William J. Barber II: We have to dare to preach the gospel

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II speaking at a Moral Monday rally. Creative Commons: Flickr / Twbuckner

In this interview, the leader of the Moral Mondays movement talks about leading in the public square.

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is the president of the North Carolina NAACP and architect of the Moral Mondays protest movement, which began in Raleigh in 2013 and has spread across the country.

Barber has been engaged in social activism for many years, but he began his rise to national prominence after organizing a 2007 coalition of advocacy groups called the Historic Thousands on Jones Street People’s Assembly (HKonJ), which marched on the state Capitol to protest conservative legislation.

Out of that grew the Forward Together Moral Movement, which organized Monday protests and civil disobedience at the state legislature building. In North Carolina, redistricting and proposed voting rights legislation have been a particular focus for progressives. The Monday protests, known as “Moral Mondays,” have spread to other states.

Barber spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, where he urged voters to “embrace” Hillary Clinton.

“If you’re going to be in the public square as a preacher, you have to bring something different. So, for instance, you’ll never hear me in the public square talking about left and right, and Conservative vs. Democrat,” he said. “You have to bring to bear the sacred text in the public square.”

Barber also is the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Goldsboro, North Carolina, which has invested $1.5 million into community development, including low-income housing, a home for senior citizens, a preschool and a community center.

Barber received an M.Div. from Duke Divinity School and a doctoral degree from Drew University. He is the recipient of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, North Carolina’s highest citizenship award.

He was interviewed for Faith & Leadership by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, who co-wrote with Barber the book “The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement.”

Q: What can institutional church leaders do to address issues of systemic injustice?

I’m certainly a part of the institutional church. I’m in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) -- I’ve been a pastor for nearly 30 years. I’m a part of a denomination that is 95 percent white, 5 percent Latino and African-American. I’m a moderator of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in North Carolina, which is over 125 churches, the majority of which are white.

I think the first thing -- and this might seem simplistic -- is we have to begin to preach the gospel in our churches. Not merely attempt to quarantine the church from the issues in the world but to have the courage, as Karl Barth once said, to hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

I think too many of our pulpits are disconnected from the realities that people are facing every day. When you look at the ministry of Jesus or the ministry of the prophets, there was a certain Sitz im Leben, if you will. There was a certain recognition of the context of the time that they were spoken to.

For instance, Philip Esler, in one of his books, “Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts,” talks about how you can hear in Jesus’ first sermon Jesus directly contrasting Roman society, the stratification, and the poverty. Jesus gives priority and place to the poor, the very ones that Roman society and the religious cultures of that time dismissed and pushed aside.

We can’t ignore the social realities. It’s not biblical; it’s not gospel.

We cannot be silent on the issue, for instance, of unarmed black and white, black men, women and children being shot.

We cannot be silent and not talk about what the gospel says when we have 14.7 million poor children in this country.

We cannot be silent in our pulpits or in our Bible studies when 64 million Americans make less than a living wage in a time when 400 families make over $97,000 an hour and 54 percent of African-Americans make less than a living wage.

We have to begin to deal with race from the perspective of the gospel, and we have to deal with race not merely as a feeling of prejudice but to unpack for people in the pews that racism is about power.

It’s not so much what’s in somebody’s heart personally but what is the heart of their policies.

And so we have to dare to preach the gospel. We have to dare like Isaiah to cry out, “Spare not!” We have to dare like Jesus to call religious hypocrisy what it is when we major in everything else but love, justice and mercy.

And I think that until we, like Jesus, come preaching, then there will always be a certain anemia as it relates to the church’s ability to deal with these issues internally. Because if we’re afraid to deal with these issues internally, then how can we ever be prophetic externally?

Q: I’ve talked to a lot of white pastors and church leaders who are feeling that they need to do something and they don’t feel like they know how. What resources or partners would you point institutional leaders toward?

Well, I certainly would point them to the piece, Jonathan, that you helped to edit, which is “A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.”

I think we would do well to go back and read the writings of people like William Lloyd Garrison and Charles Finney.

I think we would do ourselves well to recover the language of Howard Thurman -- “Jesus and the Disinherited,” for instance. Certainly, the writings of Dr. [Martin Luther] King and Rabbi [Abraham Joshua] Heschel. And I was just reading this morning Sojourner Truth.

