The Common Good

With God Some Things Never Change

The Rev. Dr. William Barber II. Photo via the author's website.
The Rev. Dr. William Barber II. Photo via the author's website.

Editor's Note: The following is the text the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina branches of the NAACP, preached to the Saturday evening crowd on the main stage at the Wild Goose Festival on June 23. Barber's rousing address had the crowd on its feet cheering and shouting Amens more than a few times. It's a lengthy read, but we promise you, it's well worth your time.

[Opening Prayer]: Thank you dear Lord that nobody is Greater than YOU. We know that whenever you call men and women to declare your word in your name you take the risk of putting treasure in broken vessels clay pots…so hide me behind your cross cover me in your blood, and by your grace let the words of my mouth be acceptable in your sight, Amen

He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? Micah 6:8

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised. Luke 4:18

I announce tonight at this Wild Goose Festival that I am a Theological Conservative. I have to blame my Grandmother from whom I learned applied theology. And my father is to blame. He took his faith in God more seriously than anyone I knew. And my mother who sang and played the old hymns to me as a boy, before what they call contemporary hymns. I’m talking about:

O, for a faith that will not shrink,
Though pressed by every foe,
That will not tremble on the brink
Of any earthly woe!

My grandmother once told me, “Son remember that what the Lord has said. The Lord meant it, whether we like it or choose to follow it.”

My father — a preacher justice activist — would often leave home to help persons who were victims of racism and oppression and injustice with literally no money in his pocket, sometimes no transportation, depending only on his thumb to hitch a ride. I once asked how he could move with such faith? And he said to me “God never changes, and since his name is Jehovah Jireh, which means I will provide; who am I not to trust and believe what God has said?”

So I’m a born and bred conservative. Which is to say, I have deep struggles with those who tend to call themselves ‘conservatives’ today, who liberally resist and ignore so much of God’s character. They say so much about what God says so little, and so little about what God says so much.

Now this methodology is not new. During slavery there were those who claimed deep adherence to scripture in their support of slavery and racism. They pulled out a few texts to build a whole system of injustice, while ignoring the multiplicity of texts that condemned human oppression. Though claiming to be Biblicists, they ignored as much of the Bible as they could, as though a half-reading of the Bible justified slavery.

During the Civil Rights Movement there were many who found ways to dismiss the biblical call for justice and righteousness. Many of them were so liberal in their dispelling of God’s demands that they criticized Dr. King; they said he was not acting like a preacher. And he had to remind them that if you read and accept the whole counsel of the triune God….you must challenge tri evils of racism, classism(poverty) and militarism.

It is my belief that in these shifting times, when so many are trying to promote the kind and benign and anemic Christianity that reduces the image of God to a mere sanctifier of our nation, no matter what injustices she commits. They try to turn God into nothing more than a spiritual prosperity slot machine.

We must remind ourselves to hold on to a faith that will not shrink and declare that with God some things never change.

When Micah -- or Mikayahu meaning ‘Who is like Yahweh?’— an 8th century (B.C.) prophet from the village of Moresheth in Judah was called, it was because the nation of Israel and culture had forgotten that God did not change. The people were adjusting the religion and its values to favor the wealthy; to ignore or sanctify the injustices; to abandon mercy and canonize greed. They were liberally adjusting the requirements of God to fit their own plans and premeditated schemes.

Micah is called, and as one author said, as it always is with prophets, to call the religious cultus back to God’s original intent. So Micah declares Israel must appear in court. The court of I am that I am.

Micah declares that God has a controversy. He called on the mountains to testify because they have been steadfast since the beginning, rock solid just like the requirements of God.

And Micah raises that question that everyone must ask when there are attempts to hi-jack the moral and righteous standards of our faith to serve the petty schemes of men.

‘What doth the Lord require?’ Micah asks. What never changes, from age to age with God? What is always God’s primary focus for his people? What transcends our labels? Our political alliances? Our situational ethics? What is greater than who has the political majority at any moment?

Do justice! Treat people right, treat communities right, treat the least of these right.

Love mercy! Love helping people. Love building a government that cares for all. Love the least, the left out. Enjoy lifting those who have been abandoned. Get excited about failures being rescued.

