William Barber lights a fire in Dallas

Displaying 20140219_135133.jpgBy Alan Bean

Yesterday, William Barber preached a mesmerizing sermon at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference in Dallas.  Barber wants to recapture the moral high ground in American politics.  You can’t do that, he says, by shilling for the Democrats of the Republicans; you need a moral vision rooted in biblical justice.

Barber’s sermon yesterday centered on the theme of higher ground.  When you’re lost in the Wilderness, he says, the temptation to wander into the nearest valley is powerful.  Walking downhill seems natural because it is easy.  But the snakes live in the valleys.  The only safe course is to climb, even if it makes your legs burn and your chest heave.  Snakes can’t live at high altitudes, so the goal is to get above the snake line.

Barber doesn’t mess with left/right, black/white, or Democrat/Republican distinctions; he’s all about the cleavage between morality and immorality.

Sounds old school, I know, but when you start with the Bible, that’s where you end up.  Yesterday in Dallas, the preacher had his audience on their feet belting out the old gospel standard, Higher Ground.

Lord, lift me up, and let me stand
By faith on Canaan’s tableland;
A higher plane than I have found,
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.

If you have never heard of Dr. Barber or the Moral Monday Movement in North Carolina, check out this brief video.  85,000 men and women rallied in Raleigh earlier this week to protest political extremism.  That’s the biggest civil rights crowd in the South since the 1960s.

Dr. Barber’s oratory in the video is restrained compared to the fireworks display he unleashed at the Fairmont hotel in Dallas yesterday.  Preaching for a room full of preachers brings out the best, but I suspect the relatively subdued tone in Raleigh was intentional.  Barber wants this movement to spread, and that can’t happen if everything depends on his personal charisma.

The Moral Monday movement has been successful because it’s goals are clear, limited and simple.  This is an agenda that people of good will can support regardless of party affiliation:

• Secure pro-labor, anti-poverty policies that insure economic sustainability;

• Provide well-funded, quality public education for all;

• Stand up for the health of every North Carolinian by promoting health care access and environmental justice across all the state’s communities;

• Address the continuing inequalities in the criminal justice system and ensure equality under the law for every person, regardless of race, class, creed, documentation or sexual preference;

• Protect and expand voting rights for people of color, women, immigrants, the elderly and students to safeguard fair democratic representation.

A couple of months ago, I attended an all-day briefing in Raleigh and shared my reaction.  If you want to know more about the philosophy and strategy underlying the Moral Monday phenomenon, my original post follows.

Moral Monday movement unleashes ‘linguistic trauma’

By Alan Bean

I write this from my motel room in Raleigh, North Carolina after spending the day with the most energized group of movement activists I have ever encountered.  You may have heard of the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina. These are the people that made it happen.

Dozens of gifted people have devoted their energies to the Moral Monday (or, more accurately, the Forward Together Moral Movement), but the undisputed leader is the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, a man of gentle power who may be the most gifted civil rights leader to emerge in the United States since Martin Luther King Jr.

I’m serious.  Since Dr. King was murdered in 1968, I haven’t witnessed such an impressive combination of eloquence, strategic savvy, intellectual gravitas, and analytic sophistication in a single American individual.

But Barber is no demagogue.  A genuinely humble man, he provides leadership because someone must.  He knows when to step back and let others take charge.  “At our events, we don’t stick somebody up on stage by themselves,” he says.  “That sends the wrong message.  Instead, you will see speakers surrounded by a diverse group of supporters.”  This sends two messages: one, we have the back of the person at the microphone; and two, this isn’t about any single person.

Barber is president of the North Carolina NAACP and pastor of a Disciples of Christ congregation.  Professionally and educationally, he has deep experience with inter-racial coalitions and knows how to challenge white moderates without traumatizing them–an exceedingly difficult balancing act.  The trick is to create a genuinely inter-racial movement without resorting to pleasant lies about our nation’s toxic racial history.  “In the South,” Barber insists, “anti-racism must be at the center of any positive movement; otherwise, it’s going to implode.”

“Moral” is the operative word in this movement.  “Language can be a tool of oppression or a tool of deliverance,” Barber says.  “We want to create ‘linguistic trauma.’  We want people to learn a new language–that’s what Pentecost was all about.   Walter Wink used to say, ‘Thank God for your enemy.  The enemy forces you to see the need for a new paradigm.'”

