By Shailly Gupta Barnes and Adam Barnes
This is the fifth chapter of a forthcoming book from the Kairos Center, on the call for a new Poor People’s Campaign. Each chapter is accompanied by the edited transcript of a discussion about its key themes by leaders in poor people’s struggles from around the country. The chapters will be published here on the Kairos Center blog as they’re finished.
If you will let me be a preacher just a little bit—One night, a juror came to Jesus and he wanted to know what he could do to be saved. Jesus didn’t get bogged down in the kind of isolated approach of what he shouldn’t do. Jesus didn’t say, ‘Now Nicodemus, you must stop lying.’ He didn’t say, ‘Nicodemus, you must stop cheating if you are doing that.’ He didn’t say, ‘Nicodemus, you must not commit adultery.’ He didn’t say, ‘Nicodemus, now you must stop drinking liquor if you are doing that excessively.’ He said something altogether different, because Jesus realized something basic–that if a man will lie, he will steal. And if a man will steal, he will kill. So instead of just getting bogged down in one thing, Jesus looked at him and said, ‘Nicodemus, you must be born again.’
He said, in other words, ‘Your whole structure must be changed.’ A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will ‘thingify’ them—make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. What I am saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, “America, you must be born again!” –Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?,” 1967 1Martin Luther King, Jr., “‘Where Do We Go From Here?,’ Delivered at the 11th Annual SCLC Convention,” King Encyclopedia at Stanford, August 16, 1967, http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/where_do_we_go_from_here_delivered_at_the_11th_annual_sclc_convention.1.html.
Nearly 50 years ago, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asserted that in order to end the evils of poverty, racism, and militarism we needed a revolution of values and a radical transformation of the “edifice” that produces these evils.
In the Bible passage that King quotes above, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he needs be “reborn;” that he must die to his old self and be born to an entirely new way of being. No change is more fundamental than death and rebirth, which is precisely why King chose this text to make clear the kind of change required in US society. The need for spiritual and structural re-birth in our times is more urgent than ever. Life continues to be systematically discarded and degraded by our current social system. Just as King did in his time, religious leadership today must challenge the violent and death-dealing structures of society and offer a new vision for human community; indeed, “America, you must be born again!”
King’s understanding of rebirth is not that of some abstract spiritual rebirth. King’s life and work made clear that for him the Christian belief in rebirth, or resurrection, is a promise for new life in this world; a promise that God’s Kingdom will exist “on Earth as it is in Heaven.” The central story of the Gospels is one where Jesus calls the poor and marginalized to follow him in rejecting the violence and injustice of the Roman Empire. Jesus calls his followers to actively work for a new economic and moral order where debts will be forgiven, captives will be released, and inequality corrected.
This unequivocal commitment to value and care for all life by actively securing the resources necessary to sustain and nurture life is at the center of most (if not all) religious traditions. Yet these principles, which also translate to concrete political views and social structures, have often been obscured, distorted, and delegitimized throughout history. As Dr. Michael Hudson has written in his research on the Biblical tradition of debt cancellation,
so far has the modern idea of market efficiency and progress gone that today, although the Bible remains our civilization’s defining book, it is perceived largely as a composite of stories, myth and wisdom literature best epitomized perhaps in spirituals and hymns and not economic laws. The Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule have become so dissociated from the economic legislation of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy that whoever takes these laws in earnest is considered utopian and anachronistic if looking backward nostalgically or radical if adopting them as a guide for current activism. Yet these laws formed the take-off point for Christ upon his return to Nazareth’s synagogue…to dismiss these laws is to thus remove much of the Bible from the context of its time.2Dr. Michael Hudson, The Lost Tradition of Biblical Debt Cancellations, 1993, p. 5-6.
These laws and the social vision recorded in the Bible emerged out of the long history of the struggle of the poor and marginalized. Jesus was an effective leader not because he demanded obedience to an unseen, impersonal God. Jesus was effective because he connected to the suffering of others and resisted the forces that created that suffering. Jesus helped to embody the experiences of the poor and marginalized and through struggle provided a vision of a better world for all. He reminded the world of God’s undying love for all life.