Walk humbly before your God! Never think as a nation that your bombs, missiles and weaponry is better than God. Never become a nation that’s unable to repent when you have mistreated the vulnerable. Never become so arrogant in your wealth that you refuse to lift the poor. Never become so vain that you pray for God to bless America and forget that God is not your exclusive property.

Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly before God.

God said it in the 8th century (B.C.), nearly 3,000 years ago, and it is still God’s priority today. Because with God, some things never change.

He said it again, 1,000 years after he used the prophet Micah, when Jesus came. Again the religious cultus had hijacked the moral and righteous standards of our faith, by changing what the Lord has said, and adjusting the faith to serve the few, the wealthy, the privileged. There are those who wanted to segregate access to God in God’s name

Go to the synagogue with me. Verse 16 of Luke 4. Jesus — God’s own son — God’s own self, opens God’s own word. Not a Bible with indices or a concordance. But a simple, unmarked scroll.

Deliberately, despite all of the passages available, Jesus anchors his ministry’s focus in the prophets, specifically, in Isaiah 61.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised and to declare the acceptable year of the Lord.

Jesus says, in the words of the younger generation, ‘Don’t get it twisted.’

As God’s anointed one, and those who will partake and follow in this anointing, our vocation today, as it has always been for those whom God calls, is to engage in the work of liberation of the poor, the blind, the captive, the oppressed, the outcast.

What is significant is that this is normative preaching.  This is at the heart, not at the margins, of the gospel. As Philip Esler notes the programmatic function of the church is rendered heretical, if we do not honor the pride of place in the inaugural preaching of Jesus given to the poor and others who are at risk and vulnerable within the world.

We are anointed to become agents of God, not merely for personal edification. The primary evidence of our anointing is our actions promoting the kingdom. The power to show uncommon grace, the anointing produces ability to address the death of our times. Anointing produces prophets who will not merely serve the culture, but who will call for a counter culture in Jesus name. Anointing produces prophets to save the church from being a mere consecrated club, and instead makes it a prophetic community.

Jesus said this in the midst of Roman domination. In the face of all its pomp and power that allowed ‘religion’ as long as it did not challenge the state . . . or the state of things.

R. MacMullen, in his study of Roman culture titled Roman Social Relations noted that,

“The aristocracy continually reminded the others of their superior position by their conspicuous consumption, their entourages in the cities, their dress, education, and titles, and by insisting that the law discriminate positively in their favor. Those of the decurions were exiled for capital crimes while the other 99% of the population where crucified, fed to wild beasts, or forced to work in mines for much lesser crimes. The ruling class looked down on those who earned a living by manual labor.”

Cicero described the majority of Roman society as “sodes urbis et faex” — the filth and dregs of the city.

How extraordinary it must have sounded to an audience in a Greco-Roman city for the Lucan Jesus to begin his public ministry by specifying beggars and a number of other groups at the very bottom of the social register as the primary recipients of the gospel.

With God Some Things Never Change.

By the power of the anointing, the church is called to have a different outlook. Jesus’ example made it our burden, our calling, to be mindful of the poor, the weak, those on the sidelines of life. And we can not escape this call. Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers noted that Jesus, by the Spirit, puts forth a different “value” than the value of the world atmosphere. Our society produces a unique value to money that has made wealth the highest value.

The church cannot be seduced into considering people like the world considers people. Salvation in Luke 4:18 is God's initiative to bring wholeness back into the created order. It is meant to save humanity from its inhumanity. God desires to save us from anything that oppresses us — racial injustice, economic injustice, and anything that works against the solidarity of the human community.

The contemporary church needs to hear this afresh because too often it has become so accommodative to the worship of wealth that its theology is often viewed as a justification of economic injustice.

In Jesus and the Disinherited, Howard Thurman writes “This is the position of the disinherited in every age. What must be the attitude toward the rulers, the controllers of political, social, and economic life?”

Jim Wallis notes the anointing of the Holy Spirit is the impetus for a “prophetic spirituality.”

The notion of spirituality is quite popular today. But much of what is coined as spirituality is not even close to what Jesus had in mind. “Prophetic Spirituality” is what Bishop Tutu calls the “spirituality of transformation”.

This spirituality calls us to be suspicious of the concentrations of wealth and privilege and power, and to mistrust ideological rationalism that justifies subordinating persons and to become specifically sensitive to the poor, the disenfranchised, the stranger, and the outsider.

