By William J. Barber II, with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Beacon Press, 2016. 138 pages. $24.95/hardcover; $16/paperback; $23.99/eBook.Buy from QuakerBooks
Many of us still grieve and wonder about the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Did his growing clarity about the connections between racism, war, poverty, and economics make him more of a target? What kind of expanded movement for peace and justice might have grown under his leadership if he hadn’t been killed? What work would he be engaged in were he alive today? The Third Reconstruction provides a brief, accessible, and compelling account of one possible arc of that story.
Reverend William Barber’s youth was shaped by the Civil Rights Movement. His father was a minister who spent his life nurturing calls to justice in small churches throughout North Carolina. Ultimately Barber too felt called to the ministry. He cut his teeth on a workers’ rights struggle in Virginia, where a corporate divide-and-conquer strategy won the day but taught him critical lessons about moral leadership and the need for unity. Then he found himself back home, pastoring a small town church and asking what the good news of the Gospel might look like to the poor of Goldsboro, N.C.
His little historically black church started a community development corporation that offered a freedom school for youth, built low-income housing, and set up a reentry program for returning citizens, all for the benefit of everyone in the community. In the process, he learned that the Church didn’t have a monopoly on God’s dream, but that Spirit was stirring all over the community. “I was searching for a model of engagement that took seriously what I knew biblically, historically, and personally—namely that fusion coalitions rooted in moral dissent have power to transform our world from the grassroots community up.”
Barber kept expanding his reach, pulling more and more groups into a growing statewide coalition. It wasn’t easy: these diverse groups had to learn through struggle to stand together where their values united them and to respect each other where their traditions differed. But they were united in challenging the right wing agenda that started taking over North Carolina in 2010.
I was particularly moved and inspired by his description of the liturgy that developed on what came to be known as Moral Mondays, as thousands of people stood outside their statehouse every Monday evening for 13 weeks in 2013. They started with song, reworking old freedom songs and improvising new chants, always remembering the different cultural and faith traditions of those present. There was time for testimony from those directly affected by economic hardship and injustice; then a space for economists, public policy experts, and lawyers to provide background and depth; then a sermon, with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clerics offering the deepest shared values of their faith traditions; and then the “alter call.”
At this time, people were invited to “come forward and make a public profession of their faith in a new North Carolina by exercising their constitutional right to petition their legislators in the General Assembly. They knew, of course, that they were risking arrest.… It was an awe-inspiring sight, week after week, to watch the crowd part and make way for these nonviolent foot soldiers who were ready to sacrifice their own freedom to put our proposed future into practice.” Barber talks about how a new kind of revival had taken hold, and about the potency of liturgy done in the public square.
I was struck anew by the power of the Gospel, when taken seriously and applied with integrity in our wider social life. A conservative Christian in the best sense of the word, Barber labels those who pick Bible verses selectively to bolster their cultural views as being “liberal” with the Gospel teaching. Whatever his faith tradition’s teaching on marriage, he finds a place to stand in support of gay marriage based on the clarity in all faiths that codification of hate is never righteous, and legalized discrimination is never just. His story is a reminder that anyone who finds his or her way to the heart of religion can become a power to be reckoned with.
Barber believes that since this is a moral struggle, those who are involved will win if they don’t give up. He hopes that his story—of Moral Mondays, fusion politics, and the rise of a new justice movement—will inspire others in other states across the country to “dare to stand together to expose twenty-first-century injustice and give us a shared vision for a Third Reconstruction to save the soul of America.” I hope so too.