“Poverty Amid Pandemic: The Moral Response to Covid 19”

Progressive Christian Social Action

Poverty Amid Pandemic: The Moral Response to Covid 19

The Rev. Dr. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign

This post is the transcript of The Moral Response to Covid 19, an address given by The Rev. Dr. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign on April 9, 2020.  His address begins about 8 minute into this video, but the whole video is well worth watching.

“We’re in a moment where hope for our many holy traditions will return to where they began in the first place. I know of Christianity and Islam and Judaism, that these holy traditions began in the midst of oppression. They began in the midst of times when there were bad, narcissistic leaders sitting on the throne who were implementing all kinds of unholy acts against humanity/ These holy traditions were called into being, I believe, by God, to give us moments to remind us of who we are and whose we are and what responsibility we have because of that.

“This is not just about personal sanctification–that’s why we do these things in community—every one of the traditions, whether it’s the season of Ramadan or Christianity or Judaism–we do these things in community, and they help save us from idolatry, save us from participating in humankind’s inhumanity towards one another, they call us to another place.

“In these White House briefings, we are seeing not just misinformation but public idolatry and political self-worship in the midst of holy seasons. But perhaps these holy seasons prevent us from being bewitched, if you will, and remind us that there is a power greater than the powers that we see on TV, and that power calls us to be about love and justice rather than truth, lies, and injustice.

“[This is true of all of these traditions]: whether it’s Passover, which remind us of those poor Hebrew people who were under oppression and slavery, or whether it’s Ramadan, when through fasting we put ourselves in the position of those who don’t have and don’t eat, or whether it’s the holy season of Easter that reminds us that Jesus during Holy Week was very clear, that when he went into the Temple, he overturned the politics of greed. He healed everybody, gave them universal health care.  He was challenging the hypocracy of claiming to be religious on the one hand but engaged in policy injustice on the other. And in his almost last sermon he talked about how every nation, not just every individual but every nation, is going to be judged and it’s going to be by how you treat the least of these.

“And even in the crucifixion, he wasn’t just crucified for personal salvation, but he was crucified as a revolutionary. He was crucified for loving,  crucified for telling the truth, crucified for caring for the prisoner, crucified for not bowing down to narcissism, But that crucifixion also brought other people alive and pointed to a resurrection, which promises us that even if we have to suffer for right, ultimately that suffering is worth it, so that even in the midst of it, we may be sanctified by the call to revolution.

“War and economic turndown, we still chose not to see, and we chose not to hear the cries of the poor.  But maybe in this moment, when all our lives are at stake to some degree, when one touch can infect a president or a prince or a pauper, a sanitation worker or a  secretary of state–it really doesn’t matter. Maybe in this moment we can hear, maybe in this moment we can see.

“And if everybody can’t see and hear. maybe those of us who have sometimes committed the sin of taking our faith inside our temples or inside our mosques or inside our congregations alone will be in halls of Congress again.

“And we will decide because we are people sanctified by the holy traditions and the Holy God, we will raise holy ruckus until the poor and the least of these are cared for. Maybe this season we will see it is time to repent of any apathy we’ve had. Maybe it’s time to realize that there are things we must fight for–we can never settle for less.”

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The Wood is Dry

Progressive Christian Social Action

The Wood is Dry

“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children…  For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” Luke 23:31

This morning the tears finally came. Friends, the wood is dry.  People are getting sick and dying from the pandemic, which is just getting started. In some places, like New York, the hospitals are beginning to get overrun.  Healthcare workers are overwhelmed and risking exposure every day, often without enough supplies, respirators, or protective equipment. Schools and businesses are closing, and people are being laid off faster than during the Great Depression. We are beginning to see shortages of food. Racial violence and domestic violence are increasing. Economic insecurity, anxiety, fear, and tensions are on the rise.

Yesterday, a two-trillion-dollar stimulus bill was signed into law. It will take some of the economic pressure off at least some of the people but will provide many times more money to bail out the industries that keep the current economic system going. This system is called a free-market economy, but everyone knows that the government always (so far) can find enough money to wage war or to bail out the banks or to subsidize favorite industries that “pay to play” in order to elect and lobby the very leaders who make the decisions about policies that end up siphoning even more of society’s wealth up to the top. This is an example of the Shock Doctrine at its worst—taking advantage of a crisis to install policies that transfer wealth to the already wealthy. While the bill offers money for medical necessities in for dealing with Covid 19, loans to small businesses, and grants and expanded unemployment insurance to people are suffering, it also offers much more in bailouts for big corporations. The Trump Administration’s Treasury Department will be able to leverage the $500 billion dollars many times over, to the tune of $4.5 trillion or more, far more than the amount given to the people in this hour of extreme need. It has even been called a “corporate coup.” (See article below)

I not only grieve for what our people are facing now. I am also furious that our lawmakers don’t take this opportunity to create a system that is not based on the God of money, a system with the purpose of caring for people and protecting our earth.

