This past weekend the Rev. Dr. William Barber spoke at Riverside Church in NYC as the kickoff of the church’s yearlong Beyond the Dream: Living King’s Legacy, an”education and action initiative to create a more just and peaceful society.” April 4th is the fiftieth anniversary of King’s Riverside speech. (The text of Dr. King’s speech can be found here: Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.) Basket attended the service, and what follows is his report:
When Silence Is Not an Option
Setting the stage
April 2nd, 2017 – a gorgeous Sunday without rain where the clouds parted to let the sun shine through, and the breeze was gentle. I was in New York City attending two concerts at Carnegie Hall for the 100th anniversary of Scott Joplin’s death, and had heard on Twitter that Dr. Barber would be giving a sermon at Riverside Church to kick off a year of commemoration, celebration and reflection on the life and words of Dr. King. I was intrigued, but unsure about how applicable Dr. Barber’s words might be to a non-Christian.
During the service, the congregation was asked to reflect on two Scripture Lessons. The first lesson was about a valley full of dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14). God meshed the bones together to form bodies and covered them in skin, but they were still silent and unmoving – it was up to Isaiah to make them breathe, which he did by commanding them to.
The second lesson was about Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead 4 days after he died (John 11:17-45). A large stone was blocking the entrance to the cave where Lazarus lay, and Jesus asked the people who were mourning to move the stone. They hesitated, since Lazarus was dead and there was no reason to move the stone that was keeping the smell of death and decay away from the world. Yet Jesus insisted that they move the stone, until they eventually did. He then prayed to God and called for Lazarus to come out from the cave. Lazarus came out, bandaged and wrapped. Jesus asked the mourners to remove the bandages and wrappings, and let him go free.
This set the stage for Dr. Barber’s sermon.
Silence, in this context, can mean (although not limited to) one or more of the following:
- “Checking out” because one is overwhelmed and depressed due to forces such as Donald Trump, Fox News, oligarchy, Koch brothers (and their attendant dark-money political groups), and so on
Isolating oneself from the poverty and inequality (racism, bruised & battered, the sick, etc.) present in society. This could take the form of living in gated communities or certain school districts that are more affluent/better funded, or not being involved with one’s community
Observing / noticing systemic inequality (income, racial, anti-immigrant, gender-based, etc.) and/or the rise of militant consumerism and not speaking up or taking a stand
Feeling that injustice, moral emptiness and decay have won and that there is no point in doing anything
In this context, silence can also be considered a sin: the sin of seeing what is happening and not saying anything.
Why is silence not an option?
The status quo is unsustainable:
- War politics (militarism) and inequality are at historic levels; this includes not just economic inequality but all other forms
Extremely conservative religionists have been allowed to claim the Bible as their own without pushback, and have distorted the Bible to suit their own agendas or those of their (financial/spiritual) masters instead of serving God and His people
Violence (for example, poverty, lack of healthcare) is unjust and does not square with moral and natural laws
Call to action
Dr. Barber called out several instances where the gospel has been part of social change:
- New Deal
Civil Rights Act
Abolition of slavery
He challenged us to reclaim the original Biblical ethics & gospel from those who would seek to distort it, and to do so in a non-violent manner by promoting universal values, such as healthcare.
He cautioned that it would not be an easy, or comfortable, call:
- There are entrenched forces who will resist and react to any attempt to overturn the status quo
Even in the darkest depths of despair, when all is lost or seems to be lost, one will still have to continue to fight the good fight and run the race. Giving up is not an option
We will need to exert ourselves (moving the stone, or giving breath) to convince other people of the goodness and values of the teaching
You cannot “ask” people to hear you / the teaching. You must make them hear you
Nevertheless, the rewards are many:
- Those who feel that injustice has won and that they are powerless (the valley of dry bones, Lazarus), can still hear the call and respond
This teaching transcends political parties, liberal/conservative divides and other man-made barriers
There is a lot to unpack in Dr. Barber’s sermon, and I will most likely need to listen to it again (via the livestream) and reflect on his words and messages further. There are some questions that I have, to start guiding me along my attempt to determine my path:
- What role can I play given my current circumstances? (legal permanent resident, but not a US citizen, and becoming a citizen has its own complications which I need to consider)
How do I resist the temptation of living in a bubble? (gated community or other “safe” location)? It is a little bit easier for me now since I am single and don’t have any children, so I don’t have to be concerned about school districts, but I could see how that might be a factor for others
What can I do to help others? (financially, or through volunteering my time or skills). Even something as simple as performing music could help someone.
“See something, say something”: It feels difficult as an introvert, who wants to be left alone and leave other people alone unless they’re doing something blatantly illegal, and wants to be part of social circles, but not saying anything perpetuates the cycle of injustice and violence. What concrete steps can I take myself to address this? (expressing discomfort and speaking out against misogyny, casual racism and other “simple” forms of injustice is a start, but it is not enough)
There is a lot more that I haven’t really considered or elaborated on, mostly because I don’t have the religious or theological background to understand. But I certainly believe that Dr. Barber’s message is one that is applicable to all faiths and traditions, and even those who are atheist or agnostic.
I also want to take a moment to mention that the Riverside Church was very welcoming, and I felt like it was a place of sanctuary and healing for everyone. It was my first time attending a church service in what I believe is the African-American tradition, and I came away amazed and impressed by the atmosphere.
Addenda from DoReMI…The livestream can be found here; Dr. Barber’s sermon starts at about the 50:00 mark:
Listening again; so much to learn, so much to inspire.
— Sherry (@KossackDoReMI) April 4, 2017
— The Riverside Church (@RiversideNYC) April 3, 2017