This ongoing human struggle for dignity and justice can be found at the center of the Islamic tradition as well. The founding story of Islam is one of resistance and unexpected leadership that opposes the dominant life-taking forces of the times. The prophet Muhammad was a social outcast, an orphan, and untrained as a scholar. Yet it was he who God chose to receive God’s revelation, the Qur’an. He was not raised a great warrior, but he led the forces that overthrew the powerful and oppressive tribal structure of his time. And ultimately it was this outsider and his outsider followers that helped to establish a new community and vision for society, one that prioritized the defense of the poor and the marginalized, and sought to centralize the value of all life.
In the Qur’an, there is a clear and frequent call to reject the forces that destroy life and to actively make the world just for all. These principles are clarified through the interrelated concepts of tawhid (unity of God) and taqwa (God consciousness). Tawhid establishes that God is one, not divided. God is neither a completely distant, separate force floating above and beyond human life, nor is God something confined by individual people and their self-interests, i.e., the self-serving idol-gods that Muhammad rejected in his time. According to the concept of tawhid, God is the force that binds all life. Ali Shari’ati, a revolutionary and political activist who was part of the anti-imperialist resistance in Iran during the 1970s, explains that “Islam resolves the oppositions of nature, man, and God, through tawhid.”3ʻAlī Sharīʻatī, Marxism and other Western Fallacies: An Islamic Critique / Ali Shari’ati. Trans. R. Campbell (Berkeley: Mizan Press, c1980), 67.
The concept of Taqwa builds from an understanding of tawhid by providing guidance for how we are to live in this world and with God. For individuals and communities alike, living according to the principle of taqwa means not only a disciplined prayer practice but a form of devotion that leads to and sustains a social order that protects and nurtures life — in other words, a devotion that does God’s will. Taqwa is a vigilant consciousness of God in all things. It is the practice of simultaneously acknowledging God’s transcendence — God as the source and abundance and joy of life — and of embracing our divine capacity to do good in this world.
Sheikh Moussa, the leader of a Sufi community in West Africa who has dedicated his life to fighting against the desperate poverty in his community, explains this principle with a well known hadith: “God’s messenger (Muhammad) tells us, you should work in this life like you will never die, and you should work for eternity as if tomorrow you will die.”4From the Bukhari Hadith, “conduct yourself in this world as if you are here to stay forever, and yet prepare for eternity as if you are to die tomorrow.” In other words, one must work boldly and tirelessly to make this world better — knowing that we can because we all partake in the divinity that makes life possible. And at the same time we must make this effort humbly, baring the knowledge that our individual existence is brief, a mere instant in the eternity of God.
We can see a similar understanding of religion and religious leadership in the ancient Hindu texts like the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita is one part of a long epic story of justice and injustice that unfolds through a great war that has torn apart society. Many of the more common interpretations of the Gita turn this war into an internal and personal war of the ego, but keeping the story grounded in the reality of an actual war is important to revealing its promise of liberation to the poor and oppressed. Although some argue that Hinduism is not liberative because of its relationship to the caste system, by re-reading stories from the Gita with the perspective of the ongoing struggle for human liberation, it becomes clear that God was and is on the side of the oppressed. In the war depicted in the Gita, Krishna (God) is not neutral: Krishna fights on the side of those who have lost everything, and against those who have perpetrated this injustice. In Chapter 4, verses 7-8, Krishna tells Arjuna, an embattled warrior that, “whenever righteousness is on the decline, the unrighteousness [immoral] is in the ascendant, then I am reborn. For the protection of the virtuous, for the removal of the evil-doers, and for establishing Dharma (righteousness) on a firm footing, I am born from age to age.”
What this means is that God not only intervenes in this world, but God intervenes for a specific purpose — to protect the virtuous, remove evil, and establish dharma and justice on firm footing. This is not a disinterested or detached Krishna. On the contrary, this God loves the world so much, that he is re-born from age to age to join those in struggles against injustice and to ensure that justice reigns. In this kernel of a Hindu theology of liberation, reincarnation (rebirth) is transformed into a social phenomenon: what is reborn is not the individual soul, but the continuation of a struggle for dharma started long ago and passed down from generation to generation — generations that have battled against unjust and oppressive regimes, systems, and structures. This is what connects us from past to present, this epic struggle for justice and truth. And this struggle is what Krishna calls us to, compelling us to join him on that battlefield, knowing we have the power and legitimacy of God on our side.