“We don’t talk about Republicans and Democrats,” Barber explains, “and we don’t talk about liberals and conservatives.  We talk about extremists with an immoral agenda, and we contrast that with the moral agenda we represent.  We want to give moderate Republicans some room to move.”

The movement makes a clean distinction between private and public morality.  “We all have our private moral failings,” Barber says; “but when you misuse public power to hurt people, that’s a different level of failing.”

The movement isn’t about the Republicans’ legislative super-majority, Barber insists, so much as the way extremists have used power to damage vulnerable people.  Politicians from either party aren’t allowed to speak at Moral Monday events.  “A moral movement doesn’t give anybody a pass,” Barber says.  “They can’t say we are stooges for the Democratic Party.  We won’t let them box us in that way.”

At the first Moral Monday meeting in April of 2013, movement officials laid out their grievances in language intentionally patterned after the Declaration of Independence:

We have written to Governor McCrory and to the General Assembly, asking them to reconsider their assault on the poor, the unemployed, our many citizens without healthcare and our embattled public schools.

  • They have already voted and pass legislation to:
  • Deny federal funds for Medicaid to 500,000 poor North Carolinians.
  • Take unemployment benefits from 165,000 North Carolinians.
  • Raise taxes on 900,000 of North Carolina’s poor and working poor by ending the Earned Income Tax Credit to pay for tax cuts to 23 millionaires.
  • That took over a billion dollars last year from public education, made plans to implement a  voucher plan to hand out public money to private schools, and reduce eligibility to preschool for poor children.
  • To re-start the death penalty and repeal the Racial Justice Act that has exposed the racially discriminatory application of the death penalty.
  • To codify anti-labor language in our state constitution.
  • To roll back Early Voting, ban Sunday Voting, end same-day registration and impose an unneeded poll tax disguised as Voter ID bill that will cost the state millions, deny student ids from private schools, increase disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated, charge parents a $2500 tax (poll tax) if there college student votes at college and not at home, and leave us with voting laws more restrictive than Alabama and South Carolina; when you pursue policies that hurt most voters, you can’t afford a big turnout.

These grievances may seem time-specific, but Barber sees the current political environment as a reiteration of a war between the forces of Reconstruction and “Deconstruction” that has been fought repeatedly since the close of the Civil War.  First, an inter-racial and diverse “fusion politics” puts the nation on a progressive trajectory; then a version of the “redemption movement” of the late 19th century rolls back the clock.

It all began with the fusion politics that linked northern Republicans to freed African Americans in the South.  This movement, Barber says, produced some of the most progressive legislation America has ever seen.  But the Democratic “redemption movement” laid it all to waste.

The progression (or digression) from Reconstruction to Deconstruction, Barber observes, played out for a second time when the gains of the civil rights movement were rolled back by Southern Strategy retrenchment.

Laurel Ashton, the Field Secretary of the North Carolina NAACP, tells me that “when Rev. Barber preaches a sermon, the first half is nothing but history.”

And now, says, Barber, the fusion politics of Barack Obama is being countered by an extremist agenda with roots sunk deep in the spiritual history of Deconstruction.  Obama is a threat, Barber says, because “his election represents the possibility of a third Reconstruction.”

When powerful people with an immoral Deconstruction agenda push back against the moral agenda of Reconstruction, Barber says, they always go after the same issues: voting rights; public education; tax policies designed to help the poor; civil rights in the criminal justice system, women’s rights, and the labor movement.  Any leader who stands in the way of this agenda will be attacked.  “You can anticipate that immoral people will react,” Barber explains, “it’s simple social physics.”

“My old teacher, Sam Proctor, used to tell us that theory and praxis (practice) can never be separated,” Barber recalls.  “We need information, but we also need inspiration.”

The Moral Monday movement exercises strict message discipline.  Signs with abusive or obscene messages are banned.  Messages that attack individuals in a personal way are forbidden.  “If we’re trying to challenge the chaos of the extremists,” Barber tells his people, “we can’t afford to present a picture of chaos ourselves.”

“Liberals want to fight everybody,” Barber says, “but we can’t do everything, and we can’t address every issue.”

The key is to focus on change that people are hungering for, to focus on problems that keep people awake at night.  People won’t get involved, movement people emphasize, unless their emotional survival hinges on changing the status quo.

