Rev. William Barber II is one of the most unique voices in American public life.
A keynote speaker at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Barber has since emerged as one of the most prominent — and relentless — advocates for poor people in this country. The philosopher Cornel West has called him “the closest person we have to a Martin Luther King Jr.,” largely because of his former leadership of the North Carolina’s NAACP chapter, which has spearheaded the social justice movement called Moral Mondays.
In addition to serving as pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, Barber leads Repairers of the Breach, an ecumenical activist group whose mission is to train and organize religious leaders around the country. He’s also the face of the Poor People’s Campaign, a national movement challenging “the interlocking evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.”
Barber is a progressive, yet he’s still hard to pin down politically. He rejects the language of “left” and “right” and instead leans on the religious values of the Gospel to push a strong anti-poverty agenda. This is partly what makes him so interesting as a public theologian: He speaks in morally clarifying terms about the plight of low-income people while refusing to engage in diversionary culture war fights.
Barber released a book in June called We Are Called to Be a Movement. So I contacted him by phone to talk about his broader political theology and why he thinks we need a religious revival in America. I asked him why so many Christians care so little about poverty, why he thinks racism harms poor white people as much as it harms poor Black people, and if he believes economic justice is a precondition for racial justice.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Why isn’t the religious left a more visible force in American politics?
Rev. William Barber
I’m glad you asked it that way, Sean, because I want to challenge this whole language of “left” and “right.” I don’t use the language “left” and “right” because that language was actually sown by those who claim to be the religious right. And if you’ve noticed, they took the right-wing side. And so we have to get away from these terms and how they frame the argument because spending 30 minutes explaining why the “religious right” is wrong theologically just isn’t productive.
The important thing is that we do have a large number, and always have had a large number of people, who understood that the center of religious values, whether it’s Islam, Christianity, or Judaism, is how you treat the poor and the least of these. It is critical to one’s claim of loving God. You can call your religious experience anything you want to call it, but if you look closely at the Bible or the Torah or the Quran and it doesn’t produce a desire to end the systemic injustices of the world, then your claim of it being in line with God’s spirit is fully suspect.
As a Christian, I can say that there are more than 2,000 Scriptures in the Bible that talk about how we ought to challenge injustice toward the poor, women, children, the immigrants, and those who are considered on the margins. So that’s where I start.
Everything you just said about Scripture is true, and yet we have so many Christians in this country who are more passionate about tax cuts or recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel than they are about poverty or the lack of living wages and basic human dignity. It’s a strange ethic to take hold under the banner of Christ.
Rev. William Barber
Let’s look at Jesus’s political theology. When Jesus preached his first sermon, he said, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Luke chapter four, verses 18 and 19. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he hath anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” And the poor were those who had been victimized by economic exploitation. And the good news was healing to the broken-hearted, recovery of sight to the blind, liberty to the oppressed.
When Jesus was dying, or preparing to die, he said every nation will be judged by how it treated the least of these. When I was hungry, did you feed me? When I was naked, did you clothe me? When I was sick, did you care about me? When I was in prison, did you care about me? So you can’t claim to be Christian and then not be for those things. That’s why Frederick Douglass, when he was alive, said, “You can’t love the Christianity of Christ and embrace the religion of the slave master. To love one is to hate the other.” And he never called the religion of the slave master Christianity. The problem we’ve had in America is, one of my professors said, “We’ve had the battle between Christianity and Americanity.”
Jesus made it very clear what his ethics are, and those can manifest under a lot of different political forms. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about democratic socialism, for instance. But as a theologian, I don’t like to align the gospels with any ideology, because that’s trying to bring the gospel down to a lower form.
For me, the teaching of Jesus is the highest. I don’t claim to be preaching the left gospel or the right gospel or living out the left gospel or the right gospel. It’s just the gospel. And the gospel is clear that there’s no separation between Jesus and justice, there’s no separation between Jesus and caring about the least of these and challenging the systems, whether that system be racism or economic exploitation, or ecological devastation, or the war economy, or false religious nationalism — the gospel is a critique of all of it.
Do you see economic justice as a precondition of racial justice?
Rev. William Barber
They’re interlocking, I’d say. We often say “The Poor People’s Campaign” is the unfinished work of MLK, but actually it was the National Welfare Rights workers who came to Dr. King and pushed him and said, “We need a poor people’s campaign.” And this issue of poverty became more central to his message.
He gave a sermon at Riverside about a year before his death called “A Time to Break Silence.” He declared that there were three triune evils that you could not separate: racism, poverty, and militarism. He said you can’t separate them out or put one before the other. They all are interlocking. And we have to address them as interlocking.
Now, when he did that, he found himself at odds not just with white racists but also with what he called “moderates.” He challenged the moderate clergy. When he finished at Riverside that night, most civil rights organizations wrote a resolution against his position on the war. Most newspapers wrote against him, including some Black newspapers. He even lost his invitation to the White House.