These understandings of religion and religious leadership are not a diminution of the value of specific practices or rituals. They are an affirmation that the animating force that breathes life into religious practice is rooted in and sustained by the ongoing and concrete struggle for life against the forces that take and degrade life. Historically, those communities where life has been abused, discarded, forgotten, but where people nevertheless endure and continue to fight — this is where the breath of life (ruah), the spirit, can be understood and remembered most clearly.
A Revolution of Values in Our Times
In calling for a “revolution of values” King was calling for people to wake up to and remember the enduring truth about human life and God. He was calling people to hold onto their deepest “religious” values and use them to confront, reject, and rebuild a society that was degrading life; that was exploiting and “thingify(s)” people. In many ways the deprivation and degradation that King witnessed in his times has only gotten more severe and the forces that sustain and benefit from such misery have only become more powerful and sinister.
We know these polarized conditions are wrong. To end them we must draw on the long tradition of resistance that religions have helped preserve. These traditions will allow us to confront and defeat the dominant life-taking theologies and ideologies of our times.
A revolution of values is, therefore, a radically different understanding of how religion is thought and practiced in our times. It is an understanding that is grounded in the struggles of the poor. A revolution of values arises from the experiences of suffering and struggle and is directed at ending those conditions. It is, in other words, a call for a theology and a spirituality of liberation.
“Spirituality” here is not understood as something distant or opposed to the concrete concerns of life. The Spirit is, as Brazilian liberation theologian and mystic Pedro Casaldáliga describes it, “the best of life, what makes life be what it is, giving it love and strength, looking after it and moving it forward.”5Pedro Casaldáliga & José-Maria Vigil, Political Holiness: A Spirituality of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993), 1-2. It is the animating breath of life that shapes how one lives and “walks” in relationship with all life and with the animating source of life, i.e., God. This spirituality is emerging in the struggles of our times. It is defined by a fierce will to resist with love and creativity against what seem like insurmountable odds.
The unexpected capacity of people to endure and resist unimaginable sadness and pain is what the Bible calls the “strength of the weak.” As Christian mystic theologian Dorothee Sollee explains, “the basic experience of resistance is receiving the gift of power.”6Dorothee Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2001), 205. The power to fight back both produces deep social bonds within a community and between diverse communities of struggle, while encouraging and strengthening a moral clarity and faith that God stands on the side of the poor and oppressed.
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.
These are the key elements of a spirituality and theology of liberation that we are seeing emerge in and through the struggles of our times: the fierce will to fight against overwhelming forces, the universal demand to not be poor and oppressed in an era of plenty, and the unapologetic and revolutionary leadership of the poor.
If unleashed, this liberative potential may serve as the rallying cry for a new movement uniting the poor and dispossessed around the world to realize the revolution of values King called for nearly 50 years ago. We are ready for this good news.
- How does King encourage us to think differently about religion, morality, and values?
- How are the struggles of the poor and dispossessed today redefining religion, religious leadership and moving us towards a revolution of values?
Rev. Tonny Algood, Mobile Inner City Mission
Rev. Emily McNeill, New York Labor Religion Coalition
Rev. Erica Williams, Repairers of the Breach
Rev. Jessica Williams, Central Baptist Theological Seminary
Tonny: Speaking from the Alabama, the Bible belt, experiencing the effects of the religious right, alt right and KKK–some of which claim to be Christian based–they point to the sins of immorality limited to drinking, adultery, etc. At the same time they will turn their back on the needs of the poor, use Christianity to support their racism and keep one group of people down because of the color of their skin. He calls us beyond that. Christianity needs to change a system that is set up to exploit the poor economically, deny education, spend more on the military than on health care, education, and housing. These are moral questions that need to be addressed and changed. Discrimination based on color is in the DNA of this country. Racism was given birth by economic greed and it will have to be eliminated by setting up another economic system that will address the needs of the poor.
