Poor People’s Campaign

Dr. William Barber is the impressive and impassioned clergyman who began the “Moral Monday” movement in North Carolina–a movement that has since spread to other states. I regretted missing his speech when he came to Indiana recently, and was interested to see this article about the lessons of Martin Luther King day in The Nation.

After quoting King’s admonition that we either go up together or go down together, Barber summed up America’s current situation:

King did not live to see another 24 hours of that pivotal year in American history, but 50 years later we face a similar collective crisis as we begin 2018. Extremists who’ve hijacked the Republican Party worked in concert with a charlatan to deconstruct the federal government, but a resistance made itself public in 2017, making clear that we are still the majority in this nation. Congress and many of our state legislatures refuse to represent the will of the majority. In the face of this basic subversion of democracy, we do well to remember that “either we go up together, or we go down together.” King’s assessment is more crucial than ever: Nothing would be more tragic than to turn back now.

Fifty years after Dr. King and many others launched a Poor People’s Campaign to demand a Marshall Plan for America’s poor, inequality in our nation has reached extremes we have not seen since the Gilded Age. As the Dow climbs and the wealthiest Americans get a massive tax break, 15 million more Americans are poor today than in 1968. In the same time period, the rate of extreme poverty has nearly doubled. Because of the systemic racism of voter suppression, which has been implemented in 23 of the nation’s poorest states since 2010, our political system is held captive by extremists who deny workers health care and a living wage, undermine the equal-protection clause of the constitution, attack public education, and encourage poor white people to blame people of color and immigrants for their problems. All the while, more and more of our collective resources are dedicated to a war without end.

Barber writes that a Presidency as flawed and unpopular as Trump’s will not last long, but he acknowledges the immense amount of harm being done in the meantime–especially in the nation’s courts, where lifetime appointments are being made at a pace far exceeding that of preceding administrations.

Barber details the numerous voter suppression tactics of a GOP that “cheats when it can’t win in a fair fight.” And he has nothing but scorn for the white Evangelicals who have traded integrity for power:

So-called “white evangelicals” and their Christian nationalism have become the apologists and enablers of political extremism. Their voices are so loud when joining the course of those who hate gay people, women, and brown and black-skinned immigrants, but so quiet on issues of poverty, systemic racism, ecological devastation, and the war economy. This is a form of modern heresy and theological malpractice, taught all over the country.

He also has a lot to say about the recent tax “reform” bill, the efforts to further erode America’s already inadequate social welfare network, and about the importance of building multi-racial, multi-ethnic coalitions. But his most important message is one that should resonate with all of us: this is no time to quit. It’s no time to stop resisting.

I have dedicated myself to a new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival that is going deep into Southern communities and reclaiming the moral narrative that was bought by the religious right in the 20th century.

In 2018, we are determined to see the South rise again—not in the redemption that white supremacists have long awaited with Confederate flags, but in the future that George White, the last African-American representative to Congress during Reconstruction, foresaw when he said, “This may be the Negro’s farewell to Congress, but Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again.”…

And when we change the South, we will shift the power balance in this nation.

In Alabama, African-American turnout defeated Roy Moore. If anyone can move the South, it’s William Barber, with his eloquence, his passion, his organizing genius –and his repeated insistence that we should never give up.


Moral Mondays

Most Americans have heard of North Carolina’s Reverend William Barber, whose passion and activism were recently profiled in the Washington Post. Barber founded “Moral Mondays” at the North Carolina State Capitol to protest what he labeled “immoral” legislation that would further disadvantage the poor; his movement aims to give voice to the previously voiceless, and to effect change.

I was particularly struck by the following two paragraphs in the article, because they illuminate two diametrically opposed understandings of morality.

Barber’s admirers say his sermons and speeches, which have intertwined the religious tenets of love, justice and mercy that exist in all faiths with an American vision of morality baked into the Constitution, steal the moral high ground long claimed by political conservatives.

After all, the Bible says little about abortion, prayer in schools and same-sex marriage. Yet there are hundreds of scriptures that deal with how people treat “the least of these,” which in modern times could  be interpreted to mean denying them the right to vote or health-care coverage. Last, week, Barber joined a health-care protest at a Sen. Patrick J. Toomey’s office (R-Pa.) and said a Republican repeal of Obamacare would be the nation’s greatest moral failing since slavery.

Barber is reclaiming the meaning of morality and moral behavior from the religious zealots  whose definition of morality is limited to activities that occur below the waist.

Self-identified “Christians” like Mike Pence, who want government to enforce morality as they define it, focus entirely upon sex. They are evidently obsessed by it. Think about their top priorities: denying women access to abortion and birth control and punishing LGBTQ citizens for loving people of the wrong gender.

They want government to enforce their own, rigid beliefs by denying other citizens the moral autonomy they claim for themselves.

Increasingly, religious figures like Reverend Barber are fighting back by reclaiming a more expansive and humane understanding of what constitutes truly moral behavior. In their eyes, lawmakers who want to deprive millions of poor Americans of access to health care in order to further enrich the wealthy are immoral, no matter what their sexual behavior.

Tim Tyson is a historian and author who has followed Barber’s efforts to build an inclusive movement focused on social justice and the belief that moral behavior is defined by how one treats others. He thinks that message resonates.

“He sees that when you boil it right down, Judaism and Islam and Christianity and all the other major faiths really are rooted in that same vision and same social ethos that’s rooted in love,” said Tyson. “Then this ethos also speaks to people who are of a more activist orientation. Who are not church people. That makes that church a lot bigger — and makes a place for everybody.”

Barber had a prime-time slot at the Democratic National Convention, and he got a standing ovation when he called for an “army of moral defibrillators” to “shock the heart of the nation.”

In addition to his ability to speak with eloquence and conviction about the nature of justice and morality, Barber clearly understands what is necessary for effective political activism.

“We can’t keep fighting in our silos,” he told a group of Union Leaders at SEIU 1199 during a gathering of health-care workers in Atlantic City. “No more separating issues — labor over here, voting rights over here. The same people fighting against one should have to fight against all of us together.”

Barber’s message is enough to make me respect religion again.