Rev. Barber: A “Moral Center,” Not a “Religious Left,” Will Save Us in 2017

A press conference at Washington, D.C.'s National City Christian Church

While many Americans partied at their local watering hole or watched Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin clown around at the Times Square New Year’s Eve celebration, hundreds gathered in Washington, D.C.’s historic Metropolitan AME Church for a Watch Night service led by the Rev. William Barber, other clergy, and activists. He and his colleagues are calling for a new Poor People’s Campaign, 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King announced plans for the original.

Barber, head of the North Carolina NAACP and its Moral Mondays movement, has become a focal point for those who hope that a prophetic religious vision can inspire a rejuvenated social justice movement and challenge conservatives’ dominant religious voice in the public arena. (Read Peter Laarman’s RD review of Barber’s book, The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics and the Rise of a New Justice Movement, and a set of responses.)

Barber’s movement began drawing national attention a few years ago when hundreds of people were arrested for civil disobedience in weekly protests against regressive policies enacted after a far-right takeover of the Republican Party, legislature, and statehouse in the 2010 and 2012 elections. This year, under the auspices of a nonprofit group, Repairers of the Breach, Barber and other religious leaders hit the road for a “moral revival” tour, traveling to 22 states calling for a “moral revolution of values” and training more than 1,000 clergy and other leaders to build movements in their own states. Activists delivered a “high ground moral declaration” to public officials in 30 state capitals during a national day of action in September. All this organizing was under way before Donald Trump was elected president, but the prospect of a Trump presidency adds a sense of urgency to the movement.

Barber says a moral agenda “must be anti-racist, anti-poverty, pro-justice, pro-labor, transformative and deeply rooted and built within a fusion coalition.” A moral agenda demands policies that are “constitutionally consistent, morally defensible and economically sane.”

On New Year’s Eve morning, Barber and other clergy gathered for a press conference before the day’s teach-in, which was attended by about 100 local activists. In the sanctuary of National City Christian Church, still decorated for Christmas, Barber criticized conservative white evangelicals who insist that the moral issues of the day are standing against LGBT people and women’s access to reproductive health care, saying that their priorities are “so far from biblical faith and the politics of God that it is heretical.” At the same time, he rejected a characterization of the Repairers of the Breach as the “religious left,” insisting that it represents the same kind of “moral center” that powered previous social justice movements.

Joining Barber at the press conference were Rev. James Forbes, former pastor of Riverside Church; Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary; Imam Al-Hajj Talib ‘Abdur-Rashid of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in New York City; Rev. Robert Hardies, senior pastor of All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington, D.C.; and Bishop Tonyia Rawls of the Freedom Center for Social Justice in North Carolina.

Forbes said the Repairers of the Breach will be working with economists and others to conduct an audit of the state of the nation’s poor people. “The nation has systematically ignored or downpedaled what happens with respect to the poor,” as well as religious and ethnic minorities, he said—adding that the country “can no longer afford to let poverty and bigotry be left out of the indices of success for the nation.”

Barber pledges that the group will use every nonviolent means at its disposal. It has released an open letter to Donald Trump asking for a meeting with him, not to be held in Trump Tower but in a house of worship.  “Success is measured by how we welcome the stranger, care for the sick, care for the poor, and care for the hungry in practice and in policy,” reads the letter.

“We do not believe that these are left or right issues. They are right or wrong issues,” the letter says. “And while we know no human being is perfect, we wish to speak with you about these moral issues because far too much is at stake for you to succumb to your worst demons while in public office.”

The letter cites concerns over harassment and intimidation against people of color and religious minorities since the election, and about some of Trump’s nominees, particularly his choice of Jeff Sessions to be U.S. Attorney General.

The interfaith Watch Night service included speakers representing a variety of faith traditions—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Unitarian. Activists addressed a range of issues, including poverty, voting rights, access to clean water, immigrant and LGBT rights, violence against minorities, the resurgence of white nationalism. But speakers were more defiant than despairing. A few moments:

  • Host pastor William Lamar from Metropolitan AME Church said this movement is writing a new narrative to challenge narratives of empire, conquest, and unfettered capitalism that cloak themselves in the nationalist rhetoric of freedom. “We declare freedom,” he said, “from theological rhetoric that accommodates us to injustice.”
  • “I stand before you full of blood, full of blood and heart and fire,” said Carla Christopher, a community organizer from York, Pennsylvania.
  • Bishop Tanyia Rawls said she stood as a proud lesbian and daughter of the Black Church who has taken on the challenge of consistently working with conservative Black preachers. “I decided early on I wasn’t giving up none of my cards. I’m not giving up my Black card. I’m not giving up my church card. I’m not giving up my fundamentalist Holy Ghost card. I’m not giving up a doggone thing…Your authentic self is the gift.”
  • “What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?” asked Valarie Kaur, “What if our America is not dead, but a country that is waiting to be born?” Like a mother giving birth, she said, we must breathe, and then push. Kaur, a Sikh who said she knows that there will be moments that the “brown boy” she is raising will be seen as foreign or as a terrorist, said, “your revolutionary love is the magic we will show our children.”

The Watch Night ended with a rousing call-and-response led by Barber, who had cautioned earlier in the day that the work of building a movement would require more than showing up to one rally. What’s happening is more than a Democrats and Republicans struggle, he said, it is a moral struggle for the heart and soul of the nation. Barber tells activists that they must be the nation’s moral defibrillators. Doctors have told him, he said, that defibrillators don’t usually work the first time. The defibrillator team, he says, must “shock the heart until the pulse comes back.”