Waco, Texas – The Rev. Dr. William Barber II spoke to an audience at Baylor University on Tuesday, encouraging them to follow the lead of the poor and marginalized in the United States in creating a “Third Reconstruction.” He was invited to Baylor for the Whitten Endowed Lecture Series, which highlights the expression of Christian faith as it intersects with the public square. 

Barber laid the groundwork for a new reconstruction of U.S. society by describing the first two reconstructions. These occurred after the Civil War and during the Civil Rights Movement. Both reconstructions were quickly dismantled after periods of significant progress. According to Barber, “The deconstruction of our promises has forced us over and over again to have to engage in reconstruction.” 

Paraphrasing John J. Chapman, he said, “The reason we have to keep going through reconstruction is because every time we sat down to write a declaration or Constitution, racism and the consideration of race [and class], were there like a snake, a sleeping serpent, coiled under the table. As soon as there was an attempt to address racism, that snake would bite and poison the conversation.” 

He explained that the first reconstruction began when “African Americans joined hands with whites, especially poor whites from the South, who came to see that slavery and racism hurt them, too.” This resulted in the first public school system and the expansion of voting rights.

Reconstruction “was the struggle to rebuild and reinvent Southern society after the war, and thereby rebuild and reconstruct America itself.” 

The second reconstruction came a century later, from 1954 to 1968. Barber said this occurred when “Blacks and Whites together, with all their brown allies, turned to ‘fusion politics’ to revive the promise of America.” He recited a litany of their successes, from further expansion of public education and voting rights to strengthening healthcare for all and equal rights for women. 

But, according to Barber, “Raving Dixiecrats and conservative extremists revolted against this unity and created a backlash.” The backlash, known as the Southern Strategy, was a political movement that relied on “positive polarization,” pitting different racialized groups against one another. The goal of these “deconstructors” was always to “take the country back.” 

Barber described the result of the dismantling of the first two reconstructions by citing statistics on poverty that affect people of all racialized groups. He spoke of the country’s wealth gap, exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. During that time, “billionaires made two trillion dollars” while “poor and low-wage workers were suddenly not ‘service workers’ anymore, but rather ‘essential workers'” who were not offered healthcare or a raise in the minimum wage. 

Barber then shifted from lecture to sermon by suggesting that the book of Ezekiel could serve as God’s marching orders on these issues. “Reconstruction is not a new concept. It is a prophetic concept. It is as old as the book of Ezekiel,” Barber said.

“Ezekiel had to prophesy to a nation split in two, and both sides were suffering. And most of the religious activity at that time went to protecting unrighteousness,” he noted. “God told Ezekiel to pronounce judgment.” 

According to Ezekiel 2, God sent Ezekiel to a “rebellious nation” that “is against me, is obstinate and stubborn, but do not be afraid of them.” Barber told the crowd, “If we are going to have reconstruction as a nation, [we must] have moral voices that are not afraid to speak the truth.” 

They also must be prepared to face “resentment and resistance.” 

Barber said God was looking for somebody to speak out on behalf of the poor and marginalized and knew precisely where they could be found after Ezekiel couldn’t find them. He pointed to the dead bodies in the “valley of dry bones” in chapter 37 and noted that “reconstruction happens when the rejected lead the revival.” God pointed to the bones in the valley and said, according to Barber, “That’s where hope is.”

According to Barber, the vision for a third reconstruction will be realized when the Spirit empowers those most harmed to lead the way. 

Barber ended the lecture with an altar call of sorts, beckoning anyone who had been oppressed or marginalized because of race, gender, sexual expression, class, or status to the stage. Over a dozen answered the invitation. Preaching over them, he declared that “God is there” among them, and that they are our hope. 

The Whitten Endowed Lecture series is sponsored by the Department of Religion at Baylor and was created by the Rev. Dr. Robert D. and Barbara H. Whitten of Springfield, Virginia. 

Dr. Doug Weaver, Chair of Baylor’s Department of Religion, said Baylor’s R1 Research Institution status and its desire to “have a seat at the table on important issues in our culture, the academy and for the church” inspired him to invite Barber to campus. 

Weaver said, “If we want a seat at that table, we must hear from the prophetic testimony of Bishop Barber, who is, by his lived testimony and demonstrated courage, a visionary of hope of what America can be if we take the gospel, if we take Jesus, seriously.”

The lecture, held at Baylor’s Truett Seminary, was attended by Waco community members and Baylor faculty, staff, and students. Representatives from the Texas Poor People’s Campaign were also in attendance. 

Rev. Barber is the founding director of the Center for Public Theology and Public Policy at Yale Divinity School and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. 

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