Thus says the Lord: Go down to the house of the king of Judah, and speak there this word, and say: Hear the word of the Lord, O King of Judah sitting on the throne of David—you, and your servants, and your people who enter these gates. Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. For if you will indeed obey this word, then through the gates of this house shall enter kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their servants and their people. But if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the Lord, that this house shall become a desolation. –Jeremiah 22:1-5
Woe to those who make unjust laws,
To those who issue oppressive decrees,
To deprive the poor of their rights
And withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
Making widows their prey
And robbing the fatherless. –Isaiah 10:1-2
There is something that I learned in one of my Bible classes at Juniata College that I will never forget. Dr. Bob Miller was teaching about ancient Israel and life during the time of the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament), and he explained that the biblical understanding of justice is different than how we sometimes define justice today. Today, he said, justice means everyone getting what they deserve. We might think of the criminal justice system, or the system of consequences, or revenge. But for ancient Israel and for their God, justice meant everyone getting what they need. Food, water, shelter, dignity for everyone, including the orphan, the widow, the immigrant, the poor. Justice meant everyone in society was provided for, especially those on the margins.
The first weekend of February, a group of thirty Andover Newton students, staff, faculty, alumni, and trustees traveled to North Carolina to participate in the Historic Thousands on Jones Street, a rally that took place as part of the Moral Movement. Together with 80,000 other restless souls, we marched the streets of downtown Raleigh: praying, singing, joining hands and hearts, and asking the leaders in the North Carolina General Assembly to hear the people and respond.
What is going on in North Carolina that merits an assembly of this magnitude? What issues are at stake? And why do a bunch of seminarians in Boston care?
In November 2013, the Student Association at ANTS invited a pastor and community organizer from North Carolina to speak with the campus about current events in his state and why it is important. His name is Rev. William Barber; he is a Disciples of Christ pastor in Greensboro, the president of the North Carolina NAACP, and a key figure in the Moral Movement that began in 2013. A towering African American preacher with a limp in his step but a boom in his voice, Rev. Barber captured us with his proclamation of the injustices brought on by the NC General Assembly and the swelling wave of citizens who are speaking up and speaking out in response. He lamented the various decisions and actions taken by ultra-conservative, extremist leaders in the GA which have denied Medicaid to 500,000 people, gutted funding for early childhood education and services for disabled children, cut unemployment support for 170,000 struggling North Carolinians, supported vouchers for private schools instead of investing in accessible public education, and passed the worst voter suppression law in the United States since Jim Crow, to name a few. With the fervor of a Southern preacher and the passion of a prophet, Rev. Barber shared with us how, in response to these injustices, ordinary citizens along with community and faith leaders have organized and collaborated over the past year in what is called the Moral Mondays movement, using intentional methods of civil disobedience not unlike what was happening in the South 50 years ago. In 2013, over 900 people were arrested for acts of civil disobedience as part of Moral Mondays, and other states have taken notice.
But on our small hilltop campus outside of Boston, why did this matter to us? In class last semester I learned about the 3 Ps of being a minister: the preacher (leading a faith community in teaching and wrestling with the Word), the priest (facilitator of worship and delivering the sacraments/ordinances of baptism and communion), and finally, the prophet. In the role of the prophet, the minister speaks truth to power in the public sphere. As Rev. Barber spoke, I felt a stirring within me. Perhaps this was an echo of what it might have been like to hear Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. preach in a crowd or at a church. Dr. King powerfully and effectively recalled the commandment of the God of the Bible to cut through the silence of complacency and the status quo, to stand up for the rights and wellbeing of the marginalized and the oppressed, and to call out for the fulfillment of the prophet Amos’s words to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream” (5:24). Rev. William Barber, like Dr. King, and like the countless ministers and faith leaders who came before, is a prophet. As theologians and ministers in training at Andover Newton, this prophetic voice is ours to claim as well. And I wasn’t the only one who felt this stirring and this call. In just a few weeks, plans were already being made for a delegation from the seminary to attend the annual People’s Assembly in Raleigh, called the Historic Thousands on Jones Street. While this march is a yearly event, the events and legislation of 2013 were bound to bring an even larger outpouring of people to the streets of Raleigh in 2014.
So on February 8, we gathered, marched, sang, and prayed to represent those who couldn’t represent themselves: children and families affected by cuts to education; students, ethnic minorities, and the elderly who found it even harder to make their votes count and voices heard; immigrants and aliens seeking asylum or just a better life; women who were denied jurisdiction over their own bodies; lovers whose relationships were taboo or illegal; and the unemployed with some bad luck who were being kicked while they were down. Our faith as Christians and as Unitarian Universalists called us to action, and while most of us from ANTS were not residents of North Carolina, we held firm to Dr. King’s proclamation that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
We were welcomed and hosted by the beautiful faith community of the United Church of Chapel Hill. This UCC congregation is vibrant and living out their Christian faith in many ways, including regular and passionate participation in the Moral Mondays movement and the Historic Thousands on Jones Street. Along with Alison, the Director of Admissions at ANTS, I had the great pleasure of staying with a couple named Tye and Wanda, who shared stories about their participation in Moral Mondays. Tye and Wanda were some of the first people to be arrested for acts of civil disobedience in Raleigh in April 2013. Joining Rev. Barber and other leaders, they gathered at the State House, a public space where the General Assembly meets, to sing and pray and voice their frustration with their legislators. Within a few hours, the peaceful protesters were handcuffed and loaded into busses to be sent to the prison. Tye and Wanda told us about having their mug shots taken and about the harsh treatment they received until they were released from prison in the wee hours of the morning. As I mentioned above, over 900 people have been arrested as part of Moral Mondays, and some of these folks are taken to court without ever being told what evidence the prosecutors have against them. As I listened to Tye and Wanda describe what it was like to participate in such acts of civil disobedience, I again felt a stirring of what it must have been like in the South 50 years ago, on the Montgomery buses or in the streets of Selma or at the lunch counters in Greensboro. It is one thing to learn about civil disobedience in a textbook or in a newspaper article; it is another altogether to hear the real stories of those who are living it now, today.
I don’t write this to congratulate my fellow students and myself, or to pat us on the back for traveling 700 miles to march for a few hours. I write to share how my theological education should and does impact the way I see the world, the way God moves and works in people, and the role of the minister and the faith leader in society. My experiences in Raleigh and with the faith and moral movements in North Carolina continue to teach me what Cornel West suggested: justice is what love looks like in public. This lesson took place outside of the classroom, but what a powerful example of faith in action. North Carolinians are inspiring me, and perhaps they will inspire you as well.