Campaigning with Poor People for Green Justice (7-14-2019)

A few weeks ago I attended the “Poor People’s Moral Action Congress,” a mobilization of the Poor People’s Campaign, which met for 3 days at local university in DC.  I’ll begin my sermon by giving you some facts and impressions about the Congress.  Then I’ll shift gears to talk about why I went and what I learned from the meeting.  Finally, I focus on some of the main reasons that the Poor People’s Campaign is significant for us, as Unitarian Universalists.    

On the front of our Order of Service today is a photo of a recent Poor People’s Campaign march, led by the Reverend William J. Barber.  That’s Barber in the middle, right behind the sign.  He’s a friendly, partly-stooped, big bear of a man, whose vocal power reminds me of Martin Luther King’s.  Barber and the Reverend Liz Theoharis, co-chair of Campaign, also led the Moral Action Congress.  (The Poor People’s Campaign abbreviates their name as “the PPC,” an acronym I’ll use for most of the rest of the sermon.)  Subtitled “A National Call for Moral Revival,” the Congress did indeed draw PPC representatives from nearly all of the fifty states (plus Puerto Rico) and featured revival-like hymns, sermons, and calls to worship.   

The primary purpose of the Congress was to mobilize for political action.  Right off the bat, I joined roughly a thousand PPC members to cheer Barber and Theoharis as they grilled several Democratic candidates for the presidency.  Both of them emphasized that a shocking 43.5 percent of the US population is either poor or low income, with most low-income families only a paycheck or a hospital bill away from poverty.  Let me state that figure again: 43 and a half percent of the people living in our country are either poor or low-income.  In response, Biden, Warren, Sanders, Harris, and other candidates promised to put disparities of wealth and racial discrimination at the center of their campaigns.  The next day, we attended workshops on organizing the homeless for political action, ideas for involving youth in the PPC, using social media for movement building, and possible roles for the arts, among other strategies.  Our meeting culminated in a congressional hearing at the Capitol, as we watched Barber, Theoharis, and others on large-screen monitor testify to our representatives about Poverty in America. 

At our Congress, I heard citizens from California, Alabama, and Kansas tell personal stories about their difficulties with poverty.  One of the most moving was from a young transgender person from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, who was still mourning the recent suicide of her queer friend from high school.  Johnstown has both the highest poverty rate and nearly the highest crime rate against LGBTQ persons in the state.  I attended the Communications and Social Media workshop, where we planned a media strategy to combat a fictitious budget proposal from a tight-fisted state legislature.  We talked about how to shift the narrative from blaming the poor to empowering them, discussed strategies for interviewing and editing key witnesses, and shared various aps and ideas for building Internet stories.  I had good conversations at the Congress with an animated young activist who loved demonstrations, a lawyer sitting next to me who would be taking much of what he learned back to Denver to help his local PPC group, a social worker from Baltimore who was involved in helping poor women who had been raped, and several UUs from around the country.                 

I’m curious.  Please raise your hand if you have attended a Poor People’s Campaign event?  (Great.  I expect similar experiences moved and enriched you, too.)   

Before participating in the Congress, I didn’t know much about the PPC.  I had attended a couple of rallies last summer when Barber organized demonstrations at the Capitol and also read a bit about their initiatives on-line, but I can’t say I had given much thought or time to the movement.  I liked their political goals and appreciated their religious fervor, but the campaign seemed too nationally oriented to get much traction at local and state levels, where real progress against poverty might be possible.  I learned at the Congress that I had been wrong.  The PPC is already organized at county and state levels, in Maryland and elsewhere, and there is much good work to be done.

When I registered at the Congress, I was handed a fat, spiral-bound book called The Souls of Poor Folk, copyright 2018, with chapters committed to the empirical analysis of the four major concerns of the PPC: 1) systemic racism, 2) poverty and inequality, 3) the war economy and militarism, and 4) ecological devastation.  Reverend Barber later explained that he had worked with several sociologists, historians, and others to make sure that their analysis of the problems the PPC was attacking was accurate.  As Barber joked, he knew that PPC demonstrations would be “loud,” but he did not want them to be “loud and wrong.” 

