With 2017 drawing to a close, it’s now time to reflect upon the work of the past year and how we will move forward into 2018.
This year has been a landmark for the Kairos Center — earlier this month, on December 4, 2017, with Repairers of the Breach, major religious bodies, and leaders of grassroots struggles from around the country, we officially launched the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Echoing Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to end the “evil triplets” of poverty, racism, and militarism, this new Campaign seeks to address poverty, racism, the war economy, environmental destruction and our national morality. The launch events on December 4th made a powerful witness — one which received substantial national press coverage — with thousands of people responding to our call (from 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and 20 different countries) to join the more than 8,000 people already pledged to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience with us this spring.
The Kairos Center is far from building this growing movement alone — the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is drawing together hundreds of organizations of people impacted by poverty, racism, the war economy, and ecological devastation. But we have played and will continue to play a leadership role.
One aspect of this role is our commitment to provide a deeper analysis — historical, political, and theological — of the kairos moment in which we find ourselves today, and what it means for the growing movement struggling to end our society’s intertwined evils. Our Resources pages here on the Kairos website have been recently updated to provide the best material for the Campaign as it develops. Visit our Sermons, Bible Studies, and Liturgies page here, our Poor People’s Campaign Study Materials here, and our Publications and Research page here. Or use our Subject Index to quickly find a piece from the Kairos Center blog archive on a specific topic or subject.
Just this past year, the Kairos Center blog has featured over 80 pieces of analysis, news, and reflection from the front lines of the movement to end poverty. Here are some of the highlights from 2017.
“Frederick Douglass is still alive, but not in the way Trump thinks,” by John Wessel-McCoy:
Douglass saw hope even those dark times. He saw that even as new laws and new decisions by the courts seemed to make slavery and the Slave Power invincible, they were actually expressions of a deep weakness. They did nothing to reverse the growth of the anti-slavery movement and anti-slavery sentiment — in fact they had the opposite effect. They did nothing to resolve the basic crisis of slavery: the fact that people will not stand for being kept in chains; and that slavery, by going against the basic notion that human life is sacred and that all people have rights, threatened the well-being of the whole nation.
“‘Here’s the blessing, go do your job’: Pope Francis and the Kairos Center at the World Meeting of Popular Movements,” interview with Willie Baptist, Maureen Taylor, and Rev. Claudia de la Cruz:
I kept thinking coming through the basilica, where is the Church? Is the Church in the basilica or is the Church in the people? And I think of the fact that the Pope brought people who were not Catholic and were from wherever and were just regular people. It was a statement that is totally in contrast to the organized structure of this gold-filled marble-filled church. And I think religion is not organized religion. Religion is the people and they are very religious even though they might not go to church. And the idea that we surrender our faith to organized religion or to restrict organized religion to the Church I think is a real error. And so I think the question that came to my mind was the phrase that Dr. King pointed out, of the need to develop a ‘freedom church of the poor’. I think what was being said at the gathering was that the Church is everywhere. The Church is not just on Sunday in a building. The Church is out there in the streets. And I think we have to state that again because I think in terms of the language of the bottom who are very religiously shaped, whether they go to church or not, it’s something we have to respect.
That governments were not the source of the power of human rights should not be a surprise. For the foundational idea of human rights is that they are not the creation of governments. They are not created at all but discovered, usually through the fight against their violation. As is often proclaimed but less often seriously examined, human rights are inherent in every human being at birth. All governments can do is formulate, recognize, and respect them. They can respond and add to their power but they cannot create them.
This proclamation that every human being is born with inherent rights shared equally with every other human being is as astonishing as it is radical. It cannot be demonstrated or proven scientifically. It is a statement of faith, but like all faith it has power because it is based on human experience. And this power began to grow the way all faiths grow — with stories — with the stories of people from very different cultures and political contexts sharing in common only the painful experience of having their inherent rights and therefore their human dignity grossly violated. These were also stories of people demanding and fighting for these violations to end. The stories resonated and they spread. They motivated people to take action because they were not stories about the rights of other people — they were the stories of the rights of all people, the rights each of us can feel, the rights that governments had foolishly recognized and proclaimed to be universal.
“The Land Belongs to God: A conversation on debt and the Bible,” with Dr. Michael Hudson:
The way you get to people is to say: We’re at a turning point in history. If we don’t solve the problem of economic polarization, which is caused mainly by debt, we’re going to go into another dark age. We’re going to have neo-feudalism. We’re going to have neo-serfdom, except that you’re not going to be tied to the land like serfs were. You can live wherever you want, but wherever you are, you’re going to have to pay about 40% of your income just for housing. And you’re going to have to pay for water, and you’re going to have to pay for the other needs. This is the new kind of serfdom. You have to re-frame what the economy is about in a way that people can understand.
And you need a multi-pronged approach to fight on four or five fronts. You need academics so that nobody can say you don’t know what you’re talking about. You need an organ, a periodical; you need books; you need to make use of the Internet; you need films; and you need a political group. You need to institutionalize this idea and give it a critical mass of coherence, and I think that’s what you folks are doing.
