New York Historical Society Interview – Voices of Faith: Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis

Voices of Faith: Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis
New York Historical Society Interview
August 30, 2023

The eighth annual Diane and Adam E. Max Conference on Women’s History in March explored how women and LGBTQ+ people have transformed not only their own faith but also the religious lives of their communities. Throughout our nation’s history, faith traditions have inspired and mobilized actions for social justice and economic reform. Likewise, economic realities have shaped women’s religious experiences, beliefs, and communities, providing a source of both support and critique. In our panel about the fight for economic justice, panelists discussed how religious fueled their advocacy for society’s most vulnerable. Growing income inequality, the persistence of poverty, and declining social mobility leave wide room for religiously-affiliated social action and women’s religious voices. The conference highlighted a diverse array of religious leaders, scholars, and practitioners across many faiths. 

To continue the conversation, this interview series features select panelists’ stories of persistence in promoting social good. Each tell a unique story of overcoming barriers to enact change while epitomizing their dedication to supporting others. Today, we are highlighting one of those voices, Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary to discuss how her own personal journey impacted her core philosophies.

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, Photograph by Stephen Pavey

What was your journey to get to where you are today?

I’m the granddaughter of immigrants of Greek and Armenian descent who came to the US fleeing genocide and poverty. I am the daughter of organizers and intellectuals; my father helped to expose and break open the abuse of power by the FBI, and my mother was an interfaith activist working across faith and other differences to realize a vision of justice and a beloved community in our hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

In 2001, I enrolled at Union Theological Seminary. The first day of the father of Black Liberation Theology James Cone’s systematic theology class was September 11, and the Twin Towers fell. As the US went off to war and many of my classmates had crises of faith, I remember reflecting that my faith had developed alongside migrant farmworkers, homeless children, and uninsured parents. Theirs was a faith that didn’t deny that bad things happen but posited that although only death and destruction was around, another world was possible: change and liberation could happen.

I completed my M.Div., M.Phil. and Ph.D. at Union Theological Seminary, and throughout, my time in seminary helped to develop new methods and interpretations of the Bible and what Jesus really had to say about the poor. At the same time, I helped launch and direct the Poverty Initiative and then the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice with a mission to raise up generations of religious and community leaders dedicated to building a movement to overcome racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism, and the false narrative of religious nationalism.

In 2018, the Kairos Center and Repairers of the Breach launched the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival with the largest and most expansive wave of nonviolent civil disobedience in the 21st-century United States. And over the past five years, we have built one of the strongest and most compelling social movements of our time. At the same time, I have helped launch a spiritual community for movement activists called the Freedom Church of the Poor, pulled together a project to confront White Christian Nationalism alongside MoveOn Education Fund, published books and articles including “We Cry Justice: Reading the Bible with the Poor People’s Campaign,” and taught, spoken and preached at all kinds of spaces and places a message of good news from the poor.

I am humbled to do the work of justice. I have the honor of working among many unsung saints and unacknowledged prophetic voices calling out for justice in the public square.

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis at a march for immigrant rights in Washington, D.C., May 2018.

Can you tell me more about your organization and the work it is doing to change the culture at large?

I direct the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice, housed at Union Theological Seminary. The Kairos Center’s mission is to raise up generations of religious and community leaders dedicated to building a movement to end poverty, led by the poor. 

My theory of change is drawn from a study of history: the most transformative movements have always relied on generations of impacted leaders who are clear, committed, competent, and connected. These often unsung leaders, emerging out of poor and oppressed communities, have been the first to feel the pain of injustice and the first to strike out against it. Their broad movements have also brought together people from every walk of life and succeeded in awakening the conscience of society at large. And religious practitioners as moral standard-bearers must be involved.

For the last two decades, Kairos has helped to develop these kinds of leaders from the ranks of the poor, connecting them in a wide network of grassroots and religious organizations and political efforts. My own leadership has developed alongside the leadership of others. We come together through organizing campaigns, mobilizations, convenings, educational programs, faith gatherings, arts and culture, research and scholarship, and more; we come together across historic lines of division like race, religion, age, and geography, in order to build up the unity and organization of the poor in this country.

