On Moral Authority: The American Black Church as a Harbinger

Formal authority comes by virtue of an office and position in which one is placed. Authentic authority emerges from what humans do with their powers of agency. It may be an intellectual authority. It may mean an aesthetic authority. And it certainly means a moral authority. Sometimes office holders not only possess formal authority but authentic authority as well. In some offices, the moral authority is far more important than any formal authority that goes with a position. In that case, any sudden loss of moral authority means the office holder must leave. Thus, when an independent report was scathing about Canada’s Governor General’s mistreatment of the staff at Rideau Hall, Julie Payette almost immediately submitted her resignation.

If Blacks, particularly Black Churches, are now in the lead as sources of moral authority in America, how do Jews align with Black Lives Matter (BLM) when, on Israel, BLM, to say the least, offers little support, especially the radical left in the movement? Further, that critique extends well beyond the expansion of settlements to include structural criticisms of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) which BLM complains has been complicit if the destruction of olive trees owned by Palestinians and their eviction from land now claimed to be part of a national park. What is or should be the relationship between Blacks, Black movements and Jews? This is a critical question for Jews to ask at the beginning of Black History Month and which I will turn to in a subsequent blog after a closer analysis of the Jewish-Palestinian divide..

BLM embraces the concept of intersectionality, namely Black struggles for justice connect the Black community to larger, interdependent struggles and oppose the supremacy of one group over another, whether Whites over Blacks or Jews over Palestinians. Because of this confusion and identification of white supremacy with Jewish supremacy in Israel-Palestine, it is more helpful to start with an analysis of the moral thrust of the Black movement within Black churches independent of the question of Zionism and Israel.

On 21 January, the morning after the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as President and Vice-President respectively of the United States, William J. Barber, a Black pastor, offered the inauguration breakfast prayer at a ceremony in Washington. He is the President and Senior Lecturer at Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. In the homily offered at the official inaugural prayer service, he took his theme from Isaiah 58, more specifically, verse 12.

And [those coming] from you shall build ancient ruins, foundations of generations you shall erect, and you shall be called the repairer of the breaches, restorer of the paths, to dwell in. יבוּבָנ֚וּ מִמְּךָ֙ חָרְב֣וֹת עוֹלָ֔ם מֽוֹסְדֵ֥י דוֹר־וָד֖וֹר תְּקוֹמֵ֑ם וְקֹרָ֚א לְךָ֙ גֹּדֵ֣ר פֶּ֔רֶץ מְשׁוֹבֵ֥ב נְתִיב֖וֹת לָשָֽׁבֶת:

His sermon was called “Repairers of the Breach.” Listen to his sermon. Read his interview with David Remnick in The New Yorker Radio Hour (https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/tnyradiohour/episodes/william-barber-and-question-faith-and-politics)

and his discussion of faith and politics, a politics guided by faith and morality. Barber posited that “evan gel” entails preaching “the good news.” The term has been misappropriated by white evangelical churches to teach that if you are good you are wealthy and healthy in a strange form of Calvinism wherein the bad go to hell in the next life and live in poverty in this one, and where Jesus is a signed up member of the NRA. Instead, a true evangelical brings a critique of systems of injustice and conveys the good new of the spirit for the poor, the sick and the stranger.

Chapter 58 of Isaiah opens:

Call with a [full] throat, do not spare, like a shofar raise your voice, and relate to My people their transgression, and to the house of Jacob their sins.   אקְרָ֚א בְגָרוֹן֙ אַל־תַּחְשֹׂ֔ךְ כַּשּׁוֹפָ֖ר הָרֵ֣ם קוֹלֶ֑ךָ וְהַגֵּ֚ד לְעַמִּי֙ פִּשְׁעָ֔ם וּלְבֵ֥ית יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב חַטֹּאתָֽם:

You cannot be quiet. You cannot be quiescent. You must raise your voices without restraint. In the face of injustice, you must cry out. You must raise the shofar and summon the people and ask that they look into their own hearts and their own shortcomings, You must call out to the House of Jacob. You must oppose people calling to be cultists and committing murder. You must decry those ‘who pursue their own ends,” who “remain indifferent,” who are hypocrites who ignore strife and contention and their sources (verses 3 & 4).

My people is the House of Jacob. Not the House of Israel. Jacob has not yet become Israel. Jacob has not yet become a nation that went through the baptism of slavery and escaped into freedom in the process of forging a nation. They are those who must collectively renew their covenant with God and welcome the strangers to join with them in such rejoicing.

As we progress towards healing the breach according to Barber, overcoming the deep schisms and fault lines in society, the breach first must grow wider between the righteous, who become more righteous, and the wicked who become more wicked. (Chapter 57 versus 56).

To become more righteous, we must learn and teach how to overcome breaches – breaches between the healthy and the sick, the rich and the poor, the foreigner and the native-born, the black and the white, the Asian and the indigenous. We must recognize the breaches caused by the wicked by recognizing what we must not become – hypocrites and robbers in the night, spoilers and despoilers, those who created the jam we are in versus those who would lift us out of that sticky mess.

In that homily, Barber said that, “Isaiah asked the Israelites to choose between what is and how God wants things to be, between a current existential stress test and a moral ideal. The breach is when we say. ‘One nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all’ with our lips while we see the rich and the poor living in two very different Americas. The breach would be in knowing that the only way to destroy your nested tranquility is to establish justice. It is pretending that we can address the nation’s wounds with simplistic calls for unity. That is not how we can close the breach. The breach is telling lies when we need truth, expressing greed when we need compassion, fighting one another when we need to find common ground, and hating when we ought to be loving.”

As Barber joked in his New Yorker interview, the one thing Jesus did do is set up free health care clinics. Trump taught fear rather than love, enhanced strife rather than mutual caring. Renewal requires opening a moral conversation by exposing hypocrisy and blowing the shofar to call for a moral revival. Behind the political and social agenda there must be a higher moral agenda with a deep moral foundation. It should be no surprise that when Barber met with Blacks and Whites, Muslims and Jews, Hindus and atheists to move his moral campaign forward, they all met in a Birmingham synagogue.

The way forward requires the breach and its source be recognized and the breach be repaired by rejecting the immorality that is the foundation of that breach. “What we saw happen at The Capitol two weeks ago is the result of a long history of a politics of division that was cynically named positive polarization by those who thought they could use it for their own political advantage. This strategy of feeding and seeding intentional racial class divisions into the body politic spilled over into the inevitable violence that ideas of supremacy always produce. If we want to come out of this jam and move forward together, we cannot accept the racial disparities and racial violence and breaches that impact Black, brown, Asian and native Americans.”

The interlocking injustices that must be attacked include systemic racism, the health care crisis, poverty, natural degradation and a worldwide pandemic. Instead of patience, we must become impatient for justice. Instead of rest, we must become restless for change. We may wail and mourn over an insurrection, but in the morning after, light and loving will burst through. In our night of discontent, we must not surrender to resignation. Perverseness must be eliminated. Then, and only then, will “light shine in the darkness and your darkness shall be like noon.” (58:10) You shall become, “foundations of generations; you shall erect, and you shall be called the repairer of the breaches, restorer of the paths.” (58:12)

Moral authority is premised on principles and fundamental truths independent of written laws. Moral authority necessitates the existence of and adherence to truth. Truth however changes and alters with time. It grows and becomes more encompassing as it corresponds closer to experience. Lies and falsities are revealed more clearly. Frozen truth is but an embalmed moth in amber that presents itself as living but is in truth dead and not truth at all. Moral authority consists of the fundamental assumptions that guide our perceptions of the world and our actions based on those perceptions.

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