I am honored to be here at the Vatican on the feast of St. Francis to share with you on behalf of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival in my home, the United States of America. As Francis once walked this land proclaiming good news to the poor, the poor and rejected of my country march and sit-in today to declare the good news that a moral economy is possible in our time.
The Holy Father embraced St. Francis’ vocation when he chose his pontifical name, and he has endorsed the work of the Holy Spirit in today’s poor people’s movements in his encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. So I have come to share what we have learned and are learning in our campaign as a way of contributing to this ongoing work of proclaiming God’s good news that the poor and rejected of society are blessed to lead us in the revolution of values that the world so desperately needs.
The Poor People’s Campaign has adopted a moral fusion framework for organizing poor and low-income people. It is guided by a particular theology and sociology, both of which grow out of the faith-rooted freedom struggles of generations. Let me first outline some of our basic theological commitments.
1. The prophet Isaiah declares “Woe unto those who legislate evil and deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches?”
Isaiah 58 teaches that when we attempt to engage in religious activity without losing the bands of policy wickedness and refuse to honor the image of God in all persons, especially the poor, a nation sets up its own destruction and disables its ability to be an enlightened nation that can repair its breaches.
We understand that if retrogressive legislation and a refusal to act can rob the poor, then legislation can also correct the robbery and restore the real purpose and possibility of society. Systemic poverty is not the cumulative result of individual failures. People in power have made choices and written those choices into tax policy, war policy, and government budgets. The extreme disparity between the one-tenth of 1 percent who have more money than they could ever spend and the half of the world that struggles to survive every day is the result of policy choices that the Bible condemns over and over as sin. We must be clear that it is the vocation of religious leaders today to condemn them also and to offer them grace and salvation as a way out of a way of life that will implode around them as well.
2. There is a second theological conviction that informs moral fusion organizing. Religious leaders have too often endorsed predatory activity, and there is a need for prophetic witnesses to stand in the gap. The prophet Ezekiel challenged the political leaders of his day, saying that they ravaged the poor like a wolf ravages its prey. But he did not stop there. He went on to say that the religious leaders whitewashed the evil politicians’ deeds, giving them a veneer of religiosity. Our campaign is very clear that religious nationalism today presents an existential threat to poor people because it offers theological and spiritual cover for a policy agenda that treats corporations like people and people like things. To build a moral movement for a moral economy, a diverse and prophetic witness of religious leaders must stand in the gap and challenge the policy violence that religious nationalists endorse.
3. A third theological conviction at the heart of our work comes directly from Jesus, who began his public ministry in Nazareth by proclaiming good news to the poor — and specifically to those made poor by unjust systems. This is not work that the church, with all of its worldly wealth, can do on behalf of the poor. No, the poor must be at the center of public ministry. Religious leaders are not called to speak for the poor, but to stand alongside the people’s movements that are already lifting God’s call for love and justice in the earth.
4. Fourthly, we have learned that the narrative in the 5th chapter of Amos offers a principle that must be put into action: in order for justice to roll down like waters, there must be a remnant of people who are willing to nonviolently interrupt unjust systems. In that text, God promises divine assistance for the poor who cry out for justice. It says, “Go into the streets. Cry out in the marketplaces.” Nonviolent direct action to expose the violence of systemic poverty is necessary for any movement to end poverty.
Jürgen Moltmann has written that “faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it.”
5. And we must be clear: it is also a theological conviction that God wants to end poverty. This is the witness of Pentecost. When the Spirit fell on the people and they were empowered to live the way that Jesus had shown them, the Bible says that “no one among them had need.” The Holy Spirit ended poverty among the early Christians because that is God’s desire. And not just for the church …
6. Our final theological conviction is that nations will be judged by how the least of these are treated. This is what we read in Matthew 25, but too often the Last Judgment is read through an individualistic lens. This is not the story of Dives and Lazarus. Matthew 25 does not say that the rich man will be judged by how he treated the poor man at his door (though this is also true). Matthew 25 says that at the Last Judgment every nation will be judged by how we chose to either welcome Jesus or reject him in the poor, the hungry, the sick and the imprisoned.
These theological convictions remind us again and again why a poor people’s campaign anywhere must be a moral movement. It must be a national call for moral revival. But we are also guided by several sociological insights, which inform our efforts to build fusion coalitions among the poor and across the lines of race, class, borders and sexuality that so often divide the poor and pit them against one another.
1. First of all, my co-chair, Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis — a Presbyterian, Armenian and New Testament scholar — and I agree with the holy martyr, former Archbishop Oscar Romero, that the church, entrusted with the earth’s glory, believes that the Creator’s image is in each person and that everyone who tramples it offends God. Rev. Theoharis often quotes Archbishop Romero when he said: “Some want to keep a gospel so disembodied that it doesn’t get involved at all in the world it must save.”
And we agree with the UN Declaration of Human Rights that many things that some nations have treated as privileges are in fact human rights. If, as a society, we fail to meet these basic needs for some people, we are creating a disparity that will lead to violence. It is an act of violence to let a child go hungry. It is an act of violence to deny quality healthcare or education to poor people. And when we allow policies that perpetuate this violence, we are sowing the seeds of war, mass migration and climate catastrophe.
