One of the distinctive things about the Forward Together social justice movement led by the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II in North Carolina is that it is based on religion.
He believes that politics has to be based on morality and his morality is based on religion—not religion in general, but specifically the Bible-based conservative African-American church tradition.
And even though that tradition puts its stamp on all of Rev. Dr. Barber’s People’s Assemblies and Moral Mondays, he is able to rally people of many different religious traditions and of no specific religion at all.
Now, I don’t think it should be surprising that a progressive political movement should arise from a theologically conservative form of Christianity.
After all, the followers of Jesus and St. Paul were people, most of them poor, living under an oppressive government. In the Gospels, the presumption is that a rich man or a government official is a sinner unless shown to be otherwise.
St. Paul taught that in Christ, there are no distinctions between rich or poor, free or slave, male or female, Greek or Jew (and presumably white or black).
Christianity is rooted in Judaism whose lawgiver, Moses, who forged a nation consisting of fugitive slaves. Later Hebrew prophets denounced rulers of Israel for oppression of the poor.
Now, although the early Christian communities were models of what a just and compassionate society would look like, neither Jesus nor St. Paul was a revolutionary or a social reformer. Furthermore Christians developed a priesthood which, like almost all priesthoods in history, allied itself with the rich and powerful.
But the basic Christian teaching of justice and compassion for the poor never died out. And down through history, there have been Christians who have taken the next step—to attempt to create a just and compassionate society instead of simply waiting for the Last Days.
Rev. Barber grew up in that tradition. “I cannot remember a time when I did not know God to be both real and to be about bringing justice into the world,” he wrote in The Third Reconstruction.
His father was a trained minister with two master’s degrees who left a good job in Indiana to come back to North Carolina to participate in the civil rights movement. The elder William Barber preached in churches on Sundays, but earned his living as a high school science teacher. His true vocation, though, was in ministering to individuals and in working for justice.
The younger William Barber, born in 1963, grew up in his father’s shadow. He was part of a family who made decisions by praying for guidance and letting the Spirit tell them what to do.
But after graduating from college and ministering to a small church, he decided he could better serve the cause of social justice by working in the secular world. He turned down a call from the Greenleaf Christian Church in the small town of Goldsboro, N.C.
Soon after that he was stricken with a rare form of arthritis that left him completely paralyzed. After prayer and physical therapy, he recovered to the point where he could walk with the aid of a walker.
When he was almost at the point of despair, he wrote, he was visited by another hospital patient, a woman amputee in a wheelchair, who prayed with him and told him not to give up hope. The hospital said they had no record of a woman amputee patient. Some might say he dreamed the visit. He said he had been visited by an “amputee angel.”
It was the members of the Greenleaf church who helped him and prayed for him, and he decided it was God’s will that he answer their call. He was completely dependent on church members to drive him places and to help him function in other ways. This was a lesson, he said, that nobody can be completely independent, that we all need the help of others.
He served the church on his walker from 1993 to 2005. One morning he suddenly found himself able to get up out of bed without the walker. Soon after that he ran for president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and helped found the Forward Together Moral Movement, which I’ve described in previous posts.
He led People’s Assemblies with revival-style preaching and with hymns and prayer, but never excluding anyone because of religion or the lack of it or because of sexual orientation.
He led non-violent protests and was arrested himself. He said any protest has to take place in four states: (1) researching the problem to make sure you’re right, (2) lawful request for redress of grievances, and, if that fails, (3) a prayerful commitment to love your enemy and (4) a peaceful non-violent protest to appeal to conscience. The best outcome, he wrote, is not the defeat, but the conversion, of the enemy.
Barber’s opponents tried to use his conservative theology to split his movement. His church taught that abortion is morally wrong and that marriage is between a man and a woman. But he opposed legislation to ban abortion and legislation and a state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. He said everybody has a right to try to discern God’s will for themselves and the government has no right to compel conscience.
To make myself clear, I don’t think you have to be a social reformer to be a good Christian. Different people have it in them to do different things. But I do question the Christianity of people in authority who knowingly do things that hurt the poor and powerless.
I think the great weakness of secular liberalism is that, although it is based on a very definite moral code, it does not articulate that code. Instead pragmatists and other secular liberals pretend to be impartial arbiters of morally neutral rules. This isn’t so. It also leaves them—or rather, us—morally disarmed.
The great merit of Rev. Barber’s version of Christianity is that he does not hide or apologize for his moral beliefs and spiritual intuitions. His example challenges his opponents to respond with something better than a jaded cynicism or unthinking acceptance of the status quo.
I myself believe that morality stems not from specific religious revelations, but from the moral nature of normal human beings, as shaped by religion, philosophy and society down through the ages. The reason I believe this is that people sometimes do bad and foolish things based on alleged revelations, and people need to use their own minds and consciences to avoid being taken in.
While I don’t share Rev. Barber’s religious experiences or specific religious beliefs, I can’t prove they’re wrong and have no interest in trying to explain them away. You could call me a Christian sympathizer or fellow traveler. I can’t accept the basic Christian creed, but I recognize how Christianity at its best has been a powerful force for good, and I find much wisdom in the Bible (if read selectively) and Christian teaching (ditto).
Moral Mondays: the new fusion politics by the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II for UU World.