I think we would do well to start with people who gathered themselves, and gathered their consciousness, and chose to preach the gospel in times much worse than the times in which we live.

Because when we want to be fearful, we should look back and remember that William Lloyd Garrison and Henry Thoreau were thrown in jail for preaching [truth]. In fact, William Lloyd Garrison wrote on the wall of his jail cell, “William Lloyd Garrison was put into this cell … for preaching the [abominable and dangerous doctrine] that all men are created equal.”

I think of pieces like “America’s Original Sin” by Jim Wallis, the writings of Dr. King, especially his last book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”

I would recommend the book that I’ve written called “Forward Together: A Moral Message for the Nation,” where it shows messages in the public square that whites, blacks, brown people, Asians and others were able to hear. Or “The Third Reconstruction” that we wrote together, Jonathan. I think those are important pieces.

And I think that we should not just preach it but teach it in our Bible studies. The National Council of Churches has a series of Bible studies that can be engaged in.

But I also think we have to learn how to bring testimonies in the church, the testimonies of real people.

So, for instance, the third weekend in October and the first weekend in November, we [the ecumenical Moral Revival project] have asked rabbis, imams and pastors to preach on social justice, love and mercy. But bring someone in, for instance, who has been denied health care, and before they preach the sermon, let them testify.

Or bring someone in that has been impacted by police brutality, or show a film of someone, so that it’s not abstract.

And then last, I would encourage every minister of the gospel to pick up a copy of the Poverty and Justice Bible. I think it is an invaluable tool, because in that Bible, they mark every scripture that has to do with love, justice and mercy -- over 2,000 scriptures.

In fact, I’m thinking that I’m going to replace the pew Bibles at my church with that Bible, because it drives home so clearly that if you do not deal with the issues of love, justice and mercy, it’s like taking a pair of scissors and cutting the Bible up, and you have nothing left.

Q: You are preaching often in the public square. You gave a sermon at the Democratic National Convention. What would you say to pastors about the role and responsibility of being a preacher in public in America today?

When I was doing my doctoral work at Drew, I ran across a book called “Pastoral Care and Liberation Theology” that made the case that not to be concerned about public policy was to be engaged in a form of pastoral malpractice. Because it is an attempt to think that somehow we can minister to people inside the church without knowing the situations or confronting the situations that are causing many of their pastoral needs inside the church.

We can’t ignore the social realities. It’s not biblical; it’s not gospel.

As Dr. William Turner once taught us, however you describe your conversion -- born again, saved, baptized, washed in the blood, redeemed -- if what follows is not a critique and a quarrel with the world, then the qualification of that conversion remains terribly suspect.

If you’re going to be in the public square as a preacher, you have to bring something different. ... You have to bring to bear the sacred text in the public square.

But I will say that in the public square you have to work hard at having a cadre of people to hold you responsible so that you do not just become an orator in the public square.

If you’re going to be in the public square as a preacher, you have to bring something different. So, for instance, you’ll never hear me in the public square talking about left and right, and Conservative vs. Democrat. You have to bring to bear the sacred text in the public square.

I’ve often been asked if I would speak on a program but not lift up the Scriptures. I have to decline. And I would say to any preacher, you ought to decline if that’s the requirement.

Even at the DNC, I had to be very clear about what I would do and what I would not do. Because at the end of the day, we are held accountable for the gospel we preach. And the gospel requirement is clear that we can never operate in such a way that we say that God is, for instance, a Democrat or a Republican.

So, for instance, at the DNC, I attempted to lift up the deep moral values of our faith, and of our Constitution, and talk more about the heart of the nation rather than a particular candidate.

And so when I spoke at the Democratic Convention, I laid out a series of issues -- poverty, health care, how we treat one another, how we treat immigrants -- and I made it clear that I follow the brown-skinned Palestinian Jew named Jesus.

And I used a very particular word. I said we should in this moment “embrace” Hillary Clinton.

Embracing is more about brotherhood and sisterhood than a political relationship. When you embrace somebody, you remain who you are. You don’t have to give up who you are. When you embrace them, you also embrace them in such a way that not only can you encourage them, but if necessary, you can edify them, and you can even critique them.

But also with an embrace, you can, if you will, “un-embrace” if someone chooses to move in ways that are counter to the deep religious and moral callings of our faith.