This grief and fury must have been what Jesus felt at times, when he challenged the religious and political leaders who supported from and benefited from the unjust Roman system of domination and occupation at the expense of the people.  They targeted him as a subversive and put him to death because the popular movement he led pointed to a new way of living, demonstrated an inclusive and egalitarian community based on compassion, and challenged the status quo. Jesus could see that if the Domination System targeted him at that time, when the Spirit of God was so active and apparent among him and his followers, it would continue to do so long after he was gone.

In Luke 23:26-31, we read that as Jesus made his way toward his crucifixion a great multitude of people “bewailed and lamented him.”  But he turned and addressed them saying: “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never gave suck!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’  For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

The wood is dry.  But I’m encouraged because I see green shoots all around: in the people who reach out to each other in this time of pandemic, in health care workers and others who risk themselves and give their all for the common good, in those who care for the children, deliver food to elders, facilitate online connection, and try to raise people’s spirits, and in those who continue to strive for social, economic, and environmental justice and systemic change.

The seeds of resurrection are already planted.  With prayer, dedication to each other, and courage, we rise.

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Lent and COVID 19

Progressive Christian Social Action

Lent and Covid 19

This Lenten season is unlike any other I have lived through, with the threat of serious illness and death all around, businesses shuttered, people losing their jobs, the stock market crashing, social isolation, and responsibilities that people don’t know how they can meet. So many of us are staying home in order to “flatten the curve” to keep the virus from spreading so quickly that it overwhelms the health care system, while health care workers and others courageously carry on for our well-being, risking exposure every day.

This is the context of Lent this year.  The story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, his forty days in the wilderness, his betrayal by the Powers that be, and his journey to the cross resonate for those of us who see these events from his life long ago as an ongoing dynamic that continues in the world today. As theologian Dorothee Solle said, “In the midst of reality stands the cross.”

So far, I have it easier than many. I’m staying home. I’m experiencing a sense of spaciousness and appreciating the gift of time—more time for prayer (which we so badly need) and for other spiritual practices that foster a deeper relationship with God. I am also finding ways to contribute to family, community, and world from where I am, via telephone, by becoming more versed in Zoom, by catching up with work on our nonprofit, and by working to create a mutual aid group among our neighbors. There is plenty to keep me occupied.

But as always, this pandemic will disproportionately impact those who are most vulnerable. Yes, elders (like me) are most vulnerable to dying of the virus, but others are seriously impacted even now, and will be as the weeks go on.  I think of the children whose lives have been changed so completely, who are cut off from school and friends; parents who work but have to stay home to care for their children; families who don’t have health insurance, people who are sick, disabled, or without permanent shelter, people who are already confined and socially isolated, elders without support. Surely emergency laws to protect our vulnerable neighbors should be a priority, not just during this pandemic, but always.

Countering these impacts will require us to not only to reach out in compassion to individuals, but also to work for justice. This means advocating for policies that protect the well-being of the most vulnerable and working to transform the current system, which is not designed for people or planet but for multiplying wealth for the people at the top. Although the actors have changed, the Domination System goes on, and the ruling Powers even today are often blind to what compassion and justice require. “None of the rulers of this [or any] age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” 1 Corinthians 2:8.

I will continue to stay home and immerse myself in God, but I will also be available to reach out to others in compassion and to work for justice, prioritizing the most vulnerable. I close with these words that Martin Luther wrote during a plague in 1527, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.” After the plague he lived another nineteen years.

“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”

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Lent: Going Deeper

Progressive Christian Social Action

Lent:  Going Deeper

This post was published at the beginning of Lent in 2017 as “A Lenten Call to Resist.”  It is the first post of a Lenten series that offers a progressive Christian understanding of Jesus’ life, death, and post-death appearances.   The links to the other posts in the series are below.

We enter the season of Lent at a time of peril in our nation and world.  People are rising up, some emboldened by the presidency of Donald Trump and the ascendancy of the alt-right, and some determined to stand in the way of injustice and oppression in all its forms.  Christians have a particular responsibility, since without the high turnout of white Evangelical voters Trump would probably not be president today.

As Christians, where we stand politically has a lot to do with how we understand the meaning of Jesus’ death.  “The word of the cross” is at the heart of Christian faith.  We might prefer going from the glory of Transfiguration Sunday to the joy of Easter without reflecting on the drama that leads to Jesus’ suffering and death.  But as Dorothee Solle said,

“Naturally one can develop a theology that no longer has the somber cross at its center.  Such an attempt deserves criticism not because it bids farewell to Christianity as it has been, but because it turns aside from reality, in the midst of which stands the cross.”

