesson is that pursuing social justice takes huge persistence, because such change takes an inordinate amount of time. It takes time because it involves two intertwined processes of change - a change of mindsets and change within institutions.
In his bestseller Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari describes how one of the hallmarks of our species is the ability to conjure up imagined realities on which to structure our societies. It was by building what Harari calls the “pyramids in our minds” - imagined orders and hierarchies - that human civilisations have advanced. But such imagined orders have also left our social institutions and belief systems saturated with structural violence and prejudice. Changing these prejudices and restructuring our flawed institutions is what progressive social change is all about.
This can sometimes take a lifetime. For example, in a recent reflection on the seemingly-sudden change in Ireland regarding same sex marriage in a once staunchly conservative Catholic country, the former Irish President Mary McAleese remarked that this was the culmination of a 40 year campaign to change minds and laws. So too with the struggles to which Hume and Lewis devoted their lives.
Overcoming the pyramids of hierarchy and hatred that form the basis for racism and religious prejudice is not a one-way or linear process. As Plato warned us millennia ago, social change is characterised by relapses and reversals. Because of this, and as both leaders were acutely aware, every generation must begin the struggle for justice anew.
Thirdly, deep social change requires character, and the essential features of such character arise directly from the specific nature of the challenges involved.
The Irish poet Seamus Heaney (who was at the same school as John Hume in the 1950s) once described living in Northern Ireland at that time as living “under high banked clouds of resignation.” John Lewis recalled how “In those days, fear constrained us like an imaginary prison, and troubling thoughts of potential brutality committed for no understandable reason were the bars.”
Under such seemingly hopeless conditions, both men were relied upon to provide vision and maintain hope when others were in despair. They carried the weight of resignation that many within their own communities felt naturally, trapped as they were within cultures of blatant and unapologetic injustice. The lifelong task they took upon themselves was to persist through the darkest of times until those clouds of resignation were finally dispelled.
Their role was also to contain and channel the sense of anger and revulsion that most of us feel at the bullies and ‘strongmen’ who blight our societies, even as they are killing us and constraining us to live pinched versions of ourselves, versions that they themselves ordain. Leaders like Hume and Lewis show us the way, which is always to follow our better selves through non-violent means, even when the injustices tempt us towards revenge. In containing our rage and revulsion, they gave us the most valuable of gifts – a moral compass to follow as the storms of hatred rage all around us.
As they engaged in the twin processes of changing minds and changing institutions, they were both required to become protesters, and then practical politicians, as well as persuaders and teachers of the vision for equality they were pursuing. Their teachings were persuasive because they were grounded in the fearless courage of their convictions, having faced down the state-sanctioned brutality of teargas and the baton.
The continuity of the prophets.
In his final letter before he died, John Lewis reminded us that while history shows that the path to a better future is rocky, it also shows us how to make more progress:
“You must also study and learn the lessons of history, because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, through decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time.”
We are living in a moment of historic danger when multiple crises crowd in on us. Climate change, levels of inequality that are tearing apart the fabric of society, the disintegration of global institutions designed to allow for the peaceful resolution of conflict, and the persistent dangers of nuclear weapons are all occurring alongside the devastation being wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic.
We urgently need a moral compass amid the growing storm. John Hume and John Lewis provide the template on which the healing of divisions and the future of social progress must be based. In our age of strongmen who are taking us ever closer to destruction, they also provide the template for the leadership we urgently require.
In his tribute to Hume, Bono wrote that “We were searching for a great leader and we found a great servant.” An important part of the service that Hume and Lewis provided was to remind us that moral leaders reflect the best in their communities, and that the moral character we admire in them is also present within the rest of us.
Perhaps they are strangers within whom we recognize our common humanity. Perhaps they are our fathers and mothers, our sisters, brothers and friends. It is our urgent task to recognize them so that we can act together - courageously, persistently and morally - in the service of a brighter future.