If there’s anything positive emerging from the Trumpocalypse, it’s the increased visibility of the Reverend Doctor William J. Barber II. The man is a preacher and a thinker—in my experience, the two don’t always go together. He’s also an excellent writer.
Now, the Reverend Doctor Barber may have been plenty visible to other people, but he first hit my radar at the Democratic National Convention last summer. After that, I started following him, um, religiously. And yesterday he published a delicious indictment of his fellow clergypeople. You know, the pious souls who laid hands on Trump this week and prayed for him in the Oval Office.
The photo the White House released only shows the central figure from the back, but I would have loved to see the expression on his face. Was he bored? Preening? After all, it was a whole lot of attention and we know he loves attention. I’m sure the one thing he wasn’t was the one thing he should have been—humbled.
But let’s leave him aside, the man with the yellow weave, and turn our attention to the marvelous Rev. Dr. Barber.
He begins his “open letter to clergy who prayed with Donald Trump” by noting that he was arrested last week, along with other clergy and “people with health issues.” What was their crime?
“…reading the Word of God and attempting to let the Spirit speak its ancient truth through me into the present.”
Specifically, doing all of that scripture-reading outside Mitch McConnell’s Senate office. Praying on government property—essentially the same thing the clergy were doing inside the White House. One group got photographed; the other got carted away in handcuffs. Hmm. What, do you suppose, were the differences?
Reverend Doctor Barber does not mince words
Still, he tries to make common cause with the clergy who crowded into the Oval Office:
While we may differ on Biblical interpretation, we do share a common effort to understand God’s Word and discern God’s will. I have noted your doubtless sincere public statements in recent months that such gospel proclamation is needed in America.
Finding common ground is the first step to resolving differences. The Rev. Dr. Barber continues:
The nation needs our prayers, and no doubt the president does, too. But the Scripture cautions us to lay hands on no man suddenly, lest we become a party to his sins. (1 Timothy 5:22) We cannot simply p-r-a-y pray over people while they p-r-e-y on the poor and vulnerable among us.
I hope you love that last sentence as much as I do. Not every speaker or writer can get away with that sort of wordplay, but if you can—go for it. Back to the Rev. Dr. Barber:
The teachings of Jesus are clear about caring for the poor and the sick, and we are called to share His message; we cannot simply serve as chaplains to imperial power. If we pray for a person engaging in injustice we must offer prayers that lead to conviction, not prayers that further embolden them in their wrongdoing. And since faith comes by hearing, we must speak prophetically and truthfully to them about using political power to inflict public pain.
No minced words there.
An image everyone can grasp
…I am troubled by your silence and lack of guidance as the president and his political allies in Congress attempt to deconstruct America’s health care system. If Jesus did anything, he offered health care wherever he went — and he never charged a leper a co-pay.
Jesus “never charged a leper a co-pay.” That may be my favorite line in the whole letter. It’s so immediately accessible. It’s an image everyone can understand, a concept you can grasp instantly. This is persuasive writing at its finest.
He returns to the scripture, calls out the clergy who prayed over Trump as hypocrites:
For decades you have insisted that the Christian political agenda is a “pro-life” agenda. You have taught millions that the image of God is stamped on each of us — no matter the color of our skin or the money in our bank account — and that each and every child of God was knit together in our mother’s wombs, fearfully and wonderfully made. And yet, in this moment of crisis, when our poorest and most vulnerable neighbors are at risk, you say so little. You have been so loud in the past. What spirit has silenced you in this moment of truth for the ethic of life?
And he quotes Frederick Douglass. Remember him? As Trump said this February, “…he’s an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.” I wonder if that’s why the Rev. Dr. Barber quoted Douglass?
I remembered what Frederick Douglass said about our faith after our denominations splintered over the moral question of slavery and the nation stood on the brink of Civil War:
“Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.”
The Reverend Doctor Barber — “redemption is possible”
And he is not letting anyone off the hook:
I also write to you in faith and in love because I know that redemption is possible — we all raise our voices and sing the words penned by a reformed slave trader, “I once was lost but now am found / Was blind but now I see.” I have watched the sons and daughters of slaveholders work alongside the daughters and sons of enslaved people to build a new and vibrant moral movement. I have prayed with people who decided to follow Jesus when they heard you preach years ago but are now following Jesus to jail because they know this is what faithfulness requires. I write because you have celebrated your unprecedented influence in this administration and the time has come to use it.
He signs off “in prayer and hope.” Hope is in short supply this year. But if anyone can conjure it in the face of the Trumpocalypse, I believe that person will be the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. Hope, and some direct arguments made from a deep well of unshakable values.
I hope I get a chance to hear him speak live some day.
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