On this week’s episode of The Brief, Markos Moulitsas and guest host Cara Zelaya were joined by the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, an icon in faith-centered social activism and civil rights.
Moulitsas and Zelaya kicked off the hour by discussing the historical role of faith in the civil rights movement and by sharing that they both happen to be atheists but have been moved by the spiritual aspect of the sort of activism Barber practices.
Barber described the role religion has too often played over the course of American history vs. the role it should play: “Religion [as] the chaplain of the state as opposed to a critic of the state.”
Barber went on to explain how “there is no separation between spirituality and activism; to be spiritual is to be active” and pointed out how progressive, inclusive values are actually deeply rooted in the text of the Bible:
There are over 2,000 scriptures that speak to how people of faith are supposed to care for the poor, for the least of these, women, children, the immigrant … If you went through the Bible and cut all those texts out, the Bible would fall apart.
Barber went on: “I’m an atheist, too, if you want me to think that God is on the side of hating people.”
To love Jesus is to love justice … To be a person of spirituality means I can’t be a person of indifference, or a person of apathy, or a person who goes along to get along.
Barber went on to discuss Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work on behalf of the poor—and how it was received with great hostility at the time, in stark contrast to how King’s legacy is presented today.
Barber shared his journey to becoming a pastor. Initially, he wanted nothing to do with preaching; he planned to become a lawyer. But he had an epiphany his junior year of college; he realized that he was called to religion, and he wanted to dedicate himself to the “rightness of the call for love, truth, and justice.”
He went on to lead the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP—the largest in the South—before being called to combat the injustices being perpetrated by the GOP-controlled North Carolina legislature in 2016.
He went on to lead a “moral revival tour” across 26 states in six months. He found that there was “a deep hunger in the country” for the teaching of truth and justice and caring for others.
Moulitsas proceeded to ask wether there’s “a single unifying thread” in this type of activism, and Barber explained that the greatest civil rights and social justice movements in our country have been centered around “moral fusion,” when people of different skin colors and economic backgrounds come together to push broad societal change across multiple issues, including voting rights, union rights, economic justice, and more.
Barber discussed the Poor People’s Campaign he leads and the “five interlocking injustices” it fights: Systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, denial of health care, and the war economy/false moral narrative of religious nationalism.
Zelaya brought the conversation around to politics, asking how Barber thinks the Biden administration is succeeding and failing people of color, poor people, and other folks facing systemic injustices in its first months.
“Democrats and Republicans have both failed the poor,” according to Barber. “We don’t have a scarcity of money, nor do we have a scarcity of ideas; we have a scarcity of will.”
However, he had gracious words for Biden’s efforts so far:
We are seeing a number of [our proposed policies] coming out [of the Biden administration] … Now, we remain critical even as we are supportive, we are so glad to see a president who’s trying to tell the truth and has said the word ‘poor,’ … ‘we must build from the bottom up’ … We are celebrating that, even as we’re challenging him.
Barber went on to announce a resolution he’s rolling out this week that lays out an omnibus vision for a “third reconstruction” as central proposal around which he plans to organize—efforts that include a June 21 virtual rally, which will kick off a year’s worth of intense work leading up to an in-person march on Washington, D.C., on June 18, 2022.
How can a nation with this amount of wealth fundamentally have a fruitful, strong democracy if we don’t establish justice and promote the general welfare if nearly 50% of our people are poor and low-wealth? You can’t sustain that! It’s a recipe for all kinds of upheaval … The religion I believe in, the God I believe in, the faith I believe in would call that oppression, injustice, evil, wrong, sin, and a violation of fundamental human rights.
(Visit breachrepairers.org and poorpeoplescampaign.org to learn more about this effort.)
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