By Nicholas Laccetti
The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of the Kairos Center or its staff.
This reflection was written in response to the Winter 2015 immersion course during which we traveled to North Carolina to join the Historic Thousands on Jones Street Moral March and learn from the North Carolina NAACP and the Forward Together Movement.
On Valentine’s Day weekend, for the second year in a row, I had the opportunity to head down to North Carolina’s capital for the Moral March on Raleigh. Folks from the Kairos Center, local North Carolina organizers, and other activists also had the privilege of attending a symposium on the strategy and history of the Moral Mondays movement with Rev. Barber himself, held at an historic local church. Last year I went down with the bus along with everyone else from Kairos; this year it was a bit of a struggle. I came down with the flu a couple of days before the March and ended up flying down late Friday, a last-ditch attempt to get better before Saturday’s events (this had mixed results). My partner Melissa was also heading down to the March with a group of young activists from Cleveland, so I was determined to make it, even though it wasn’t looking good the day before we all had to leave for North Carolina.
So my Valentine’s Day this year was spent at a rally of thousands of people in North Carolina’s capital, physically sick but spiritually inspired, among a sea of different organizations, groups, and causes. Moral Mondays is united in its platform of advocating for, among many other things, a moral state budget, healthcare benefits, reproductive rights, prison reform, voters’ rights (especially in a state that has seen numerous attempts at racist voter repression) and LGBT equality. By supporting such a broad platform, the movement has drawn allies from all sorts of places around the state, from all sorts of political, racial, and identity groups.
From a call to prayer offered by Oliver Muhammad, a local imam, to a swath of pink hats and signs from Planned Parenthood supporters, to the prophetic Biblical fervor of Rev. Barber himself, the Moral Mondays movement is nothing if not diverse. It is a true example of coalition politics, and to my eyes as a theologically-minded seminarian, an incredible example of how to solve the perennial problem of the one and the many. The Moral Mondays movement represents, in lived praxis, the possibility of plurality in unity, without the manipulative blurring and dissolution of what usually passes for “tolerance” in liberal discourse. Instead of imperial cosmopolitanism, where a diverse group is allowed as long as everyone gives obeisance to the gods of the state or empire, at the rally I experienced a true example of religious pluralism.
Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx once theorized that it was in experiences of what he called “critical negativity” that human beings caught a glimpse of what it meant to be fully human. When faced with a threat against their very humanity, people of all religious beliefs or no religious beliefs respond by irrupting in struggle, knowing deep in their bones that this is not the world as it should be. Schillebeeckx, as a Christian theologian, placed the basis of this irruption of praxis in his belief in God as creator and the world as God’s creation. Creation was the start of a process that will ultimately lead to the glorified humanum of God’s kingdom, which in-breaks even now into our frequently painful day-to-day reality. We cannot clearly define the humanum, the transfigured human being typified for the Christian by the risen Christ, but, like the negative of a photograph, we can see what it will be more clearly in those experiences that we know innately to be unjust attacks on our human dignity.
Such language is moral language, even when freed of the specifically Christian language of God and creation. Schillebeeckx did not think such moral irruptions of the dispossessed were limited to religious believers, but he did think that moral action and moral language were integral parts of being human. They are also integral to the Moral Mondays movement, and are what makes it distinctive and successful as a broad social movement struggling against injustice in North Carolina. Fittingly for a rally held on Valentine’s Day, Rev. Barber told us that day that we needed to be political “defibrillators” because “we find we’ve got, not a left problem or a right problem or a conservative problem or a liberal problem. We’ve got a heart problem. When money and greed and political hubris and pride and ego and beating your opponent become more important than working together to uplift humanity, we’ve got a heart problem.”
The moral language that Rev. Barber prophetically used here has its source, as Schillebeeckx understood, in the reality of our shared humanity, not one particular religious or ideological tradition. When we find that the state is attacking our very personhood as human beings deserving of dignity, we know deep inside that something is wrong, and our response is a moral response that points the way to how to be fully human. The Moral Mondays coalition is able to join together to struggle for a unified platform because, even though it is very diverse (and a decade ago some of its members would never have been caught dead in a room together), it is rooted in the soil of creation.
When we find that the state is attacking our very personhood as human beings deserving of dignity, we know deep inside that something is wrong, and our response is a moral response that points the way to how to be fully human.
