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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Barber, Like Hope, Does Not Disappoint

Last March at the Alexander-Pegues Minister's Conference of Shaw University Divinity School, one of the outstanding speakers was Rev Dr William Barber II.  Barber has become well-known for his leadership in the Moral Mondays/Forward Together movement that began in North Carolina and has spread across the USA.  He has long been known for his abilities as a preacher, and his preaching has always been linked to a concern for social justice.  Many people would be aware of his leadership of the North Carolina NAACP and the movement to bring together a coalition of groups from around the state through the annual Historic Thousands on Jones Street gathering.  Moreover, his partnership with Rev Dr Nancy Petty to resist the dismantling of effective desegregation policies in Wake County Schools displayed a new confidence and focus on taking a stand against those who would seek to undo the progress made in civil rights.

Barber has become an iconic leader in the current political situation.  When many feel that all they can do is shake their heads and wish for a day when people seemed to care for the common good and for protecting the poor and marginalized, Barber has become symbolic of a politics that says we cannot wait to start the fight for justice.  Now is the time, even if it seems the deck is stacked against us.

Barber has become ever more focused on this message of challenging citizens to read the signs of the times, to listen to the cries of the poor, and to use the strength they have to build beloved community.  That was the message he brought to ministers at Shaw last March.  His words, his sincerity, and his intensity did not disappoint.  He highlighted four biblical passages which he says pose four critical questions for every minister of the gospel.  Some of you who have heard him speak recently have probably heard some of these themes echoed.  I will briefly review these texts.

Psalm 94  Who will stand up?

This Psalm cries out for justice.  It's arguments echo the complaints of Isaiah's prophecy against the leaders and powerful people of his day.  "How long shall the wicked exult?" the psalmist asks.  They crush the people, kill widows, orphans, and immigrants.  But the psalmist knows that God sees and hears and will act.  Finally in v 16, the psalmist asks, "Who rises up for me against the wicked?  Who stands up for me against evildoers?" 

One clear answer is "The Lord."  But the implication can't be swept away that we must rise up against those who do harm to the poor, who destroy the lives of the weak.  "Can wicked rulers be allied with you, those who contrive mischief by statute?"  The writer recognizes that we owe no obedience to those who use the power of government to benefit themselves and the wealthy.  A crime called a law is no less a crime against justice.  We may not sit by and watch this kind of violence take place.  Who will stand up?  If we do stand, the psalmist reminds us that God will be our stronghold and rock of refuge.

Jeremiah 22 Who will leave the sanctuary and go to the seat of power?

In case the ministers listening might believe that their task is done when they stand in the pulpit to speak a word against injustice, Barber went on to this text from the Prophet Jeremiah.  This long chapter combines a series of harsh oracles against the ruling family of Judah.  The great King Josiah, a reformer who had sought to turn back to the ways of the Lord, had ended his days as powerful empires to the north and south began to battle for dominance in the region of Palestine.  Josiah was succeeded by three sons and a grandson as the Kingdom of Judah crumbled.

God gave Jeremiah another hard task in this text.  Jeremiah seemed always to be sent to deliver a hard message to people who would not want to hear it.  Often it was full of devastating news.  That is the case in this chapter.  In it, he delivers castigating words to the rulers of Judah.  Each one he speaks of will find a humiliating end.  None will share in the blessings they had assumed would go with sitting on the throne of David.

Each of Josiah's descendants receives chastisement for his unjust ways.  Wage theft and slavery amass wealth in the royal household.  Oppression and violence toward the marginalized--widows, orphans, immigrants--accompany outright murder of the innocents by a corrupt law enforcement system.  They turned away from Josiah's ways of looking out for the poor and needy, protecting them through laws and fair policies.  This will bring all of them to utter destruction.

Jeremiah probably delivered these collected indictments together before the last of the Kings of Judah, Zedekiah.  He reminded him of the empires who took away his brother Shallum (Jehoahaz) and nephew Coniah (Jehoiachin).  He recalled the judgment against his brother Jehoiakim, who died in disgrace.  The same fate awaits Zedekiah.  A great repentance is necessary, and a change of domestic and foreign policy, but Zedekiah will not change.  All of this makes Jeremiah a very unwelcome visitor.

