Lawson Continues Nonviolent Protests

The Reverend James Lawson admits that it sometimes troubles him when people view him as a living artifact of the civil rights movement, especially because he has been arrested for civil disobedience more times in the last 10 years than he ever was during the 1950s and 60s.

Although there is no denying that Lawson is one of the important figures of the civil rights movement, a man respected and loved for that rare mix of gentleness and unquenchable thirst for justice, he is not one to rest on laurels. It is humble understatement when he says he has "remained active in a great variety of ways."

In fact, Lawson has continued to demonstrate and to resist over a wide range of issues including poverty, Iraq, gay and lesbian issues, Central America, and racial profiling, while continuing to teach the theory and practice of nonviolence. Perhaps the only accurate way to describe his work is contained in this statement from him: "I continue to see my work as sowing the seeds of that revolution yet to happen." The fields he has sown are many and varied, through his work as a pastor, organizer, educator, and even host of a call-in show on the Odyssey cable-television network, Jim Lawson: Live.

In 2001, Harvard Divinity School has been one of the fields in which Lawson has chosen to sow, as the Luce Lecturer on Urban Ministry. This is an opportunity he sees as important because he believes the methods he teaches and practices need to be passed on to new generations at a time when Americans are being "weaned on violence." In his course "Nonviolence (Soul Force)—An Unexplored Human Option," he shares literature and personal experience about nonviolence. "It's aimed at the practical side," says Lawson, who studied Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi's techniques in Nagpur, India, before joining forces with Martin Luther King, Jr. King appointed Lawson to be director of nonviolent education for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the early 60s, soon after he had helped found the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee as a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Lawson, who is 72 years old and pastor emeritus at Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, believes that Americans need to learn nonviolent strategies now more than ever. "A lot of people feel that they are helpless, but the literature of nonviolence offers us over 200 weapons or methods for bringing about social and political change," he explains. "There are basic actions that still hold." Simply writing a letter of protest to the president of the United States, for example, is a good way "to get yourself into the mode of action," he says. The methods progress all the way to civil disobedience and "major marches, filling the streets, which continue to be effective."

The example of Eastern Europe in 1989 and 1990, when marches in East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and other countries, "rarely reported about in the U.S. press, reached 300-350,000 people in relatively small cities," is an important one for Lawson. These marches, he points out, "included people surrounding tanks and talking with compassion to the soldiers who were set out to disperse them."

"They were very successful, bringing down the governments in Eastern Europe one by one," he adds. "Don't think you can abandon that weapon."

Pointing to the accessibility of weapons, the advancement of the national security state, and a successful movement by the religious right "to take over the media and adopt the language of people like King," Lawson says that "in many ways, we have a more perplexing and difficult task in the U.S. now than we did during the civil rights movement." Even so, he explains, "a nonviolent methodology helps us to get at that task, by bringing about change in a rational way, that is, by helping people to move from simple protest to protracted movement and struggle."

Lawson does see enormous signs of hope in the number of groups active in social causes. "There are environmentalists, women's groups, anti-racism groups, groups for the well-being of children, and student groups protesting sweatshops," he says. "There are more activist groups than there ever were in the 50s and 60s, proving that there are tremendous numbers of Americans who are frustrated by the present moment and want change."

"I maintain that in the twenty-first century we will see sizeable national movements and campaigns seeking to create change," he continues, "because it is clear that the Democrats and Republicans are not going to make changes unless they are forced to by the impact of the people."

He also suspects that the repertoire of nonviolent methods will expand a bit in the light of technology to include "sabotaging the whole society by ganging up on computers, phone lines, and faxes." Yet Lawson knows firsthand that nothing can replace direct, grass-roots involvement, and some of his most interesting work in recent years has been through an interfaith group in the Los Angles area, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE).

This group has worked on a variety of issues, but Lawson sees a priority. "I think the major justice issue should be getting living wages for all workers," he says, referring to the United States and the rest of the world. "That issue is a derivation of slavery, which said there is an economic institution in the United States and it's all right to have people who work and live on a subsistence basis, gaining no serious benefits except enough food to stay alive so they can stay working."

In an effort to achieve a "revitalization of religion in relation to work," he and other religious leaders in the Los Angeles area have started a movement "getting workers to go tell their priests and ministers about the conditions they're facing in their work lives." This has caused "the conversion of a number of clergy," Lawson says," and is "a movement I hope will grow."

As a man who served as pastor to churches in several parts of the country, and now as pastor emeritus at Holman United Methodist Church, Lawson has always acted from a Christian spiritual vision, and the second course he has been teaching at HDS this semester embodies the sort of church-based work he performs and nurtures. In the "Urban Ministry Seminar," Lawson instructs professional people who are engaged in all sorts of ministries in the Boston area. "That course is geared toward addressing the issues they bring—they set the agenda," he explains. But Lawson does not regard church-based work as being separate from political and economic activism. "The root causes of all 'issues' are in the spirit and spirituality of America," Lawson says. "Racism itself is a spiritual institution," girded by faulty religious arguments that "clearly go against the Christian-Jewish world view that God created us all in God's image."

Interviewed during Lent, Lawson reflected on the theological grounding of his own thinking. "I get a little disturbed by antiquated ritual," he said, "I don't think we need to be so limited in our understanding."

"Using the cross as God's wish to kill his son, in my judgment, is bad theology," he added. "The cross has mystery to it, and as a consequence has many different meanings to it. What about the cross as a man of the spirit who refused to run away when the Roman Empire raised its fist? Jesus could have left. He knew there were collaborators who wanted him dead, so he could have gone back to Galilee and returned another time. What about the cross as a man having decided, as Martin King decided, that 'there's a bullet waiting for me,' but who pursued his course anyway. What about Jesus refusing to take up the sword? What about the cross as a call to be prepared to take violence but not dish it out, as faithfulness to your own abiding convictions and confidence in God no matter the danger?"