A conversation with Rev. Barber, chair of the Poor People’s Campaign
|[Editor's Note: We at Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP) were honored to have a sustained conversation with Reverend William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, which launches 40 days of demonstrations beginning this coming Monday, May 14th. We hope you can join us.].
Rabbi Michael Lerner: Reverand William Barber, you are the founder and co-chair of The Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. It’s a wonderful thing that you’re doing to build the Poor People’s Campaign. We know that the level of poverty in this country is a pure moral outrage, and the framing that you’ve given to that, of insisting on it being a moral issue and a religious and spiritual issue, is absolutely fantastic. Can you tell us a little bit about your strategic thinking?
Reverend William Barber:The Poor People’s Campaign is a National Call for a Moral Revival. The co-chair is Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis at the Kairos Center at Union Theological Seminary Three years ago we began doing what was called a moral revival. We traveled to more than 25 states. We trained Rabbis, Preachers, Muslims, other people of faith and people not of faith, and young people. Then we hosted these moral revival mass meetings. We found out that there was a deep hunger in this country to have a transformational fusion movement that was deeply rooted in the moral traditions of our country, traditions that were anti-poverty, anti-racism, pro-labor, pro-justice.
We found that people were really open to letting go of the language of Left vs. Right or conservative vs. liberal–ways of talking that so limit our political discourse. That language is too puny. It doesn’t have the ability to do the kind of moral penetration, the moral analysis, the moral articulation or to inspire people to moral activism. When we came off that tour, both Liz and I decided to join the lessons learned from the MoralMonday Movement with the lessons that Kairos learned and engaged with to co-sponsor the Poor People’s Campaign.
There are some things that this movement is not that we want to be clear about. Number one: it is not merely commemoration because this happens to be the 50th year of the assassination of Dr. King, and of the Poor People’s Campaign he helped organize. Dr. King announced the original call for a Poor People’s Campaign, but there were 25 other people in the room of the first meeting he had. We also challenge when people say that at that time, “Dr. King finally decided to focus on economics.” He had already previously listed as his priorities three issues: racism, materialism, and militarism.
We decided in this campaign that one thing that has gone on, Rabbi, is what we call attention riots. As you have written in Tikkun, Rabbi Lerner, the Republicans tend to talk about every budget in terms of how it will impact the military. And one definition of an empire is when military spending determines everything you do. Democrats have decided to talk about the middle class, but in the midst of that, there is an attention to the violence in our language and in our policies that is done to the poor. Their names are never heard, their conditions are never heard. Politicians act as though they are afraid to mention the poor, and on the other side, when they do say the poor, they then turn around and assign some kind of moral deficit to the them, as though the reason they are poor is some fault in them, rather than questioning the immorality of the system that causes and continues to contribute to extreme poverty.
We also decided that this campaign had to deal with interlocking injustice. We could not make the neo-liberalism mistake of just saying ‘we’re going to deal with poverty,’ because Dr. King understood you couldn’t deal with poverty without dealing with racism. And so we say this campaign is focused on systemic racism, particularly as it is understood through the lens of massive voter suppression that we haven’t seen ever since the days of Jim Crow and continuing right now in the U.S. That kind of focus keeps us from making racism about personal agenda and personal feeling, which is what often happens when we have a Charlottesville— the powers that be will try to water down that discussion to an issue of personal biases rather than looking at the fact that for instance, Richard Spencer, when he called that march in Charlottesville, chose, I believe, Charlottesville because that statue was not raised so much to pay homage to the Civil War, but it was raised in 1919 to pay homage to Woodrow Wilson and to particularly pay homage to the return of white supremacy. So we said we would focus on systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy, and militarism itself, and then the fifth interlocking injustice is the false moral narrative of so-called Christian nationalism that limits the moral discussion to where people stand on abortion, prayer in school, gun rights, and state’s rights. All of these things interlock, and they require an intersectional response.