Glancing through The Souls of Poor Folk made my historian’s heart sing.  I’m nearing the end of my research on a book project tentatively entitled Performance, Politics, and Climate Change and I went to the Congress hoping to learn more about the interrelations among these three topics.  I was not disappointed.  Not only does The Souls of Poor Folk detail the relevant facts about greenhouse gasses, drinking water, storms and floods, access to clean air, and other significant ecological problems.  It also links them to the structures of US history and politics.

I was especially glad to find that many of the PPC’s concerns echo ones I’m investigating about ecology and democracy.  These problems are also front and center in an important little book by Daniel Fiorino called, Can Democracy Handle Climate Change?   Political scientist Fiorino presents several reasons, backed up with solid international examples, about why democracies are better than authoritarian governments at dealing with climate change.  These include the facts that democracies are more responsive to citizen demands, generally govern with less corruption, encourage more diverse populations to participate, and facilitate more free flows of information. 

Why, then, has the US been so slow in recognizing and mitigating climate change?  Well, despite recent Fourth-of-July chest thumping, Fiorino notes that the US ranks comparatively low on what is known as the EIU Democracy Index.  (EIU, by the way, stands for The Economist Intelligence Unit; their Index is widely used by economists and political scientists around the world.)  The Index includes such characteristics as political freedom and civil liberties, but also measures political participation, political culture, and governmental functioning.  Combining all of these measures, the US ranks as a “flawed” democracy rather than a “full” one.  Our political culture is polarized, passing and implementing new laws is difficult and time consuming, and the wealthy exercise near oligarchic control over state and federal governance.  The implication is clear: We in the US must have more democracy before we’ll get a handle on climate change. 

This was also one of the conclusions of a book called Justice on Earth that I, together with some of you, read and discussed earlier this year as part of an all-congregational reading group.  One of the essays in the book featured a discussion of the term “intersectionality,” first introduced by critical race theorist Kimberle Williams Krenshaw, to which I’d like us to return.  As Krenshaw noted back in the 1980s, intersectionality describes the many ways societal patterns of power and oppression overlap and intersect with one another.  White supremacy, oligarchy, and ecological devastation often go together and reinforce each other in American culture and society.  To fight the power of these interlocking systems, anti-racist, democratic, and environmental movements need to join together to form their own intersectional alliances in order to overcome oppression in all of its forms.  For UU congregations, this means that anti-racist, Green Sanctuary, immigrant rights, LGBTQ, and other progressive groups must pull together on defining goals and pursuing common initiatives, so as to avoid the fragmentation that often leads to competition for people and scarce resources.  In this regard, of course, the PPC is an appropriate model for all of our congregations, even though we all know how difficult such intersectionality can be.   

Another essay in Justice on Earth complements the PPC for its ability to use the language of religion to frame and critique public policy.  I agree. There were many times when Barber and Theoharis used the Bible, for example, to question a presidential candidate or make a point about racism and power.  Thoroughly blended into the PPC’s generally Christian orientation, however, were questions and statements based on the holy books of all the major world religions, as well as prayers and invocations spoken Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, and Hindu leaders at the Congress.  Clearly, the ecumenical reason behind this strategy was to move beyond the limited language and reasoning of pundits and politicians to challenge all Americans from within a framework of universal religious truths.    

While I certainly agree that this strategy is particularly useful in the context of American culture, where many potential voters look to religion for guidance and insight, it is not the only path to what we might call universal truths.  As a secular humanist UU, I look to the empirical sciences, not to holy texts, for guidance and insight.  Nonetheless, many current ideas from evolution, psychology, and anthropology lead me to the conclusion that the PPC is probably one of the best political and cultural paths forward for this nation, as we seek to reform our broken democracy to build a greener, fairer economy for the future. Why this is so and how all of these ideas fit together would take a different sermon to explain.  I’ll just say that we function better in groups when we follow the coevolutionary possibilities and constraints of our species. So, UUs of all religious persuasions, rejoice!  As empiricists, Christians, Pagans, Buddhists, and believers in several other epistemologies, we can ALL work with the Poor People’s Campaign with a clear conscience!  Thank you.