April 1, 2017 ~ Moral Revival

By Art McDonald

A week or so ago Melanie and I trekked down on the subway to my old neighborhood, Forest Hills, in Jamaica Plain, to an interfaith clergy meeting (Melanie got in because she’s a bishop, as you know) at my old Catholic Church, which was sold, several years ago, to Bethel AME church (black Methodists.) It’s always pretty emotional for me to be back in the old neighborhood and church buildings where I spent my formative years – baptized, serving as an altar boy, 8 years of parochial schooling, confirmation, and later returning to celebrate my first mass as a priest, then returning years later to bury a grandmother, and both of my parents. On my last visit I preached at my mother’s funeral in 2003, by then a practicing UU minister.

The meeting was held in what used to be a convent for sisters; now transformed into a youth center. This gathering of 30 or so clergy is part of a now national movement called “The Moral Revival,” a movement begun in North Carolina by a charismatic preacher named William Barber back in 2007. Barber began all of this as head of the state-wide NAACP (“colored people” or “certain people”), while also serving as pastor of a Disciples of Christ Church. Barber instituted a strategy called “Moral Mondays,” in which a group of folks go to the state capital every Monday to hold a demonstration on some issue of social justice in an attempt to speak to the North Carolina state legislators – they would address the lack of funding for public education or health care or unemployment or low wages or voter suppression or gerrymandering, etc. Often they got no hearing, so they would do sit-ins and get arrested to bring attention to the perceived injustices.

So now there are Moral Movement chapters in at least 15 states, Massachusetts having started up after a visit by Rev. Barber last Fall.  This was my second event with Moral Revival, the first being in downtown Boston as over 200 clergy delivered a message to the governor about immigration policies and objections to the attempt by our President to obstruct travel to the U.S. from several primarily Muslim countries. You might say I’ve got the bug and, as one of my somewhat evangelical preacher friends often says: “are we ready to roll, sing halleluia, shout amen!” Not very UU like, you might say, like the man in the UU church who was told after shouting out: “…we just don’t do things like that in UU churches…and when he replied that he had religion, he was told he certainly didn’t get it in a UU church!”

Rev. Barber actually spoke at our UU general Assembly last year. Also last year he published a book, a kind of personal memoir of his rise to prominence and his vision for what he calls THE THIRD RECONSTRUCTION: HOW A MORAL MOVEMENT IS OVERCOMING THE POLITICS OF FEAR AND DIVISION. A group of us in an adult education seminar read this book a few weeks back and, let me tell you, we all got religion and we’re ready to roll!

For Barber, the first reconstruction took place post-Civil War, in which former slaves made great progress until the system of Jim Crow took hold, proclaiming its divisive separate but equal tag. The second reconstruction was the Civil Rights’ Movement, led by Dr. King, among others, with the 1964&65 civil rights and voter rights victories. But now, after much progress yet signs of backsliding, we are in need of a third reconstruction, writes Barber, what he calls a new “fusion” coalition, in which we need to transcend old divisions between left and right, Democrat and Republican, and create a movement of what he calls “good and right,” bringing together people across religions and beyond religions, those who have no religion, to work to promote the common good in a time of increased inequality and political divisions. It’s an amazing and sorely-needed message in a worrisome time.

Lest you think I’m totally naïve or hopelessly off kilter here in the use of moral language, let me assure you I’m aware that taking the so-called moral high ground can be full of pitfalls. Isn’t morality a pretty subjective thing in our modern age? Don’t we live in a time where there is no common ground on what is moral? Who’s to judge, we often say? Isn’t moral language appropriate only in religious circles or on private matters, but what does it have to do with social and political issues? Isn’t it dangerous to think you have morality and those with whom you differ don’t? Maybe so; maybe not. Or maybe it’s just the perilous times we live in that is forcing us to rethink our views on this?

Many years ago in Pittsburgh while harboring two undocumented Salvadoran refugees fleeing from war, 3 other religious leaders and I met with an official from the Immigration service and were asked to turn over the refugees. If we did this, we would not be prosecuted, we were told by a very friendly agent. When we said we couldn’t because they wouldn’t assure us that our two friends wouldn’t be deported, we refused and said it was a moral issue for us, i.e., the current immigration law, being implemented by this agent, was immoral. At that point the conversation went sour as the agent was deeply offended that we would accuse him of being immoral. We couldn’t judge his own conscience, we responded, but we did judge that the law was immoral and ought to be overturned. The conversation abruptly ended at that point. It was painful for us all.

So how do we get to the point of making a moral judgment on an issue not of private morality, what one commentator refers to as calls “bedroom issues,” generally around sexuality, but of social import, political import, such as policies of our government?

One prominent progressive evangelical Christian voice in our society, and someone I would call a serious public intellectual, Rev. Jim Wallis, recently wrote a piece in his own SOJOURNER magazine entitled, reflecting on the health care bill which was recently voted down in the House of Representatives: “The Health Care Bill is Sinful.” Sinful – not language we are used to hearing in the public square. Why sinful? From what we knew, though it was rushed through very quickly without much being shared with the public, the bill “…would have, over the course of 10 years, cut taxes by $1 trillion, disproportionately benefiting the wealth; cut Medicaid spending by $839 billion, exclusively harming the poor and sick; and cut the ACA’s health insurance subsidies by about $300 billion, mostly hurting older people (50-64) of modest means. Add it all up, and the CBO estimated that 24 million people would have lost health insurance as a result.” There is much more, but those are some of the big conclusions. Hurt the poor and middle-class, deepen inequality, for Wallis, counts as “sinful.”