Emily: One of King’s key points is trying to push back against the separation of private behavior and public behavior. Religion is not primarily about how people behave in private but is connected to how we live together as a society. It’s not that lying is okay, but his point is that the private and public are connected. It doesn’t make sense to call out behavior in people’s private lives and ignore how it manifests in public. King is trying to draw our attention to how racism and poverty violate our religious values. If we don’t feel personally impacted by racism and poverty, it’s easier to look away from these violations. But for those who are impacted it’s obvious. The poor and dispossessed have so much insight into the true meaning of religion because they recognize the brokenness of the world. That brokenness is why King says the nation needs to be reborn, to ensure that the values of our faiths are exhibited in how we live together, including in our economic and legal systems.
Jessica: In addition to the core message of these religions, as discussed in the article, being about the sacredness of life, it is also about the agency of people to create something different. And we can see that principle at work in the leadership of the poor and the leaders within communities that are dispossessed.
Adam: King’s call for rebirth and transformation invokes a biblical story about a time when transformation was also called for. Our conception of what was happening at that time the Bible was written and the time the stories took place require more context that we usually give them. But in their context the stories are really helpful in trying to imagine what rebirth would mean today. The story of Noah’s ark troubles me, but it could be seen as a rebirth and way of becoming new. What will a radical revolution of values look like? How can people start connecting their religious practices with what is emerging in communities of struggle? How do we use religious practice to disarm the social structures that are hiding those struggles? How do our theologies counter life-taking systems? It will take an effective religious leadership to answer those questions. King thought the Poor People’s Campaign was part of the transformation of consciousness, part of calling out what is wrong.
Jessica: I’ve been reading that phrase “transformation of consciousness” over and over and reflecting on what brought me to a transformation of consciousness at particular points in life and what continues to challenge me to further transformation. In King’s quote about the Nicodemus story, to just stop lying or stop cheating isn’t a transformation. It is stopping a singular behavior but to be born again is to become a new creation: “the former things have passed away and behold, all things are made new.”
Erica: In thinking about those moments of transformation in my life, I appreciate that King encourages us not to look at the individual issues we have, but the root cause of why we do what we do. In our society we see a lot of religious leaders not saying anything about the numerous injustices because they suffer from greed, gluttony and the list goes on. Therefore, it will not do any good to try to convince a person to change their ways. There must be a change of heart. I am a firm believer that where the heart goes, the mind and body will follow. I know this from experience. It was not until I was “ born again” that I awakened to my own issues of being greedy and self-serving. As I read the Gospels and discovered the true essence of Christianity, I realized that God was requiring of me to live a life of service to others. This is when my heart changed and so did my actions. That is why we must work on the heart of America. In order for America to undergo a moral revolution of values, there must be triple bypass surgery which unclogs the arteries of racism, materialism and militarism. Until we unclog the centuries of inequality in this country, America will continue to live with congestive heart failure.
We are living in a time that is requiring that religious leaders come from behind their sacred desks and get in the streets. The streets means getting involved in the issues that impact the community, which includes people that do not attend their faith center. Religious leaders must be focused on the liberation of the poor and dispossessed, not concerned about their image, paychecks and the size of their congregations. America is suffering from heart failure because the people of faith had suffered from angina. There has been reduced blood flow to the heart for years because the church has failed to see the cries of the poor and dispossessed. That is why we must remind religious leaders of what we have been called to do. Dr. King said it best, “Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.” I believe with all my heart that God is calling for humanity, that includes people of all faith traditions or moral conviction, to rise up and take a stand against the unjust policies around the world that rob the dignity and well-being from those that are poor and dispossessed. But in order for that to happen, America Must Be Born Again.
Emily: Within the activist community, especially younger generations, there seems to be more of an interest in spirituality and engaging spiritual values and practices in the work. Maybe it’s just that I’m noticing it more, but my sense is that the movement among the left to reject religion is being exposed a little bit as based on Western, materialist thinking that itself is being exposed as actually oppressive. This concept of being reborn as whole people and as a whole society has not only material realities and but also spiritual realities. Younger people are realizing that culture change is important alongside policy change. I wonder how religious communities are going to react to renewed attention to values coming from outside religious communities. Will it renew religious communities and bring them into action? That’s my hope. There’s opportunity for a coming together of religious and nonreligious activism, and maybe interest in the spiritual outside religious communities will revitalize spirituality inside religious communities.
