The Rev. William Barber II has become an avatar for ministry rooted in social justice during an era where activism has largely become unmoored from organized religion. His thundering delivery gives his sermons—which refuse to spare capitalism, white supremacy, attempts to whitewash American history or either political party—the effect of earth shifting beneath the country’s institutions.
The Root spoke with Barber on the eve of his “National Sermon”, which he delivered on Sunday in Atlanta, about the threat of political violence and what it means to be a public theologian just ahead of an important election.
[Editor’s note: The interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
The Root: You’re delivering your National Sermon in the middle of a fraught election season, as evidenced by the home invasion and assault on Nancy Pelosi’s husband. Do you, as a minister, have a reaction to that?
Rev. Barber: I’m deeply concerned about violence in this society, period. Whether it is all the gun violence, whether it is people trying to overthrow the government. I’m also deeply concerned about the violence in public policy that we don’t talk about. Every day 700 people die from poverty, a quarter million people a year, thousands die from lack of healthcare, all deaths and violence that we wouldn’t have to suffer.
TR: How are you able to sermonize about violence in public policy without being overtly political or favoring one party over another? I think many in your audience would say that there’s one party committing violence through public policy by being committed to disenfranchising the poor, disenfranchising LGBTQ communities and disenfranchising nonwhite people.
RB: You hear people saying, “We represent the conservative Christian position or we represent the liberal. There’s no such thing. You’re either Christian or you’re not. You either follow the example of Jesus or you’re not. The agenda from Jesus starts with good news for the poor, and when Jesus uses the word poor, it means those who’ve been made poor by the systems of injustice.
In that way, you’re not preaching about any party. You’re preaching about a fundamental theological position. And then secondly, you not only challenge the extremism of one party, you challenge the moderation of another.
TR: Can you elaborate on that?
RB: You don’t just start preaching, you have to lay out the facts. In the current moment, you have 140 million poor and low wealth people in this country; you have 87 million people uninsured or underinsured; you have 4 million people get up every morning, can’t buy any gas, can’t buy any water; you have 55 million people making less than a living wage, $15 an hour. We haven’t raised the minimum wage in 13 years. You have 700 people dying a day from poverty, a quarter-million a year.
So then you ask the question looking at scripture, what would Jesus do? What would God say about this? And there are about 2000 scriptures in the Bible that speak to justice, love, caring for the least of these. This is the politics of God.
TR: Is there a specific verse of scripture that comes to mind when you think about this midterm election?
RB: Well, as a theologian, I can’t do that because that would be exegeting the text. You have to do systematic theology, that is, look at what the line of scripture is throughout the Bible. What I can say is, from Genesis to Revelation, there is a clear thread that says in the public square, those who are elected, those who hold power and those who lead in the church are commanded by God and held accountable if they don’t care for the least of these.
Back up any public policy that murders and destroys people’s lives. Welcome people in regardless of their race, their creed, their color. There’s a clear line. It’s repeated more than 2,000 times in scripture.
TR: That sounds antithetical to much of what we hear in public theology today, especially in what would be called the Christian conservative movement.
RB: Well, again, because many of them are neither Christian nor conservative. First of all, they can’t be Christian unless they’re talking about what Jesus said. Most times, you don’t hear them say, “This is what Jesus said.” You hear them just take the word Christian, but you don’t hear them quoting scripture because they can’t.
Second of all, it’s not conservative, because conservative means “to hold onto the essence of.” Well, the essence of faith is love and justice and mercy. And many of these people, they attack mercy. Who attacks mercy, who attacks grace?
We can’t just have people putting their hands on the Bible and the Quran and the Torah and swearing people into office. If you’re gonna put your hand on it, you’d better know what’s in it. We need to lift up humanity and lift up justice.