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Making real the promises of democracy

Panel discusses the work that remains nearly 60 years after MLK’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said during his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, capping the March on Washington.

Almost six decades later it’s well past time. But two leaders engaged mightily in the struggle said during Monday’s online forum “God and Division” hosted by the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership at Union Presbyterian Seminary said religion has a significant place in the battle.

The Rev. Melanie C. Jones, an instructor in ethics, theology and culture at the seminary and the director of the Center for Womanist Leadership, moderated the panel, which featured the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, the Presbyterian pastor who co-founded the Poor People’s Campaign and directs the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary, and Dr. Juan Floyd-Thomas, associate professor of African American Religious History at the Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Watch their discussion, “ReCentering Justice in Theological Education,” part of the seminary’s “Just Talk/Talk Just” series, by clicking here.

Bishop Desmond Tutu, Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, Saint Óscar Romero and “so many others didn’t think it was a disconnect to make your work and the world you want to see synonymous,” Floyd-Thomas said. Over the past 25 years, the work that he and his wife, the Rev. Dr. Stacey Floyd-Thomas, and others have engaged in has placed them “on a trajectory to say there should not be a wall of division between social justice and divine justice,” he said.

The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis

Theoharis began teaching Sunday school classes at 13 and was ordained as a deacon at 16. “I’ve spent my life engaged in the prophetic ministry,” Theoharis said, learning from “poor and low-income folk” how to “pick up the baton and carry it the next mile.” As the 50-year anniversary of King’s Poor People’s Campaign was approaching in 2018, she and the Rev. Dr. William Barber II joined to form the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

“It’s immoral to have five abandoned homes” for every person experiencing homelessness, Theoharis said. “God created enough, but somehow we have messed that up … I find myself inspired every day by poor and low-income people who are organizing by the millions to right the wrongs of society.”

“The work of justice should not rise and fall,” Floyd-Thomas said. “We need to be about this work in season and out of season. That’s why the Poor People’s Campaign and Moral Mondays are vitally necessary … We need to keep doing it until reinforcements come. I feel seen and a little bit heard, but we need to do more.”

“That answer corroborates my experience,” Theoharis said. About 25 years ago, Theoharis helped put together a study on the level to which seminaries were teaching theological students about poverty.

“Congregations are often the first stop of a family in need,” Theoharis said, “but no major seminaries were doing anything systematic,” although she found “some lone voices in the wilderness.”

“That’s when the Kairos Center was born, challenging Union [Theological] Seminary in New York, challenging the administration to put those impacted and the movement at the absolute center of the curriculum … Deuteronomy teaches us we can’t separate piety from economics … I really believe we have to keep that light going and burning, reminding all of us what is really at the core of our traditions, which starts at Genesis and goes through Revelation, and in other traditions and texts, is that God hates poverty, injustice and racism, and God’s servants are called to be at the forefront of movements for justice. We need theological education to put at the absolute center that call of the Gospel.”

the Rev. Melanie C. Jones

Asked by Jones how the church and the academy can speak to one another, Floyd-Thomas said he tries to teach students the need “to break down the presumption of difference between the pastoral and the prophetic. A prophetic thing you can do is convince people they are worthy of love and can give love. A pastoral thing you can do is make sure people have vaccinations and meals. Those two concerns are perfectly melded in the will of God.

“You’ve got to walk to folk and with folk. I come to the table in agreement with issues of economic justice and voting rights. But the community might just need their roads repaved and their traffic light fixed. … If you prove a worthwhile partner, they will trust you. If you can prove yourself a worthy steward, folks will say, ‘You’ve been honest with me. I will trust you with students we want to send to your seminary.’”

Nearly every week of her 25 years of doing grassroots antipoverty organizing work, Theoharis said she’s heard someone quote Jesus, “You always have the poor with you …” or quote Paul, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”

“I would say let’s talk about Matthew 25 or Luke 4,” Theoharis said. “If you let people interpret it that God wills poverty, that this is as good as it gets — if we allow that, the only response is punishing the poor or pitying the poor, offering them a few [bandages] and charity. It doesn’t get to the Reign of God, our core theological teachings, which say something very different about the lack of inevitability of poverty and injustice.”

“We can help our lay leadership see if we aren’t fighting for justice every day, we are not doing what God requires us to do,” Theoharis said. “It changes our outlook of what can be done and helps to bring about a moral revival and movement.”

Dr. Juan Floyd-Thomas

Floyd-Thomas recalled consulting with a church in the Dallas area that had grown quickly under the leadership of a pastor who hadn’t attended seminary. “The church was winging it, but folks loved his personality,” Floyd-Thomas said.

Then it became time to fight city hall. The city began approving a number of zoning requests for pawn shops and liquor stores in neighborhoods of color, including where this church was located, and the pastor “didn’t know how to go about the simple mechanics of local democracy,” Floyd-Thomas said. “We tried to bring him up to speed, and he soon realized what he could have benefitted from in the seminary context. … If we claim we will help God restore Creation, we have to bring all our tools to this concern. God didn’t create us to live from the neck down. We should hone and utilize our brains as well.”

Floyd-Thomas called the Movement for Black Lives “a prime example. Young folks and the young at heart realize if we wait for traditional models of leadership — traditional brokers of the peace and pastors of big steeple churches — we will stay waiting. We have to take action and be in the streets … You serve the people you hope to save.”

People’s problems today “are great and grave, and they didn’t happen overnight,” Theoharis said. “People are really suffering and it’s going to take something really significant to get us out of it.” A colleague reminds her that “there is almost no other form of mass media that has something as good to say about the poor as the Bible.” While Theoharis doesn’t think of the Bible as an example of mass media, “We do have to put the church and the academy around the problems of the people. If we do, we will come up with amazing and beautiful solutions to the problems at hand. When you do that, you win.”

“I am imprisoned with hope,” Floyd-Thomas said, adding that the years since King delivered his 1963 speech have been marked by “a systemic attack on the soul of the nation.” It could take another six decades “to get ourselves out of it, but we must start today.” That starts with “seeing each other with some modicum of compassion and commitment. We must try to make it together.”

Theoharis reminded the audience that Barber often asks, “How do we move from being priests of the empire to chaplains of a movement?”

“To do that, we need theological education centered on the needs of God’s children, especially those who have been marginalized,” Theoharis said. “You can’t just do that politically, economically and medically. You have to do it theologically … Look at Jesus. He led a movement that had the power to right the wrongs and not allow oppression and hatred to have the last word.”


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