The challenges they were inheriting from Donald Trump, he said, called for bold and progressive solutions. They needed to act with speed. Most of all, they should give up on securing change by pursuing “simplistic calls for unity”.
“We are in a jam today. Trouble is real, and whether we like it or not, we are in this mess together as a nation,” said Rev. Barber, who also quoted from the Book of Issiah. “If we want to come out of this jam and move forward together, we cannot accept the racial disparities, violence, and breaches that impact Black, brown, native and Asian Americans while offering collateral damage to our poor white brothers and sisters and ultimately our entire democracy.”
If his words sounded as much a political rallying cry as a homily, that is because they were; since establishing in 2017 the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival, Rev. Barber has combined scripture with unambiguously liberal politics.
Yet, what may have been startling, after having for four years watched President Trump seek to marshal the levers of religion to benefit those on the right, was to hear such progressive language delivered from the pulpit as part of the presidential inauguration service broadcast from the Washington National Cathedral.
“Liberation theology, theology that says the primary work of faith is to challenge lies with truth, challenge hate with love, challenge injustice with justice, is actually orthodox Christianity,” Rev. Barber, 57, tells The Independent.
“What we have seen is an aberration. We have a lot of theological malpractice, that borders on heresy.”
He adds: “When people try to suggest being Christian is a private state, that has nothing to do with public realities, or when people try to use Christianity to justify greed, to justify racism, to justify hate, or to justify xenophobia, that’s not Christianity, that’s heresy.”
Rev. Barber’s comments come as Mr Biden seeks to deliver on a campaign promise to work with both parties. He says he needs cooperation from Republicans and Democrats alike, not only on a Covid-relief package, but for other parts of his agenda. This week, 10 Republican senators met Mr Biden in the Oval Office where they sought to reduce his proposal of $1.9 trillion to around $618 billion.
Rev. Barber says Mr Biden must remember unity is not the same as unanimous. In short, he says, they already have the numbers to get busy.
“There’s a difference between unity and unanimous. If the idea of unity means everybody together, everybody going in the same direction, that is certainly one of our hopes,” he says.
Yet he says at key moments in the nation’s history when people sought to press forward, such as Franklin D Roosevelt’s fight to pass the ‘New Deal’, or during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, there was a staunch push-back from those opposed to change.
“What we mean by unity is enough of us. Enough people who will go forward in this moment,” he says. “Fifty-five per cent of poor and low wealth people in this last election voted wanting to go forward, they voted for Biden-Harris, they voted for living wages, they voted to address systemic racism, they voted to expand healthcare.”
He says politics is a game of 50 plus one, a point similarly made by the likes of senator Bernie Sanders who has said by making use of so-called the so-called “reconciliation process – which is not quite what it sounds like – Democrats can pass budgetary bills without the need to secure the 60 votes needed to overcome any filibuster.
“We need enough of us, and there are enough of us – Black, white, brown, Asian, native, young, old, gay, straight,” says Rev. Barber.
“If it’s enough Democrats, we’ll do it. If it’s Democrats and Republicans, you do it together. But what you don’t do is – you don’t sacrifice living wages, healthcare, expanding voting rights, addressing climate realities. You don’t sacrifice those things for some false sense, or simplistic idea about total unity.”
It still the very earliest of days in the Biden administration. The prayer service a day after inauguration in which Rev. Barber spoke, was barely two weeks ago. How does he judge the president’s performance so far?
“First of all, we have to remember it’s just one week, after four years of intense regression under Trump, and 50 years of regression under the Republicans,” he says.
Rev. Barber, whose organisation has highlighted 14 policies Biden ought to introduce immediately, says he is encouraged by some of the steps he and Harris have taken. In the past, he says, Democrats often pursued “neoliberal” ideas aimed at helping the middle class, while the pandemic has underscored how the nation needs to be lifted “from the bottom up”.
He says the executive orders signed on issues ranging from countering racism, to climate change and boosting the minimum wage for contractors, are a start but are not the same as real legislation, which is more difficult to overturn. Also, he is concerned that the wage increases are not immediate, and may not apply to all federally contracted workers.
“We have a $1.9 trillion bill he has put on the table for Covid relief. Well, we gave $4 trillion dollars to corporations. So while we are happy at about the $1.9 trillion, we are not satisfied with the $1.9 trillion,” he says.