“‘America, you must be born again!’: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Religion, and Social Change,” by Shailly Gupta Barnes and Dr. Adam Barnes:
In our times this liberative spirituality is distinguished by the demand it makes for the “right to not be poor.” Today we have the unprecedented capacity to provide every human being with enough to not only survive but to thrive. And yet life is devalued and discarded on a grand scale. By rejecting this world where great wealth and productivity exists alongside tremendous human neglect, the leaders and communities of struggle across this nation and world are showing all of us the possibility of a new way of being. It will be a world where all life is valued and the right to not be poor is guaranteed for everyone.
The driving force of this liberative spirituality today is its orientation around the leadership of the poor. This does not mean that being poor necessarily makes one a great leader. Those who are dispossessed and made poor by this system (the vast majority) are leaders in the sense that their experience and voice indict our current system’s devaluation of life. Their struggles, therefore, uphold the value of all life, and help awaken all people — rich or poor — to the lies of this system and its immoral theology.
“Fifty years since ‘Beyond Vietnam’,” by Colleen Wessel-McCoy:
The Poor People’s Campaign is a critique of the idea that the solution to poverty is a few people amassing vast sums of money and donating some of it to programs that address the symptoms of poverty. It is a critique of the idea that the best we can do are service projects, supporting charities and voting for the expansion of services. So although it failed to achieve its purpose in 1968, the idea of a Poor People’s Campaign proposes that instead of the rich saving the poor, the poor are the saviors of the world, because we are capable of organizing ourselves, across lines of division, as a “new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.”
“The Last Week of Jesus Christ and the Last Year of Martin Luther King,” by Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis:
Indeed, grassroots communities are building this new Poor People’s Campaign. It includes families still living with poisoned water in Flint, Michigan, homeless encampments in California and Oregon and Washington State, journalists and impacted residents in the Gulf Coast more than 10 years after Hurricane Katrina and 5 years after the BP Oil Spill, families calling for “hugs not walls” on the US/Mexico Border, families living without sanitation services in Lowndes County, AL, people without healthcare fighting for universal healthcare in Vermont, Pennsylvania, and Maine, low wage workers who are struggling to pay their bills while the minimum wage is far from a living wage, vets who come back from fighting unjust wars and continue to struggle to provide for their families, and indeed millions of people who face poverty in its many cruel forms across this country every day. Many of these leaders are inspired by their faith traditions and their understanding of the thinking and theology of Rev. Dr. King to make these fights in the first place.
At the center of both Christ and King’s ministries and missions is a radical critique of social, political and economic systems. For both, they assert that the poor and dispossessed are called to stand against violence, discrimination and poverty, work to build love and community, and to do justice rather than charity. They both assert we can end poverty and that it is God’s will that we do so.
“‘More than Flinging a Coin’: True Compassion as a Critique of Charity,” by Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis and Colleen Wessel-McCoy:
Every January students, employees, and community members are signed up for community service projects — painting schools, cleaning up trash, serving lunches to the hungry — to celebrate the national civic holiday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. With carefully excerpted proof texts, like “everyone can be great, because everyone can serve,” King’s words are used to sanctify this superficial response to what are real crises of school funding, failing public infrastructure, and pervasive hunger and poverty. But reading his fuller insights about the intertwined crises of poverty, racism and militarism — and the need for a human rights movement to resolve them — reveals a harsh critique of charity and how it is used to cover up deep inequality and class relationships. King spoke the words above on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination. The landmark speech, “A Time to Break the Silence,” was given at Riverside Church in New York City and marked the beginning of his public opposition to the war in Vietnam. It is perhaps surprising to hear a religious leader known as a champion of the poor call charity “haphazard and superficial,” but he saw with increasing clarity that when compared to the structural character of poverty, charity and other piece meal solutions to poverty and misery only exacerbated the problem. Truly solving it would require a “revolution of values.”
“Tearing Down the Walls of Indifference at the World Meeting of Popular Movements,” by Dr. Charon Hribar:
What was revealed in the testimonies offered by various panelists throughout the weekend was that we are all being maimed by a system that values profit above human life and dignity. From Jose Arrellano’s gut wrenching tale of gang life in Los Angeles as a child in the early 90s to the Nayyirah Shariff’s account of the horrific conditions that have plagued Flint residents since the water crisis began in 2014 — their stories revealed how we are experiencing different effects of same crisis.
The belief that poverty and inequality are contrary to the will of God is dependent on our ability to analyze the historical conditions that create impoverishment and to connect with what the poor are doing to fight back against this unjust reality. The attention to the poor in liberation theology is not about what the Church can do for the poor, but rather is a recognition that the poor — who are often made invisible by the larger society, whose rights are often denied, and whose dignity is overlooked — are responding out of necessity to the contradictions of inequality through their lived experiences. It is these experiences that must lead the collective way forward.
