To help heal the nation, the Rev. Dr. William Barber II calls for a balm rather than a bandage
October 28, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has exploited wounds we never healed.
Once who knows that truth all too well is the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, president of the group Repairers of the Breach, co-chair (with Presbyterian pastor the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis) of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, and pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in North Carolina, where he preached a sermon as part of the Festival of Homiletics.
Barber, a towering figure in efforts to dismantle structural racism and eradicate systemic poverty, called his sermon “Real Healing, not a Band-Aid.” He drew from Jeremiah 6, which says in part, “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush. Therefore, they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the Lord.”
Barber seasoned his sermon with sentences memorable for their simplicity as well as their prophetic power: “People can buy unleaded gas, but they can’t buy unleaded water.” “Service workers are called essential workers, but they are not given the essentials they need.” The nation has “great material wealth, but great moral bankruptcy.” People give health-care workers “a handclap at 6 o’clock, but how in the world in the midst of the pandemic can we not make sure that everyone has health care?”
Barber said he recently heard a politician say, “You don’t expect us to change the health-care system in the midst of a pandemic?”
“We yelled at the TV,” Barber said. “Yes! We had to change civil rights laws in the midst of Jim Crow!”
“This is no time for the church to be comfortable,” Barber said, “and to allow the comfortable to continue to be comfortable.”
“Jeremiah often found himself lamenting,” Barber noted. “We know he tried to quit, but there was a fire, a rage, a fury from God he said was like fire shut up in his bones. He says, ‘I am full of the fury of the Lord, and I am sick and tired of holding it in.’”
When God sees politicians and even religious institutions put a bandage on a deep wound, God too is furious, Barber said.
“We could have trapped this virus,” he said. “This (suffering and loss and death) is policy-based. Don’t blame God.”
As well, the United States “had chance after chance to deal with poverty and racism,” but chose instead to try economic theories, including trickle down and neoliberalism, he said. “We stopped talking about the poor and, for the most part, racism in the public square. … We should be the prophetic voice. It’s clear that this did not have to be.”
“God says it’s foolish to think a serious wound will just go away,” he said. “This pandemic isn’t going to stay on the poor side of town and in the prisons.”
Too many people today, he said, are “comfortable with too many people’s deaths. That’s why genocide happened to Native Americans, and it’s why slavery happened. That’s why we had World War II. People said, ‘Hitler’s just doing that to the Jews.’ We still have that mindset today, that social Darwinism still exists.”
According to Jeremiah, the people acted shamefully but were not ashamed. But God offers the prophet a ray of hope in verse 16: “Stand at the crossroads and look,” God instructs the prophet, “and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it and find rest for your souls.”
“We need healers now. We need wounded healers,” Barber said, referencing the work of Henri Nouwen. “We can’t get tired, because people’s lives depend on it. To be faithful to God in this moment is to be faithful in declaring a Band-Aid is not enough. It is our calling to fight and know that the wounds don’t have to exist like this.”
“We will not accept the quackery of politicians and preachers,” Barber said, “who would give us a Band-Aid when we need surgery.”
Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: Rev. Dr. William Barber II, president, Repairers of the Breach
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Gracious God, we lift up those who work in ministry. Please give them strength and wisdom as they serve your people. In the name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.