taking the words of Jesus seriously

Editor’s Note: This piece first appeared on the RLC blog on April 6, 2020 but is perhaps even more relevant four years later. We share it again in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the day following the 57th anniversary of his death. 

In the global crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, public education about the symptoms of this disease is critical. When we recognize that something which impacts anyone of us can quickly impact all of us, we know everyone must learn the signs of what the disease looks like before it is too late.

As we watch public health officials at press conferences and on public service announcements, we have all learned that if you have fever, headaches and difficulty breathing, you cannot take those symptoms lightly. You must quarantine and be tested because these are not only the symptoms of COVID-19; they are also a sign that you could in fact be moving toward death.

53 years ago this past Saturday, on April 4th, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King stood in the Riverside Church in New York City and declared that there comes a time when silence is betrayal. He listed racism, poverty and militarism as three evils that were placing the United States of America and even the world in danger. 

As he delivered his sermon that night, he also said that any nation that puts more money and resources into its military than into social and economic uplift is approaching spiritual death. Dr. King did not say that such a nation was dead, but he named these as the symptoms of a nation approaching spiritual death. In these critical days when we have been made especially sensitive to the need to watch for symptoms, it is not just our physical bodies we must watch but also our body politic. 

The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival has named the symptoms of approaching spiritual and moral death in America right now. In this moment, it is essential that everyone in the nation know the symptoms. To fail to address them for any person or group is to risk the well-being of every American. Now is the time to treat these symptoms with the medicine of moral revival.

We cannot delay. We cannot succumb to those forces who say we must put off larger systemic concerns until this public health crisis has passed. No, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed America’s pandemic of poverty, and we must act together to address these underlying conditions before they do irreparable damage to our democracy.

Epidemics emerge along the fissures of our society, reflecting not only the biology of the infectious agent, but patterns of marginalization, exclusion and discrimination. The coronavirus pandemic is no exception. The United States has many open wounds rooted in decades of racist policies and the criminalization of the poor. COVID-19 has revealed deep failures and will reinforce existing health inequities unless we proactively turn our attention to the how we serve the poorest and most marginalized in our societies.

Well before our present crisis, the symptoms of greed and lies pointed to the reality that we were approaching spiritual and moral death. But now one germ has exposed our weakness. One germ had laid bare the vulnerability of inequality. One germ has shut down the world because we can’t bomb it out, we can’t lie it out, we can’t pay enough money to make it go away. And so, we must attend to the symptoms of a nation approaching spiritual death.

Before this present crisis, we had 140 million poor and low wealth people in the wealthiest nation in the world. 43% of this nation was living in poverty and low wealth, and because of this underlying condition, 700 people were already dying each day from poverty. 

We hear the reports that 200,000 people could die from COVID-19 and we are terrified because we know that could be any one of us or our loved ones. But the US is quickly racing toward to highest death rate in the world because the extreme inequality we have long tolerated in this nation creates underlying conditions that make us peculiarly susceptible to this disease. 

For 40 years in this nation, Republicans have racialized poverty while Democrats have tried to run from poverty, only wanting to talk about the middle class and working Americans, as if there were not millions of working poor people in this country. Prior to this pandemic we had millions upon millions of Americans without health insurance. Many states refused to even expand Medicaid. Furthermore, we saw outright racist attacks on the most fundamental aspect of a democracy: voting rights.  

Before the pandemic ever hit, these were the symptoms of a nation fast approaching a kind of spiritual and moral death.

The symptoms also included a refusal to address the climate crisis that is threatening the planet. 

We also found ourselves with a war economy budget that took 53 cents of every discretionary dollar and fed it to an already bloated and overgrown military budget while working people were being denied living wages and union rights.

And this was all happening alongside a religious nationalism that suggests the only moral issues in the public square are standing against a woman’s right to choose, being against gay people, and touting a twisted notion of religious freedom that is actually about using religion to discriminate.

READ: King’s Poor People’s Campaign Lives Again

All of these things we believe were signs of a nation approaching spiritual and moral death.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the symptoms worsened. As soon as it became clear that the president had lied when he said that the virus would quickly pass, the first move was to give Wall Street and corporations a record bailout. The very people who’ve wondered aloud how we would ever find the money to address the needs of poor and low wealth people suddenly realized overnight that a government can invest in anything it considers essential to its survival. This is a glaring sign of a nation approaching spiritual and moral death because the greed of Wall Street was placed above the lives of people. 