So we are not saying that in our first 40 day campaign starting in May we are not going to end poverty. The first goal of this movement, Rabbi, is to break through the narratives that mislead people about poverty, racism, injustice, etc. We’ve got to break through the narrative where the corporate media and the politicians who are driven by the corporate realities of our country have so shaped the narrative that racism isn’t even discussed. Poverty isn’t discussed. Ecological devastation, war economy – rarely if ever discussed. So some people can walk right up to the White House, have national days of prayer and never be questioned about their heretical theological malpractice.
By using our voices, or as the young folk would say, every other app available to us, we will seek to break through the distorted public narrative. We will expose that the U.S. has 23 states that have engaged in massive voter suppression since 2010. That represents 46 senators, 51 percent of the United States Congress, and over 54 percent of African Americans live in those states.
The national media directs our attention to alleged hacking of our electoral system by Russia, but the real hacking of our system is the massive voter suppression that has gone on – the voter ID, the denial of same-day registration and early voting, the denial of automatic registration at 18. It has massive impacts on our system, and we haven’t seen this kind of impact since Jim Crow. And it’s especially been exacerbated since the Shelby decision and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act.
But then people don’t know— we don’t just have 40 million people that are poor in this country; we have 140 million people who are poor or working poor. Most are working poor, many are disabled, the majority are women and children. That picture is not coming before America. The majority are white in terms of raw numbers. In terms of percentages of their race, black. But in terms of actual raw numbers, there are like 8 million more white people who are poor or working poor.
We seek to force these issues back into the public square, because right now America is engaging in such an atrocious form of attention violence. And like the prophet Isaiah, who said two things: Isaiah 10, where he said “Woe unto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their rights and make women and children their prey” and Isaiah 58 says, “Somebody has to cry loud and spare not,” and Ezekiel 22:27 said, “Our politicians have become like wolves” and it goes on to describe how they’re devouring the poor and devouring widows and devouring the immigrant. But then that same Ezekiel 22 says, “But your preachers cover up for your politicians.” We have had a great cover up in this country about poverty. So all of us who care about this must come together, break through this narrative, create a stage where the impacted people can be heard.
There are forces in this country that will actually say that our government spends lots of money on the poor and it has not changed anything, they will just tell blatant lies. We know that to have a moral movement, a prophetic movement requires deep intellectual assessment. It requires deep anecdotal and empirical evidence. So we went to IPS, the Institute for Policy Studies, and the Urban Institute. We put a team together of historians, impacted people, economists, sociologists, and we released on April 10th a report which we call The Souls of Poor Folk audit that examines the following areas (Racism, Poverty, the War Economy/Militarism, Ecological Devastation, and Our National Morality) and gives us the state of the country. [Tikkun note: you can read that report by downloading it at http://www.ips-dc.org/
Rabbi Lerner: It is wonderful what you’re doing. Tikkunmeans to heal, repair, and transform the world, so we’re completely aligned with you in what you’re saying. Part of our strategy is to try to encourage liberal progressive forces to communicate that we actually care not only for the most oppressed, but also for most Americans, because that message, central to the way MLK, Jr. spoke, has often been lost in a discourse from social change activists that seems to communicate that we think that only the poor and people of color are suffering, and that tends to make many people feel that their own pain is devalued or ignored by those who seek social change. We want to make that point not because we think that their suffering is equal to the suffering of poor people, but because we want to win a transformation in the status of poor people, and if it turns out that the obstacle isn’t that they didn’t hear our ideas, but that they didn’t care about our ideas as long as they felt that we hated them or don’t care about their suffering as well. It doesn’t have to be an either/or. The Poor People’s campaign is seeking to highlight the suffering of the poor and people who are victims of racism, and our Network of Spiritual Progressives, is solidly on board with you. We also seek to help social change agents acknowledge and address the pain that so many others suffer in this system, a point that you make when you focus on the collapse of our national morality. So that’s why it’s so brilliant that you insist on not only making it an anti-racist movement, but also a movement for all poor people, but there’s a lot of repair work that needs to be done in mass consciousness for many Americans to even be able to hear the legitimacy of this struggle when they think it is coming from activists who actually have contempt for white middle class Americans.