As one example, beginning in 2021 (in response to the January 6th attacks on the Capitol), Kairos has partnered with the MoveOn Education Fund to establish an initiative to Counter White Christian Nationalism (WCN), which we see as one of the great threats to our communities and our democracy. Animated by white supremacy, patriarchy, and Christian hegemony, this political movement aims to secure white, Christian, minority rule in the United States. They have outsized influence in government, are successfully mounting policy fights and culture wars that strip away fundamental rights, and use a distorted Christian narrative to justify violence. We have gathered senior leaders from over 50 large faith-based and secular organizations together in a cohort to develop a shared analysis and shared strategy to combat this dangerous trend. We have held monthly learning sessions and in-person convenings to learn together and begin to seed ideas for collaborative action.  

Participants at the 2023 Max Conference speaking on the panel “Believing in the Common Good: Women, Religion, and Economic Justice,” image courtesy of the Center for Women’s History

How does your religious practice inform your politics or activism, and vice versa?

I was raised to see my faith connected to doing social justice; in the words of Micah 6—“what does the Lord require but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” I’m grounded in such a prophetic tradition of justice, but I have witnessed a battle for theology taking place in our society. In fact, since I began to help organize a movement to end poverty, people have said to me that our goals are too ambitious—that demands for human rights and human dignity are both politically inconceivable and impossibly expensive. They often quote the Bible, arguing that since Jesus said, “the poor will be with you always”. But when I read the Bible, including and especially Jesus’ statement about the poor, what I see from Genesis on through the New Testament is a constant revelation of God’s will that no one should be made hungry, sick, homeless, underpaid, indebted, or bereft by the violence of social injustice. I read an ongoing indictment of those who would take and keep the wealth of our world for themselves and cause others to suffer. I hear the biblical command to “fill the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:53), not simply as “caring for the poor” as an end result but by advocating for policies and structures that lift the load of poverty—admonishing nations to “do no wrong to the immigrant, the homeless, the children. And do not shed innocent blood” (Jeremiah 22:3).

The Bible, and Jesus in particular, is actually quite clear on what is required of those who profess to be followers of Jesus and are committed to bringing God’s empire of love, justice, and forgiveness here on earth. After all, Jesus travels through the land healing, expanding health care, feeding the people, and turning over tables and systems of injustice. The prayer that Jesus teaches his followers speaks to his core beliefs and commandments: “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” The Lord’s Prayer is very clear that the material position of the people is of great interest to God. It exhorts people and nations to release those imprisoned by injustice, feed everyone, and resist the temptations and trappings of the unjust, those who pass policies that hurt women and children and the poor.  And it follows that nations should spread love and justice; they should forgive debts and trespasses throughout the whole world. We must bring good news to the poor—not the bad news of eviction, the lack of health care, unemployment, poverty, or the racism of empire.

Watch a recording of Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis and her fellow panelists at the 2023 Max Conference:

What do you think is the future for religious practitioners bringing about social good? What kind of takeaway message would you want to leave with our readers?

Kairos is an ancient Greek word, describing a time of great change, when the old ways of the world are dying and new ones are struggling to be born. It is clear we are living through exactly such a time today. This kairos moment is full of both grave danger and rare opportunity, and calls for bold and imaginative action from those who wish to break free from the intolerable conditions of poverty, systemic racism, militarism, ecological devastation, and more. It is in this context that new movements of poor and dispossessed people are emerging across the country and world.

Poverty is not inevitable but the result of unjust economic and political structures that can be transformed, the US and world do not suffer from scarcity but we live in a world of abundance where poverty can and must be ended, change comes from below, when we lift from the bottom everybody rises. These are the lessons we must share and proclaim today.

Interview conducted and edited by Carolina Cannon, Columbia University Intern, Center for Women’s History