We’ve got a heart problem in this country, and no amount of Valentine’s Day chocolate is going to fix it. If my Valentine’s Day was a little unusual this year, the story of the “historical” St. Valentine was also less romantic than one might expect (I use quotation marks because Valentine is one of those many saints whose story is more legend than history). One hagiographical account describes St. Valentinus as a bishop in the Italy of third century Rome. While under arrest for his Christian faith, the Roman judge decided to put Valentinus to the test and brought to him to his blind daughter. If Valentinus was successful in restoring the girl’s sight, the judge pledged to free him and do as he said. Naturally, Valentinus easily restored the girl’s sight just by laying hands over her eyes. In response, the judge agreed to destroy his household idols, undergo baptism, and ultimately free all the Christian inmates imprisoned under his authority. Eventually, however, Valentinus was again arrested and executed for his faith under the Roman Emperor Claudius.
I describe this story at length because it shows that the history of our faith tradition is one of being the kind of political defibrillator that Rev. Barber has asked us to be. The St. Valentine of the story wasn’t a cherubic saint sitting on a cloud with little hearts floating around his head, but a political actor who suffered and ultimately died for his beliefs. Valentinus the defibrillator, like the Moral Mondays movement, stood up to state authority; one could imagine him protesting outside the capitol building with a Valentine’s Day balloon like the many thousands at the Moral March on Raleigh. Valentinus, like Jesus, was a healer — as Rev. Barber said at Saturday afternoon’s symposium, “If Jesus did anything, he gave out free healthcare.”
Valentinus, like the Moral Mondays movement, advocated for the freedom of the unjustly imprisoned. And like the Moral Mondays movement, Valentinus was in the business of destroying idols — in our day, these idols are the ones the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. identified in his infamous “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church as “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.” This is why we need what Dr. King called a “true revolution values,” like the judge underwent in the story of St. Valentine. We need conversion as a nation. And Rev. Barber reminds us that it can take a political defibrillator to bring this about — the shocking (to some) irruption of moral language and moral leadership in the public square.
Unlike ancient Roman saints, however, we must do this work in a pluralistic way, as a diverse coalition of people. At the symposium, Rev. Barber and other leaders of the movement taught us at length about the strategy of the Moral Mondays movement. The core of this strategy is fusion politics: not just coming together in the room for my issue, but coming together in the room willing to hear how all our issues connect. “Justice doesn’t roll down as a tributary,” Rev. Barber preached.
This plurality doesn’t come out of nowhere, however, even if it is based on our universal experiences of being human. Fusion takes work. Rev. Barber explained that you need the right language, moral language, before you can build a broad movement. Moral language is prophetic language — more than asking just for what politicians and state officials are willing to give you, moral language demands a deeper transformation, an expansion of mercy (“that’s what grace is,” Rev. Barber told us). Fusion also offers the possibility of transforming those we never thought would join our struggle — “conviction for the purpose of transforming,” like the Roman judge in the story. When you use moral language, the speakers at the symposium suggested, you might be surprised at who ends up on your side.
None of this means not being realistic in our organizing or strategizing, or doing the real hard work of building a social movement. The very fact that we were still out marching on a cold February day, a year after we had already joined in an historic march on the capitol building, shows that social movements can’t destroy all the idols overnight. We have to keep rallying, keep marching. But Rev. Barber also explained that part of a moral movement is to develop subversive hope. The first goal of a prophetic vision is not to figure out how to get things done, but to initiate and reignite our imagination of what is possible: “Prophetic moral vision unchains us, loosens us, sets us free to dream, to believe again.”
Our lives in this country today are often experiences of negativity, to put it in Schillebeeckx’s painfully understated terms. But out of that negativity irrupts the movements and struggles that, like Moral Mondays, better define what it means to be fully human. Schooled in the subversive hope of social movements like Moral Mondays we learn again a moral language that is rooted in the heart of creation, reigniting our imagination of what is possible and liberating us from the chains of pragmatic obeisance to systems that are literally killing us. This year, we celebrated St. Valentine’s Day like an old-time martyr’s feast day — out in the streets, proclaiming our diverse faith in justice, and standing up to a state that wants to push us to the margins for what we believe. A few small steps toward revitalizing our aching hearts.