Cat Zavis: I’ve been leading these 8 week trainings that teach what we at Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives call “ prophetic empathy and radical love.” The prophetic empathy component helps people listen and really understand the pain of those Americans who are voting against their economic and ethical and spiritual interests, creating a reality in which most state houses and most governorships, and all three branches of the federal government are actually Trump-ish. These elected officials take measures that do not support the actual needs of people that are voting for them.
Why? Well one of the reasons that Rabbi Lerner’s research project at the Institute for Labor and Mental Health taught us is that many people feel that the social change movements look down upon anyone who didn’t vote for Democrats, and thinks that they are all racists, sexists, homophobic, anti-Semites, Islamophobic or just plain stupid, and stupider still since they believe in some religion.
One of the things we need to do is actually be able to hear their pain and the ways that radical or fundamentalist religious communities actually meet their needs for community and belonging and connection, and even meaning and purpose, though sometimes in a twisted sort of way. We have to prioritize the task of building a movement that addresses those needs and embraces people— even those who are really different from us and seem to be supporting policies that are so painful and really downright horrific. So that prophetic empathy call has to do with how to speak to people with empathy while also standing in a morally grounded place. I think this dovetails beautifully with the Poor People’s Campaign, and wonder if there’s a way for your campaign to incorporate some of these ideas. We will be with you and urging those in our Network of Spiritual Progressives to be out in the streets with you!
Reverend Barber: I’m hearing a lot of pieces in that. I think that one of the things that you should know for instance, about the Forward Together Movement in North Carolina, is we didn’t start organizing what we called fusion politics, and I don’t use the language “liberal” and “progressive,” “liberal” and “conservative,” because I’m both. I tell people when they ask me what am I as a preacher, I am a theologically evangelical liberal and conservative Pentecostal biblicist who follows a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew who was crucified for being a radical and a revolutionary. I’ve got a friend of mine named Carter and he’s a professor— and he said the first thing that conquerors did in the ancient world was they took over the libraries and they automatically made the indigenous language second class. And I think sometimes we have hurt ourselves by the language that automatically sets up distance and sets up elitism and sets up division, which is why we chose this moral language. So we stayed rooted in the morality of the Constitution, or the morality of religious faith, people can be of faith and not of faith and find a place they can be together. We don’t just ask people to do mass action. In our trainings we have people from different sides of the spectrum in the room together and it impacts them..
What people don’t know is, in the Moral Monday Movement, about 11% of the people were Republicans. We went into counties and organized that were 99% white, 89% Republican. And what we found is that the Southern strategy had worked. Its design was by Kevin Phillips, he told Richard Nixon that we (editor’s note: in this paragraph the “we” is the Republicans)can find a way to pit people against each other, and we can find a way to make them hate each other and blame other people for their problems without using race language. Well, racial language that sounds racist. So instead we’re talking about tax cuts and states’ rights, forced busing, and racialized entitlement programs. If we can do this long enough, and if we can add to that, somehow bring in the slave master type religion and morality into the 20th century without it sounding racist, we can actually get people to vote against their own interests and not even believe that they’re doing so.
This “Southern strategy” was heavily funded, it worked, and we have to recognize that when we talk about why we are where we are today as a society. You know, Nell Painter has recently said that the rise of Trump, who represents a larger moral malady, is iconographic of a common American experience. The call for justice happened for a few years, and then there’s a reversal. She said, this is not un-America. When you have somebody who may be “ liberal” get into office, make promises but not really go far enough to actually change things then people react and then you end up with this reaction that we saw in 2016. Whether it’s the end of the Reconstruction movement in the 1870s and 1880s, or it’s the end of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, America is having this constant state of schizophrenia and finding different ways of covering up its original sin. Pitting people against each other is part of the American process, which is why America will always need prophets and prophetic voices that can cut through the maze and cut through the lies and cut through the distortions.
