Dissent and the Work of Movements

Ever since my 11 months serving an interim pastorate in Tryon, NC, over the election year and Trump’s inauguration, I’ve taken solace and strength from the justice ministry of Rev. Dr. William Barber II.

His message of “fusion” was new to me, because as a white, Christian, straight, well-educated, cis-gender man in America, I’m as privileged as they come.

As plain as it was to see if you understand the divide-and-conquer history of white conservative politics, I’d always viewed social justice through the lens of giving away power to people who didn’t have it.

I had never thought about the power created when groups of disempowered people stopped seeing each other in competition and started working together on common needs and toward shared goals.

I heard it first at a pre-election rally in October 2016 in Asheville, NC, when Barber confessed he’d initially had reservations about trying to organize poor whites in the mountains to work side-by-side with already-mobilized poor people of color on issues like health care and a living wage.

And yet, once his “Moral Monday Movement” spread to the mountains, he said, he began hearing poor people of whatever race talking about the same problems and aspirations, all focused on justice and a longing for a better life.

Yet dissent and the building of movements requires courage and a commitment to “the long game.”

Barber: “When Harriet Tubman set 500 slaves free, she didn’t have Twitter. All she had was the North Star in the sky, marks on the north side of the trees, a made-up mind, and her faith in God. All she had was her dissent.

“When Justice John Marshall Harlan provided the sole vote against ‘separate but equal’ on the Supreme Court, he knew he didn’t stand a chance. But he knew that he had to register his dissent so that Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston could later build on that legacy.”

Now that I’m in St. Paul, MN, and working with organizations like ISAIAH on issues like health care, mass incarceration, and a living wage, I see what has come to be called “intersectionality” as part of the mainstream dialogue around change.

What a difference a couple of years makes. At least for me. I’m a slow learner.

Barber says that elections are not how we change history, but they play a huge role in how seemingly disparate social movements engage with power to bring about change that raises everybody up, and creates the kind of society we want and, I would say, Jesus would want.

The goal is not to win elections; it’s not even to turn red states purple or blue.

No, this is a different definition of winning. Although, as Barber says, “We are witnessing the death of the once-automatic victories of white extremism in the south,” we have a long way to go and much work to do. 51% of the voting public still did not vote in the midterms, and as long as candidates can campaign successfully on the basis of hate, our work is not done.


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