Justice is what love looks like in public.
The following issues are political: hunger, thirst, righteousness, prison, care for the sick, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless. These issues rest at the center of Jesus’ public ministry and it is not possible do discuss them without addressing questions of policy and economy. Yet mainline protestant Christianity hesitates to sound “too political.”
Against this backdrop, the Rev. Dr. William Barber III’s recent sermon at Washington National Cathedral felt refreshing and bold. He made it plain that “accepting death is no longer an option,” and drew upon the best of the prophetic preaching tradition. His sermon can be understood as historic, because he showed that engaged faith provides moral clarity for public policy. This essay suggests that such prophetic work is critical to the Church and to the world.
In a word, we have something to say, and we should say it. The Rev. Dr. Barber showed us how.
It is difficult to argue that our political economy yields equal justice for all of God’s children. Rather the interlocking challenges of climate change and local pollution, poverty, racial disparity, broken health care systems, voter suppression, widening wealth gaps, and a shredded social safety net lead to mass suffering.
Jesus of Nazareth, the one we meet in the Gospels, cares about this. He did not get crucified for being nice. He was not promoted for his religious critique, he received no diploma for the Beatitudes. He proclaimed God’s kingdom and he got involved in the local particulars of food and neighbors. Yet many mainline protestant churches hesitate to touch the issues of the day. We don’t want to be like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell Jr., and so many others, who use the church, and frankly, their pulpits to sound off for one party or another. Much of the country thinks that’s what it means to be Christian: Defined by judgment, hypocrisy, and hyper-partisanship.
If there is a counterargument against prophetic witness, it may be that the country is polarized, and people have already had enough of the talking heads. They don’t want MSNBC or FOX in the pulpit, dressed up with some Biblical allusions. Maybe they just need to focus on personal piety on Sundays, and then that will inspire them to get back to work on Mondays. This is a real argument that people make. Sadly, it blurs the connection between individual and collective responsibility: if our faith comes without cost, it is not Christianity. I may have been honest and even nice to you after saying my personal prayers, but when I participate in a system that kills and steals and pollutes, that is wrong.
Surely people of faith have a role to play in conducting the public business with honesty and respect. But making the judgment call in this great conversation– when to stand up and when to stand down– is an old struggle for the Church.
Consider Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Dr. King planned civil disobedience to challenge unjust laws there. He and others were arrested after protesters defied a court order against marching. Then on Good Friday, 1963, eight white clergymen published “A Call for Unity,” saying that although they agreed with King’s message, his methods were “unwise and untimely.” All this because the protest disrupted business for the Easter shopping season. King responded with his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “In the midst of blatant injustices…, I have watched…churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial injustice, I have heard many ministers say: ‘Those are social issues, with which the Gospel has no real concern.’ So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo.” The mostly white, mainline protestant Church benefits from the status quo- indeed we are funded by it.
Today, we observe our nation at war with itself. Vile epithets abound; invective, public shaming and disdain now mark our public life. Truth is trashed, bald-faced lies go unanswered by Christian leaders. Officials thought to be noble look at their shoes, acquiescing in the most egregious misconduct, behavior that would shock our forebears of all political stripes.
Hate marched by torchlight in Charlottesville, and many would not call its name. Explicit racism seeps from the halls of power while moral clarity is in short supply. Toddlers are wrenched from their mothers’ arms, children wait in cages, and such meanness has been embraced as necessary, even contrived to teach cruel lessons to those seeking safety in this land.
And, perhaps most ominously, the animus that pervades the public square corrodes the public conversation. Government that is by, of, and for the people requires mutual trust and respect, so we can reconcile differences and arrive at consensus in service of the common good. The furor over bad speech and conduct blinds us to the tragic consequences of a mean-spirited ineptitude: people are dying.
I propose a Christian’s response to what ails us, one that calls us to ageless values, and bridges the prophet’s chasm between what is and what could yet be. It is, as St. Francis said, to preach the Gospel at all times, when necessary, using words. To proclaim Christ’s Gospel of love without fear, offering Gospel prescriptions for just and moral conduct in the community, including its public square. We can focus on habits of the heart- individual and collective, mine and ours.
It is not politics to preach virtue integrity, justice, and kindness; it comes from the Good Book. It is not politics to proclaim the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.” No, this is the Gospel. It is not politics to protect God’s creation. Rather, it is the command of the Scriptures. It is not politics to contest and correct when children are treated as animals, when lies replace truth, or when crowds chant shameful words from our worst history.
In this decisive moment in our democracy, it is time to take a stand, as the prophet Amos did, that “justice [might] roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” It is important that we stand, because sitting on the sidelines is now too dangerous. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
In the end, we will find the drive for this work –the inspiration for the perspiration– through moral clarity. Barber’s sermon, combined with the national organizing he has inspired, sounds the trumpet for a moral revival now, here.