The poor you will have with you always, said Jesus in Matthew 26:11. Ask what it will take to end poverty and this will be many Christians’ reply. They explain inaction by arguing if God wanted to end poverty, he’d do so.
But people of faith misinterpret this Scripture, and in doing so have abdicated their responsibility to end poverty, said Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chairwoman of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, Monday night at Hope Presbyterian Church.
“When Jesus says this phrase, he isn’t condoning poverty,” said Theoharis, author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor.
“He’s reminding us of the fact that God hates poverty, that God has commanded us to end poverty by restructuring an edifice that produces beggars, that produces poverty.” Because people of faith don’t follow biblical commands — to forgive debts, release slaves and lend money you won’t get back — poverty persists, she said.
To the 500 or so people gathered in the church’s cavernous sanctuary, Theoharis issued a bold call: Join the Poor People’s Campaign, which picks up where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign of the same name left off. The new Poor People’s Campaign wants to get 1,000 people in Tennessee to sign a pledge stating their willingness to, among other things, “take part in civil disobedience.”
Around 450 people have taken the pledge so far.
Theoharis, an ordained Presbyterian minister with roots in Wisconsin, was in Memphis for Moral Mondays, a series of citywide gatherings to connect faith traditions of justice and fairness to what King called the three evils: poverty, racism and extreme militarism. Coordinated by the National Civil Rights Museum’s MLK50 Clergy Committee, organizers hope the gatherings will build local support for the campaign.
Again and again, Theoharis used King’s words to make her point that the new Poor People’s Campaign follows directly in the tradition of King.
In 1967, while announcing the Poor People’s Campaign, King said: “The dispossessed of this nation — the poor, both white and Negro — live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against the injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty.”
“Beginning in the New Year,” King said, “we will be recruiting 3,000 of the poorest citizens from 10 different urban and rural areas to initiate and lead a sustained, massive, direct action movement in Washington.”
King’s campaign stalled after his assassination April 4, 1968. The new Poor People’s Campaign will resurrect the same sort of massive, nonviolent civil disobedience, starting with 40 days of protest, starting on Mother’s Day and culminating with protests in statehouses across the country.
This movement is intersectional, focusing on “democracy and voting rights; poverty and economic justice; workers’ rights; education; healthcare; environmental justice; immigrant rights and xenophobia; criminal justice; LGBTQ rights; and war-mongering and the military,” according to the campaign’s website.
Theoharis’ critique was pointed and felt particularly biting at the megachurch, with its giant projection screens and elaborate stage lighting. While the Poor People’s Campaign is expressly nonpartisan, she blasted the GOP’s tax reform, calling it the largest transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top since the end of slavery.
“We need a moral revival to make this country great for so many for whom it has not been great,” she said.
The nation spends $630 billion every year on the military, but only $183 billion on education, jobs, housing and other programs to support the poor, Theoharis said.
“An edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring,” Theoharis said, repeating King’s words. “We are living in a society, in an edifice that produces beggars, and it needs restructuring.”
She followed Dr.James A. Forbes Jr., senior minister emeritus of Riverside Church in New York, an interracial, interdenominational church where King delivered his “Beyond Vietnam” sermon exactly one year before he was assassinated. Forbes is also the national minister for the Drum Major Institute, founded by King and attorney Harry Wachtel in 1966.
In a brief sermon, Forbes encouraged those gathered to set aside labels — black and white, Democrat and Republican, even pro-choice and pro-life.
“I can’t love fetuses and don’t love poor children,” Forbes said. “I can’t love Americans and be contemptuous of Haitians,” he said, a reference to President Trump’s Jan. 11 denunciation of Haiti and African nations as “shithole’ countries whose residents should be barred from immigrating to the United States.
The first Moral Monday was held in October at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, featuring the Rev. William Barber, co-chairman of the Poor People’s Campaign.
“Dr. King took a detour to come here, and 50 years later, Memphis has the distinction of having the highest poverty rate of any metro area in the United States,” Barber said, as the crowd gasped.
One in about five Tennesseans lives in poverty, Barber continued. Just over half of workers in Tennessee make less than $15 than hour in a right-to-work state, which, Barber pointed out, means employers have a right to fire workers for no cause. Memphis has one of the highest child poverty rates in the nation.
“We can’t let this continue to be the legacy of the place where he fell,” said Barber, who stepped down as the head of the North Carolina NAACP to lead Repairers of the Breach, a progressive and ecumenical group building the Poor People’s Campaign.
“We cannot keep having these celebrations and commemorations, and remembering what was done then and abdicating our responsibility to do what needs to be done now.”
The last Moral Monday event will be March 12 at Temple Israel. The Rev. Traci Blackmon, executive minister of justice and witness for United Church of Christ, will be the speaker.
For more information about Moral Mondays in Memphis and to register online, visit mlk50.civilrightsmuseum.org.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.