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Trump’s Difficulty Paying Respect to John Lewis

Valuing human life, respecting people in death, and the need for empathy.
July 31, 2020
Trump’s Difficulty Paying Respect to John Lewis
Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) is photographed in his offices in the Canon House office building on March 17, 2009 in Washington, D.C. The former Big Six leader of the civil rights movement was the architect and keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in 1963. (Photo by Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images)

The death of Representative John Lewis ushered in a sense of mourning across the country. Lewis was remembered as a courageous fighter against racial injustice and prejudice that was commonplace in the Jim Crow South. Much of his work in the United States Congress was continuation of that fight.

Among the cascade of loving eulogies and statements from across the country there was no message from President Trump. It took him 14 hours to even mention Lewis’s passing, in (of course) a tweet. He then ordered that flags be flown at half-staff for one day, in a perfunctory statement that said almost nothing about Lewis except to note his “longstanding public service.” (At least Vice President Mike Pence published a fine brief statement of remembrance.) Trump even made a point of announcing that he would not be paying his respects to Lewis as his body lay in repose at the U.S. Capitol.

When I heard Trump make this remark, I was reminded of my year serving as a member of the Arimathea Pallbearer Ministry at Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland. The program, started in 2003 by the legendary teacher Jim Skerl, was designed to help lay to rest those Clevelanders who did not have enough family or friends to serve as pallbearers at their burial. When these situations arose, local funeral homes would contact the ministry and students would leave class to attend the services. Today, the ministry serves about 250 funerals a year and nearly 500 of the school’s upperclassmen are members. The concept has taken hold at other Catholic schools across the nation as well.

What the ministry taught me and hundreds of other young men over the years was an appreciation for life and the meaning of empathy. It was not enough for us simply to perform the duties of a pallbearer; we also were expected to console the few family members and friends who were in attendance and offer them our prayers for their lost loved one. We were there to grieve with them and to respect the dead. The fact that we never knew the individual we helped lay to rest was of no matter. What was important was grieving for the loss of our brothers and sisters and showing compassion to others in their time of mourning. In other words, we were there to be Christians.

It can be hard for anyone—let alone high schoolers—to truly grasp mortality. The idea that life was a sacred gift that could be taken at any moment is not commonly held among 17-year-olds. That’s precisely why the Arimathea Ministry has such an impact on its participants: We learned how to grieve the loss of someone we never knew because each life is a unique gift worth celebrating. It taught us to appreciate our time on this earth. It brought into perspective what truly matters in life because, in the end, we return to the dust from which we were made.

Was Donald Trump’s muted response to Lewis’s death caused by their opposing political views? Maybe so; as a Politico headline put it, with considerable understatement, Trump “struggle[s] to honor prominent critics.” And of course the president of the United States has a busy job, so one can perhaps understand his not being able to take the time to join former Presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton at Lewis’s funeral in Atlanta. But his decision to not even pay respects to Lewis down the street from the White House in the U.S. Capitol—as, again, Vice President Pence did—comes across as petty, unpresidential, and not in keeping with his Christian duties. Personal quarrels and animosity do not follow one into the grave. They are not an excuse to disregard celebrating the unique gift that we are all given. Death is a time to honor the individual accomplishments achieved during life. The president ought to have honored the greatness in the life of John Lewis, a man who fought so hard for civil rights.

Then again, should any of this surprise us? An utter lack of empathy has been a consistent characteristic of the president’s rhetoric and actions during the last several months, as tens of thousands of Americans died painful, gasping deaths because of COVID-19. Trump routinely used the coronavirus task force briefings to take shots at the media and spread misinformation about the virus. It is hard to think of anything he said or did that evinced real compassion or empathy for the sick, the dying, and the grieving.

Christians need to ask themselves if they can in good conscience vote for a man who so clearly lacks any of the virtues of their faith—a man so petty that he cannot even bring himself to pay respects to someone like John Lewis.

I was blessed to have the opportunity to join the Arimethia Ministry. It gave me a perspective and outlook on life that still shapes my worldview to this day. I learned that all life is sacred, no matter the personal relationship. Donald Trump does not comprehend or accept this concept—and the country has suffered because of it.

John Conway

John Conway is from Cleveland, Ohio and currently attends Kenyon College.