We saw a few weeks ago, for instance, these clergy go into the White House and pray for the President while his policies are preying on the poor and the hurting. But you can go back to the spiritual mobilization in 1935 when the corporate interests— Sun Oil, General Motors, and others— according to a book by Kevin Kruse called One Nation Under God, purchased 19,000 pulpits between 1935 and 1940 to actually create a false kind of theology that said if you’re good, you’re rich, and if you’re bad, you’re poor. And they used that to try to undermine the New Deal.
So what we’re seeing now has been before— you can go back to the Bible, there were always false prophets against the real prophets. There was always what Frederick Douglass called the “slave master religion” versus the religion of Jesus. What we have to do in this mass mental consciousness reorganization is to first teach people that this has been a part of this American project, and that’s what we do in our training. We don’t start with what’s happening now, we start with the history. We particularly teach the history of the 2 reconstructions, the 2 deconstructions of those reconstructions, and how we are in the birth pains of a third reconstruction. We teach how it was in 1965 with Dr. King’s speech after the Selma to Montgomery march. Most people don’t read that speech, but in that speech he began to say how, when the white aristocracy, the wealthy, saw the potential of white and black masses coming together and voting, they deliberately sought to undermine that with the Southern strategy. They gave the white poor masses Jim Crow, as a way to fill up their hungry stomachs. This is what always happens when there is the potential for poor whites and poor blacks moving together and creating new power.
I think you at Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives are right in that sense that we have to move and challenge the Democrats, Republicans, Liberals whenever their analyses or language splits the people and sets them against each other. That’s one reason why one of the things we have done around the country when we have the moral revivals and mass meetings is that we ensure that the first people to speak are the impacted people. Sometimes we might have one person who’s a Republican or a Democrat but neither one of them has a living wage. They stand up, speak, and testify about what is happening to them because it is important that we put a face on these issues. I believe mass consciousness reorientation happens as people are put in the same room and engage with one another. I can tell you stories of our movement and some people get a little upset because they come to the Poor People’s Movement and they want us to talk in terms of Progressive or Liberal and we tell them that’s not our movement.
We want to find every way to not be religious. That’s not our movement; we welcome all people. We tell this story. For instance a white girl in West Virginia that lives in the zip code of this country that has the highest concentration of poor white folk. She stood up and said: “I am a redneck. I am also the white trash that America threw out but forgot to burn. I’m in this movement.” But we also heard from the black mama from Alabama whose child died in her arms because Alabama wouldn’t expand Medicaid.
We are daring to go into these communities. I’m heading to Kentucky and West Virginia in two weeks. Right in the heart of McConnell’s district in the mountains, in the Appalachians, where the people are hurting, and you’re right, too often liberals, or whatever they call themselves have looked down on people or have been paternalistic. That’s why our coordinating committees have to impact people at the center of that.
But I don’t think it’s either/or. I think people can participate in racist systems, and not even know they’re racist. So that’s why we have to talk about racism not in terms of bias, personal bias, but examine the impact of our economic and political systems, and also show the connection. And when we go into communities that are poor and white and sometimes Republican, and we put a map up on the screen that shows voter suppression in their state, and then show them who gets elected because of this voter suppression, and then ask them, “Well, who’s been voting against living wages?” and they’ll say, “We don’t know,” we’ll say, “The person you sent up there.” That helps them see the world in a much broader way.
Rabbi Lerner: We hope that the Poor People’s Campaign will join us in challenging the religiophobia that exists among many who seek social change. Many people we need to win over have experienced social change activists and the culture that has developed around them as putting down anyone who takes religion seriously. I want to offer our training that Cat is doing with the Network of Spiritual Progressives, to be part of your movement. It is offered both in person and online at www.spiritualprogressives.
