Wrapped into James M. Lawson, Jr.'s persona as a civil rights activist was frequent confusion about his religious identity. While he was an undergraduate at Baldwin-Wallace College, for example, he was described as "a great admirer of Gandhi (who) wants to preach and become a minister like Gandhi." One observer said he "would like to be another Gandhi." His commitment to Gandhian nonviolence even led some to call him a Hindu mystic thus ignoring his deeply held Christian beliefs and Wesleyan sensibilities. Perhaps, Lawson's seeming preference for religious experience over traditional theology contributed to the view of him as religiously exotic or maybe non-Christian. Writing from prison in 1952 after his arrest for opposition to the Korean War, Lawson, 23 years old and yet to enter the seminary, aspired to emulate "the life of Jesus, St. Francis, George Fox, Gandhi, Gautama (Buddha) ... and other great religious persons." These figures attached little importance to "theology but (to their) experience with God." Further, he noted "religious failures today are in (the arena of) experience and practice, not theology." (2) How one lived out humane values, thought Lawson, mattered more than established structures and discourse about doctrine and belief. Jesus, Gandhi, and others provided the paradigm for a life of meaning and their example reinforced the Christian and Wesleyan precepts that Lawson highly valued.
Moreover, Lawson, though known as a "conscientious objector" to the Korean War, resisted this mislabeling because he constructed himself as a "Jesus follower." His Methodist Church camp experiences as an adolescent, for example, instilled in him this religious identification. Hence, his opposition to all militarism drew both from his Christian and Methodist background, and he integrated their precepts into his eclectic moral being. He did not define Christianity, for example, according to conventional perspectives. In a seminary paper at Oberlin, for example, Lawson said, "Christianity is not a western religion, or western civilization, or a particular political, economical or cultural system." Therefore, it needed to "disavow relationship to any social, political, military, economical or religious injustice." Instead, it should emphasize its core (that) lay in Jesus's declaration that "I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly" (John 10:10). Because he envisaged Christianity capaciously and apart from any hegemonic systems, he could then embrace a Hindu like Gandhi and a Buddhist like Gautama Buddha and view them as religious counterparts to Jesus of Nazareth. (3)
Notwithstanding the iconic stature of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his pivotal presence in the civil rights movement, James M. Lawson, Jr., looms large as an equally influential theoretician and tactician in the black freedom struggle. Though Lawson became a colleague to King, his earlier exposure to pacifism and familiarity with Gandhian satyagraha predated that of his ally in nonviolent direct action. Lawson's religious training in the household and congregations of his parents and the youth camps of their denomination focused on Jesus' ministry. What he observed in race relations contradicted what the Nazarene taught on the mandate to...
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