FORWARD TOGETHER: A Moral Message for the Nation. By William J. Barber II with Barbara Zelter. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2014. X + 182 pages.
When people hear the word morality they tend to think in terms of sex – especially gay marriage and abortion. These are the moral issues of our day, replacing premarital sex, adultery, and divorce. Could it be that there is a different kind of moral message that runs much deeper than what usually passes for morality? Could it be that the moral message the nation needs to hear has to do with voting rights, living wages, and immigration reform. Indeed, is it possible that this moral message would call for support of gay rights rather than keeping LGBT folks in the closet?
At the time that the Travon Martin decision was handed down both the NAACP and the Disciples of Christ General Assembly were meeting in the same convention center in Orlando. At an evening service at the General Assembly a day or so later, representatives of the NAACP spoke to us. Among those who spoke was the president of the North Carolina branch of the NAACP who also happened to be a Disciple pastor. We were stirred to action by the words of this preacher, whom I had not heard of before that night, but whom I have since discovered to be a man of deep passion for justice that is rooted in the Christian faith. The Rev. Dr. William Barber II has become a leading voice in the development of local movements for justice across the land. These movements take their lead from the Moral Monday movement that Rev. Barber launched in North Carolina.
In this new book, Forward Together, Barber provides us with word of wisdom and guidance that can help us to pursue justice for all in our own communities. As we have seen recently in Ferguson and in New York justice remains out of reach for many. There are forces in our communities and our nation that seek to divide, so they may control our economic and social lives. They do this by limiting voting rights and limiting access to medical care and education. They impose sexual mores on the entire populace, while often failing to live up to these standards themselves. The best way to control the populace is to keep them from organizing, especially if they organize across ethnic/racial, socio-economic, and sexual/gender lines. By preaching a “gospel” of “individualism” they keep us from realizing that we are all in this together.
This book is composed of speeches given by William Barber at Moral Monday rallies and other rallies in North Carolina and beyond. Often these messages were given prior to marching into the state capitol, where some of the participants were prepared to be arrested. While paper cannot do true justice to preaching, we can get a sense of the passion and the power of what was said on those occasions when the people gathered to make their voice heard. Starting small, the movement grew into the thousands of participants. One of the key points made in the book is the importance of creating a broad alliance. Thus, included in the book is the address given to the Equality North Carolina Gala in 2012, at the time that North Carolina was in the process of passing a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. In this message he speaks of attempts by the “ultra-right” to drive a wedge between the LGBT community and the African American Community. Such a divide does not necessarily exist, and need not exist. Though deeply rooted in both the biblical story and the Black community, Barber took the lead in helping the NAACP come out in support of gay rights. This alliance is important because the partnership is a key to the creation of what Barber calls “fusion politics” that goes beyond religious and party lines.
At the heart of Barber’s message is his description of the three Reconstructions. Many reading this may know of the period of Reconstruction, when after the Civil War, an effort was undertaken to empower the now freed slaves to enter fully into the life of their communities, including governance. In many states in the south African Americans were elected to political office. This first Reconstruction ended in the late 19th century as whites retook control of power and began to institute Jim Crow and segregation. This state of reality existed in the South until 1954, when the Supreme Court (nine white men) overturned “separate but equal” laws in “Brown v. Board of Education.” Thus began the Second Reconstruction, which continued until 1968 and the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. Over a period of fourteen years, Congress instituted both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, which once again empowered African Americans to enter into the mainstream.
1968 marks the beginning of another period of separation and disempowerment. Discrimination would continue unabated, only it was more covert than ever before. It was no longer fashionable to be a racist, but racism existed below the surface of the American populace – as seen in Richard Nixon’s embrace of the Southern Strategy that shifted the once solid Democratic South into a largely Republican domain. Barber believes that we are entering a new era that he calls the Third Reconstruction.
The Third Reconstruction is embodied in the Moral Mondays Movement, which signals the beginning of a new fusion politics in the south. This new movement brings together African Americans and poor whites, labor and women’s rights, along with the push for LGBT rights (including gay marriage). He recognizes that especially on gay marriage not everyone in the coalition will be of one mind, but all will understand that if the rights of one community are abridged, then it’s possible that the rights of another may as well.
These speeches offer a powerful call to action. They remind us that we are all in this together, and that the only answer to the power of money is the power of people organizing for justice. Barbara Zelter has brought together a collection of responses that address a cross section of issues. They are part political speech and part revival sermon. They were presented on Moral Mondays and at the Historic Thousands on Jones Street Rally 8, the Equality NC meeting, and the NAACP National Board. There is also a speech given at a union convention that makes clear that civil rights and labor rights are connected. The final chapter of the book is a reprinting of an article published in Sojourners that summarizes the movement.
As the book comes to a close, Barber offers a summation of his vision:
Perhaps the only way to conclude this piece is to say we have learned that there is a deep hunger for the recovery of our moral compass, for language in the political debate that is not bound by the restraints of mere left and right, Democrat and Republican; that many people still desire to see the light of justice; and that the prophetic clarion call can also sometimes awaken those who thought they were your enemies to b your friends in the struggle. (p. 164)A central theme in these speeches is that the call to justice crosses party lines. While his political orientation puts him in the Democratic camp and his opponents primarily come from Tea Party backed politicians including the recently elected Senator from North Carolina, he believes that these issues are not partisan but human.
In a deeply divided/polarized nation coming together to pursue the common good is difficult – even nonsensical. We often desire stability and the establishment of the status quo. We resist efforts to draw us into what appear to be political alliances. We prefer a more traditional definition of morality, especially if it doesn’t touch our own lives or make us uncomfortable. One of the most important messages that comes through this book and through Barber’s presentations around the country is that the key to achieving justice is organizing locally and persevering. Victories may come slowly. Participants may feel like success is impossible. But the goal is not quick and easy victories, but lasting alliances that are broad and inclusive. For only then will success be achieved. As we consider our situation in life, Barber wants us to remember that we are experiencing a moral crisis. He writes that "deep within our being is a longing for a moral compass." The issues that stand before us are not merely matters of policy, but rather have to do with "centerpieces of our deepest traditions of our faiths, of our values, of our sense of morality and righteousness" (p. 159). We cannot call Jesus Lord and turn aside from helping those on the margins -- and helping those on the margins requires more than simply acts of charity.
Reading this book will push and challenge us. It is a theological rationale for action, good old fashioned preaching, and social justice visioning wrapped up in one book. Because these are speeches they are designed to communicate with passion and directness. There is no beating around the bush. Readers will be both challenged and inspired. Especially at this time and place in history, this is a book that needs close reading and discussion.