2016 proved that we as a nation have a heart problem. When America is weighed in the balance of God’s desire for love and justice, we are found wanting. We have seen again a theme which recurs too often in the American story—that we go forward only to step backwards, that every stride toward freedom is met by a backlash of hate and fear.
Here in the 21st century, racism and economic fear still too often conjure a powerful magic which compels this nation to seek safety in hating the other and security in the false nativism that has failed us before and will fail us again.
Long before any Russian hack, the American electoral process was compromised by racism and fear. The Southern Strategy’s divide and conquer tactics touch something deep in our social DNA—a fundamental fear which is ever seeking to come forth and masquerade as normal.
One of the most under-reported stories of 2016 was that America experienced its first federal election in half a century without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. We had 25 debates during the presidential primaries and general election and not a single question about the attack on voting rights. Fourteen states had new voting restrictions in place for the first time in 2016—including crucial swing states like Wisconsin and Virginia.
On Election Day, there were 868 fewer polling places in states with a long history of voting discrimination, like Arizona, Texas, and North Carolina. These changes impacted hundreds of thousands of voters, yet received almost no coverage. In North Carolina, as Joan Walsh reported, black turnout decreased 16 percent during the first week of early voting because “in 40 heavily black counties, there were 158 fewer early polling places.”
We cannot understand 2016 without turning back the pages of campaign history to Barry Goldwater in ’64, and George Wallace and Richard Nixon in ’68. We must be clear as we start a new year: there is nothing unprecedented about Donald Trump. His appeal to the lesser angels of our nature is as American as Apple Pie.
We must be equally clear that this is not just about a president. An entire web of money and influence has been working to tie up American democracy. Even as the divide between the rich and the poor is at its widest in our nation’s history, our electorate is growing more diverse every year. Wealthy oligarchs know they cannot hold onto power in truly democratic elections; so we are witnessing an all-out assault—foreign and domestic—on the very heart of our democracy.
And this is not simply about the preservation of a government conceived by human beings. It is, fundamentally, about the well being of creation and the survival of those creatures who bear God’s very image. We live in a moment when millions desperately need a government and society with a heart. Millions of Americans need health care, living wages, and protection from xenophobia, systemic racism, homophobia, religious bigotry, and climate destruction. This is about whether a government of the people and by the people will in fact serve the people. It’s about whether we, as a people, can reconstruct the heart of our democracy.
We have been clear throughout our Moral Revival, which visited 22 states in 2016, that all of our faith and constitutional traditions point us toward the same fundamental moral values. We delivered our Higher Ground Moral Declaration to both the Repbulican and Democratic National Conventions, and we held Moral Day of Action rallies at 32 state houses in September 12th to deliver it to sitting governors and candidates for statewide office.
So we wrote to Mr. Trump saying, “We do not believe that these are left or right issues. They are right or wrong issues. And while we know no human being is perfect, we wish to speak with you about these moral issues because far too much is at stake for you to succumb to your worst demons while in public office.”
Some things we stand for no matter who is in office.
We must build a movement that declares, “Standing down is not an option.”
We must bring poor people together—black, white, and Latino; Christian, Muslim, Jewish; people of faith and people who trust in a moral universe; gay and straight; civil rights and labor.
A moral, fusion movement is the only thing that has ever moved this nation forward. And we declare in the face of mean-spirited regressive forces that will bow to nothing but Mammon, “We will not stand down! We’re going forward together, not one step back!”
This is our resolution for 2017. We cannot stand down.
Like William Loyd Garrison, who was asked to moderate his abolitionist stance, we declare: “I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. . . . I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.”
From the abolitionists to those who fought lynching to those who pushed back against Jim Crow, fascism, and apartheid in the 20th century, we stand in a long line of witnesses who declared, “We cannot stand down. For us, it is a matter of faith. As the New Testament letter to the Hebrews says, “we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.”
As we begin 2017, we must remember those three Hebrew children who faced a fellow who liked to build towers. They tell me no one had ever seen a tower like Nebuchadnezzar’s tower. He loved to cover things in gold and make them shine. And he loved for people to bow down and worship his towers.
Nebucanezzar told those Hebrew children that if they didn’t bow down, he’d throw them in the fire.
But he didn’t know that those boys had a fire deep down inside them. He didn’t know that one of them had been part of Moral Mondays, and one of them was in the Black Lives Matter movement, and the other one had been part of the Fight for 15. They’d refused to eat the king’s meat and drink the king’s wine at Mar-a-Lago—I mean, in Babylon. Rather than get drunk with the wine of the world and forget those who came before them, they told the stories and Egypt and sang the songs of Zion to steel their spirits. The King and his men didn’t know it, but Shadrack, Meeshack and Abednego were part of a Moral Movement.
They didn’t bow down, and because they didn’t, they changed the king. They changed the climate. Those Hebrew children brought about a moral revolution of values because they would not stand down.
In the face of the extremism we see around us, I still believe in the power of a moral movement. I’ve read about it in my Bible and I’ve seen it in American history. But my faith in the power of a movement is not hypothetical. Because I’ve also experienced it down in North Carolina.
When we started fighting back with Moral Mondays, they said it didn’t matter because the extremists had all the power. They’d taken control of all three branches of government, and they weren’t backing down an inch. But we stood together and declared, “Standing down is not an option!” And we went into the fire together. We marched together and prayed together. We went to jail together and we registered voters together. We petitioned our legislators and sued them in court together.
And we won. Just a few weeks ago, when Governor Pat McCrory finally conceded the election, the extremists in North Carolina had to cede control of the executive and judicial branches. I know the news has been about the undemocratic power grab the legislature waged in response. But that’s not the whole story. Because a federal court already ruled their authority illegitimate because of racial gerrymandering. We’ve got a special election coming in 2017. What we’re witnessing is the last gasps of a dying order.
In South Africa, during the struggle against apartheid, they used to say, “Only a dying mule kicks the hardest.”
So this is what we can’t miss in the biblical story: Nebuchaddnezer would have never fought so hard to get those boys to bow down if he hadn’t already witnessed their strength to stand up.
Indeed, we may be headed into some fiery times, but we must be clear: bowing down is not an option. Turing back is not an option. If we stand our ground, we can be sure: help is on the way. And it will be sweet rest indeed when every knee bows to the God of love and justice.
ICYMI: Moral leaders from across America gathered at the historic Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, DC for a National Watch Night Service on Dec. 31st, as over 50,000 people across the nation joined watch parties via livestream. You can view Rev. Barber’s New Year’s message below.
Rev. Barber also summarized this message for NPR’s All Things Considered yesterday.