Is American Healing Even Possible?

In an extended interview, the Reverend William J. Barber II explains why healing the soul of the nation will take more than returning to “normal.”

William Widmer / Redux

On November 7, after four days of counting votes, Democrats celebrated the end of a “long national nightmare.” And when former Vice President Joe Biden took the stage in Wilmington, Delaware, to deliver his victory speech that Saturday night, he quickly extended a hand to President Donald Trump’s supporters, who may have felt demoralized by the loss.

“I understand the disappointment tonight,” Biden said. “I’ve lost a couple of times myself. But now let’s give each other a chance... This is a time to heal in America.” Prior to the November election, Trump and Biden supporters alike argued that if the other candidate were to be elected, “it would result in lasting harm to the country,” according to a survey from the Pew Research Center.

A week after Biden’s victory address, as the Trump campaign worked to challenge and discredit the election results while trying to get hundreds of legally cast votes thrown out on outlandish claims of fraud, the Reverend William J. Barber II took a different tack.

On November 15, Barber—a co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, a movement based on the idea that America is in need of a moral revival—stood in the pulpit at Greenleaf Christian Church, in Goldsboro, North Carolina, preaching to a live-stream audience about unity. But his idea of healing looks different from Biden’s. “Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy for you,” he preached, reading from the Book of Matthew. “I’ve come to cut—make a sharp knife-cut between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law—cut through these cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God.” It seems a strange place to start, but that’s the point, he said. “There has to be division for healing.”

I called Barber five days later to chat about that sermon, and the way he emphasized the difference between a cure and healing. We spoke about why it’s not always a good thing that when Christians are asked how they’re doing, many simply say, “Blessed and highly favored.” He said America cannot afford to go back to the “normal” it knew before Trump. “If we don’t have a politics that can have earnest conversation and debate on how your policies are going to impact the least of these, then we are in trouble,” he told me. We were scheduled to speak for 30 minutes; we ended up speaking for more than an hour.

After our initial conversation, he called me back. He had just watched Vice President Mike Pence deliver a speech in Canton, Georgia. “We are gonna keep fighting until every legal vote is counted. We are gonna keep fighting until every illegal vote is thrown out,” Pence told a cheering crowd. Barber’s vision is one of racial and economic progress, and he has risen to national prominence during the Trump administration because of his push to restore morality to the public sphere. But, I asked, how did those people cheering Pence factor into that vision? “They have been sold a bill of goods that their way of life is being threatened by the others,” he replied.

Martin Luther King Jr. was on Barber’s mind that day. He was thinking about the March on Washington; everyone remembers King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but many forget its actual title: “Normalcy—Never Again.”

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Adam Harris: You’ve often made a point about people getting upset with Jesus for telling the truth—even in his first sermon where he quotes from Isaiah and says he’s come to heal the brokenhearted. How do you think about the mission to heal when people don’t want to hear the truth? How do you reconcile that?

Rev. William J. Barber II: Well, I was trained in theology that whatever you call your spiritual experience, if it does not produce a quarrel with the world, then the claim to be spiritual is suspect. Over and over again in the Christian scriptures—in the Christian New Testament, and in the Hebrew Old Testament—the prophets were required to tell the truth in season and out of season, whether folk believed it or not. Oftentimes, they were castigated for telling the truth. The prophet Isaiah, whom you just mentioned, said in Isaiah 10, “Woe unto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their rights and make women and children their prey.”

People forget that when Jesus preached his first sermon—good news to the poor, healing to the brokenhearted, recovery of sight to the blind—he was doing that in the context of Roman oppression. And Roman oppression had also infiltrated the religious cultures, and the religious cultures had begun to serve the oppressor rather than relieve the oppressed. And when he said good news to the poor, that was a radical statement—because in Greek, the word is ptochos, which means those who have been made poor by economic exploitation. Then, when he ends it by saying “to declare the acceptable year of the Lord,” that is a direct reference to the Old Testament concept of Jubilee. And Jubilee was when, in the 50th year [of a cycle], all debts were released, all slaves were set free, all oppression was over. He’s basically saying, “I’ve come to say that it’s time for this day, and those who are oppressed have the right, nonviolently, to stand for this day.” And the Bible says, on that day, they tried to kill him. See, oftentimes we don’t keep reading. He almost got killed for his first sermon.

