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.