“America has always had a hard time with living up to who she says she is on paper.” A prominent voice in the struggle for social justice throughout this country, Rev. William J. Barber II, D.Min., preached this message during the first of four lectures he will give at St. John’s University throughout the 2018–19 academic year.
Bishop Barber has been selected holder of the St. John’s University Vincentian Chair of Social Justice. The theme for this year’s lecture series is “It’s About Right and Wrong”; his first lecture, “America, America, What’s Going On? A Moral Critique,” took place on October 25 in St. Thomas More Church on the University’s Queens, NY, campus.
Bishop Barber is the President and Senior Lecturer of Repairers of the Breach, and Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. An accomplished author, preacher, and professor, he has served as President of the NAACP's North Carolina state chapter.
During his introduction to Bishop Barber, Rev. Bernard M. Tracey, C.M., Executive Vice President for Mission at St. John’s University, explained the Bishop’s qualifications to hold the Chair. “Bishop Barber is a moral leader who is a prominent voice in the struggle for rights of African-Americans, the poor, and other marginalized people throughout the United States,” Fr. Tracey remarked.
Rev. Patrick J. Griffin, C.M., Executive Director for the Vincentian Center for Church and Society, is confident Bishop Barber would have worked side by side with St. Vincent de Paul. “They would be allies. They would be collaborators. They both believed in direct service to the poor.”
Before he began, Bishop Barber encouraged an impromptu singing of “This Little Light of Mine,” a gospel song written for children in the 1920s. He randomly selected audience members who reflected the diversity of the large crowd to join him in song. This lively opening set the stage for a passionate lecture whose title was derived from the iconic song by Marvin Gaye, which was inspired by a similarly challenging time in US history.
Exuding warmth and a deep commitment to the values he espouses, Bishop Barber discussed how in all of our deepest religious traditions, there exists fundamental moral values: love, truth, and the notion that every person is made in the image of God, “that the poor, and the stranger, and those who are sick, are supposed to be at the forefront of the nation, if that nation is trying to live out moral wisdom.”
Referencing the preamble to the US Constitution, he explained that individuals elected to public office swear to care about their constituents over themselves, and that every policy they pass will be to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, and promote the general welfare.
Citing relevant historical events and ongoing civil rights struggles, Bishop Barber said that in order to understand what is wrong with America today, one must understand what has always been wrong. “What you see now is not new, nor is it the worst thing we have ever seen.” He observed that whenever there has been a move in this country toward more inclusivity, no matter the ethnic, cultural, or religious group, there has always been resistance. “We have always had a moral struggle in America.”
Bishop Barber stressed that what we face today is not a left or right problem, nor a conservative or liberal problem, “but a heart problem. It’s a moral malady.” Several things need to happen to combat this current crisis effectively. “The first disease we need to address is systemic racism,” which Bishop Barber defined as voter suppression, immigrant injustice, and the re-segregation of public schools.
Another issue that needs attention is systemic poverty, the Bishop noted. In the world’s richest nation, 43.5% of its population lives in poverty, he said. “We have to address ecological devastation and health care as a moral issue.” He explained that the number of natural disasters have increased almost exponentially in this century. In regard to health care, even with the Affordable Care Act, 37 million people remain uninsured. He also spoke of a “war economy” that is more concerned with building up a military arsenal rather than spending money on domestic programs that will aid those in need.
America needs a moral analysis, Bishop Barber stressed. “We need spaces like this to tell the truth about our history. We need a moral movement to revive the heart of our democracy.” He added, “We need to have some moral articulation and dissent, because our deepest faith and our Constitutional tradition have been hijacked to serve greed, racism, and lies. We must raise our voices. Silence is not an option.”
As he concluded his powerful speech, Bishop Barber asked those assembled to remember “moral dissenters” like Henry David Thoreau, Dorothy Day, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He stressed that moral activism is needed in today’s world, and that people should come together in love, and follow the example of those who have stood against oppression in the past.
“Bishop Barber espoused a moral code built upon both faith-based and democratic values,” observed Colleen M. Greaney, Ph. D., Director, Department of Environmental Health & Safety, and Adjunct Instructor, Department of Theology and Religious Studies. “He embraced our Catholic and Vincentian values of truth, love, respect, and service, noting that these are inherent in all great faith traditions.”
“I felt Bishop Barber's lecture was a powerful and necessary critique of the current state of affairs in our nation today,” said Ashley M. Oliver, a graduate student in the School Psychology Psy.D. program. “He unapologetically denounced racism, sexism, and classism, all while simultaneously promoting love and inclusivity of all people.”
She added, “Bishop Barber brilliantly and lovingly challenged us all to be action-oriented in our pursuit of social justice. My hope is that his wisdom will prompt our campus community to respond to injustices faced by marginalized groups and inspire all students to advocate for just treatment and policies.”
Bishop Barber returns to St. John’s for three more lectures throughout the 2018–19 academic year that expand on the theme he established.