“For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

I celebrated Valentine’s Day (and 16th anniversary with my husband, Chris) alongside more than 50,000 other justice-seekers at the Historic Thousands on Jones Street’s Moral March in Raleigh, North Carolina last week. The march (and mass meeting leading up to it) was a commanding expression of the power of unity and a clear expression of Jesus’ agape love. Perhaps even more inspiring was the Symposium on Moral Leadership organized by the School for Conversion after the march, for an immersion course put together by the Kairos Center and others.

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Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis and her son, Luke

At the symposium, the Reverend Dr. William Barber II, architect of the Forward Together Moral Movement, reminded the group of seminarians, pastors, organizers and other people of conscience from around the country of the importance of education and history for the long struggle for justice and righteousness. Referring to how those in power kept the poor divided in history, he spoke about how they denied both slaves and poor whites education and literacy before the Civil War. He implored all of us to see the connections between our struggles and to come together to build a powerful movement. He called on us to resist the strategy of the Pharoahs of our day, used throughout history, of keeping us all fighting amongst each other so that we never unite to transform society for the benefit of all.

He emphasized the sacredness of all life and argued that if we care about one death at the hands of a cop then we have to care just as much about 2800 deaths that happen each year because of lack of Medicaid expansion in North Carolina. He appealed to the group of budding moral leaders that were gathered there to avoid the path of political expediency, to instead serve a prophetic role, and to truly envision and strive for an era of justice, a land of milk and honey, a reign of God here on earth. He questioned why progressives gave up using the word “welfare” when it’s in the Preamble to the US Constitution and why even President Obama won’t use the word poor when it’s one of the most prominent words and themes in the Bible. He challenged us to take seriously the Constitution, other founding documents of the United States of America, and the Bible in our quest to build a powerful, moral movement.

On the importance of the Bible, two quotes from the Book of James jumped out at me during the Symposium:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. — James 2:14-17

This passage, much like the wisdom preached by Rev. Dr. Barber at the Symposium, speaks to love in action. It insists that faith is directly linked to living our lives collectively. This teaching – that it is cruel and unjust to say to someone lacking adequate food and clothing that they should go in peace – shows how it is society’s collective responsibility to care for all. It claims that peace happens only in the presence of justice. It suggests that it is impossible to honor and worship Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord without first ensuring that everyone has what they need to thrive, not just barely survive. It insists that what extremists are doing in North Carolina and across the country is an affront against their neighbors and against God: They are making it even more difficult for the majority of people to get adequate health care, education, or decent paying jobs; for them to access the vote and participate in other democratic processes. The combination of faith and works was in action at the Moral March and the Symposium on Moral Leadership.

The Book of James continues:

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you. — James 5:1-6

In this passage, James critiques rich oppressors who have defrauded workers and robbed the poor – claiming that they have, in fact, murdered prophetic leaders who had resisted and organized against the unequal distribution of wealth and power. He exhorts that those rich people who have hoarded treasure, gold and silver – luxurious and self-indulgent items that have been denied to their workers and the majority of society – will be judged by God and will come to pay in the corrosion and erosion of those very treasures and luxuries. I believe that James 5 is a good statement of the prophetic critique being made at the Moral March and other protests. Although I was carrying signs that read: “Immigrant Rights” and “Medicaid Expansion”, “A Decent Education” and “Living Wage Jobs” at the Moral March, I have, indeed, carried signs that had this quote from James 5 at other marches/protests. And these sentiments came out clear at the march.

James 5 is linked to the passage from James 2 about the connection between words and actions, faith and works, talking the talk and walking the walk. Again in James 5, how you treat those around you is connected to your relationship with God. The defrauded workers have cried out against the rich oppressors, much like the Israelites cried out against Pharoah when enslaved in Egypt, and God has heard these cries. Therefore the poor, with God on their side, are going to hold those who uphold their oppression and the status quo accountable. This quote from James 5 is about a kairos time – a time when the old ways and means are breaking down, not even serving many of those in power anymore, and a new path is breaking through.

It is the combination of this deep moral critique like from James 5 with the praxis of words and deeds from James 2 that has come to represent the Forward Together Moral Movement for me. These two Bible passages speak to the importance of national history and sacred destiny that Rev. Barber may have been referring to when he called us at the Symposium on Moral Leadership to take up US history and founding creed as well as the Bible.

Rev. Barber and the Forward Together Moral Movement will be in Selma in early March for the 50th anniversary commemoration of “Bloody Sunday” and the March from Selma to Montgomery, leading a workshop on movement building about the Moral Movement that is breaking through in North Carolina and spreading across the country. The Kairos Center will also be in Selma for the 50th Anniversary Commemoration. We will be co-sponsoring a “Community Hearing on Poverty in Selma and Across the South” as part of the call for a new Poor People’s Campaign for today, directly before Rev. Barber’s workshop on movement building. Both events will take place at historic Brown Chapel, a key base of operations for the 1965 voting rights campaign.

