Lewis and McCain: When Heroes Collide
John McCain is an American hero. In 1967, after his plane was shot down over Hanoi in Vietnam, an injured McCain parachuted into a lake. Wounded, he was dragged to shore by the North Vietnamese army, beaten, and taken captive. He would be a POW in Vietnam for the next five and a half years, including two years in solitary confinement.
When offered opportunities to go home early while other POWs were left behind, McCain repeatedly refused, unwilling to accept special favors. He was finally released in 1973, having remained faithful to the United States throughout. Regardless of one's perspective on the Vietnam War, we must acknowledge that John McCain sacrificed his body for the sake of freedom and for this nation. John McCain is an American hero.
John Lewis is an American hero. Lewis was a leader throughout the 1960s civil rights movement, serving for a time as president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Lewis sacrificed his body numerous times throughout the tumultuous decade of the 1960s in the fight for freedom, justice, and civil rights.
Lewis was brutally beaten during the Freedom Rides in 1961. Four years later, he was at the front of the line to receive a horrific beating on "Bloody Sunday" on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. John Lewis sacrificed his body for the sake of freedom and for this nation. John Lewis is an American hero.
This past weekend, these two American heroes collided in a battle of words. U.S. Rep. John Lewis released a statement charging that "Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse." Lewis then went further, raising the name of segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace:
"George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights. Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed on Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama."
Lewis then cautioned the Republican candidates: "As public figures with the power to influence and persuade, Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are playing with fire, and if they are not careful, that fire will consume us all."
McCain responded quickly: "Congressman John Lewis' comments represent a character attack against Gov. Sarah Palin and me that is shocking and beyond the pale. The notion that legitimate criticism of Senator Obama's record and positions could be compared to Gov. George Wallace, his segregationist policies and the violence he provoked, is unacceptable and has no place in this campaign."
So what are we to make of this collision of views by two American heroes?
Lewis is right to raise deep concerns and reservations. He knows first hand that rhetoric can lead to vilification and even the dehumanization of individuals and even groups of people. On occasion, the next step after dehumanization has been violence. Over the top rhetoric is dangerous and must be challenged at every turn.
By citing segregationist George Wallace, however, Lewis engages in overly charged rhetoric himself. Conflating historical figures and situations is always dangerous. But does Lewis really think the rhetoric of McCain and Palin compares to some of Wallace's words during his inauguration as Alabama Governor in 1963: "I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever"?
By challenging the McCain campaign about possible unintended consequences of their charged rhetoric, Lewis was spot on. By referencing George Wallace, he runs the risk of going down the same path of charged rhetoric he is seeking to strike down. After both the McCain and Obama campaigns challenged the Wallace reference, Lewis later issued a statement attempting to clarify his remarks, saying:
A careful review of my earlier statement would reveal that I did not compare Sen. John McCain or Gov. Sarah Palin to George Wallace. It was not my intention or desire to do so. My statement was a reminder to all Americans that toxic language can lead to destructive behavior. I am glad that Sen. McCain has taken some steps to correct divisive speech at his rallies. I believe we need to return to civil discourse in this election about the pressing economic issues that are affecting our nation.
When we see heroes collide and hear charged rhetoric for days and weeks and months on end in this election season, we must be wary of getting caught up in vitriolic rhetoric ourselves. As Christ-followers, we are to speak the truth in love. We are to love our enemies, political or otherwise. As Dr. King reminds us in his essay "Pilgrimage to Nonviolence": "Don't ever let anyone pull you so low as to hate them. We must use the weapon of love." As Christians, we must disavow overly charged rhetoric as we work diligently for kingdom values this election season.
We should also remember that Sen. McCain and Rep. Lewis each deserve our respect and gratitude. They have been on the front lines and have the scars to prove it. When heroes collide, while we have a right to critique them by speaking the truth in love, we must not forget what made them heroic in the first place.
Troy Jackson is senior pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, and earned his Ph.D. in United States history from the University of Kentucky. He is author of Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader (Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century) and a participant in Sojourners' Windchangers grassroots organizing project in Ohio to work on the Vote Out Poverty Campaign.