The execution of Jesus was not a one-time thing.  Christ continues to be crucified as today’s ruling Powers enlist human beings in their service, subject the most vulnerable to abuse and oppression, wreak violence around the world, and plunder the earth for their own gain.  Our goal during Lent is to remember the path Jesus walked and accompany him on his way to the cross, to fully surrender to God as he did, and to act in solidarity with those who are being crucified on the cross of Empire today, as he was so long ago.

My blog postings during this season focus on how people who seek to follow Jesus can throw off despair and complacency, expose disempowering and hate-filled teachings that claim to be Christian, and reclaim the gospel (good news) as a force for peace, justice, and the healing of the earth.  If you follow this blog, please post your comments.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

This series, A Lenten Call to Resist, includes the following posts:

Resisting Cultural Possession

Rejecting Theological Sadism

Jesus Was Not Born to Die

The Subversive Jesus

The Suffering God:  Where Humanity is Crucified

Creation Crucified:  The Passion of the Earth

Conventional Wisdom:  The Wisdom of This Age

God’s Restorative Justice

Good Friday:  Contemplation and Resistance

Holy Saturday:  Following Jesus

Resurrection:  The Mind of Christ

Beale with crosses

Good Friday at Beale, 2015

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The Spirituality of Resistance

Progressive Christian Social Action

The Spirituality of Resistance

Sharon Delgado’s article, The Spirituality of Resistance, appears in the May 2018 issue of Sojourners Magazine.   It is a book review of Principalities in Particular:  A Practical Theology of the Powers that Be by Bill Wylie-Kellerman.   

For decades, pastor, activist, and scholar Bill Wylie-Kellermann has kept alive and furthered a theology of the biblical “powers and principalities” (Romans 8:38; Colossians 1:16; Ephesians 6:12), in the tradition of William Stringfellow and Walter Wink. Principalities in Particular is a compilation of his essays, rooted in applied struggle and practice, on these invisible but embodied forces that shape and often dominate human life.

Through stories of engaging specific principalities over time, Wylie-Kellermann brings an abstract concept to life. He explores racism, nuclear weapons, sports, family systems, corporate globalization, slavery, the drug powers, war, the Trump presidency, the global economy, and other principalities, immersing readers in a worldview that perceives not only their outer manifestations, but their inner realities as well.  One example is the corporate-friendly system of emergency management that has replaced democracy in controlling the author’s home city of Detroit and other black-majority cities in Michigan.

Wylie-Kellermann portrays local community struggles as fighting (nonviolently) for the soul of the city. He describes a statue called “The Spirit of Detroit,” which stands near City Hall, providing a focus and gathering place for community activists. In a similar vein, he tells of an interfaith group that drafted letters to “The Angel of Detroit,” calling the city back to its better nature and true vocation in service of life.

Wylie-Kellermann claims that “half of any struggle is a spiritual battle.” What is at stake is not simply a specific desired outcome, but also human healing and liberation. “We are complicit in our own captivity. … The healing of the planet and the healing of ourselves, inside and out, are one.”  Wylie-Kellermann challenges readers to stay awake, resist dehumanization by the principalities, work for liberation, and live in freedom.

Principalities in Particular inspires and equips readers to rise to this challenge. The author invites readers into a process of inquiry, especially related to principalities in one’s own neighborhood, and to engagement that may lead to both personal and social transformation: “The struggle before us remains necessarily two-handed or two-edged, fusing social analysis and institutional reconstruction with discernment, prayer, and worship-based action.” Such activism calls for discipline and creativity: “Prayer and fasting and public worship and singing and signs of imagination are among the tactics of any movement that knows it wrestles not merely with flesh and blood.” This book illustrates the difficulties, but also the triumphs, of such engagement.

One of Wylie-Kellermann’s insights is that we humans fall into the trap of seeking justification through the powers, rather than by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). For example, Christians may find identity and worth through their participation in and loyalty to a church. But as the author points out, the church itself is a principality, as prone as any other to seeking its own survival by enlisting human beings in its service. Consequently, churches may endorse belief systems, practices, or policies that further “the powers of empire.” On the other hand, “to be church as exemplary power in this present moment is to be freed of white supremacy, patriarchy, idolatrous patriotism, heterocentrism, mammon, militarism, consumer materialism, all the divisions and ideologies of domination.”

Particularly dangerous, warns Wylie-Kellermann, is justification offered through “the devotion of national populism,” currently exemplified by the presidency of Donald Trump. “Trump’s theology frames justification, mediated by the nation and its leader, as conferred upon ‘the patriotic people’… This justification … goes hand in hand with the unleashing of the dominating spirit. Notably, it is the offer of salvation without repentance.”

The motivation to refuse complicity and resist the powers is a spiritual effect of reading this book. Wylie-Kellermann challenges readers to stay awake, resist dehumanization by the principalities, work for liberation, and live in freedom: “Death appears to reign. But it is undone. Live in the freedom of the resurrection. In short, dear friends: Be not awed by anything but the God who raised Christ Jesus from the dead.”

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