John Lewis Reminds Us What It Means to Engage in Civil Disobedience

An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

When Rep. John Lewis led a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives over their lack of action on gun violence, he talked about getting into “good trouble.” His history of protest during the Civil Rights movement shows that he knows a thing or two about that. Perhaps more than any other person alive today, Rep. Lewis knows what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was talking about in that quote up above on what it means to engage in civil disobedience.

Now House Speaker Paul Ryan threatens to punish those who participated in the sit-in. Rep. Lewis basically says, “Bring it on.”

“My feeling is, I’ve been punished before. If they want to punish us, bring it on,” Lewis (D-Ga.) said. “If we violated the rules, the tradition of the House, the order of the House, punish us. We’re ready to be punished and then we’ll see what happens.”

When he says “we’ll see what happens,” he’s talking about the part of MLK’s quote that refers to accepting “the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community.”

As I’ve watched various forms of protest over the last few years – from the Occupy Wall Street movement to the NSA leaks from Edward Snowden to the Black Lives Matter movement – this is the part of civil disobedience that is too often ignored. People who actually studied nonviolent civil disobedience, like Rep. John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi know that it goes beyond breaking unjust rules and laws. Here is how Gandhi talked about it:

Now the law of nonviolence says that violence should be resisted not by counter-violence but by nonviolence. This I do by breaking the law and by peacefully submitting to arrest and imprisonment.

For these brave resisters, that usually meant putting their bodies – and even their lives – on the line. By being willing to do so, they changed the world. Those kinds of actions aren’t for everyone. But it is what is required if one is to claim the mantle of civil disobedience.

It is not likely that any punishment meted out by Speaker Ryan as a result of the sit-in will be anything close to that threatening. What it will do is keep the conversation about the lack of action on gun violence alive. That’s why Lewis says, “Bring it on.”

But perhaps there is also a warning of something more ominous in the air that we should all be paying heed to.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.