The anointing of the Holy Spirit pushes us not to accept things the way they are. The anointing of God’s Spirit makes us be aware and concerned about all people’s personhood.

When I took economics, the professor told us that most economic theories write off 5-10 percent of the population. The value system of the anointing of the Holy Spirit won’t allow you to do that.

When we have had what Dr. William Turner, professor of preaching and theology at Duke University, calls a “Crisis experience of conversion,” our active orientation to life is shifted. In other words, “when the Spirit moves and we are saved, born again, changed, filled, however you describe it, what follows is a challenge to the way things are. Being moved by the Spirit necessitates a “quarrel with the way things are in the world.” Because the world is out of kilter with the ways of God.

That’s why no matter how much one uses the language of the church; no matter how often one says “trusting in God,” “born again,” “filled with the Spirit,” if the result is not a liberation focus, if the church speaks of Christ but defends the powerful and says nothing and more importantly does nothing about social things that ravage men’s lives, the claim of being in the spirit must remain suspect.

Because with God some things never change.

I know there are those who say our concern as the people of God should be private soul-saving, private devotion, private praise, and private/personal morality that addresses issues of the inner man only. They would say the church should have no real voice in social/cooperative liberation. But they dismiss too liberally so much of what God says.

I’m not unmindful that these forces are real and want us to go along to get along.

Across our nation, across our world, these are tough times. Driven by the false worship of market morality, we've seen an implosion of our economy that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression. There are some who want us to have pity on the billionaires. They want us to inflict more pain on the poor. We have politicians who claim they are being faithful, while pandering to bigots, race‐ baiting those who have been forced to seek welfare.

Never before in history has so much money been spent to resist the struggle for equality. The gross sums of money being spent to take us backwards are lewd. It's pornographic. It is blatant and it is arrogant.

These are troubling times. Corporations are treated like people. People are treated like things. Banks are objects of worship. Their sinful use of usury is forgiven while we pay the price. They get bail‐outs from loans with our money. . . . . with no interest! The banks then turn around and lend our money to us with high interest.

We must know there is a better way. In the midst of these changing times, we must know there is a standard that never changes

This long nightmare of regressive public policy and mean, oppressive politics are taking us in the wrong direction. These backward policies and oppressive politics want us to accept an anemic faith and selling out to the highest bidder. But we must not!

We embarked on a tour of our state several months ago called “Putting A Face on Poverty” because both in our private and public politics, we had become accustomed to committing so much attention violence against the poor, in our private and public attitudes and sometimes even in our pulpits and places of worship concern for the vulnerable is not visible.

Nearly 1.6 million of God’s human family now lives in abject poverty in North Carolina. Between 50 to 100 million in the United States, depending on how you measure it, while we claim to be the wealthiest nation on earth. Yet there our hundreds of millions of our sisters and brothers throughout the world who are poor. The silence of righteous indignation is deafening and defiles our spirit.

One day on the tour we came to Hickory, North Carolina. We were invited to walk down a path into the woods. We were not going to a Wild Goose Festival. We were confronted with the fresh reality of man’s inhumanity to man. As we walked along the path we saw baby dolls and toys, eerie signs that there were children amidst all our affluence, amidst all our wealth, amidst all our national claim to be one nation, there were children living under and beneath the trees and brushes of the woods like animals.

When we got to the community in the middle of the woods, we met God’s family — black, brown and white; male and female.

I was brought to uncontrollable tears when our new friends welcomed us. They swept the dirt and made space for us among the grass and the weeds. They told us of how often the authorities would come out to their small community and run them out of the woods because the city did not want to acknowledge its level of devastating poverty.

And yet, in that same city, like so many other places, politicians open their meetings with  prayers unto God. Good church folk come to service and ask God for more personal abundance and more personal prayers. Standing in those woods it seems like I heard God saying,

You want to know Why it is you fast and I don't look your way?

You humble yourselves and I don't even notice?

Well, here's why:

The bottom line on your 'fast days' is profit.

You drive your employees much too hard.

You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight

You fast, but you swing a mean fist.

The kind of fasting you do won't get your prayers off the ground.

Do you think this is the kind of fast day I'm after: a day to show off humility?

To put on a pious long face and parade around solemnly in black?

Do you call that fasting, a fast day that I, God, would like?

