Rev. Barber: An open letter to clergy who prayed with Donald Trump

The Scripture cautions us to lay hands on no man suddenly, lest we become a party to his sins.

CREDIT: AP/David Goldman
CREDIT: AP/David Goldman

Dear Reverends Jack Graham, Johnnie Moore, Greg Laurie, Paula White, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr., and others,

I write you with a heavy heart as a fellow Christian and a fellow preacher during a trying time in our nation’s public life. Last week, Capitol Hill police arrested me along with other clergy and people with health issues outside Senate Leader Mitch McConnell’s office for doing what you and I do every week in our pulpits, over dinner tables, and in the public square: reading the Word of God and attempting to let the Spirit speak its ancient truth through me into the present.

While we may differ on Biblical interpretation, we do share a common effort to understand God’s Word and discern God’s will. I have noted your doubtless sincere public statements in recent months that such gospel proclamation is needed in America. I listened as President Trump signed his executive order on religious freedom, praising the prophetic legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I watched as you applauded, echoing his sentiment in public statements and letters to your supporters and celebrating an administration that is willing to listen to your counsel. Like millions of Americans, I saw the photo that included several of you praying for President Trump in the Oval Office last week, asking God to give him guidance.

The nation needs our prayers, and no doubt the president does, too. But the Scripture cautions us to lay hands on no man suddenly, lest we become a party to his sins. (1 Timothy 5:22) We cannot simply p-r-a-y pray over people while they p-r-e-y on the poor and vulnerable among us. The teachings of Jesus are clear about caring for the poor and the sick, and we are called to share His message; we cannot simply serve as chaplains to imperial power. If we pray for a person engaging in injustice we must offer prayers that lead to conviction, not prayers that further embolden them in their wrongdoing. And since faith comes by hearing, we must speak prophetically and truthfully to them about using political power to inflict public pain. If they refuse to listen, we must put legs on our prayers and demand that those leaders attend instead to the weightier matters of love justice and mercy.

Hence I am troubled by your silence and lack of guidance as the president and his political allies in Congress attempt to deconstruct America’s health care system. If Jesus did anything, he offered health care wherever he went — and he never charged a leper a co-pay. Like most Americans, I know the Affordable Care Act is not perfect. In considerable measure, this is because over twenty states sabotaged the ACA by refusing to expand Medicaid. Its main shortcoming is that it needs to be transformed into a single payer system with universal healthcare for all.

However we address this question, taking health care away from millions who currently have it cannot be the answer. We know that for every million people without access to health care, five thousand people will die needlessly — not because God called them home, but because those entrusted by God with the responsibility of governance failed to defend the widow, the orphan and the poor, and instead succumbed to the temptations of greed.

Whatever your political philosophy or party affiliation, God’s Word is clear about the responsibility of governance:

Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. (Isaiah 10: 1–3)

This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3)

For decades you have insisted that the Christian political agenda is a “pro-life” agenda. You have taught millions that the image of God is stamped on each of us — no matter the color of our skin or the money in our bank account — and that each and every child of God was knit together in our mother’s wombs, fearfully and wonderfully made. And yet, in this moment of crisis, when our poorest and most vulnerable neighbors are at risk, you say so little. You have been so loud in the past. What spirit has silenced you in this moment of truth for the ethic of life?

I asked your Lord and mine this question as I was jailed last week for preaching the gospel that every life is precious to God. I had to ask: where are my fellow evangelicals now? And I heard the prophet Amos, echoing through the valley of history:

For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. (Amos 5:12)

The pay that you withheld from the workers who reaped your fields cries out, and the outcry of the harvesters has reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. (James 5:4)

I remembered what Frederick Douglass said about our faith after our denominations splintered over the moral question of slavery and the nation stood on the brink of Civil War:

Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.

My brothers and sister, I do not single you out because your position is unique. You inherited a heresy, and you are not alone in perpetuating its cruel errors. But in our present crisis, you have publicly embraced a president and a party that embody the abuses of power that the Biblical prophets decried. Millions of people have been led astray by your error, and the whole world is now reaping the consequences. I single you out because the people I know and serve literally cannot afford the cost of your willful blindness.

I pen this letter as I stand in support of another group of clergy called to nonviolent direct action against the cruel attempt to withdraw healthcare from the poor and others. I also write to you in faith and in love because I know that redemption is possible — we all raise our voices and sing the words penned by a reformed slave trader, “I once was lost but now am found / Was blind but now I see.” I have watched the sons and daughters of slaveholders work alongside the daughters and sons of enslaved people to build a new and vibrant moral movement. I have prayed with people who decided to follow Jesus when they heard you preach years ago but are now following Jesus to jail because they know this is what faithfulness requires. I write because you have celebrated your unprecedented influence in this administration and the time has come to use it.

In prayer and hope,

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, IISenior Pastor, Greeleaf Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)President, Repairers of the Breach