By William J. Barber II and Liz Theoharis
April 20, 2020
The Treasury Department announced last week that Trump’s name will appear on the relief checks that Americans will soon receive. As Christian pastors and scholars, we remember Caesar adorned Roman coinage with his image in Jesus’ day. Caesar claimed the titles “savior of the world,” “benevolent benefactor,” “God,” and “ultimate authority” while ruling over one of the most unequal societies in history. He militarized and divided the known world, and imposed taxes on the poor while giving tax breaks to the rich. Caesar built towers with his name on them and gave the people bread and circuses.
It may be 2,000 years later, but we see similar fundamental problems in the American empire today. Trump’s daily press briefings resemble the kind of public idolatry that ancient Caesars engaged in. Trump’s narcissism in putting his name on checks, as though he is doling out his own money and expects homage in return, doesn’t stop there; it’s part of a larger unjust and unequal system.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, we, therefore, cannot rely on the Caesars of our day to craft a moral response to this political, economic, social, and public health crisis. Rather than address the basic problem that millions of people don’t have secure jobs or decent incomes, Trump and his enablers have doubled down on existing inequalities, passing limited responses for individuals and small businesses and bailing the large corporations and wealthy out. Rather than address the serious health inequities in a country that spends more on health care than any other in the world, health centers are laying off doctors, reducing the pay of medical workers, and denying health care access to tens of millions of people.
This is what is immoral about the three relief bills Trump and the bipartisan Congress have signed. This is what is backwards about the trickle-down theory that dominates the American response. Although the U.S. Constitution states that governments are constituted by the consent of the governed to help meet the needs of the people, what is happening in this pandemic is what was happening long before: The government is meeting the needs of the corporations while the people are left to fend for themselves.
The emperor has no clothes. Indeed, perhaps the clearest example of this is how Wall Street had its best week in decades at the same time that 22 million Americans filed for unemployment. To put this another way, the U.S. stock market is strong right when its people are suffering and being pushed into deeper poverty, misery and death. Our nation has a wannabe Caesar who lives by his own golden rule: Those with the gold get to rule.
History teaches us that Caesars not only want their picture and names on money; They also play games with the people. Such games are playing out in the emergency response to this pandemic. Unemployed people who do not get a $600 unemployment check are told it is because they didn’t file early enough, often enough, or in the right way. The system that created inequality and misery in the first place takes no responsibility. Banks are signaling that those with debts can have their paltry stimulus checks seized to service unpaid debts before they even reach those who need it the most – yet one more way the stimulus is bailing out the banks, but not the people.
Half of private sector jobs are with small businesses that are at risk of closing down permanently. The jobs that will be left after this crisis are low-wage jobs with Amazon, Walmart and McDonalds and multinational corporations who pay their workers indecent wages and offer few workers’ protections. There are growing breadlines, on foot and in cars. Underpaid “essential” workers lack the personal protective equipment they need.
For decades, there has existed a crisis of hunger, homelessness, and lack of health care. This crisis will reach epic proportions in coming months. And since politicians have been attacking the social safety net since 1980, the wealthiest nation on earth is left with weak infrastructure, an underfunded safety net, and an ideology that has undercut entitlements and rights that our founding documents guarantee.
As we head from Easter toward Pentecost, however, let us remember that in the ancient world, a challenge rose up. A low-wage, homeless, brown-skinned, Palestinian Jew built a social, political, economic, and moral movement of the people, by the people, and for the people that challenged Caesar and the entire structure of the Roman Empire. This is the hope of today: Those who have little or nothing to lose can come together in power, with demands, to transform an unjust system that has Trump’s name all over it.
That is why we are organizing the largest online gathering of poor and low-wealth people on June 20th. We will demonstrate the power of poor people uniting and organizing through the digital Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington, D.C.
In this holy season, after Passover, in Eastertide, and approaching Ramadan, let us hear the response to empire throughout history: “Let my people go!”
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber is the founder and president of Repairers of the Breach, architech of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. Together with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, he published The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement.
Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is the Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice, and Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Liz is the author of Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor (Eerdmans , 2017). She is co-author of Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing (Beacon), 2018). Liz is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.