More than 60 years ago Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other faith, labor, and civil rights leaders called for a “revolution of values” in America. They sought to build a broad movement that would bring together and raise up the voices of the poor and marginalized.
Dr. King believed that the poor could come together and transform all of society. But he understood that to do so a transformation would have to take place in the thinking and behavior of the majority of Americans.
In introducing the campaign Dr. King said: “I think it is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights…When we see that there must be a radical redistribution of economic and political power, then we see that for the last twelve years we have been in a reform movement…That after Selma and the Voting Rights Bill, we moved into a new era, which must be an era of revolution…In short, we have moved into an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society.” Dr King called the campaign the Poor People’s Campaign.
Around this same time a group of Catholic theologians mostly from South America started formulating a new theology later identified as Liberation Theology. The group was led mostly by a Franciscan friar from Brazil, Leonardo Boff, and a Dominican priest from Peru, Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez. Simply put, liberation theology is a calling for a new social and political movement within the Church that interprets the Gospels through the lived experiences of oppressed people.
Liberation Theology came about as a moral reaction to poverty and social justice. It is often referred to as the preferred option for the poor. The idea didn’t originate with these theologians; it has been part of Catholic Canon Law which states, “The Christian faithful are also obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor.”
Just as Dr. King called us to question who we are as a society, the liberation theologist challenged us to question our Christian/Catholic theology. Fr. Guiterez said: “I am firmly convinced that poverty—this sub-human condition in which the majority of humanity lives today—is more than a social issue. Poverty poses a major challenge to every Christian conscience and therefore to theology as well.”
While Dr. King called his movement the Poor People’s Campaign, and Fr. Guiterrez coined the term Liberation Theology for their movement, their messages and vision were the same. Both Dr. King and Fr. Gutierrez understood and preached that we need to walk in solidarity with the poor and marginalized and if we are not we are not following the teachings of Jesus and cannot call ourselves Christian. As it says in 1John 2:6: “He who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way which he walked.”
As much as we would like to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that we have made great progress towards equity and justice, little has changed since visionaries like King and Gutierrez presented us with a roadmap to a just and equitable society. We can see the horrific suffering as a result of COVID-19 and yet are blinded to the realization around the disparity in care between those with resources and the poor and marginalized. We can be outraged by the senseless murder of George Floyd while failing to recognize and acknowledge the systematic racism in our nation that led to his killing.
In 2018, two organizations, the Repairers of the Breach and Kairos, came together to reignite Dr. King’s dream and start a new Poor People’s campaign. They have been joined by many other organizations and churches. This includes a number of Catholic organizations like the Franciscan Action Network, the Sisters of Mercy, Network, Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and Pax Christi. Pope Francis recently challenged us, saying: “In today’s world, voices are being raised which we cannot ignore and which implore our Churches to live deeply our identity as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. The first of these voices is that of the poor. In the world, there are too many women and men who suffer from severe malnutrition, growing unemployment, the rising numbers of unemployed youth, and from increasing social exclusion.”
We invite you to be one of those voices of hope that Pope Francis calls us to be. On June 20th, The Poor People’s campaign will hold the largest digital and social media gathering of poor and low-wealth people, moral and religious leaders, advocates, and people of conscience in this nation’s history. A global pandemic is exposing even more the already existing crisis of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and militarism, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism. On June 20, the 140 million poor and low-income people across this nation will be heard! You can register by clicking here.
You can learn more about the Poor People’s campaign and the June 20th digital gathering here.
We often hear folks say I do not know what to do, I wish I could do something. The question is not what can we do. We know what needs to be done. The real question is do we have the moral courage and the willingness to sacrifice in order to bring about the systematic change that needs to happen?