The chapter begins with Jeremiah getting the instructions to "Go down to the house of the king."  The Temple, where the priests did their service, was on the highest ground.  Thus, Barber reminds us, that Jeremiah's priestly work took place inside the sanctuary.  For many priests, carrying out the mandates of priestly service in the Temple seemed enough.  Jeremiah might also have wished for that life.  However, the unjust systems all around him required another type of work.  Jeremiah had to leave the confines of Temple service to go to the house of the king.  The message had a specific recipient, and this servant of God needed to deliver it.  Barber insists that we are in such a time, when the oppression and injustice of our world demand we not merely preach inside the walls of the church, but we take the message to the seat of power.

Amos 6  Who will refuse to be at ease in the world?

Barber's next text speaks to those who would be satisfied to marvel in the critique of injustice while living in comfort and waiting for change to come.  A term for this way of addressing social justice has emerged in social media:  slacktivism.  Combining slacker with activism, this term points to those of us who get great satisfaction reading about and commenting about injustices in the world without ever getting beyond pixels. 

For ministers, it could take the form of gravitas in speaking against injustice when preaching or in a gathering of church people, but otherwise enjoying the benefits of a good salary, a nice car, a comfortable home, and access to prestige and the good life.  To be "at ease in Zion" was what Amos called the wealthy and powerful people who believed God was on their side.  They had convinced themselves that they would never have to worry about losing their privileges.  But Amos reminded them they needed to be more aware of the crisis all around them.  Injustice and oppression were destroying the people, but the privileged were ignoring it.

If we really do believe that God demands justice, and that it should "roll down like waters," like a mighty torrent that sweeps away the barriers to its victory, then we cannot remain at ease.  Staying comfortable and cheering on the few who are in the struggle will not be an adequate response from those called to preach the gospel.  Barber says we must not be at ease.  We must be ready to be inconvenienced.  We have to shift priorities and rearrange schedules and show up when it is time for action.

Luke 4  Who will yield to the Spirit's agitation?

The fourth text is from the New Testament.  It is, by my estimation, the central text invigorating various theological turns toward liberation in the late twentieth century.  To recognize the position of Luke 4 in the narrative of Jesus' life and ministry challenges many of the false and distorted ways that Jesus has been proclaimed by the church.  Centering on this text portrays Jesus in a particularly liberative mode.

Jesus reads from the Isaiah scroll to say that he came for a specific purpose:  to bring good news to poor people, to set prisoners free, to liberate slaves, to bring good things to the marginalized.  He describes the kind of restorative justice that the tradition of sabbath years and Jubilee taught Israel would be the right way to make sure there was no permanent debtor class, no enduring oppression, no monopolistic enterprise, no land barons and blood-built mansions.

Jesus quotes this text to say that he will pursue this ministry because the Spirit of God has stirred him to do it.  This is his calling.  He has been agitated to act.  No wonder the listeners that day, putting aside their initial interest in his words, began to consider violence against him.  The Spirit agitated him that day to challenge the powers that be, the wealthy who benefited by not returning land to its rightful owner, the ones who did not pay a fair wage.  Rather than walking away, Jesus took the text given to him and took the calling laid upon him.  He spoke truth to power on that day.  Barber asks ministers whether we will be ready to let the Spirit agitate us to action.

After looking at all four of these texts--no it was not a brief sermonic offering--Barber pointed his challenge directly at all of us who listened.  In this time when injustice is on the rise, will we answer these four questions as we must?  Some will not, and they will end up as preachers who go to their graves with no record of standing up, going out, refusing a vacation, and yielding to the agitation.  Their greatest accomplishment will be to have stayed in their sanctuaries in comfort and made sure the praise team was good.  I like a good praise team.  Don't get me wrong.  But will that be enough for me to offer to my Lord?

I would hope that many more preachers will be listening to these texts Rev Barber has brought to our attention.  Any preacher worth her or his salt should be able to find at least four good sermons from this set of questions.  Having the discipline to study them, teach them, and proclaim them from the pulpit should also help to build up the resolve, the courage, and the companionship necessary to go out and deliver a prophetic message in the seat of power.  Continuing to be in the walls and at ease in a time of rampant injustice will not lead to a good result. 

If any of this stirs you to wonder what you should do, let me also mention that an outstanding learning opportunity is coming.  Barber and some of his co-workers in the Forward Together movement will be leading an intensive learning opportunity on October 29-30, 2015.  The Moral Progressive Organizing Leadership Institute Summit will take place at a retreat center in Whitakers, NC.  The theme of the retreat is "Repairers of the Breach," taken from one of the powerful social justice texts of the Bible in Isaiah 58.  Experts in many fields of policy along with ministers and organizers will teach and train leaders to continue the struggle for justice in this important time.  Information about the conference is available at repairersofbreach@gmail.com.

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