The Poor People’s Campaign: A Uniting Religious Narrative

May 15th, 2018

In Exodus, Pharaoh dismissed the cry of the Hebrew slaves, calling them, “lazy, lazy” (Exodus 5:17). It’s the same rhetoric used against the poor and the disenfranchised today. We justify our society’s massive economic inequality by calling some people “makers” and others “takers.” But there are movements that are challenging this distorted religious and moral narrative.

On Monday, thousands of people kicked off forty days of protest as part of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. After a rally, groups of protesters blocked traffic in Washington, D.C. A similar action took place near me in Alabama, in our state capitol of Montgomery.

At both events, those who had been trained in nonviolent civil disobedience were arrested. Some of them were my friends.

You may have heard of the Moral Monday Movement, a series of protests in North Carolina that began in 2007, and gathered steam and national attention in 2012. It was led by Rev. William Barber. The movement targeted the state legislature’s attacks on health care and voting rights, but it was not limited to a single issue. Rev. Barber has stated that it doesn’t make sense to focus on only a single issue, since the injustices that keep people poor are part of a complex interlocking system. Clergy and laypeople gathered in the rotunda of the state capitol, preaching, singing songs, and chanting, until some of them were arrested and others were forced to disperse.

It happened every single week. Eventually it drew national attention.

Now that same spirit is spreading nationwide, and it is happening in multiple states. The name hearkens back to the Poor People’s Campaign launched by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fifty years ago, but its tagline: “A National Call for Moral Revival” highlights that it is a new stage of the work. Perhaps the biggest challenge this movement faces is the national myth that our country consists of the deserving rich, who create jobs, innovate, work hard, and are responsible for everything good that happens in our country; and the poor, who are simply liabilities who leech off the government for “free stuff.” This myth insinuates itself into all of our public life, even—perhaps especially—in our churches.

I have heard Christians claim that there is no poverty in the United States, because even poor people have television. I have heard them say there is no poverty in the United States because unemployment is low.

The truth is that even a fully-employed family working at minimum wage cannot support itself; that students going to community college to claw their way out of poverty often have to choose between financial aid and food aid; that even in families that consider themselves middle-class, a single illness or accident for anyone in the household can bankrupt them and place them in poverty for the rest of their lives. Wages have been stagnant and inequality has grown for the last fifty years, and we have fewer voting rights protections than we did fifty years ago when Dr. King led the first Poor People’s Campaign.

In response, over the next forty days, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival will highlight specific issues each week that link with poverty. This first week was focused on women, children, and the disabled who are in poverty. Subsequent protests will focus on systemic racism and its link with poverty, militarism and the proliferation of gun violence, ecological devastation and health care, and the right to a living wage and housing.

As a pastor and follower of Jesus Christ, I am not neutral in this fight. In my own state, I am part of Faith in Action Alabama, which is also part of a national network called Faith in Action (formerly PICO). I help churches train leaders and develop justice teams in their local congregation to learn and act on these and other issues. The reason more and more people are getting involved in community organizing through their churches and religious communities is that our faith traditions are rooted in stories of God’s care for those society considers “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40). God consistently holds the rulers of a country accountable for neglecting God’s starving sheep (Ezekiel 34:10), and also blames the fat sheep (the rich) for not only taking more than their fair share, but polluting the environment while doing so (Ezekiel 34:18).

For the last fifty years, religion in the public sphere has been used primarily as a series of wedge issues to pry apart various constituencies—especially along race and gender lines. But poverty unites people of various demographics. Our faith also gives us a uniting justice narrative that proclaims release to the captives (in this country that has the highest incarceration rate in the world), recovery of sight to the blind (in this country that has some of the worst health care outcomes in the developed world), and good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). Like Micah (4:4), we share a vision of a kingdom where everyone will one day have more than enough to eat because they will sit in the shade of their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid anymore.

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