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Morality and Movements: Mobilizing for Social Change

This blog is part of Caffeinated Commentary - a monthly series where the Millennial Fellows create interesting and engaging content around a theme. As we enter the holiday season, the Millennial Fellows have chosen to explore the ideas of community and home. 

On December 4th, the Poor People’s Campaign: a National Call for Moral Revival publicly announced its plan to mobilize over 25,000 people for 40 days of nonviolent direct action, civil disobedience, and voter registration across the country. While Congress would spend the morning working through the final touches of a demonstrably inequitable tax bill, hundreds of activists and organizers, clergy and laity, press and those passionate for social change squeezed into the United Methodist Fellowship Hall. The energy of the room was fervent; speakers articulated a national crisis of systemic racism, poverty, militarism, ecological devastation.

These four areas of concern are an update of Martin Luther King Jr.,’s 3 Evils of Society that informed his last work. The launch of the new campaign was marked with the release of a preliminary report presenting a detailed policy analysis, divided into four sections. Yet it is a fifth dynamic of the campaign--what co-chairs Reverend Liz Theoharis and Reverend William Barber have referred to as the nations distorted moral agenda--that makes the campaign especially relevant amongst the current landscape of progressive movement groups in America.

This moral narrative is buttressed by the religious weight of the Christian church, although the campaign explicitly does not confine or concern itself to a particular religious base or message. As Reverend Barber stated on December 4th, “we are not the religious left. We are not the religious right. We are talking about the prophetic moral center. We need moral analysis, we need moral articulation, and we need moral action.” His remarks allude to the fact that too often, political positions of the conservative right have held a monopoly over moral rhetoric, only to the detriment of progressive political agendas. Reverend Barber states that “only through the tears of supplication and repentance, might we have the possibility of a reconstruction,” and called to lift up the testimonies of those suffering under conditions of racism, poverty, militarism, and ecological devastation. In their remarks, both Reverend Theoharis and Reverend Barber leave no doubt that the Poor People’s Campaign seeks to understand the problems of poverty, healthcare, voter suppression, and other policy concerns as moral affronts.

The campaign is not the only effort underway to reshape American politics. Since the 2016 election a litany of progressive interests have looked to establish a popularly-based, mass political movement that could build off both Senator Bernie Sanders’ insurgent primary run and Trump’s victory. Some of these groups have emphasized running candidates, while others look to expand particular issues into broader aims for social transformation. Additionally, organizations have also focused on movement infrastructure, achieved through trainings and workshops. Yet few define their work in expressly moral language, highlighting instead political interests in terms of the identities of working families, people of color, women, and other marginalized groups, or alternatively appealing to individuals on more stricter ideological grounds.

I would suspect that for many of us who commit ourselves to a notion of progressive political change, the campaign’s focus on morality may seem archaic, if not misguided. This is often borne out of the concern that moral frameworks depoliticize or obscure expressly political problems. When Assata Shakur argues that “nobody in history has gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people oppressing them,” she is attuned to the realization that we as a society lack a shared moral basis, that power defines politics, and that it is the fight for power that we must ultimately engage in if we are to change human conditions. Indeed, when solely constructed in terms of individual action, moral analysis can often lead to empty posturing rather than any form of political coordination.

While I am inclined to agree with these insights, I also believe that it would be wrong to conceive of politics as separate from concerns over morality. In recognizing the Poor People’s Campaign as an explicitly moral movement, I want to highlight how moral analysis need not depoliticize injustice, and how it can instead aid in political mobilization and engagement.

First, I believe that the campaign rejects arguments pertaining solely to individual moral action as a guiding analysis of our nation’s moral crisis. In a Birmingham, Alabama press conference referencing the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, Reverend Barber stated that debates over racism in America have become confused by questions of “whether there's some good people or bad people on both sides.” Instead, he states that “racism is not necessarily about hate….racism is not about whether you have a black friend, or whether you kiss a black baby at a rally.” Under this conception, “racism is about institutional policy. Racism is about power.” Similar sentiments were expressed in relation to issues of poverty, militarism, and ecology. The campaign correctly observes how laws, institutions, and policies must operate as the primary unit of moral analysis, while identifying the distribution of power to be a fundamental concern for achieving a morally just society.

Second, the campaign’s focus on civil disobedience as moral action allows for political community to be generated through engaged action. While the benefit of moral rhetoric towards a political goal is most often associated with its ability to enlist large numbers of people, it is its relationship to nonviolent civil disobedience and its invocation to build community through collective struggle that can be the most impactful to a progressive movement. Consider this passage quoted by Reverend Barber on December 4th:

“Amos chapter five gave us the prescription for a day like this. It says in verse 14, “seek good and not evil, and live. As a nation you talk about God, the angel armies being your best friend; well live like it, and maybe it will happen. I need you to be a nation that hates evil and loves good, but I need you to work it out in the public square. And then maybe the god of the angel army will notice your remnant, and be gracious. Now God says to those who want to see change, go out into the streets, and lament loudly. Fill the malls and the shops with the cries of doom, weep loudly, empty the offices, empty the stores, empty the workplaces, enlist everybody that knows they need to be crying into a general lament. I, God, want to hear it loud and clear, if I hear you crying in the street, dissenting, refusing to go along with the injustice, then I will make my visit.”

Thinking of the Poor People’s Campaign as a movement that transcends religious reference, Amos’ text can also be read as an insistence upon collective action for a public purpose. To establish a remnant requires not a mass of people, but a committed collection of those who are able to work in concert with one another over some moral purpose. The notion of a remnant is comparable to the type of voluntary associations that for political scholars like Tocqueville serve to cultivate an obligation to citizenship and enhance political education.

Yet at its core, Reverend Barber’s statement is a call for people to engage in direct, visible, public action. It is this link between moral analysis and civil disobedience that carries with it the potential for building political community. For unlike conscientious objectors, civil disobedience necessitates the formation of a group, one that can understand it’s problems in moral terms while acting in political coordination.

And this is where I believe the strength of the campaign will show itself: this summer, when 40 days of coordinated civil disobedience begin. As a collective sense is built through sustained protest, the door will open for greater political engagement in our country. Successful civil disobedience can breed solidarity through struggle, a struggle that in this case is initiated through appeals to a collective morality.

The strength of political community depends largely on the work that propels it into existence. For those of us seeking progressive political transformation in this upcoming year, the Poor People’s Campaign will provide the opportunity for participation in sustained action coordinated across the country, all of which will work towards challenging issues of racism, poverty, militarism, and ecological devastation in America. Let us consider their moral call, and build a politics through answering it.