And a lot of people in the nation heard that, Jonathan, and appreciated it. I’ve met a lot of people since then in airports and on trains who’ve said, “Thank you for using that language. Thank you for lifting up the metaphor of the heart.” The metaphor of the heart is heavily used in the Scriptures.

I think we have to be in the public square. But we also have to be in the public square where we bring something other than the normal kind of divisiveness, and partisanism, and mere left/right conservative vs. liberal arguments.

Q: Would you say that preachers have a distinct role to play in the church’s work in the public square, as opposed to laypeople?

Jesus didn’t just do ministry by himself. But Jesus in fact had apostles, and then they continued training people in the apostles’ doctrine.

If you look at all of the social movements throughout our country -- abolition movement, social gospel movement, civil rights movement -- they weren’t just about individuals. There were persons who trained, who thought through, who wrestled with policy and theology.

So the more political-organizing leadership -- institutes and summits that we have with 50 to 100 clergy and activists and public-policy persons -- I think this is a model for the nation right now.

My daughter has a degree in public health; I often say we should have degrees in public theology. And we have to make sure that we have this level of engagement where we do what I call moral analysis, moral articulation and moral activism.

In the same space we can set our deepest religious values around justice, mercy, love and truth, put that right beside our policy challenges, and then put that right beside our strategic plans for engaging.

And I think that allows us to raise the question when we look at policy, not Democrat or Republican, but we ask three questions: Is this policy morally defensible? Is it constitutionally consistent? Is it economically sane?

And I think, now more than ever, we have to have schools of prophets that are nontraditional. Yes, some of them we should have in our seminaries -- a master of public theology -- but beyond that, we need places where people can come together, particularly clergy, particularly pastors, and be trained and retrained, tooled and retooled. It is of the utmost importance.

And we’ve had phenomenal receptivity to this all over the country, wherever we’ve gone to do these one-day, two-day trainings.

Q: What would you say to pastors who are preaching during this election season and the seminaries that are creating students during the election? What word would you have for them?

I would tell them that we need a good IT program. Now you know in college they call that “information technology.” But I call it “issues and turnout.”

The issues that I believe Christ would have us be concerned about are the very ones that he lifted up in his first public sermon: the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the bruised, the broken, the blind, and all of those who have been made to feel unacceptable.

But now, who are they? And what policies impact their lives? What issues impact their lives? Well, who are the poor today? Who are the brokenhearted? Who are the ones made to feel unacceptable? And we should then look at candidates based on examination of these policies. That’s the issue side.

And we’ve provided a way at www.moralrevival.org or www.breachrepairers.org. We’ve said to all of the candidates -- presidential, gubernatorial, senatorial -- “We need something higher, something that’s not just rooted in ‘how can you beat somebody and distort the record.’”

We know we do not elect perfect people. That’s not even an issue for us. We understand that we all need, certainly, God’s grace. But the question becomes, where do the policies of particular individuals line up in relationship with the moral concerns that Jesus and the prophets lifted up? We have to do a serious examination on that.

Then second, we have to have turnout. I say to every preacher, white or black, we should be reminded that white and black, Jews and Christians left the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma for Montgomery on a Sunday together, hand in hand.

They were beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a Sunday. They were almost killed on a Sunday. They were driven back to the church on a Sunday. And they made their commitment to go back and march again on a Sunday, as they fought for voting rights.

So voting rights, the right to vote, the access to the ballot is a right written in the blood of the martyrs.

Because actually, to deny someone the right to vote is in a sense to deny their imago Dei, their image of God. In order to vote, you have to be a citizen, 18 years of age or older, born or naturalized in the United States of America. In order to be born or naturalized, in order to be a citizen, you have to be a person. And in our theology, in order to be a person, you have to be created by God.

So if I deny your right to vote, then I’m questioning whether or not you’re created by God, or if you are of the same humanity.

Now, some people say, “No, Rev. Barber, that’s a stretch.” Well actually, the reason African-Americans were written as three-fifths of a person in the original Constitution and were denied the right to vote is because they were not seen as full human beings. They were seen as subpar human beings. And poor whites who didn’t own land were seen as subpar human beings.

So people of faith should be highly focused on turnout, and on a turnout rooted in the deepest moral values of our faith, because any attempt to undermine the right to vote is a direct affront to the imago Dei in every person. I believe that.