Speaking to a capacity crowd at Myers Park Baptist Church on Sunday, the Rev. William J. Barber said the election of Donald Trump proved that the “myth of race” is alive and well in the United States, and he called on those in attendance to remain steadfast in their struggle for social and economic change.
“Our faith must be real right now, Barber said in an 80-minute address dubbed a “National Sermon on Race,” an evening event sponsored by the Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice. “This is where we must remember, in this moment, how our ancestors responded to disappointment without allowing it to deter them from the march toward justice.”
Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP and pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, is founder of the Moral Monday movement and has emerged as one of the nation’s leading voices on the Christian left. He gained national prominence in July when he spoke at the Democratic National Convention.
Speaking from an elevated pulpit to a mostly white audience, Barber excoriated Trump as a liar and “con” who won election by playing to the economic fears and racial anxieties of poor and working-class whites –a message that drew standing ovations at various times during his message.
Calling the Nov. 8 vote an “election of rejection,” Barber compared Trump’s supporters to the Old Testament Hebrews who rejected the prophet Samuel, who was chosen of God, in favor of a ruling king. And like Samuel, he said, those who fight for social and economic change must be a “continual check and critique on the new king, to try and help him do right.”
“”Like Samuel, we must keep on being the prophetic voice and vision God has called us to be, because this rejection election does not change our cause,” he said. “Our job is to always push a hope that is subversive…The role of the church is to engage in the dangerous ministry of telling the truth…Right now we are seeing what we would rather not see.”
The Obama Effect
Reading from a New York Times article by Princeton University History Professor Nell Irvin Painter, Barber said Trump’s rise to political prominence was a direct response to the election of President Barack Obama – an event, he said, that shook white America and caused some to question the long-held dominance of whites in a changing America.
“If we don’t wrestle with that, we misunderstand this whole election,” he said.
“This, right now, America, is where we must be honest about the depths of racism and the psychic sickness of our country,” he said. “We must see it openly now, and clearly. And this is also the place where we must redouble our commitment to be instruments of truth, love and justice.”
Barber described Obama as an imperfect president but a man of “integrity” and “decency” who tried to help the poor and show respect for other nations.
“Some things we wish he would have done more,” he said. “We’ve had our disagreements, as we should, but in so many ways he has tried, and we will bid him farewell and then we will witness the inauguration of a con.”
A Common Destiny
Barber said lasting change will not come to America until poor and working-class whites reject the politics of division and realize that they share a common destiny with blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and immigrants.
“His election shows that we have rejected, in some ways, moral statesmanship and dignity for baboonery and gamesmanship,” he said. “We have seen now that some would rather be lied to. Trump articulated fear rooted in racism and classism.”
Barber said those on the political left – including African Americans – missed an opportunity to have a true dialogue about poverty when Trump raised the issue in relation to blacks and America’s inner cities.
“We cannot deny that we have serious issues with poverty in this country,” he said. “You want to deal with poverty, let’s talk about living wages and union rights. You want to deal with poverty, let’s ensure that every child receives a high-quality, well-funded…education. You want to deal with poverty, let’s ensure we have healthcare for everybody.”
Barber said the current issues of poverty are the same as those talked about 50 years ago by Martin Luther King Jr., and they cut across all racial lines, he said.
“Why are you allowing politicians to get away with racializing entitlement programs?” he said, noting that poor whites, especially in solidly Republican Southern states, make up the majority of those receiving government assistance. “Why are we allowing people to play us against one another?”
“Is the mythology of race still that powerful?” he said. “This election has shown us, yes, it is.”
Barber said Trump joins a long line of white politicians who have lied to white Southerners to get to the White House.
Barber leveled some of his most pointed criticism at Christian conservative leaders who, he said, have used biblical scripture selectively to demonize “others” – blacks, the poor, Latinos, immigrants and members of the LGBT community.
Barber said Christian leaders who engaged in such conduct had “embraced a form of theological malpractice.”
“It’s sad when you would take the faith and twist it up like this,” he said. “In doing this, they have rejected the core moral values of faith.”
Barber said those who have struggled against injustice in America must not internalize Trump’s victory or view it as a personal rejection. At the same time, President-elect Trump should not expect the left to simply roll over and fall in line with his agenda.
“We cannot congratulate Mr. Trump, because to congratulate him would be like to congratulate a Christian for being hateful or to congratulate your child for failure in school,” he said. “But like Samuel, we’ve got to counsel him. We need to say to him, ‘before you take office, put your hand on the Bible, repent.’”