Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing “Interviews for Resistance” series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed and what is still the same. Today’s interview is the 57th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
Today we bring you a conversation with Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, the co-director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary, and co-chair, with Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, of the Poor People’s Campaign: A Call for Moral Revival.
Sarah Jaffe: You have been part of a couple of actions now around trying to stop whichever version of Trumpcare is moving through the Senate and to fight against cuts to Medicaid. Can you tell us a little bit about the actions?
Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis: Many folks have been coming together in lots of different ways, including impacted people. Last week — last Tuesday — in Washington, DC, in front of Senator McConnell’s office, clergy and other impacted folks who are very upset both about the proposed cuts and changes, as well as the lack of faith leaders standing up against this kind of devaluing of life … decided to do civil disobedience in front of McConnell’s office. Folks were led by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber from the Forward Together Moral Mondays movement, Rev. Traci Blackmon from the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministry, as well as Rev. Jennifer Butler of Faith and Public Life, and people of various faiths, and again, those that will be impacted if the ACA [Affordable Care Act] is repealed and if more health care cuts are done. They staged a demonstration and took communion, saying that we can’t be silent anymore around these things, and we are joining with others across the country who are speaking out about how these cuts are killing people, and that we need to kill Trumpcare in its various forms before it kills so many more of us.
That was last week, and this week the story keeps changing: the bill is dead, the bill isn’t dead, they’re going to just repeal it, they don’t have the votes, now they’re having an emergency meeting trying to revive it, I think people are actually getting arrested down in DC as we’re talking Wednesday afternoon, so obviously this is still a live issue. Tell us what’s going on this week.
Faith leaders have joined again with others; people were arrested yesterday associated with Auburn Theological Seminary and the Black Clergy Network, again saying that the fight around health care is a human rights issue and that we can’t cut 22 million people off. If we just repeal the ACA, folks say that will be 32 million people cut off. No matter what is going on, health care has to be an issue, it’s a moral issue, and that people are going to maintain doing these actions, civil disobedience, standing with people who are impacted by this and raising these issues until we actually fight for a health care system that provides care for all.
A lot of people have been saying, “It’s not just that we’re reacting to what’s currently going on, we’re actually putting out a proactive vision of the universal health care system that we should have in the first place.”
You said that part of the motivation was to call on faith leaders to speak up about this. Talk a little bit more about why it’s important as faith leaders to be part of the movement to stop Trumpcare, the movement for universal health care, all of that.
Jesus traveled around the countryside healing people for free. But in this moment, this repeal of the ACA is all being done in the name of — and with the support of — many Christians and politicians who claim to be Christian.
I think that part of why we see it as really important for faith leaders to step up in this is because health care and all of these issues are moral issues. For too long, morality has been confined to a very small number of issues, many of which are barely discussed in faith traditions and texts, and they’ve been in the hands of folks that are trying to exclude and oppress. And instead, we’re saying that if you look at various religious texts within the tradition of Christianity that I come from, Jesus traveled around the countryside healing people for free. Clearly, Jesus had a universal health care system, but in this time, in this moment, these kinds of health care cuts, this kind of repeal of the ACA is all being done in the name of — and with the support of — many Christians and politicians who claim to be Christian.
And so, it’s really important for faith leaders to say, “No, this is a moral issue.” It’s a moral issue whenever you kill people because you deny them Medicare and Medicaid, whenever you deny people health care because they have preexisting conditions; that this is not OK in any of our sacred texts and it is a responsibility of everybody, including our moral leaders, our clergy, to not just talk a good talk, but actually to be out there with people who are impacted, fighting for the kind of health care system that we want.
Looking forward, obviously the Republicans are not going to stop trying to kill the ACA. But tell us what comes next for you, both around health care and on a broader scale?
Obviously, we’re not sure what’s going to happen around health care. We are sure that people are very motivated to try to stop bad things from happening, and we’ll have to keep the pressure up and make it very clear to our politicians that health care is an issue that unites a lot of us and we are committed to fight around it.
We are also trying to link the issue of health care to other social justice issues and things that are impacting people. So, just the day before I and others were arrested last week, we were participating in a housing rights, a tenants’ rights march, and in jail, we actually connected up with folks that were committing civil disobedience around anti-militarism. Then on Monday, Rev. Barber and I and others led a group of clergy around a press conference and then we actually had a meeting with the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations, making the connection between voter suppression and the attack on our democracy that is taking place right now, including with this election integrity commission that has been set up by President Trump and is being vice-chaired by someone who the Senate minority leader has called “the most racist person in the country” … trying to see these connections between voter suppression and the denial of health care and the low wages that people are fighting [for], and trying to pull all of this together — all the issues into what we’re seeing as the need for a poor people’s campaign, a national call for moral revival, where we connect these different issues and the groups that are impacted directly by these issues and pull them together into a large movement, a fusion movement that works across race and geography and issues into something that can be a powerful force and kind of finish some of the unfinished work that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was doing in the last year of his life. Fifty years later, we see that need to connect systemic racism, poverty and ecological devastation into a large movement and campaign to bring people together.
I was struck the other day at the press conference, where Rev. Barber and other folks were connecting the dots to voter suppression and the lack of Medicaid expansion, which is already denying a lot of folks medical care, and it seems particularly relevant to note the way political disenfranchisement leads to these actual material consequences for people.
Exactly. Part of the reason we went and met with the High Commissioner of Human Rights, who is gravely concerned about systemic racism and poverty in the United States of America, is because we were trying to … show the country and the world … that these are linked. That also what would be a central pillar of the work that we’re doing with the poor people’s campaign will be the indivisibility of these rights, looking at the fight against voter suppression and for our democracy. Because when you suppress votes, when votes don’t count, when people get into office because of racist voter suppression, they pass policies that have a really grave detrimental impact on the poor and working people of all races. And so, to see actually the kind of divide-and-conquer that has been a part of US politics since, really, our founding, and to say this has to stop, that we from the bottom are going to unite and build and see the connections between voter suppression and the attack on Medicaid and on the ACA and all of our health care, and a budget right now that will be, if passed, the largest transfer of wealth from the bottom up — a reverse Robin Hood — since the Civil War.
This is all connected. And if we don’t just see voter suppression over there and health care over here and housing cuts over there, and don’t actually see that the same people who are denying us health care are suppressing our vote and are making us homeless, then we will never be smart enough to come together and do something that will change the conditions in the United States and make the majority of us who are poor or one or two paychecks away from being poor, into something that’s a powerful force in this country.
How can people keep up with you and the campaigns you’re working on?
Folks can check out the Kairos Center, kairoscenter.org, on social media and our website, as well as poorpeoplescampaign.org. There will be more and more announcements about 16 public events that the Poor People’s Campaign is doing in the next couple of months all over the country. In December of this year, we’ll announce the major plans that we have for the spring of 2018 to do a massive mobilization in states across the country and in the nation’s capital.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.