We’ve also noticed about the array of social change movements is that they’re all in separate silos and they rarely see what connects them to each other. That’s why we’ve developed a one liner for bringing them together — what we call the New Bottom Line. The old bottom line says that a person is valuable or an institution is productive, efficient, and rational to the extent that it maximizes money and power. We say that the New Bottom Line should say that institutions, social practices, our corporations, our government policies, our healthcare system, our legal system are efficient, rational, and productive to the extent that they maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity, social and economic justice, environmental sanity, and enhance our capacity to respond to other human beings as embodiments of the sacred and enhance our capacity to respond to the universe, not by looking at the earth or other places in terms of what we can get from it, but rather respond to the universe with awe, wonder, and radical amazement at the grandeur of creation.
Now that one line would show what all these different social change movements have in common. You want a world in which everybody gets to be seen as valuable simply because they’re embodiments of the sacred. You want a world of love and justice and kindness. People never hear from the liberals and progressive forces – that love is what they’re about; kindness is what they’re about; generosity is what they’re about. Those are words that get pushed out of the discourse. And we want to offer to you and the Poor People’s Campaign that simple idea to promote this New Bottom Line.
Reverend Barber: So Rabbi, I love the way you train people. We need a pro-justice, transformative future movement that can engage in pushing America towards a third reconstruction. And then we list those 5 issues out that are our way of explaining what we are about, including the call for moral revivals. So let’s unite all of our forces for forty days startingMay 14, 2018, to become one movement together! The same people that are fighting healthcare, the same people that attack the Latino community, attack living wages; the same people that attack labor, attack voting rights, so why can’t we come together? I’m not suggesting people have to leave their silos, but we have to do something sometime together that provides an intersectional response to these interlocking injustices. If we can’t do that, then the problem is not so much with the oppressors and empire, the problem is with us. If we are deeply committed to our silos more than we are committed to systemic change, then that’s problematic.
So one thing that this Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is doing – you know, downstairs in the room you got the Apache nation, you got people from the Women’s March, Black Lives Matters, labor, fight for 15 minimum wage, merging together and saying, “for these 40 days, to shift this narrative, we’re going to come together and show how these issues interlock.”
So I would love to find ways to connect with you, Rabbi Lerner and Tikkun magazine, and you Cat Zavis of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, on that piece because without an intersectional response, without a deep analysis that shows how these things are connected, we will end up 1. tied down to mere election politics where we’ll organize for an election, and then after the election all the energy and connection are all gone; Number 2, we’ll look for a Messiah candidate rather than a movement that is transformative; and Number 3, if folks who are fighting, for instance, against poverty, don’t understand the connection to systemic racism, and people dealing with systemic racism and voter suppression don’t have a connection with the people fighting for an end to poverty, we end up allowing the forces of the powerful to pick us off, to pull us apart, and we end up taking a long time to work through issues because we’re doing them one at a time rather than forcing them to come together, and we can’t reach the people you’re talking about reaching. If we don’t show people the connections, we allow people to use the differences to divide us over and over and over and over again.
Rabbi Lerner: We at Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives look forward to being a part of the Poor People’s Campaign and we have one important question: What is the strategy after these forty days and some more civil disobedience you have planned for the Fall before the elections?
Reverend Barber: Part of the struggle is, when we did this moral revival, the movement got ahead of our capacity. There was so much of a hunger, there was so much a call. But we’re in a better place now, we got a structure, we got managers, we got steam, we got people together. The second part of your question is I think that yes, there is a post-strategy. We have not put everything out there, we’ve not tried to think so far because the first thing we needed people to do was to be faithful over what we call 40,000. That is 40 days, each day organizing a minimum of a thousand people that would engage in this first targeted goal of breaking through the narrative. All of these actions during the 40 days will take place simultaneously. But let me give you 2 things that are going to happen. First of all, we’re doing these trainings building power from the bottom up. A lot of the groups have been working for years, we have this public education project, we will begin doing the 6 weeks and continue building relationships. We’re intentionally saying to folks, the Poor People’s Campaign is not just about you going to get your “progressive friends” and coming in. We really believe we have to work at saving the soul and the heart of this nation and that means going in places we wouldn’t automatically go.