And then [in] his last sermon, he says the nation will be judged—not people, not individuals—but the nation will be judged by how it treats the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the immigrant, and the least of these. Deaths from public policy didn’t start with COVID. People were dying because of the denial of health care in over 14 states that refused to expand health care. People died from that public-policy decision.

I said at the National Cathedral when I was invited to preach a sermon entitled “America, Accepting Death Is Not an Option Anymore.” Down through history, we've opted for all of these policies that will have what I call a DM on the DL—a death measurement on the down low. And you can’t ignore that. That truth must be told.

There’s a scripture in Ezekiel where God says to Ezekiel, “I need you to tell the nation the truth.” And they may not hear you, because they are stiff-necked people. But at least they will know there has been a prophet among them. And then in Ezekiel 22, the scripture says the reason why there is so much hurt toward the poor, poverty—and the poor and the immigrants receive no justice—is because the politicians lie. In the King James [Bible] it says “princes.” But the politicians lie; your leaders lie. But worse than that, it says the priests—

Harris: That they "violated my law and desecrated my holy things."

Barber: Right. The priest encouraged their lying, joined with them, and said things that God has not said. We, as people of faith, may not be able to stop everything that happens. But we can exacerbate what happens if we join it, by telling a lie when we ought to tell the truth. But we also exacerbate it if we don’t say anything—because finally, God says, “I looked for somebody to stand in the gap. And I could not find anyone.” That’s one of the most tragic scriptures in all the Bible.

Harris: Over the last four years, and especially in the last couple of months, we’ve seen people in the streets, fighting for change. But now that you know the election has happened, there’s this concern among some that the momentum might go away. That change is supposedly here, and now we can get back to normal—and that healing looks like going back to normal. Is that a false healing?

Barber: The people I’m around didn’t vote for normal, nor are they ready to go back to normal. Yes, people did stand up in the wake of [George] Floyd’s death and Breonna Taylor’s death. But I think we have to understand that in a larger context. It happened in the midst of COVID; it happened when people were home out of work; it happened on top of a whole lot of death, tracing all the way back to Tamir Rice. You have to ask yourself: What is it that caused such a movement in this moment, when we’ve seen people killed on camera before?

I wrote a piece saying that George Floyd’s “I can't breathe” became shorthand for how a lot of people were feeling—that the weight of the pressures of the state that’s supposed to help you were actually on their necks. That people were saying “I can’t breathe,” with all this pressure of being forced to go to work without the protections they need. “I can’t breathe” is what most people were saying before they were dying from COVID in hospitals.

The police represented the state, and the state is not supposed to kill you. It’s supposed to ensure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The state is supposed to provide the establishment of justice and ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and guarantee equal protection under the law. People often say, “Well, this was the greatest, most diverse movement in the country,” but that’s not true. The abolition movement was diverse; the early labor movement was diverse. [This is] the greatest one we’ve seen in this moment that was filmed on camera. But also, people were in the streets for that reason and many others.

The Poor People’s Campaign started with six weeks of direct action in 40-something states and the District of Columbia in 2018. The Women’s March, the Sunrise Movement, the Black Lives movement, the Fight for $15 movement—there is the sense in which there is a flooding of consciousness in the society. And what happens whenever you have an oppressive leader and oppressive accessories to the crime of oppression—like [Mitch] McConnell in the Senate, who just continued to press people down—eventually that pressing-down overflows. It spews out. People can’t take it anymore, and won’t take it.

Harris: So it would become necessary for people to make the politicians feel uncomfortable.

Barber: Right. It becomes necessary for your life. You have to at least stand up. The very dignity of life, the dignity of the soul, requires that you stand upright. That’s what happened to the slaves who would risk their lives and would die sometimes running from slavery—but they could no longer accept the slavery, right? They could no longer accept the slavery. It’s what happened when women could no longer accept not being able to vote. It’s what happened when labor people could no longer work—they could no longer accept not having fundamental rights. There’s a place in which Rosa Parks says, “I’m tired. I just can’t take this no more. It may not change everything. But I’m going to do this.” And we never know when the spark is going to ignite. But we do know that there’s this sense in which folk have to, if you will, stand up in various ways.

The worst thing for people to think would be that folks just want to go back to normal.

People understand that even after the election, 8 million more people have been added to the 140 million people in poverty and low-wealth [conditions]. Millions more people have lost their health care. There’s nothing normal about this situation.