Barber is adamant that public officials should not be demonized in personal terms, even if they are currently complicit in public evil.  “You can’t hate those who are in direct opposition to you,” Barber says.  “You need to think of your enemy in terms of redemption.  We want Republican politicians who follow a moral agenda.  You’ve got to be able to imagine that.”

The goal isn’t to transform Republicans into Democrats.  One speaker told us they were reaching out to the “soft middle” of the political spectrum, and that includes a lot of people who vote for the Republican Party.  In fact, a Moral Monday chapter formed spontaneously in one of the most staunchly Republican sections of North Carolina earlier this year.  People are renouncing the politics of their leaders, but they are still Republicans.

The Moral Monday movement talks about “cognitive liberation.”  First, people must believe that change should take place.  Then, they must believe that change can take place.

The movement strives to be as inclusive as possible.  “I want to see clergy involved,” Barber explains, “and I want them wearing their vestments.  I want to include military veterans who have been harmed by immoral policies, and I want them waving the American flag.  If some people have a problem with flags, they don’t have to wave one, but we will not allow immoral people to claim our scriptures, our constitution or our flag.  They belong to us.”

“We want a transformational coalition,” Barber says, “not a transactional coalition.  We don’t want people involved who only care about their issue and who will walk away as soon as they get their piece of the pie.  We want people who care about all the people who are suffering from immoral policies.  Our opponents need to know that if they touch one of us, they are touching all of us.  We will not allow 700,000 people to be crucified without a witness.”

The implication is clear: what is happening in North Carolina is “a state movement with national implications.”  The Moral Monday leaders in North Carolina are trying to spark similar movements across the United States.

“The first step,” says Barber, “is to convince people that darkness is not real.  You have to lift people’s heads out of depression.  The immoral forces aren’t pushing back because we’re losing; they’re pushing back because they know we’re winning.  Our opponents know they can never win real majorities.  They had to redistrict the state along racial lines to win a super-majority, but they lost the popular vote and they’re losing support among their own people.  We are the ones with a true majority agenda, and our opponents know it.”

Music is at the heart of the Moral Monday movement, and if today was typical, the music of the civil rights movement is being mined for all it’s worth . . . and it is worth a whole lot, especially when sung with rhythm and passion.  Music is deeply symbolic and, Barber believes, deeply intellectual.

The Moral Monday movement has also revived the spirituality that drove the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.  The religion is ecumenical and inclusive; but the prophetic content of the message and the combination of biblical preaching and social analysis hasn’t changed a lick.  Barber understands that, in the aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination, movement leaders disregarded the spiritual element.  “You can’t through faith out,” he says.  “If you go into a fight in the South without the Bible and morality on your side, you have one hand tied behind your back.”

To date, 941 people have been arrested for acts of civil disobedience in the course of Moral Monday public events.  “We don’t show up to get arrested,” Barber insists.  In fact, he worries that people will make too much of the arrests.  “We have been convicted for our convictions,” he says, mostly for singing the wrong songs and praying the wrong prayers.  They were told early on that no overtly political statements would be allowed inside the legislature.  So they asked if placards with biblical texts would be acceptable.  “Certainly,” officials replied, “the Bible isn’t about public policy, so it’s fine.”

But when they showed up with placards highlighting biblical passages denounces those who oppress the poor the story changed. “Oh no,” they were told, “you can’t bring those signs in here.”

They brought the signs in anyway and were arrested.

Barber wrapped up the day with a reference to Ezekiel, possibly the most eccentric prophet in the Bible.

God told Ezekiel not to remain silent for seven years, Barber reminded us, while he sat among the common people of the land and just watched and listened.   Then, when Ezekiel understood the pain the people were feeling, God took him to the Valley of Dry Bones and told him to prophecy over those bones because, “somebody had to say something”.

“And that’s my closing charge to you,” Barber said in closing, “you feel the pain that’s all around you.  Now, for the love of God, just say something.”

One thought on “William Barber lights a fire in Dallas

  1. Today’s sermon at Broadway Baptist, left us with the challenge to obey God’s call by first seeing and hearing the other one. The sermon did not go onto say, but If we refuse to see and hear our neighbor, then we can pretend that we have no obligation to intervene. More evidence that sitting at the table with the poor is the only way we can feast with God.

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