While the pandemic grew, more signs of an approaching spiritual death became evident. Last week, Congress passed a relief bill that left out millions of poor and low wealth people. People in our society who make $12,000 as an individual or $24,000 as a couple do not have to file taxes, but only tax filers got a one-time $1200 bail out in this relief bill. It’s another symptom that we are approaching spiritual death.

As tens of millions live under stay-at-home orders, we now call grocery workers, janitors in hospitals, fast food and other service workers “essential.” But we refuse to ensure their paid sick leave, we deny them living wages, and we do not guarantee them access to healthcare if and when they do get sick. It’s one of the underlying conditions this pandemic is exposing, and it is a symptom of this nation’s approaching spiritual death.

When we take a moment to pay attention, these symptoms are all around us. Masks that were 76 cents a piece 6 weeks ago are selling on the open market for $7 a piece—and this is the market the Trump administration is trusting to get supplies where they are needed most quickly.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that 75% or the workers who need the direct cash payments from the IRS will not get them because they fall into categories of workers who were written out of the legislation. 

When we turn out the news at night, healthcare workers are holding pictures of their dead colleagues. A ship captain who spoke out to save the lives of his men has been relieved of duty. And the White House keeps saying they can’t do more because it would violate states’ rights, echoing the logic of the 19th century slaveholders.

These are, my sisters and brothers, signs of a nation approaching spiritual death.

11 million undocumented workers who pay sales tax and pay into Social Security were denied testing and treatment during this pandemic, as though the disease will not impact the people who are often preparing and picking this nation’s food.

Across this nation, as we take shelter in our homes, we’ve made few real provisions for homeless people, so that they can comply with stay-at-home orders. As America tries to protect itself from this pandemic, we’ve given trillions to corporations, but politicians refused to provide the $50 billion needed to provide childcare to essential workers. What moral sense does this make?

We see the symptoms of a nation fast approaching spiritual death. 

For those in our prison systems, there has been no real effort to remove nonviolent offenders or even nonviolent persons who are awaiting trial but cannot afford bail despite the fact that prisons are fast becoming petri dishes where the virus is quickly spreading. So, someone who is merely awaiting trial could die as an innocent person in jail or prison because of the underlying condition of an unjust system of mass incarceration.

Lastly, though we see all of the nurses and the doctors and emergency workers and the orderlies and the janitors who are going in on the front lines and treating people in hospitals begging for equipment, the President and his team refuse to use the Defense Production Act to nationalize manufacturing in a way that could ramp up production to get what is needed because of some misguided fear that this would look like socialism. When political ideology prevents us from acting to save lives, we are a nation fast approaching spiritual death.

When we look at what is happening in the mist of this pandemic, we see the symptoms of an approaching spiritual death. They cannot be denied. And we do ourselves and our posterity a disservice if we turn to false hope and look away from this pain.

This week what is happening became so glaring that the Boston Globe wrote, “The crisis was preventable… As the American public braces itself for the worst of this crisis, it’s worth remembering that the reach of the virus here is not attributable to an act of God or a foreign invasion, but a colossal failure of leadership. The months the administration wasted with prevarication about the threat and its subsequent missteps will amount to exponentially more COVID-19 cases than were necessary.”

But if we are willing to look honestly at our condition, we will also see that there are, even now, people standing up across this nation. Yes, we have symptoms of spiritual death and the underlying conditions that compromise our body politic. But we are also witnessing the fighting spirit of a democracy that is determined not to die. When we pay attention to organizing among poor and marginalized people who have always been this nation’s greatest hope, we see a revival of the desire to establish justice and to promote the general welfare. 

Click here to watch the full recording of Rev. Dr. William Barber’s livestream. 

About The Author


The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is Pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church and President of Repairers of the Breach. He has served as president of the North Carolina NAACP, the largest state conference in the South, since 2006 and sits on the National NAACP Board of Directors. A former Mel King Fellow at MIT, he is currently Visiting Professor of Public Theology and Activism at Union Theological Seminary and is a Senior Fellow at Auburn Seminary. Rev. Barber is author of the best-selling The Third Reconstruction: How A Moral Movement Is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear.

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