In a follow up piece by Wallis, a week or so later, reflecting on the somewhat scant details of the next big agenda item for our government, the federal budget, Wallis reminds us that “A Budget is a Moral Document” i.e., “a moral statement of our government’s priorities.” In a nutshell, the proposed budget increases military spending by some $54 billion while it will cut both “domestic anti-poverty programs – housing, heating, and after-school programs as well as international foreign assistance programs.” These, he suggests, are moral decisions; or, if you will, immoral. He bases his viewpoint on his own Judeo-Christian moral tradition, but as UUs, over the centuries, we also cite many other traditions besides Christianity and Judaism that also proclaim among its key virtues compassion and love and social justice and the common good.

But beyond all of our shared religious traditions’ viewpoints on social matters and government policies, secular philosopher, Michael Sandel, a very prominent social philosopher at Harvard whose classes always max out with long waiting lists, suggests in a recent book, WHAT MONEY CAN”T BUY, there are “moral limits” to the market, i.e., we must critique our social policies and our free market economy from a moral perspective, something we have not been doing for many decades. In this fascinating read (maybe our next adult education class) Sandel suggests the market has triumphed in our society and we live by “market values,” that is, until 2008, when the market collapsed, in part, writes Sandel, because the market had become “detached from morals.” Certainly part of that moral failing was outright greed on the part of some, he offers, but this is not the full explanation. Something bigger is at stake. “The most fateful change that unfolded during the past decades…was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong,” e.g., “for-profit schools, (Trump University anyone?), hospitals, and prisons,” to cite just a few examples. What about transportation issues in Massachusetts, where we are cutting services and, instead of raising gas taxes, privatizing more and more of the transportation budget? Isn’t  public transit a public good, especially for those without other modes of transport?

What has happened in these last decades, argues Sandel, disparagingly, is that “we have drifted from having a market economy, admittedly a valuable and effective tool, to being a market society,” meaning, “… a way of life, in which the market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor.” Thus, for Sandel, “the great missing debate in contemporary politics is about the role and reach of markets.” He concludes: “The problem with our politics is not too much moral argument but too little. Our politics is overheated because it is mostly vacant, empty of moral and spiritual content. It fails to engage with big questions that people care about.” Again, this isn’t a bible-thumper, but a secular philosopher.

As I read it, this is exactly what Rev. Barber is trying to do with his “moral revival” movement and his “moral Mondays” campaign, i.e., get a moral debate going on priorities and how our policies effect the most vulnerable, but, at the same time, work hard on issues that deeply effect the common good, and thus make a huge difference in the lives of people, whether it be prison reform ( imagine, if you will, sending a human being to solitary confinement for 20 years) , higher wages, voting rights, etc.

The interesting thing about Rev. Barber is that he is very clear: he is not a politician, but a preacher, and a preacher’s job is to raise the moral issues of the day and fight with all his might to improve the lives of all those who struggle, and to challenge his government officials to do the good and right thing for their constituencies. Just like Jeremiah, Amos, Ruth, Jesus, Theodore Parker, Martin King, Simone Campbell. Our work, he states, is not “political but cultural,” meaning our main job as preachers and people of faith is to change the narrative, as professor Sandel suggests, to get public discussions going about moral and spiritual values that should be leading our policy choices. We need a moral revival and develop a moral lens on our deeply divided nation, even if we will differ on solutions; we need that discussion. And we need to act.

The other day I was so inspired to meet with the Mayor of Salem and our steadfast Buddhist marchers from Western, Ma., who once again marched for peace, and this year, for sanctuary for all, especially our undocumented folks. We then went on to Congressman Moulton’s office, and finally to a huge community meeting of the city of Salem in which, after much debate and nearly 100 2 minute testimonies, the vast majority of which were in support of declaring city sanctuary, Councilers voted 7-4 to make Salem a safe haven for all. We did the moral thing. The most compelling testimonies for me were from kids who spoke in moral terms about what it is to live up to our great values of freedom and welcoming to all, and the need to be compassionate, regardless of the threats of the federal government of withholding funds or imprisoning people. One youngster, a U.S. born citizen, told of his father, a hard-working father of three, tax-paying Dominican, who lacked the proper papers and who was deported over a year ago, despite having no criminal record, after several years in this country. Please do the right thing, the child pleaded, in a very soft and gentle tone, and make Salem a safe harbor for all so that other kids won’t lose their dads and moms. His compelling words won hearts, and eventually, the mind and will of at least one counciler who changed his vote at the last minute to help pass the ordinance. It was a great night for our best values; a great night for salem; a great night for the USA, maybe a small beginning to an authentic moral revival. Are we ready to roll? Can I hear an AMEN!