The Constitution doesn’t say “Just give half the people equal protection under the law.” That’s being centrist. It doesn’t say “Give half the people the establishment of justice.” It’s a requirement of the whole. So we don’t need this language that’s really more about people getting along on the surface, but not having a real healing. There can be no healing of the soul of America without healing the body.

The body is sick. It’s sick with poverty. It’s sick with the denial of health care, where you have politicians who have the very health care they don’t want their constituents to have. It’s sick with cutting money for public education, which is key to our economic future—an educated society. It’s sick with all forms of racism and disparate treatment. And it’s a sickness that we have to keep working on, keep addressing—which is why I think one of the great geniuses of the Constitution is that the establishment of justice precedes ensuring domestic tranquility. It says: Establish justice, then ensure domestic tranquility. And then in order to keep the tranquility, you must provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare, in that order. You cannot have some kind of false peace.

Harris: You’re saying we can’t just shake hands and pat each other on the back without addressing the underlying issues.

Barber: It’s not even constitutional! Even if you don’t want to deal with it from a religious perspective—because you certainly can’t do it from a moral religious perspective. There’s no [part of] scripture that ever speaks to a peace that is with the absence of justice. Even in the Hebrew language, shalom is “peace.” But shalom is not just the absence of tension; it’s the presence of justice. And in the New Testament, Jesus never discussed some way of people being okay spiritually but still broken physically.

In our movement, we constantly challenge folk. We say there are five areas: systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation and the denial of health care, the war economy, and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism. Those are five interlocking injustices that threaten the soul of this nation. And if you don’t heal them—work on them in the body—then the soul, the peace, the domestic tranquility, the promises of the nation, are always being undermined. And you cannot address any of those things without addressing concrete, real policies.

People didn’t vote for “normal.” They didn’t vote for neoliberalism; they didn’t vote for trickle-down. They didn’t vote just to lift [people] from the middle class. People are hurting. And systemic racism and systemic poverty are the fissures that allow a pandemic to hold on in a society. If you’re in the aftermath of that, you cannot simply go look for normal, or suggest there’s some place behind us where everything was okay, where we were all united. That is not a truthful rendition of history. It is not a truthful remembrance. What we need to do is look for what [to do] together. And we need to heal from the bottom up.

Harris: You mentioned that people weren’t just voting to go back to the past; they’re voting for the future. But then you also have more than 70 million Americans who voted for the current president. How do you heal across that line?

Barber: First of all, it requires recognizing that America has always been a divided nation to some degree. And it has required the larger part of the division to want to move forward. And so you talk about the 72 million that voted [for Trump], for whatever reason. Not just for president; I think they voted for a way of life. They voted for a misguided vision of regression.

There’s been so many resources put in over the years to keep us divided. Dr. King, in 1965, talked about that at the end of the Selma-to-Montgomery movement. He said every time there’s the possibility of poor whites and poor Blacks joining together to build political power, to bring into existence a beloved community, the aristocracy—the bourbon class—sowed division. He was describing the 1860s, but he was applying it to the 1960s and was saying that we have to know this history and how it continues. So that’s one thing: The division is intentional. It’s not new. It did not begin with Trump. And it is not Trump’s alone.

We can’t stop after the inauguration and just say, “All is well.” We can’t make the mistake that was made when President [Barack] Obama was elected. We must keep building these nonpartisan movements like the Poor People’s Campaign, which goes into so-called red states and red counties. And we build relationships. We show people that they are being fooled by those who invite them to participate in racist voter suppression, for instance—but then turn around and vote against their union rights, their health care. And we are winning—though not everybody. It is possible. Sixty-two percent of Republicans in one study said they want a raise in their wages. Two-thirds of Americans want health care and want to guarantee that pre-existing conditions are covered. That’s why this new administration must fight for those things. Because when people you know have been fed lies, if you show them the truth, you recognize a lot of them are not bad people. They’ve been fed bad information. They’ve been shown a bad way.

I think that Biden and [Vice President–elect Kamala] Harris need to come south when they roll out the expansion plan for health care and for living wages, because many of those states are non-union states. Every time they do a policy, they need to have Democrats on the stage, Republicans on the stage, women on the stage, Black folks on the stage, Latinos on the stage, gay people on the stage. They need to show all the people this policy is going to impact, so that folks see a picture, not just hear numbers. Imagine Biden in Mississippi or Alabama laying out a health plan and showing how many thousands of people in Alabama—how many thousands of white people—would benefit from health care. We’ve got to have a political system that doesn’t give up on states and doesn’t write people off.