And so when the SCLC staff was together at the Penn Center, King, as president of the SCLC, shared his reflections on where they had been, where they were going, and what would be required of the leadership of the movement in this new period. He began by saying, “We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights.” Their past work had been part of a reform movement and the demands of the coming era must be met with a revolutionary movement that would require “a radical redistribution of economic and political power.” King goes on to explain that as difficult as the past period was, the coming period would be filled with greater challenges and fiercer opponents. It would require stronger, broader and more sophisticated movement leadership. They would need clearer, more revolutionary strategy. He describes this challenge politically and theologically, calling the SCLC staff to be willing to take up this challenge as Jesus took up the cross, bearing its costs — popularity, economic security and physical safety.
We must take up the legacy of those who have gone before us — sometimes giving their very lives — to struggle for voting rights, to end poverty, and to ensure healthcare and fair wages for all. By building a new Poor People’s Campaign, we affirm that these issues are not unrelated, but are interconnected — the result of a sustained effort by the powers and principalities in this country to suppress our innate, God-given human rights.
The martyrs exclaim, “How long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood?” We must not make them wait any longer. In unison with the blood of the martyrs, the Poor People’s Campaign cries out against the interrelated evils of disenfranchisement, racism, and poverty. Together, we will reclaim our inherent human rights. As Rev. Lewis said during the press conference, “When poor people have the chance to use their voice and vote, they change the texture of America.”
“Hope, Narcan and Revolution,” by Aaron Scott of Chaplains on the Harbor:
We are sick to death of the funerals. So for the short term, we are leaning on Narcan. For the long term, we are working toward a comprehensive reentry program that connects our brilliant young incarcerated leaders to housing, decent employment, health care, therapy, recovery support, and ongoing popular education upon release. Many of our young adults emerge from prison with skills in carpentry and culinary arts. We seek to hire them to rebuild the physical ruins of Grays Harbor County, to feed local people who are starving in the midst of natural abundance, and to always keep an eye on the horizon by studying and learning from other people’s struggles for liberation. We believe that nobody’s more qualified to be a “restorer of streets to live in” (Isaiah 58) than a kid who’s had to live on the streets for most of their life.
This may sound like an absurd pipe dream, especially for a place so slammed by poverty and heroin, but we have confronted far greater absurdities in this work. And we have also confronted the powerful grit, resilience, and redemptive labor of our community, which we know better than to underestimate. After all, the powers and principalities of this world wouldn’t be working so hard to try and kill us if we weren’t so strong.
“Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis: Reflections on Religion, the Bible, and the Movement to End Poverty,” by Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis and Dr. Adam Barnes:
If you look closely at the Bible, the way that God tries to define Godself is always directly connected to justice. Genesis is the first book of the Bible, but many scholars think that Exodus is the true origin story of the Bible. Genesis, they believe, was written later because the community needed to explain the origins of their people before Pharaoh and the experience in Egypt. If these scholars are right and the Abrahamic religious tradition begins with Exodus, then our founding story is a story of liberation. In Exodus, when the people ask God what God’s name is, God responds, “I am the one that led you out of Egypt,” “I am the one who saw you suffering.” These existential statements from God are always connected to liberation and freedom. In this very specific story where people are being killed and enslaved, the way that God shows up and defines Godself, is in the midst of a people who have started to move, to resist. God says, “I’ve heard the crying of the people and I’m going to lead you out of Egypt.” This is where we encounter God, not in platitudes or the image of a big bearded guy in the sky. The God I believe in and the God in the Bible is one of action, one who defends life and stands against injustice.
The Kairos Center and the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival are taking up the unfinished business of Dr. King and all those who united with the Poor People’s Campaign fifty years ago. It is instructive in this context to trace the history between the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which opened the door not only to Black voting but Black political leadership in the form of elected officials. Voting is no abstract right. It is an integral part of communities realizing their interests and meeting their needs from education to economic well being. The enemies of democracy understand well the power of the vote — otherwise they would not wage war on it.
“Developing a Moral Vision: An Interview with Shailly Gupta Barnes, Tri-Chair of the Souls of Poor Folk Audit,” by Shailly Gupta Barnes:
This is not about right and left, this is about right and wrong. We understand that building the power of the people most impacted by these measures — and this is an increasing number of people — is the only way we will ever change the conditions that have brought us to this point.
We also need to remember that in response to these conditions, communities aren’t just giving up the struggle. There’s this fury emerging as people are hitting their breaking points, and they’re willing to stand up, especially when they realize they’re not alone. As Valerie Jean, a mom from Detroit has said, it’s one thing to have your family’s water shut off. But when you see that happening to your whole block, and then multiple blocks, you start to see the broader, systemic nature of the problem. As the Poor People’s Campaign has traveled across the country, we’ve seen that thousands of people are responding to the need to call out the wrongs and abuses of our society and there is a real demand emerging for a moral vision around which we can organize.
Read many more pieces of analysis, news about the growing Poor People’s Campaign, and reflections from the front lines of struggle at the Kairos Center blog archive. And join us in 2018 as we continue to build a grassroots movement, rooted in human rights and in our deepest religious values, to end poverty, racism, militarism, and environmental destruction forever.