Shailly: That makes me think about some of the work that’s happening in relationship to religious communities as the closest thing we have to projects of survival, whether it’s food pantries, sharing food stamps, sharing medicines, people bringing food pantry allocations to church for shared meals. In the midst of the water crisis in Detroit, people are sharing water between homes. Something is happening in those spaces that is more radical and revolutionary than others can see. These moments when people are coming together shows why the struggles of the poor and dispossessed are at the heart of whatever new society has to be born.
Adam: When I was in Albany, New York with Emily and some folks had organized a coordinated day of action with Rev. Barber’s’ Moral Day of Action in North Carolina. There was an amazing group of people that converged from all different struggles–the nurses’ union, Fight for $15 fast food workers, Honeywell workers–to give testimony at the capital. They spoke with a clear moral framework. It was so natural and so powerful. It made sense to them. There was no need for theologians to correct them or layer on theological arguments. There is something powerful and clear in terms of morality that exists in these struggles, but it has been well hidden and suppressed.
Emily: Through the whole chapter, including King’s quote and the texts from Islam and Hinduism, there is a core message that is very simple: life is sacred and people are people, not objects but subjects. This simple value unites all of us against the many ways that we see violence and injustice perpetrated. It’s a uniting principle across not only religions but also the issues that the poor and dispossessed are struggling against. The demands of all these struggles are for rights, the basic necessities of life that are clearly abundant and should be available to everybody. But we are up against a narrative that either denies that these injustices exist or tries to justify them.
Last spring Labor-Religion Coalition held an overnight vigil on raising the minimum wage and increasing hunger funding in the New York state budget. One lawmaker told us no one in the entire state of New York is poor. He said because of public benefits no one is falling through the cracks. I don’t know if he really believed that or not, but he could say that and for many people it sounds believable. For me, knowing people who are struggling and knowing the statistics, it’s shocking to hear an elected official claim people aren’t suffering. But we’ve managed to be segregated enough that it is possible for some people to go through their lives and not encounter folks living in poverty.
Then there are the justifications for poverty. The dominant culture says you have to earn your basic rights. You only deserve to make ends meet if you have the right education, job, childhood, experience, etc. That sounds like common sense to so many people, this narrative about personal responsibility. At the same time, that narrative breaks apart pretty quickly once you hear from real people who for all kinds of reasons aren’t getting by. If more of us are confronted more directly by those stories, I think we will realize that we can’t reconcile our values with our current reality.
Jessica: Sometimes that narrative is so deep that we don’t see it even when it is within our own families. An activist I know told the story of a wealthy man in town who, when he heard the statistics of the growing numbers of poverty in our historically wealthy county, couldn’t believe it. Meanwhile, his own children had lost their jobs and their homes in the recession. He was blind to that reality even in his own life because of the way we often frame these narratives and how we continue to divide between us and them, the deserving and the undeserving, etc.
Adam: I was brought up to think that way. You deserve what you work for. No one should get handouts. It’s interesting to think about where the disconnect happens. My parents are Christians. If they were to hear these testimonies, they would resonate morally. But there is something about the message that isn’t heard. Even with all these people in struggle, their organizing isn’t seen as righteous work. And if you told my parents that “everyone has a right to this or that,” they would ask, “Does that mean everyone should be given whatever they want and not have to do anything?” It’s a misunderstanding of what rights are. People hear ‘rights’ in the wrong way, so there is an obligation to be clearer about what we mean by rights. I don’t think anyone is saying because you’re breathing that’s the only qualification for getting everything in the world. That’s not the demand.