Regarding the orders President Biden has signed to address some challenges of systematic racism, Barber says such moves cannot only focus on prisons and the criminal justice system.
“We have to look at what is means when it comes to housing, when it comes to wages, when it comes to disparities in healthcare, when it comes to the disparities in economic development in poor and low-wealth communities and Black and brown communities,” he says
“What is he going to do about indigenous people? For us, racism is not just a Black-white issue. Systemic racism is never just about prisons and police reform. It’s about looking at the way throughout the system that racial disparities play, and having a racial lens, and making sure in every policy that there is a consideration.”
Rev. Barber, who has been a pastor at the Greenleaf Christian Church, in Goldsboro, North Carolina, since 1993, has authored several books. Among the most influential was The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement. In it, he argues the United States must commit to a third reconstruction.
The first so-called reconstruction followed the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, a 12-year period that allowed many to think the nation was moving towards equality. It ended in 1877 in a deal that saw Republican Rutherford Hayes elected president, on the condition federal troops be removed from three key southern states. Their removal permitted what became known as the Jim Crow system in the South, one of intense violence and discrimination against African Americans, that many likened to slavery.
The second reconstruction is sometimes used to described the civil rights movement headed by Dr Martin Luther King and others, that resulted in – among other achievements – the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Like the later focus of Dr King, who was assassinated in 1968, much of Rev. Barber’s work has sought to bring together poor white communities and people of colour.
Last year, he backed Kevin Booker as the Democratic candidate in the senate primary in Kentucky. His campaign similarly sought to connect poor rural communities with those in the inner cities, and came within a few thousand votes of defeating the vastly better funded campaign of Amy McGrath.
Why have elites always been afraid of such an alliance?
“If Black people, white people, brown people and native people come together, they are an unstoppable force. Poor people represent one third almost of the entire electorate now, over 64 million votes,” says Rev. Barber.
“The south of this country – which is the home grown place of racism and the ancestors of slavery and Jim Crow – one-third of all poor people live in the south, and one third of all white people live in the south,” he says.
“And the majority of African Americans live in the south. So building relationships is the key to transforming the South. If you change the South you change the country. There are 170 electoral college votes in the south.”
He says the political establishment, or “Bourbon class”, has always been aware of the threat of such an alliance and sought to undermine it.
“Every time there’s the possibility of the masses of Black people and white people to come together and change society and make it a loving community, that aristocracy has sown division,” he says.
“You have to see the intersection between race and greed and racism, and the need to hold power. And those who want the power, and the money, they cannot have the political power to do it unless they divide the masses of Black and white people, which is why our campaign is so intent on organising and building those, because we have now gotten behind the veil.”
What does Rev. Barber make of the events of Jan 6 2021, when hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol?
He says we cannot “live in an innocence” that this was the first time America had witnessed political violence. It may have been the second time in history the legislature was ransacked, but people of colour and the poor have suffered violence all their lives, whether it was lynching, or the “violence of poverty”.
“What happened on the 6th,” he says. “Was the whole world got to see what happened. On the 6th, the legislators and the people in the Congress, they felt what marginalised and poor people and others have felt in this country down through its history.”
In his inaugural prayer, Rev. Barber quoted from Isaiah 58, a passage from the Old Testament of the Bible, that talks of “repairing the breach”. He has taken the phrase for a non-profit group he heads and that seeks to “build a moral agenda rooted in a framework that uplifts our deepest moral and constitutional values to redeem the heart and soul of our country”.
The passage he says is sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims.
“There are over 2000 scriptures in the Bible, more than any other subject in the Bible, has to do with how we treat the poor, and those on the margins. The greatest sin in the Bible is idolatry – self-worship. The second greatest is when that self-worship leads to the kind of political injustices that create poverty and hurt,” he says.
Isaiah he says, is speaking out against a nation that “would attempt to use religiosity … While they leave the structures of injustice in place.
“Issiah is saying we can reveal, we can renew, we can revive, if – and the if is – if we loose the bands of wickedness, which translated out of Hebrew literally means if we pay people what they deserve, if we stop unjust practices, if we lift the poor and if we stopped blaming people for their poverty and we actually started looking at that systems that created it.”
He adds: “That is why Issiah 58 is such an important text.”