It was a rough time. But it was in that moment that the National Welfare Rights workers came to him. He convened a meeting with Rabbi Joshua Heschel [a leading theologian and Jewish philosopher at the time] and white workers from Appalachia and in Kentucky and other places and they decided that there had to be a “Poor People’s Campaign.” So we are building from that movement.
The thing I hear you say all the time, and I don’t know why it isn’t said more often, is that racism doesn’t just harm Black Americans, it also harms poor white Americans because it reinforces a system that doesn’t actually serve them.
Rev. William Barber
That’s true, Sean, but can I add something to that?
Rev. William Barber
Racism is a lie. And my grandpa used to have a phrase, “Scratch a liar, find a thief.” And America’s going to have to come to an understanding that racism has four basic pillars that have undergirded it from the very beginning.
The first pillar is evil economics. And that is that the end justifies the means. As long as it makes money, then however you get it is fine.
The second thing is sick sociology. The teaching that people can’t be in the same space and can’t be equal in the same society based on color. This is an old doctrine that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years.
The next is part is bad biology, where you actually have scientists and people in science who suggest that brain size could be determined by skin color, or that certain races are biologically inferior to other races.
And the last pillar is something I call heretical ontology. And that is the belief that God intended it to be this way.
Those are the four pillars, Sean. And racism might be targeted at Black people, but ultimately it is built on lies and it hurts the very people who are told it helps them. So let’s take something like voter suppression, which is obviously aimed at Black voters. We have some data we’re going to release shortly where we show that every state that is a racist voter suppression state is also a high-poverty state. And notice that I didn’t say high Black poverty. And these are also states with high child poverty and poor health care and a lack of living wages and basic human rights.
These maps follow voter suppression. And why is that? Because racist voter suppression is targeted at Black people. When that happens, it allows people to get elected, and when they get elected, they use their power to hurt mostly white people in raw numbers. For instance, in my state (North Carolina), racist voter suppression allowed people to get elected who blocked the Affordable Care Act. Well, 346,000 of [the] people that would benefit from it are white. Roughly 157,000 are Black. So who is that really harming?
And you’ll find a similar story across the country. So that goes back to what I said a minute ago, “Scratch a liar, find a thief.” If you scratch a racist, you’ll find someone who will tell you who to hate while stealing your health care, stealing your living wages, stealing your public education dollars, and stealing your elections.
So, yeah, racism may target Black people, but it damns a democracy and it damns humanity. And that’s why you have to have a moral fusion movement in order to battle racists. The abolition movement was Black and white, the civil rights movement was Black and white and brown fusion. What we’re seeing today is not new. It may be more of it because of social media and so forth, but the reality is that we’ve always had to work together, across races and all other divides, in order to move forward.
What is the greatest obstacle keeping poor white Americans and poor Black Americans from coming together today?
Rev. William Barber
I think we have to change the narrative when it comes to poor people. Too many people won’t use the word poverty. Democrats have tended to run from poverty, while Republicans have tended to racialize poverty. Republicans have tried to divide poor Black and white people by suggesting that programs that help the poor are helping “those” people. But that’s absolutely false. There are more white people on food stamps than Black people, for example.
Democrats have tended over the last 40 or 50 years to come up with code words like “working class” or “those striving to get into the American dream” and not even say the word “poverty.” And their consultants tell them that.
Well, the reality is that if you’ve got tens of millions of people making less than a living wage, if you have 80 million people who are underinsured or uninsured, if you have people who get up every morning and buy unleaded gas but can’t find unleaded water, if you have a country where you’re spending close to $800 billion on the war economy, where 54 cents of every discretionary dollar goes to the war economy, if that’s not at center of our political debates, then we’re just tinkering around the edges.
This movement is about bringing everyone together to address these injustices. The greatest speech Dr. King gave wasn’t his “I have a dream” speech. It was his speech at the end of the march from Selma to Montgomery. It’s a long speech and he begins to unpack how every time in this country there is an opportunity for Black and white poor people to come together and build political power to change this nation, he says the aristocracy sows division. And he explains how it happens over and over again. And his point is that poor Black and white people would hold the power in the South and elsewhere if they ever woke up to this fact.
This is as true today as it was then. The South is not red states. The South consists of unorganized states where people have not focused on bringing Black and poor white people together and getting past the Southern strategy that was intended to divide them. But we’re crunching the numbers and organizing to build power. And it’s so obvious that if you could organize poor Black and white Americans, there’s not a Southern state that wouldn’t change.
The politicians aren’t going to do this for us. Republicans want to keep the divisions, and often Democrats don’t seriously try to overcome them. So we’ve decided we can’t wait on the politicians. We need a movement. That’s what this whole thing is about.
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