When I was first invited to Mitchell County that was 89% Republican, 99% white, my answer was “Hell no, I’m not going” because they also have one of the largest militia groups up there. But then, some of the people in our movement said, “Wait a minute, Reverend Barber. If this is a moral movement, not a Democratic movement, not a Progressive or Liberal movement, but a moral movement, and they ask you to come, you have to go.” When we got there, we found out they had been organizing clandestine. They had come to our mass gatherings in Raleigh to see if we were being true— that this wasn’t just about Democrats, but it was truly about moral issues. And these were people that were deeply “conservative Evangelical.” You know, I’m an Evangelical as well by my upbringing.
And do you know, when we left there at night Rabbi, the Republican chair stood up and said, “I have just resigned. In this county, as a Republican chair, because I’m not a Tea Party extremist, I’m a Lincoln Roosevelt Eisenhower Republican.” They formed a branch of the NAACP in that county – a county where we had never even thought about it. It’s predominantly white, and they told us, “We’re going to always hold on to some of our deep conservative light, but we have seen in a different light.” Lastly, what we’re going to do is we’re going to engage in massive voter mobilization, massive training and power building from the bottom up, and there is something I can’t talk about yet because I made a promise to the leadership, but it’s going to be a kind of a coming together because we can’t allow these groups like CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) and other folks to have the only mass gatherings that talk about the moral state of public policy in this country.
So the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, the 40 days is a launch. It’s not an end. It’s not a commencement. It’s a commencing. It’s not just because it’s the 50th year. I don’t even believe you should really celebrate or commemorate an assassination. To me, something is wrong about that. The only thing you can do, I believe, with the assassination of a prophet, is to go where the prophet fell, reach down into the blood, pick up the baton, and carry it the next mile of the way. Otherwise, you’re just being sacrilegious.
So this is a launching, it’s not an end. I want you to hear that particularly since you are someone I deeply respect, that some of these groups have never worked together like this. So we’re saying, let’s do this right and launch right with 3 commitments afterward. This massive training power building from the bottom up and massive voter mobilization among the impacted, among the people who’ve been turned off and among the people who’ve been turned against each other. And then we’re going to take further steps from there. I hope you’ll be a part of those conversations.
Rabbi Lerner: Well, if you can figure out a way to make it possible for us to be a part of that conversation, we would like to be part of the conversation. And we will certainly be with you in the streets! The Hebrew word ‘tikkun’ means ‘healing, repair and transformation’ and central to that transformation at this historical moment is the struggle against poverty, racism, ecological devastation, militarism, and restoring a healthy commitment to a moral narrative that are the elements you have identified as the major concerns of the Poor People’s Campaign. So of course we are with you!
Reverend Barber: One of the things that we’re also doing is that everything we do, we create a budget to show even though we don’t want to make it just about money, but we also want to take that argument away because a lot of the time they say, “Well that would be nice, but if we have the money.” I love the New Bottom Line argument and we’ll look at that and how to make it part of our movement.
Cat Zavis: The New Bottom Line is a call the moral revival to which you’re speaking. It is morally right to have a world based on love and justice, not a world based on money and power. And it dovetails beautifully with the way you’re framing this as a moral issue, not a Right-Left issue.
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun www.tikkun.org (firstname.lastname@example.org). Cat Zavis is executive director of the interfaith (and secular-humanist-and-atheist-welcoming) Network of Spiritual Progressives www.spiritualprogressives.org.