“It’s time to take our movements to the public square!”
“Too many prayers have been prayed to stay where we are!”
“There must be a dissenting voice in every age!”
Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in Montreat’s auditorium, William Barber II preached these statements in a sermon harkening King’s legacy and patterns of calls-to-action. Dr. King’s Unfinished Agenda: A Teach-In for Rededicating Ourselves to the Dream is being held August 21-23 at Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina.
Barber is pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Goldsboro, North Carolina; president of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP; leader of Moral Monday rallies; and is author of “Forward Together: A Moral Message for the Nation.”
Grayde Parsons, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) introduced Barber, with a sign of the call-to-action to come. Parsons told participants that if they do not leave the conference without thinking that white Presbyterian privilege doesn’t need dismantling, “you’ve missed the point” of the conference.
Barber addressed the crowd, recalling Martin Luther King Jr. as a leader who embraced prophetic moral dissent. “There are some things that must be challenged because they are wrong, they are extremist, they are immoral,” Barber said. His sermon appeared energetic, agitated, impassioned. Here are a few key points.
“Our aim is too low.” Other than worshipping other gods, there is no other sin in the Bible more prominent than the mistreatment of the poor, Barber preached. When Christians don’t obey this, “we don’t have a conservative problem or a liberal problem, we have a moral problem,” he proclaimed before declaring: “Our aim is too low!” He added that low aim is a sin. For example, he said that when the South Carolina government is applauding for taking down a flag that should never have been there, “our aim is too low.“
“The church is not running for public office. The church is the church all the time,” he said. When the Spirit moves, he continued, what follows is a challenge to the way things are. When the Spirit moves, he said, it necessitates a quarrel with the way things are in the world. He declared himself a theological conservative, noting that he believes the Bible means what it says about justice for the poor and he wants to conserve justice.
Imitate Dr. King. “What we need are not people who will erect monuments to Dr. King, but people who recognize that imitation is the best form of flattery.” Barber said that gatherings, such as the one taking place at Montreat, need instead to be held in statehouses. The church must stand up, he said. He asked if the crowd could imagine what would happen if the church fully embraced the prophetic responsibility to moral dissent. It “would change the discourse,” he said. It’s all right to have a retreat, he continued, but as Dr. King advised, when you come down from the mountain, you have to have a revolution.
Prophetic moral dissent is the path to higher ground. Echoing Walter Brueggemann, Barber said that the role of the prophet is to keep the imagination of the church alive. “Moral dissent is God’s way of saying there is another way, a better way.” Whenever the nation has moved forward, he said, it was because of prophetic moral dissent. We must have a prophetic spiritual reawakening, a third reconstruction, a movement that says we can see higher ground, he said. Higher ground, he said, takes people out of the valley of injustice. “It’s time,” he proclaimed.
In the words of King, Barber urged his listeners to go back to every city and “don’t just sing inside of the sanctuary,” but to take the church to the streets. “We refuse to accept anything but higher ground,” he said.
In his closing prayer, Barber noted, “If we are going to honor Dr. King, let it not be with platitudes.”