Amidst the many soaring/pointed/Trump-eviscerating speeches that piled atop one another throughout last week’s Democratic National Convention, even the powerful call-out by the Muslim couple who had lost their soldier son in the Afghan War didn’t quite match the moment for me when a hulking African American minister with a congenital spinal condition limped out on stage in his clerical collar and in a sonorous voice intoned:
“Good evening my brothers and sisters. I come before you tonight as a preacher, the son of a preacher. A preacher immersed in the movement at five years old. I don’t come tonight representing any organization, but I come to talk about faith and morality. I’m a preacher and I’m a theologically conservative liberal evangelical biblicist. I know it may sound strange, but I’m a conservative because I work to conserve a divine tradition that teaches us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.”
That was the auspicious beginning, which did nothing but gain impact over the next 10 minutes of the Reverend William Barber’s address, as he held his rapt, not-quite-prime time audience in the palm of his hand while he elaborated on what “a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew called us to preach” some 2,000 years ago.
What the brown-skinned one taught, with overwhelming emphasis, if one attends to the scriptures that he ostensibly came to fulfill and expand upon with his presence on this earth, was, in Barber’s words, “to preach good news to the poor, the broken, and the bruised, to all those who are made to feel unaccepted.”
And with that, Barber was off to the races, laying out an ancient vision of what a religion that stands by the oppressed should look like—and how it has too often failed to look like that in America. He did so with the glorious cadences and expressiveness of the traditional African American preacher that he is, his righteous thirst for justice fully ablaze.
“I say to you tonight, there are some issues that are not left versus right, liberal versus conservative; they are right versus wrong. We need to embrace our deepest moral values and push for a revival of the heart of our democracy.
“When we fight to reinstate the power of the Voting Rights Act and to break interposition and the nullification of the current Congress, we in the South especially know that when we do that, we are reviving the heart of our democracy. When we fight for $15 and a union, and universal health care, and public education, and immigrant rights, and LGBTQ rights, we are reviving the heart of our democracy.
“When we develop tax and trade policies that no longer funnel our prosperity to the wealthy few, we are reviving the heart of our democracy. When we hear the legitimate discontent of Black Lives Matter and we come together to renew justice in our criminal justice system, we are embracing our deepest moral values and reviving the heart of our democracy.
“When we love the Jewish child and the Palestinian child, the Muslim and the Christian and the Hindu and the Buddhist and those who have no faith but they love this nation, we are reviving the heart of our democracy.
“When we fight for peace and when we resist the proliferation of military style weapons on our street, and when we stand against the anti-democratic stronghold of the NRA, we are reviving the heart of our democracy.
“We must shock this nation with the power of love. We must shock this nation with the power of mercy. We must shock this nation and fight for justice for all. We can’t give up on the heart of our democracy, not now, not ever!”
Barber’s words, nearly universally acclaimed in the days after the convention for their Old Testament-style prophet’s cry, reveal many unsettled matters on the American religious landscape.
Among them is the remarkable twisting, by a major element of that landscape, of a humble peacemaker’s message of love, compassion and self-sacrifice into a strange, relentless obsession with lowering taxes for the wealthy, cutting aid to the infirm and poor, and ensuring the completely uncompromised, unfettered “right” of everyone to purchase and own lethal weapons of whatever caliber and potential carnage they desire, no questions asked.
How did we get to this place?
That’s a long discussion, but let this much be noted here: the chief competitors in the religious marketplace of ideas in America today seem to be increasing secularism and its quasi-ally of near-militant atheism on one side and a Protestant evangelicalism on the other side that has become virtually joined at the hip with extreme conservative politics.
This evangelicalism has become such a well-organized and sizable force in modern electoral politics that it dwarfs, at least in a broad swath of the public’s mind, other religious sensibilities that are more in line with the vision that Reverend Barber sketched for the DNC.
In advertising parlance, religion’s “brand” has been sullied in the eyes of secular culture, which has come to equate religion with right-wing intolerance, small-mindedness, and hypocrisy. (On the international stage, extreme militant Islam has come to be equated with the Muslim brand in much the same way, albeit with a far more violent overlay.)
The only exception to this is the black church, with its long history of struggle against the travails of slavery and racism. It’s as if the black church is allowed and understood to be religious in its historic context, but the socially conscious mainstream (and largely white) religious denominations—Presbyterians, Methodists, Jews, Catholics—have become nearly invisible, their largely liberal values of concern for the poor and oppressed long since swamped by the tsunami of conservative evangelical Christianity that has washed over the culture the past 40 years or so.
One result of this is a widespread, sometimes unconscious anti-religion bias by a secular culture that paints all religion with a brush labeled “intolerant.” This bias is revealed in a thousand everyday ways.
I encounter it myself when people relatively new to my orbit get to know me just well enough to fathom that I couldn’t possibly be of a right-wing evangelical bent, but then find out I’m a regular churchgoer. I can see the quizzical look spread across their faces as they stammer to reconcile my, ahem, free-flowing liberal sensibilities with the image they carry around in their heads of a pinched seething religious person who, among other negative attributes, never seems to have any fun.
Two other examples floated across my computer screen recently via this millennium’s version of the tidbit-sharing town square known as “Facebook.”
The first, by a no doubt well-meaning but astonishingly ill-informed source that surely fancies itself as open-minded and tolerant in a close-minded world, offering this nugget:
“HATED by most white Christians?” The evidence of which would be where, exactly, in a country where whites still comprised some 75% of the electorate in 2012 and President Obama managed to snag a winning 65 million votes?
This absurd claim is not worth spending any more time on, other than to note how commonly such casual misinformation is offered up—in this case, by something called New Century Times (“Committed to helping find out about what’s going on in the world!”). That “commitment” apparently does not extend to exploring what’s “going on” in the actual world of religion and its rather varied adherents.
A second graphic is along the same lines, conflating the heinous specter of the racist Ku Klux Klan with Christianity to score a cheap and misinformed political point. The verbiage is self-congratulatory in seeking to come to the defense of Muslims at the expense of impugning all Christians, of whatever color or sensibility.
In reality, countless numbers of Christians have been vehemently opposed to racism and all such evils for centuries. Many risked their lives as abolitionists and later worked on the front lines of the civil rights movement, directly challenging the KKK. Among them, making this graphic perhaps even dumber than the first one in a kind of dumb-dumber sweepstakes, were huge numbers of African American Christians who supposedly didn’t “speak out” against the KKK either, if we are to believe the words here.
But of course, that wouldn’t have occurred to the creative minds behind this graphic, who don’t really “see” the black church community as part of the “Christianity” they think they know and so freely besmirch. Instead, the black church is marginalized, set aside as an inconsequential subset, playing harmlessly in a separate sandbox they inhabit to the exclusion of the racists and bigots who comprise real Christianity.
What Reverend Barber reminded us of so powerfully last week was the heft and endurance of religion based in love and forbearance, compassion and sacrifice. He reminded us that everyone has a stake in those sensibilities winning out in the cultural wars that have marked this era, oh hell, that have marked every era down through history, which is nothing so much as a relentless, dynamic dance between conserving and propagating life-affirming traditions of the past and forging fearlessly ahead in an open and liberal embrace of the future.
Love and humility and an overriding concern for the poor and marginalized still matter, Barber says. They are still how we will be judged by those who come after us. That message is fundamental to a rich tradition he is not willing to cede to those who have subverted it for their own selfish and fearful ends, nor to those who unthinkingly dismiss it as a relic of a bygone time.
In his own voice…
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
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