On November 15, 2018, we celebrated the Kairos Center’s 5th Anniversary with a special class and reception at Union Theological Seminary. Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, our Director and the Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, and Willie Baptist, Scholar-in-Residence and Co-Coordinator for Poverty Scholarship and Leadership Development, spoke to the class on the movement history of the Kairos Center and Poverty Initiative and our model of organizing a movement to end poverty, led by the poor. Below is an excerpt from Rev. Liz’s remarks during the class on the role of moral and faith leadership in our movement building.
We believe that there’s a new theology coming out of action. Not coming out of organized religion. Not coming out of theological thinkers. The theologians of our time are our people. In the words of Nic Smith of the Fight for $15, “our backs are against the wall and all we can do is push.”
When I came to Union Theological Seminary in 2001, 9/11 happened on the first day of systematic theology class with James Cone. It was really interesting to me to be at Union, supposedly this very religious space, on that day.
Many people were obviously deeply impacted by September 11th. They had people on those planes and working down on Wall Street in the World Trade Towers. But most of my colleagues’ reactions at Union was that their faith was really rocked. It was really interesting to me because I realized people’s faith, and these are the next ministers of our society — the next faith leaders of our society — people’s faith was based on a reality that mainly good things had happened to them, and that good things were going to keep on happening.
I realized then that the faith of Kensington, North Philadelphia and of Immokalee, Florida was different — that even though only bad things had ever happened, something different is possible. I had this deep theological experience around September 11th. If you wait to think about theology and faith and religiosity just amongst folks who make it their business to study faith and religiosity and theology then you might miss where theology is breaking out now, where new theological ideas and actions are emerging.
Very early on when the Kairos Center had just been launched, we were asked to participate in civil disobedience with a group of Walmart workers who were protesting. After I had been arrested, I was sitting in the back of a paddy wagon with a bunch of retail workers, folks that were going to lose their jobs and had risked having their kids being taken away from them by doing this action. And here I am wearing my clerical collar and they’re like, “Thank God we have a religious person with us.” And I said, “Let’s just talk about this for a second, because I am not the religious person. I’m not the person of faith in this group. My kids are going to be picked up from school by my husband. I’m going to be out of jail. I’m not going to be harassed. Who are the people of faith here?”
I think that we have to think in those terms. Meanwhile, I think there are specific things that people who are trained theologically need to do in this moment, that it is their duty to do. Two of the most important that we’ve learned in this stage of the Poor People’s Campaign are:
1. We have to battle out these theological and Biblical ideas. Every place I go I still bring the good news that the Bible does not condone poverty. I have found that if I don’t start there, then people in the back of their minds, no matter who they are or where they are in their life, think that the Bible does condone poverty and think that poverty is inevitable and that if God wanted to end poverty God would do so. I’m talking about liberals and progressives and so-called revolutionaries. It is the same with conservatives and atheists and Christians and Buddhists.
We have to battle for the Bible. I don’t reinterpret “the poor will be with you always” because I want it to say something different. I used to ignore it. I used to just talk around it and say, Oh, but look at, “Blessed are the poor for theirs shall be the kingdom of heaven,” or “Whatever you do to the least of these you do unto to me.” But I learned that we have to take on the way that the Bible is being used and misused. We have to take on these “texts of terror,” as Phyllis Tribble has called them. If we don’t, then we lose before we even get started.
2. Then there is another critical place in the movement where I see theology and organized religion and trained theologians and Biblical scholars coming in. Dr. King said near the end of his life that “the poor and dispossessed of this nation live in a cruelly unjust society. If they can be helped to take action together they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.” The duty of people of faith, especially those that are working in organized religion or some sort of faith-based work, is to ask, how do we help the poor to take action together? When we do this, all of our institutions will be transformed.
We have fourteen national faith bodies — Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Christian Evangelical, Protestant and Catholic — who have endorsed the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Back in 1968, before King’s death when he called for a Poor People’s Campaign, there wasn’t a single one, with the exception of the AFSC. A couple came on after he was killed because they felt that they had to, but almost nobody was right on that issue. We should just be clear and say that almost nobody was right back in ’68. Our faith institutions weren’t on the right side.
The duty of people of faith, especially those that are working in organized religion or some sort of faith-based work, is to ask, how do we help the poor to take action together? When we do this, all of our institutions will be transformed.
Today, fourteen national faith bodies have said not only are they going to pass a resolution or just pat us on the back and say a prayer, but that their leadership is willing to get arrested. That their membership is willing to get involved. That they’re going to put together faith studies about the Biblical and theological foundations of this work, all of which is aimed at helping poor people to take action together. This is how these institutions can help change things. This is also how a liberative theology comes to be. It emerges as people move and as we help people to move. To take action together. This is how we will “unsettle” our complacent national religious life.
For far too long our faith institutions have justified that which is not justifiable through our moral and sacred teachings. Theology comes from below, theology comes from action. But there is a need for people to do deep Biblical and theological work and deep organizing in faith communities, as faith communities. It really meant something that we could go to these different faith bodies before the launch of the Campaign and folks would in the hundreds and thousands show up for our actions. They showed up and made it so that poor folks didn’t have to go to jail alone, so that homeless people didn’t have to be harassed with impunity. They made it so that people could go on strike from their low-wage worker jobs and then be walked back to those places by clergy and feel that their struggle is legitimate.
To me it’s pretty clear what the role of faith leaders is and it’s a really important role. If we are not playing that role, then we are abdicating our responsibility in times when, as history has shown us, if we abdicate things can go from bad to worse very quickly.
We have seen what the impact has been of ceding religion for the past 50 years to folks that actually put politics over religion, who are more willing to lay hands on someone who has never demonstrated any real devotion or faith, and who pass policies that really only represent their political views. We absolutely should not be saying that these so-called evangelicals are people who have more faith than us. They are led by politics, not what is in their sacred texts.
Our sacred texts talk about universal healthcare and paying people what they deserve and organizing society around the needs of the poor. This is not because I want these things to be there in those texts, it’s because they are there. Movements of the poor are what produced our sacred texts in the first place, and it is the poor who fought for our sacred texts to become a reality.
Movements of the poor are what produced our sacred texts in the first place, and it is the poor who fought for our sacred texts to become a reality.
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In the past year the Kairos Center has had tremendous breakthroughs in our movement building. We have begun to shift the narrative around poverty and build real power among the poor and dispossessed. As we prepare for the days and years ahead we know the promise of this movement rests on the strength, insight, and unity of its leaders. The Kairos Center is dedicated to deepening and broadening its role in these efforts — please donate today to help us continue our important work.