Tonny: It may be easier to address this today than it was fifty years ago. For example, the plight of the homeless in this country is not the result of the lack of housing. There are three houses for every homeless family. Those houses are vacant because you have to have money to live in them. Forty six percent of the food produced in this country goes into the garbage, mostly because people can’t afford to buy it. Jobs are disappearing. Seventy five percent of steel jobs have been automated. They aren’t coming back. That is happening or could soon happen in every industry. God has given us the knowledge and resources to feed, clothe, house and provide medical care for everyone, but that can’t be done until, as King said, our nation goes through a rebirth. And birth is painful. It’s not a person’s consciousness that determines their wellbeing, but their well being that determines their consciousness. But that can be misdirected, as it was in the last election, with prominent religious leaders coronating Trump as God’s will. People should not be without the necessities of life and suffer and die in a world where we have the technology to take care of everyone. It’s crazy.
Emily: Questions about qualifications for a “handout” are a diversion from the question of how the economy treats human beings. Advocates for getting rid of the social safety net try to position themselves as pro-dignity. They argue it isn’t dignified to get a handout, and so they claim to be the defenders of a noble humanity. But they’re missing the real indignity of our system. King’s observation that slavery was a system that “thingafied” people is relevant here. We have a system that looks at people as mechanisms to increase profits, and that’s the dehumanizing philosophy. We have to do a better job at redirecting the conversation back to values. What are the core values that the extremists are basing their positions on? What are they using to determine whether our society and economy are healthy and successful? GDP? Corporate profitability? What does that say about their values? The overall wealth of the country has very little connection to people’s well-being. If we really value human dignity and well-being, we would look to different indicators. How could we prioritize health indicators? The abolition of child poverty? Violence? The conversation about values has to go further and really look at outcomes. These are much bigger questions than whether people benefit from a handout.
Shailly: I agree with both of you. Chicago’s police budget under a democratic mayor is $4 million per day, and yet they’re shuttering public schools. By what indicator is that city doing okay? I like this idea of being able to envision a society based on what’s possible and on the values and priorities that can be realized using the productive capacity we have today. For the first time in human history we don’t have to be constrained by competition over scarce resources. So we’re battling against an old idea that continues to be reinforced.
Adam: In terms of the question of religious leadership, part of what was so impactful about King’s leadership is that he talked about the economic and social conditions as part of a moral and spiritual vision. For me that’s a constant question for the movement and the leadership required to make the movement possible and successful. Looking at what limited the success of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, Willie Baptist says we need many Martins, a broad and deep leadership. But King was unique in his capacity to be a spiritual leader. So often that role is seen as outside of the real organizing, in more of a supportive role. But we need leaders who can be inspiring and connect these things. I don’t know how we are bringing them together. Rev. Barber connects different groups of people, and he doesn’t shy away from bringing in the Bible, and it moves a lot of people. That leadership is really important. Where in your work do you see that kind of spiritual leadership grounded in analysis?
Tonny: There are people here in Alabama who are organizing around faith and social justice, but they haven’t been able to pull people together across party lines the way that Barber has. One of the things down here that makes it difficult to pull people together, from what I’ve observed, across these lines, is the issue of abortion and human sexuality. I’d be interested in seeing more about how Rev. Barber addresses that. I’ve heard people say they’d vote for Trump in a heartbeat just along the lines of abortion. Where I’ve seen people brought together down here it’s been more along struggling for common economic rights or the plight of the homeless. Sometimes I wonder how the Nazi’s were able to use churches to help them come to power. When I look at churches today, almost all of them preach a watered down Christianity of assimilation and material well-being. They’ll talk about charity all day, but they won’t preach or call for justice. Charity is cheap. People can give only to those they choose and only when they feel like it. Justice always requires sacrifice. It calls for making the systematic changes that make charity no longer necessary. Religious leaders won’t do that, because they don’t want to step on the toes of the large givers to their church and prominent people in the community. Jeff Session and Sandy Stimpson, Mobile’s Republican mayor, are both members of the United Methodist Church in town. It’s a challenge. That’s why we have to tell a different story, and that’s what I’ve read Rev. Barber is doing. But the more divisive issues down here are reproductive rights and sexuality. How are we going to get rid of racism, end homelessness and hunger? We need more prophets.
