The Prophetic Invitation of “Moral Monday”
When I went to Mississippi for short-term grassroots work in the early 1980s, I still believed Washington DC was the center of what matters. I left 17 years later transformed into a disciple of subsidiarity: what can be handled by the smallest, most local, or least centralized authority capable of addressing that matter effectively, ought to be (not ceding to government what family, marriage, church, neighborhood does best). But Mississippi also taught me how history matters, how moments of reckoning come when larger authorities seize too much power, with too narrow an interest, without regard for the vulnerable, and present the church with a moral crisis which cries out for communal discernment and public witness.
I believe such a crisis has emerged in North Carolina. Last week, next to the legislature building in our nearby capital of Raleigh, I attended “Moral Monday” for the first time. About three thousand people from all walks of life, a richly interracial and intergenerational crowd (my 19-year old daughter joined me), gathered for week twelve of a growing public outcry opposing drastic legislation by the state legislature. Since the first week when 17 were arrested, over 900 have conducted civil disobedience, including a number of pastors and colleagues I know.
Moral Monday protesters have diverse motivations. As for me, I am an independent voter. I am concerned by the fundamentalism of the left as much as the fundamentalism of the right. But for several reasons, I see in “Moral Monday” a fresh prophetic moment.
Political extremism is not the North Carolina way. This has long been a moderate Southern state (major caveats needed here, symbolized by long Senatorship of Jesse Helms). That has been rejected by a new Republican-dominated legislature winning majorities in the General Assembly, and a new Republican governor who has quickly turned from bipartisan to extreme. What matters is not that they are Republican but the policies they have unleashed and their means of pursuing it: swift draconian attacks (often without proper process and public debate) on support for the jobless (the state has the nation’s fifth-highest unemployment rate), health care for the most vulnerable, and last week’s alarming attack on voting rights. A New York Times editorial put it succinctly: “North Carolina was once considered a beacon of farsightedness in the South, an exception in a region of poor education, intolerance and tightfistedness. In a few short months, Republicans have begun to dismantle a reputation that took years to build.”
The pastor leading “Moral Monday” casts a vision for a new multiethnic reality and a politics for the most vulnerable. William Barber, the state director of the NAACP, locates Moral Monday not in the terms of resisting an era of segregation, but in a fresh time of hope: the emergence in America of a new multicultural time. Barber, an astute reader of history, sees a “Third Reconstruction” rising, the first being after the Civil War (which was undone by Jim Crow), and the second being the 1960s civil rights movement:
“[Along with] the election of President Obama [you] get a break from the so-called “solid South.” In Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina, electorates come out that don’t look like anything the South has ever seen. And that’s a signal that we are in the beginning of the Third Reconstruction. So the pushback of the ultraconservatives is not because they are winning, but because of the changing demographics of the nation and the South and people working together. They know that a new and board community and electorate are coming forth, a new form of fusion politics that they can’t stop … This is almost like a last ditch-effort to hold on to their nightmarish, homogenous vision of the past, because they are afraid of this heterogeneous future that’s being ushered in. They know their time is limited. They know that a narrow-minded agenda is not going to work much longer, even down here in the South, which they’ve always thought they could count on.”
I hear in Rev. Barber a vision for a broad and diverse coalition to pursue justice for the most vulnerable across lines of race and class and political party.
People I know and deeply respect have had the courage to be arrested. Each is committed to their local circle of subsidiarity as well. The night before he was arrested last week, Reynolds Chapman led a Durham vigil to remember the shooting death of a 19-year old student who attended my children’s high school. Rev. Bill Turner may be the greatest master of the pulpit I have ever encountered as shepherd of Mount Level Missionary Baptist Church. Steve Schewel not only serves on the Durham City Council, but coached my son’s middle school soccer team. Willie Jennings teaches a course on race and theology at Duke Divinity School that has changed the lives of hundreds of students (his rationale for resistance emerged from studying the Book of Acts). Jonathan and Leah Wilson Hartgrove live in the new monastic community of the Rutba House, in deep friendship with their neighbors in a historically-marginalized community.
There is alarming pain in America today: an epidemic of violence in marginalized communities; a blurring of what is legal versus what is just (see Zimmerman verdict); a disturbing and growing class divide, even increasing among white families. But fresh hope is also happening, seen for example in emerging criticism from both left and right of America’s systematic massive incarceration. “Reconstruction” moments are times of both great opportunity and great danger. I do not agree with every aspect of the Moral Monday platform. But when the cry of the “least of these” is hidden and unheard, when the blood of those who died for the power to vote is disrespected, it is time to cross lines of ethnicity, class, and political party, join those our Catholic friends call “all people of good will,” and shed light into the darkness.
Links to learn more about Moral Monday:
- “The North Carolina Way” Takes a Sharp Turn
- Atlantic: How North Carolina Became the Wisconsin of 2013
- Willie Jennings on “Becoming the Common: Why I Got Arrested in North Carolina
- Man Behind Moral Monday: Interview with Rev. William Barber
Chris Rice is director of the Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation and works in the field of peace, justice, reconciliation, and Christian life and mission. His books are Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. He blogs at Reconcilers.