This is the kind of fast day I'm after: to break the chains of injustice,

Get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed,

Cancel debts.  

(Isaiah 58:3-9)

Seems like I heard God voice saying to the nation to even the church — Come out of the exile of false religion. Come out of the exile of the religion of idolatry and self worship, that only sustain oppression, rather than alleviate it.

Come out of the exile of religion that serves itself and avoids the real people, the vulnerable people whom God adores.

We need a salvation. A saving. A release from the kind of religion that has liberally removed itself from the unchanging values of God and dared to call itself conservative.

Because some things with God never change.

The better way says, if we follow God’s religious values we can use global technology, green economy, and targeted economic and infrastructure investment, total access to education, and creative job creation strategies to address the ugly realities of poverty. If we follow the enduring ethic of love we can beat our swords of racism into the plows that will till the new soil of brotherhood and sisterhood

If we see the poor as our neighbors, if we remember we are our brother’s keeper, then we shall put the poor, rather than the wealthy, at the center of our agenda.

If we hold on to God’s values, the sick shall have good health care. The environment shall be protected. The injustices of our judicial systems shall be made just. We shall respect the dignity of all people. We can love all people. We can see all people as God’s creations.

We can use our resources to develop our minds and economy, rather than build bombs, missiles, and weapons of human destruction.

Do we want to keep pressing toward God’s vision?  Values are once again the question of our times.

Do we want a just, wholesome society, or do we want to go backwards? This is the question before us. And I believe that at this festival there is still somebody who wants what God wants. Somebody who understands there are some things with God that never change

There are still some prophetic people that have not bowed, who as a matter of faith know that Love is better than hate. Hope is better than despair. Community is better than division.

Peace is better than war. Good of the whole is better than whims of a few. God wants everybody — red, yellow, black, brown and white taken care of. God wants true community, more togetherness … not more separateness. God wants justice, always has, always will.

Because with God some things never change.

So no matter how tough things are. No matter how antithetical things are to the values of God. Remember that God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Hold on to faith. Trust that God is not impotent. He and His ways shall still be exalted. Thus saith the Lord still carries weight. His Spirit that anoints is still able to strengthen and sustain us. Know that, because God never changes

Weeping may endure for a night. Mean politicians may endure for a night. But joy still comes in the morning. We will never lose our faith. We might have some dark Fridays. Crucified on Friday, dark Fridays, socially dark, politically dark, economically dark Fridays. But we will not lose our faith. Because we know... we know that dark Fridays have to give way to bright Sunday morning resurrections.

We shall overcome. We shall survive. God’s vision, God’s dream will win out.

We shall be called repairers of the broken places. Crooked places will be straightened out; rough places will be made smooth. God’s glory, God’s power, God’s way shall be revealed.

The same grandmother that taught me applied theology also taught me that life has its ups and down but have a melody in your faith a song in the night, She taught me to sing:

Time is filled with swift transition,
Naught of earth unmoved can stand,
Build your hopes on things eternal,
Hold to God’s unchanging hand.

Hold to God’s unchanging hand,
Hold to God’s unchanging hand;
Build your hopes on things eternal,
Hold to God’s unchanging hand.

Trust in Him who will not leave you,
Whatsoever years may bring,
If by earthly friends forsaken
Still more closely to Him cling.

Covet not this world’s vain riches
That so rapidly decay,
Seek to gain the heav’nly treasures,
They will never pass away.

And when she was old and could almost see hear the voices of the saints calling form the other side of the veil she said don’t forget….

When your journey is completed,
If to God you have been true,
Fair and bright the home in glory
Your enraptured soul will view.

Hold to God’s unchanging hand,
Hold to God’s unchanging hand;
Build your hopes on things eternal,
Hold to God’s unchanging hand.

Hold on to God's way. Don’t loose your sanity in and insane world of meanness. Keep loving keep doing justice keep believing…don’t worry about who is in the majority stand on Gods Word, Trust in His Spirit…

Believe what he said…

Hold to God’s unchanging hand,
Hold to God’s unchanging hand;
Build your hopes on things eternal,
Hold to God’s unchanging hand...

The Rev. Dr. William Barber II is president of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and pastor of Greenleaf Christian (Disciples of Christ) Church of Goldsboro, N.C. Learn more about the Rev. Barber on his website RevWilliamBarber.com.

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