Dr. King, in his call for a Poor People’s Campaign, described this kind of movement as beginning with the poor taking action together as “a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.” He drew on the experience of the Selma campaign to describe what a Poor People’s Campaign would mean and why it was a necessary next step:

“I think it is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights…[W]hen we see that there must be a radical redistribution of economic and political power, then we see that for the last twelve years we have been in a reform movement…That after Selma and the Voting Rights Bill, we moved into a new era, which must be an era of revolution…In short, we have moved into an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society.

We were invited to hold the “Community Hearing on Poverty in Selma and across the South” and announce the launching of a new Poor People’s Campaign for today by local leaders in Selma who were important in the “Bloody Sunday” Bridge Crossing and March from Selma to Montgomery 50 years ago. These leaders include Faya Rose Toure and her husband State Senator Hank Sanders, an early African-American elected official in Alabama following the Voting Rights Act. They and others deeply connected to grassroots communities in Selma and across Alabama see how poverty has worsened in the past fifty years.

They were early endorsers of the new Poor People’s Campaign, stating that although they have Black elected officials, Black police officers, Black entrepreneurs in Alabama, life for the majority of people, Black, white and immigrant, is still not acceptable and there is no justice for the poor there. They are organizing the Selma Jubilee because they believe that rather than commemorating and celebrating the gains made in Selma a half a century ago, we have much unfinished work to do – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s unfinished revolution – the stalled 1968 Poor People’s Campaign.

Another important biblical passage that connects “Bloody Sunday” and the 1965 Voting Rights Acts, the Moral March and the Selma 50th Commemoration, the US Constitution, the Bible and these very difficult times, comes from Luke 23:31 in the Passion Narrative. It reads:

As they led Jesus away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’: “For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” — Luke 23:26-31

I first heard this bible passage from an organizer in West Virginia who, back in 1998, documented human rights abuses due to welfare reform in a report titled “Nobody Asked Us”. Ten years before the 2007-08 economic crisis and crash, there were millions of people in West Virginia (as well as in Alabama and Pennsylvania and Michigan and California) living in deep and long-standing poverty and misery. The 1996 Welfare Reform Act further contributed to the growth of poverty in Appalachia. In 1998, I visited towns in McDowell County, the heart of Coal Country, where literally thousands of families were forced to move to North Carolina and other states to find work. They had been working in the coal mines for years, and then when those jobs disappeared had to go on welfare, and then were forced into poverty wage fast food jobs with welfare reform and then end of entitlements. Although there was deep poverty across West Virginia and the rest of the United States, welfare reform was happening in a time of so called prosperity. The poor of West Virginia were, as Skylight Pictures put it, “Living Broke in Boom Times”. In the words of the Luke 23:31, in the middle of the 1990s, many thought the “wood was green.”

And when Rev. Dr. King warned in 1967 and 1968 that the poor of the US were living in “a cruel and unjust society,” it was also a time of so-called prosperity for many more Americans. It was a period of an expanding pie and an expanding safety net. Many of my foremothers in the Welfare Rights Movement fought and won welfare benefits and other gains in the 1960s, insisting that the economic growth of the 1950s and 1960s needed to be shared with poor Black and Latina women who had contributed much to the whole of society. Dr. King’s critique of Johnson’s War on Poverty was that it had been turned into a skirmish because of the Vietnam War and the gap between haves and have-nots was growing. There was wealth and prosperity in society and it could have been shared with everyone. But something happened in the late 1960s and 1970s. The gap between rich and poor started to grow ever more quickly. A rising tide didn’t lift all boats. It lifted only the yachts and swamped all the rest.

The poor were the canaries in the coal mine; they indicated then (in 1967 Alabama and 1998 West Virginia), as they do now, the very direction that our whole society is heading in. They warned us, much like Luke 23, that the direction of our society, characterized by a polarizing prosperity where 1% of the richest will soon control more wealth than 99% of the poorest, would continue to cause undue and soul-crushing poverty and suffering for so many of God’s children.

This quote was applicable in Selma, Alabama and Frogmore, South Carolina in 1967-68; it was applicable in West Virginia in the 1990s; it is still applicable in Alabama and the entire United States in 2015. We see the suffering of millions around us. In the words of Poverty Initiative Scholar in Residence and Coordinator of Poverty Scholarship and Leadership Development for the Kairos Center, Willie Baptist, we are experiencing unheard of abandonment in the midst of unprecedented abundance.

As this passage in Luke 23 begins, we hear the weeping of the daughters of Jerusalem. These cries are much like those of the defrauded workers from James 5. These daughters are heard all the way from Jerusalem to North Carolina to West Virginia to Alabama. We will hear this weeping in the Community Hearing. We heard it at the Moral March when brothers of recently murdered young people spoke out against the violence and injustice taking place in North Carolina. But this crying and death does not have the last word. We must return to the Book of James and work to combine our words and our deeds; we must hold the rich oppressors of our day responsible and remind everyone that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Indeed we are raising certain basic questions of our whole society. And the poor are answering in a deeply moral movement of justice for all.