Friday Night Keynote Address by Reverend James Lawson

The Reverend James Lawson, pastor emeritus of the Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, California, and outgoing chair of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, prophetically called upon people of peace to “build anew the dream.”

Lawson, who grew up in Ohio, refused to register for the military draft in 1951 and, therefore, spent 14 months in federal prison. During the 1950s he learned to know A.J. Muste (FOR founder), André Trocme, and people in the peace churches, and discovered he “had joined their camp.” While in India, he learned the principles of Gandhian non-violent direct action which he applied to the struggle for civil rights as the leader of the desegregation movement in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1960, Martin Luther King named Rev. Lawson the director of nonviolent education for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He has been married to Dorothy for 41 years and they have three sons.

Lawson began his address by enumerating ways the United States has failed as a superpower and made the world a far more dangerous place with its culture of violence, racism, sexism, and greed. The US has imprisoned two million people, a disproportionate number of them poor and people of color. Ten percent of the human beings executed here were mentally handicapped. Domestic violence and other forms of sexism are sanctioned by religious teachings which say a woman should be blamed if her husband is violent.

People had better begin to wake up, Lawson said.

He pointed out that President Clinton has refused to sign UN human rights declarations and that the news media has not informed Americans of them. Unimaginable wealth is channeled into the hands of a few as the US seeks “to make the earth a USplantation.” Of the 5000 garment industry factories in the Los Angeles area, 4500 are sweatshops. Since 1959, the US has spent $12.8 trillion on the military.

Lawson quoted Jesus who said, Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. He said that war tax resistance serves as a corrective to the peace movement, which he faulted for neglecting American materialism, addiction, meanness and mediocrity.

Peace people have failed to persuade many “that the way to peace is peace,” Lawson said.

“Why are there not more minorities in the peace movement?” he asked.

Despite the evil purpose which the military serves, the armed forces give many minority young people their first experience of living in an integrated community, Lawson said.

Our task [as peacemakers] is to create an inclusive, beloved community, Lawson said. We need to transform the structures of society, to eradicate poverty, homelessness, and hunger; to work locally while keeping the larger vision alive.

Sow the seeds for compassion, Lawson said. While the journey is a long journey, it will one day transform our nation ... let us continue the struggle. There has to be a spiritual and moral revolution ... less creedal, and more practical.

In responding to Lawson, Joffre Stewart objected to his use of ‘we’ language in talking about US policy. I do not identify with the government of the United States, Joffre said.

We can't disown those facets of the human race that behave in bad ways, Lawson responded.

Questioned on how he keeps himself grounded throughout the struggle for justice and peace, Lawson first spoke of the “international cloud of witnesses” represented by people at the conference, by John Lewis, the lead sponsor of the Peace Tax Fund bill in Congress, as well as by historical peacemakers. He encouraged everyone to “build a circle of relationships.”

He noted that the present is a time of great hope, when we have more actions in more communities, on all kinds of issues, that at any other time in the history of this country. What is needed is for peace and justice movements to see that these many issues are deeply related to each other, to keep making the issues clear, to keep organizing, and to unite, at grass roots levels, to bring about a nonviolent convergence of these many efforts for peace and justice.

Personal spiritual disciplines - prayer, fasting, studying the Gospels, reading the devotional life classics, practicing stewardship and simplicity of life - sustain him as he acts upon his calling from God. Life can be healed, restored and renewed, he said.

Lawson called for an “old time evangelism” to prepare people spiritually to treat others and themselves with justice and respect.

Juanita Nelson shared a quotation that could serve as a model for peace evangelism: We convert, if at all, not by asking the impossible, but by being something irresistible.

The loving hugs, handshakes, joyful singing, and community-making conversations throughout the conference testified to the wisdom of Rev. Lawson's address.