2. Secondly, we agree with the Holy Father in Fratelli Tutti that so-called market values that put profit above the lives of people are deadly and threaten the natural world itself. Our experience leads us to question the economics of limitless growth and the faith in an “Invisible Hand” that will work out the disparities that inevitably arise from it. In simplest terms, we know that the way things are is not the way things have to be. We can choose to organize ourselves and our resources differently. This sociological insight suggests that movements for social change have an important role to play not only in changing policy, but also in changing the narrative about what is possible within society.
3. Thirdly, we know from our study of history that wedge issues will always be used to try to split coalitions of poor people who want to bring about justice in society. In the US context, which has shaped the global economy since the 20th century, the lie of race was used to justify the exploitation of some people for other’s economic gain. But the lie that made poor Black people slaves did not benefit most poor white people. It simply told them that they may not have much, but they were at least better than a Black person. Fusion coalitions of Black, White and Brown together must expose these lies that are used to divide poor people and demonstrate how policies that lift from the bottom of any society benefit most people.
4. From the US perspective, our Declaration of Independence offers a precedent for people who have suffered a “long train of abuses” to rise up and reorganize a government that will serve the people.
Based on these convictions, we organized in 2018 to relaunch the Poor People’s Campaign that Dr. King and many others had launched 50 years earlier in 1968. And in almost every US state for the past three years, we have been organizing people from moral analysis, moral articulation, and moral action that commits to use every form of nonviolence to challenge extreme inequality and insist that we can reconstruct a broken economy. We believe there are interlocking injustices which must be addressed simultaneously: systemic poverty; racism; ecological devastation, denial of health care and housing; a war economy; and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.
In our work, we have developed these 14 steps forward together that we hope may have some level of transference around the world.
14 Steps Forward Together to a Third Reconstruction
1. Engage in indigenously-led grassroots organizing across the state.
2. Use moral language to frame and critique public policy, regardless of who is in power.
3. Demonstrate a commitment to civil disobedience that follows the steps of nonviolent action and is designed to change the public conversation and consciousness.
4. Build a stage from which to lift the voices of everyday poor and low-wealth people impacted by immoral policies.
5. Recognize the centrality of race and racism worldwide. We must challenge the continuing harm in thinking and policy whose roots trace to sinful notions of manifest destiny, the Doctrine of Discovery, and race-based chattel slavery.
6. Build a broad, diverse coalition including moral and religious leaders of all faiths.
7. Intentionally diversify the movement with the goal of winning unlikely allies.
8. Build transformative, long-term coalition relationships rooted in a clear agenda that doesn’t measure success only by electoral outcomes.
9. Make a serious commitment to academic and empirical analysis of policy. Have a core of scholar activists who constantly footnote and make the case for the demands and critique of the movement. We must actually write the policies that will need to change — not just say that they need to be written. Our campaign has presented a Moral Budget to the US Congress and pushed a House resolution for a Third Reconstruction to end poverty and low-wealth from the bottom up.
10. To shift the narrative and to build concern and power, coordinate use of all forms of social media: video, text, Twitter, Facebook, and so forth.
11. Engage in voter registration and education.
12. Pursue a strong legal strategy. Whenever there are legal forums to challenge systems of oppression and death-dealing, poverty-making policies, use those forums.
13. Engage the music, hymns, poetry and cultural arts in service of the movement. We must have movement theomusicology that uses all forms of music and lyrics to deliver the message.
14. Resist the “one moment” mentality; we are building a movement!
The church must have a prophetic moral outcry and must help foster another way of seeing the world. A movement with poor and low-wealth people, moral religious servant leaders, and academic social advocates must push a penetrating moral imagination. One of the first works of a prophetic movement is to cause a change in moral imagination. We have learned from our reading of sacred texts, our study of history and our engagement in struggles for justice that moral leaders have a unique ability to proclaim truth in the face of deceit. We must break the spell that oppression seeks to have over humanity and its belief about what is possible.
In words that are often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, our movement has learned to pray:
May God bless you with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,
So that we may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
So that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.”
May God bless you with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger and war,
So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain to joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness
To believe that you can make a difference in this world,
So that you can do what others claim cannot be done.
From this place we handle the truth that poverty doesn’t have to exist. It’s our creation, not God’s. The truth is, we shouldn’t be asking, “How much does it cost?” to address poverty, but how much is it costing us NOT to?
The truth is: moral policies are also good economic policy.
We need a worldwide Poor People’s Campaign and a global call to moral revival. On June 18, 2022, we are planning a Mass Poor People’s and Low Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington that we hope others will join in their countries around the world. We don’t know of any major transformation that didn’t result from a moral movement, from abolition in the US to labor movements in the US and Europe, to the movement to end apartheid in South African and people’s movements for democracy in the former Communist bloc. Religious leaders must join with the poor and engage in the public square; not simply in the confines of sanctuary. And so I pray with you the words of the hymn writer:
Cure thy children’s warring madness;
bend our pride to thy control;
shame our wanton, selfish gladness,
rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
lest we miss thy kingdom’s goal,
lest we miss thy kingdom’s goal.
Save us from weak resignation
to the evils we deplore.
Let the search for thy salvation
be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the facing of this hour.
This article first appeared breachrepairers.org.