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The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis entreats Presbyterians to organize to end poverty

‘Poor has become a four-letter word,’ opening speaker at Matthew 25 Summit tells capacity crowd

by Emily Enders Odom, Mission Communications | Special to Presbyterian News Service

On Tuesday, the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis delivered the opening plenary during the Matthew 25 Summit. (Photo by Rich Copley)

LOUISVILLE — A powerful sermon by the Rev. Hodari Williams, team leader of New Life Presbyterian Church in South Fulton, Georgia, deftly set the stage for the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, who brought conference-goers to their feet with her opening plenary on the first day of the historic Matthew 25 Summit.

Theoharis, executive director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival with the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and teaches at Union Theological Seminary.

After Williams poignantly compelled worshipers to see and to value those who are invisible in society, Theoharis rendered the invisible — the poor — manifestly visible through her use of video, her skillful exegesis of Matthew 25 and her bold call to organize to fight and end poverty.

Opening her address by invoking the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “in one of his hometowns just a day after his birthday,” Theoharis cited King’s final work, “Where Do We Go from Here?”

“’The prescription for the cure rests with the accurate diagnosis of the disease,’” she said, quoting King. “‘A people who began a national life inspired by a vision of a society of brotherhood can redeem itself. But redemption can come only through a humble acknowledgment of guilt and an honest knowledge of self.’ We owe it to [King] and to ourselves to take these words seriously.”

After painting a bleak but realistic portrait of the 45 million people currently experiencing hunger and food insecurity in America — where poverty is the fourth-leading cause of death — Theoharis asserted that policymakers in Washington and so many states continue to legislate as if inequality weren’t an emergency.

“When it comes to accurately diagnosing what ails America, let alone prescribing a cure,” she said, “our nation falls short …’Poor’ has become a four-letter word.”

Then, turning to the Bible, which she called “the only [media source] that has something good to say about the poor,” and addressing her particular audience of Matthew 25 Presbyterians, she said, “As a people, too often we believe we can claim to be Christian just by going to church on Sunday rather than committing ourselves to the issues to which Jesus committed himself.”

As Theoharis began to unpack the scripture that served as the inspiration for the Summit, she corrected a common misperception.

“The first thing we get wrong about Matthew 25 is that it’s a message for individuals,” she said. “Matthew 25 tells us that Jesus is speaking to the nation, perhaps to those with the political and economic power to meet the needs of the people …. The message of Matthew 25 is when a nation acts, the whole society flourishes.”

Theoharis practices what she preaches. As co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, she and Barber have helped to build a movement that seeks to revive the message of the original campaign, which declared that racism, militarism and poverty are interconnected evils and must be fought together — and that the poor and dispossessed must lead that fight.

“When we build a movement of those considered expendable, we can end poverty,” she said. “If we refuse to organize our society, our nation, around the needs of the poor, poverty and want will never be banished and we will have abandoned Jesus.”

The Rev. Denise Anderson, director of Compassion, Peace & Justice in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, introduces the Matthew 25 Summit’s first plenary speaker, the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis. (Photo by Rich Copley)

Theoharis, who was raised in the Presbyterian church in a family dedicated to the work of social justice, said that although she knew her Bible well and church was her “second home from a very early age,” some church leaders gave her pause.

“When they began to weaponize our sacred texts, I thought that maybe I need to read this Bible a little more clearly,” she said, “to read what Jesus said, what we Christians were required to do. … How we treat the poor, how we treat the immigrant neighbor, is how we honor and worship God. This is echoed throughout all the Bible.”

As she continued to ground her thesis in both scripture and the actions of the early Church, Theoharis said that organizing a movement today very much looks like the agency of those early Christians and their acts of civil disobedience.

“Both back then and today, we have to figure out how to meet each other’s needs and keep on fighting,” she said. “If we are to follow God’s economy, there is no poverty, there is no hunger, there is no homelessness. The absence of poverty isn’t just an absence of poverty, but the presence of justice.”

Turning again to the message of Martin Luther King Jr., Theoharis reminded her audience that it’s “easier to build a monument to our fallen heroes than to continue the movement that they were on.”

“We need everyone here, everyone gathered online, we welcome you all to the Poor People’s Campaign,” she said. “We’re building a moral movement led by those impacted by poverty. We’re choosing life and truth and justice and peace. We’re organizing with other Christians. We’re crying out to all who have ears to hear to fight poverty, not the poor.”

In closing, Theoharis evoked the words of another Biblical prophet, Micah, to again speak to the power inherent in a movement.

“God requires this of us, so what are we to do,” she asked. “Join God to fight poverty, not the poor.”

During a brief Q&A following her presentation, Theoharis invited attendees to visit the website of the Poor People’s Campaign to learn more about and take part in upcoming nationwide rallies on March 2 and a June 15 event in Washington, D.C.

Join us virtually at the Matthew 25 Summit! Watch the livestreamed plenaries and worship services, Jan. 16–18, as we explore the Matthew 25 vision at this first-of-its-kind event in Atlanta. Watch the livestreamed events by clicking here.  

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