Emily: I’ve been thinking about the Christian church in 1930s Germany and in the civil rights movement. We’re entering another period where we’ll see a separation of the wheat from the chaff. Religious leaders are going to be pushed to take a side. History suggests that the majority will not take a stand, but the more there’s a deepening crisis of people’s rights being violated, some religious leaders are going to realize they can’t be neutral any more. Part of our role is to call the question, to encourage our own colleagues to recognize what is at stake and decide where they stand. At times I’m pretty cynical about the established religious leadership, so I think much of the religious and spiritual leadership for this movement will come from people who are not clergy. Those who have been trained as clergy do have pastoral gifts that will be necessary to help people survive loss, death and suffering. It’s important for institutional religious leaders to step up as much as possible. At the same time I think we have to expand our understanding of what religious and spiritual leadership looks like. We have to look to leaders within the communities of the poor and dispossessed who are living lives of resistance through their faith and their values.
Adam: It’s hard to measure, but there is something that has changed since the time of King’s religious leadership. Religious leaders have a different impact on the national consciousness. But Rev. Barber is an example of the reality that in this country morality is still a powerful framework, even among people who don’t talk about religion. How do we continue to use that powerful language? When you use the bible to critique the system, people do care what the Bible says. It’s a legitimate, deep critique, and it’s still a moral authority.
Emily: I agree the Bible still resonates, even among those who claim not to care what the Bible says, partially because the Right has taken over what Christianity means. When people hear the Bible being used to counter that usage, it’s powerful. It’s powerful to see how Rev. Barber has brought in texts from other religions to show the common thread. There’s still a cultural resonance.
Tonny: Here in Mobile we have groups that work together to address different issues in the community, made up of Jewish, Islamic and Christian religions. It is a common thread through it all. Saying Islam is a religion of terrorism is like talking about the Klan and Timothy McVeigh, who call themselves Christian, as indicating Christianity is a religion of terrorism. You can’t paint everyone with the same brush based on what a few members do. We have to live in this world together and we have to work together to transform it. King was pushing the Poor People’s Campaign because it was going to bring people together across racial lines to struggle in their own interest. President Johnson was asked why poor whites and middle income republicans vote against their own interests, and he said, “if you can convince the poorest white man he’s better than a black man, he’ll empty his pockets for you.” People must come together and work for their joint wellbeing and common struggle. Dr. King realized that. That is what is behind the calls to care for the poor in the Gospel and the world’s religions. The challenge for us today when it comes to organizing a Poor People’s Campaign reaching out and being in conversation with people who for whatever religious reason voted for Trump, because they’ve been misled. It’s easy to write off everybody who voted for Trump as bad people, to think there’s no way to win them over. The real antagonist is Trump’s plan for America and the world. They think Christianity means one thing. And we see it as meaning something that’s going to help bring the kingdom of God on earth where everyone is treated equally and there’s no exploitation of people for economic reasons. If the movement doesn’t start telling a different story from what people have heard, then we’re going to lose.
Jessica: So much of the call to justice and dignity and abundant life for all in Scripture speaks for itself too. It doesn’t need fancy exegesis or lofty preaching. It’s clear and it’s powerful and it’s liberating.
|↑1||Martin Luther King, Jr., “‘Where Do We Go From Here?,’ Delivered at the 11th Annual SCLC Convention,” King Encyclopedia at Stanford, August 16, 1967, http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/where_do_we_go_from_here_delivered_at_the_11th_annual_sclc_convention.1.html.|
|↑2||Dr. Michael Hudson, The Lost Tradition of Biblical Debt Cancellations, 1993, p. 5-6.|
|↑3||ʻAlī Sharīʻatī, Marxism and other Western Fallacies: An Islamic Critique / Ali Shari’ati. Trans. R. Campbell (Berkeley: Mizan Press, c1980), 67.|
|↑4||From the Bukhari Hadith, “conduct yourself in this world as if you are here to stay forever, and yet prepare for eternity as if you are to die tomorrow.”|
|↑5||Pedro Casaldáliga & José-Maria Vigil, Political Holiness: A Spirituality of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993), 1-2.|
|↑6||Dorothee Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2001), 205.|