By Jeremy Ray Jewell
Rev. Dr. William Barber II has effectively demonstrated again and again what he often calls “fusion politics” across lines of race, age, and religion.
Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing by Rev. Dr. William Barber II, Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, Rev. Dr. Rick Lowery, et al. Beacon Press, 248 pages, $18.
I was reading this book when I was in the curious situation of hitching a ride on a cold, rainy day in Forrest City, Arkansas. My shepherd, as it were, was a black Southern Baptist preacher in his seventies by the name of Booker T. There I was, a white Southerner and a Baptist (each distinctly and separately, may I add) in a town named for a founding member of the Klan, talking with a preacher named for the author of the infamous Atlanta Compromise Speech of 1895 which called on blacks to endorse segregation. Did Rev. Booker T know about the Rev. Dr. William Barber II? Had I heard of Fred Luter, Jr., the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) first African-American president, elected some six years back? Had he read the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s report that week on the history of slavery and racism in the denomination? There’s a buzz out there, and we had both heard it. We grinned at each other like we were in on some inside joke, keeping our lamps trimmed and burning with glee.
Dr. William Barber II is undoubtedly a voice in the wilderness proclaiming this thing which is to come. It’s a peculiar job. His critics ask him if he is ‘bothered to mention Jesus’ in his latest sermons, a question which resonates with Jesus’ own challengers, wondering if he ever observed the law. One could argue that Barber’s goal is to act on the fundamental Judeo-Christian moral law: To go into the world to do what you’re called to do (cf. Genesis 12:1-9). Not what the past dictates, but what is genuinely new and revolutionary — ‘divine’, as Walter Benjamin may have called it.
Barber has lived this imperative in numerous ways: as a pastor, as the president of the North Carolina NAACP, founder of Repairers of the Breach, and leader of numerous egalitarian movements, both locally in North Carolina and nationally. This book’s opening chapters provide useful accounts of the many works he and his allies have performed. They are no small feats. Embracing multiple arrests for civil disobedience — going where no one has gone since Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — Barber has effectively demonstrated again and again what he often calls “fusion politics” across lines of race, age, and religion. This he has done by leading movements challenging voter suppression laws, racial gerrymandering, and the wholesale dismantling of North Carolina’s government brought on by the impetus of millionaire conservative Art Pope. Barber has also been at the forefront of the Fight for $15 movement, struggling for a minimum wage increase and collective bargaining rights in regions and industries where these have largely never existed before, and most recently he has re-initiated the Poor People’s Campaign, which takes its name, mission and strategy from MLK’s 1968 endeavor to unite working people of all backgrounds for economic justice.
Of course, there is a scriptural basis for civil coalitions among Christians (cf. Matthew 12:30 and Luke 11:23). Ironically, many people of faith on the right have their own version of coalition-forming; it demonstrates that, if your definition of divine will is structured just so, then articles of Christian faith can be readily squared (and re-squared) to fit the political program of Nebuchadnezzar — er, I mean Trump. Barber argues that this skewed version of Christian ethics (propagated by what he calls “theological malpractice” in order to accumulate power) highlights particular conclusions about sexuality or gender over the perennial concerns of human suffering. In this case, he beats the fundamentalists at their own exegetical game: Barber totals up the number of biblical references to poverty to show how they overwhelm the odd (and debatable) reference to homosexuality. Barber also examines how the words ‘evangelical’ and ‘conservative’ have been co-opted. Barber declares himself to be, rightfully considered, “a Christian Evangelical conservative,” unpacking how those terms have been betrayed in recent times. But by whom have they been co-opted?
As historians show, the current ‘evangelicals’ are intellectually descended from those known as ‘fundamentalists.’ The positions of the ‘fundamentalists’ were defined over a century ago by The Fundamentals, a book funded by the Koch brothers of the era, Standard Oil’s Lyman brothers. The volume’s goal? To rebuke the so-called ‘liberal theology’ originating in Enlightenment thought, attacking what they perceived to be the latter’s unacceptable compromises and innovations. For better or worse, the reincarnated spirit of this ‘fundamentalism’ remains popular among the American working class. Indeed, among the poor and working class of numerous developing nations … the very people Barber champions. The reasons for this are complex and shouldn’t be minimized because it presents serious challenges to Barber’s work as it continues: there are substantial, persistent problems of theological disagreement. Unless the longstanding dichotomy between liberal theology and its detractors is bridged, then Barber’s success will depend on his ethical denouncements alone. These may serve to rally the already converted, but it is difficult to see how his exhortations will settle contentious metaphysical disagreements between progressives and the conservative mainstream Protestant denominations. We are, after all, talking about believers who have gone so far as to support Trump, who is not known for his Christian virtue. Barber belongs to the Disciples of Christ denomination, and has referred to the “slave holder religion” of the SBC when asking them to address racial inequalities today. But so long as the conservative evangelicals of the SBC can point to observably liberal traits in Barber’s theology, his call may either fall on deaf ears or be internalized (and mitigated) by the organization. (Arguments already abound that this is what the SBC’s recent report has done.)
Revive Us Again is intended as an introduction to the accomplishments of a multi-faceted movement. And it does that well. Its format has each article by Barber followed by a ‘response.” But these are not conventional academic responses. They are the responses of a enthused congregation to the exhortations of its minister, an application of the old ‘call-and-response’ (“Can I get an ‘Amen!’?”). The cheer-on approach demonstrates that there remains more to do — a demand that action demands going beyond the proverbial preaching to the choir. That said, the replies are enjoyable and enlightening, and will no doubt extend Barber’s message beyond his immediate regional audience. Timothy B. Tyson’s contribution is particularly noteworthy because it places Barber’s strategies within African-American rhetorical, oratory, and exegetical styles. The piece explores how secular culture has been influenced (or has absorbed) the depths of prayer, praise, and struggle.
There is an interesting energy pulsing through evangelical America today. It is pulsing through many places we call “Southern” in this country, and through faith communities all around. It is moving through the SBC and through Liberty University and through Moody Bible Institute … and all of that is not inconsequential to Barber’s cause. Given the SBC’s scope, this sense of shake-up is moving through broader, even more ‘southern,’ territory. (For decades now, the SBC has been among the prominent missionary forces in the Global South.) Meanwhile, Barber and company are working tirelessly with those eager and ready to work with them. This often means enlisting New York’s Union Theological Seminary, or Quakers, or Reform rabbis. Who might be changed by Barber among those resolutely standing on the other side of the aisle? Moreover, how may we reckon with the aisle itself? At least some of the support for his “Third Reconstruction” will be the result of the realignment of the Southern religious establishment, and synthesis of different paradigms. Booker T, my guide to Forrest City, knows this well. When he wakes up on Sunday he will still be a Southern Baptist. Let’s hope he has his sermon ready.
Jeremy Ray Jewell is from Jacksonville, Florida. He has an MA in History of Ideas from Birkbeck College, University of London, and a BA in Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts Boston. He maintains a blog of his writings entitled That’s Not Southern Gothic.