For the last few years, it has become clear that there are different types of political leaders. There are those who relish power. There are those who enjoy the money that comes along with the job. There are those who are good at politics, using words and deals and polls to get what they want. There are those who have the job as leader but no one knows how or why. Lately, we have seen the absurdist leader — the one who says “up is down” and the sky is below our feet. There are idealists and skeptics and those who simply want to burn the place down. Then, there are the great ones. Elijah Cummings was a great one.
I’ve been listening to the news this morning and — to a person — those who remembered Cummings said his death is not just a loss to his party and Baltimore which he represented and our Congress, it is a loss for the whole country. Mr. Cummings transcended politics while, oddly, living politics. How did he do this? By serving a higher goal, a higher purpose than politics. Beyond politics, there were two things that guided his career: Service and Representation of others.
I am sure that he could have chosen other fields where he represented groups of people — unions or corporations or not-for-profits. I know for a fact that there are millions of ways to serve or help others. Politics was the field which Cummings played on, and he played it well. But it was only rules and a structure on which to do the work he wanted. In others words, Elijah Cummings became good at politics so that he could use politics for good.
I also suspect that he was considered “great” because he tried to be simply good. In a world where “show” and popularity is what’s important, Cummings was quietly good to other people because they were people. He lived out Jesus’ injunction to not put on a public show while doing good works. This is how, as a Black Democrat, he is beloved and noted by White Republicans as well. He saw them all as Americans, and worthy of his time.
Because he had done this with them, he could make a case that he should also be able to bring his constituents to the table as they were also Americans. If he could see the humanity in them, they should be able to see the humanity in those in Baltimore. This understanding is why so many people were so offended by Trump’s attacks on Cummings this last year. He had been fair to them, he saw their ethics and their humanity. An attack on him was an attack on them and the belief in goodness in general.
I don’t know much about his religious life, but I assume that his church was important to him, because he acted in ways consistent with the words of Jesus, as did so many other leaders of his time. One of the best experiences I have had at a speech was listening to Dick Gregory, a comedian who was part of Martin Luther King’s close associates. Gregory also wrote an incredible commentary on the Bible I would later learn. But that day, at a protest of nuclear power, it became clear that Gregory had soul and was formidable all on his own. I remember thinking that King’s power must have been powerfully scary when marching with Dick Gregory, Andrew Young, and Jesse Jackson with him. The holiness felt with each of them individually multiplied exponentially when they were together. I would add Elijah Cummings to that group of men. Their vision of an honest love for humanity came from some place deep within them all.
I grieve personally because of the loss of such a soulful man of a certain generation to which I belong. There is no doubt where he is tonight: spending the rest of his life with the saints who have gone on before. Their gain is our loss. May we pick up the mantle with what’s left of our own lives.
Resisting with Peace,