In a speech inflamed with passion, anger and an altar call's possibility of hope, Bill Moyers spoke to General Synod on June 23 about poverty and justice.
His 57-minute keynote address — interrupted by applause more than three dozen times and followed by a two-minute standing ovation — lamented the growing gap between the rich and poor in America and called the UCC to act in the name of the Jesus who was a disturber of the peace and threw the rascals out.
"I have come to say that America's revolutionary heritage — and America's revolutionary spirit — "life, liberty and the pursuit of justice, through government of, by, and for the people" — is under siege," he said. "And if churches of conscience don't take the lead in their rescue and revival, we can lose our democracy!"
Although an ordained Baptist minister, Moyers and his family have been members of Garden City (N.Y.) Community UCC for 40 years, and now worship at Riverside Church (UCC/American Baptist) in Manhattan.
"I am at home in the UCC," he said. "I thank God for your witness, and for the storied heritage of the UCC. This United Church has a lineage that has influenced the American experiment far beyond its numbers and treasures.
"You have raised a prophetic voice against the militarism, materialism and racism that chokes America's arteries. You have placed yourselves in the thick of the fight for social justice. You have aligned yourself on the side of liberty, equality and compassion. And you have been a church of prominent firsts: first to ordain an African American, first to ordain a woman, and first to ordain an openly gay person."
Moyers pointed out that 11 signers of the Declaration of Independence were members of UCC predecessor churches. Speaking of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," he said that once those words were abroad, every human being who heard them could imagine another world possibility.
"They could think differently about the value that had been arbitrarily assigned to their lives by others," he said.
However, he said, "The man who wrote those words knew it couldn't last. "[Jefferson] knew from his own experience the perversity of owning another person as chattel. For the hands that wrote those words – 'all men are created equal' – also stroked the breasts and caressed the thighs of a slave woman named Sally Hennings. It is no secret."
"Thomas Jefferson got it right, you see," Moyers continued, "but he lived it wrong. He was imbedded in the human condition. Addicted to his own place and privilege, he could send the noblest sentiments winging around the world, but refuse to let them lodge in his own home."
Moyers pointed out that this conflict between power and justice has come down through the ages. He gave as an example Job's protests against a world where the wicked prosper and the innocent suffer.
"Job saw that poverty and injustice were proscribed by the powersthat-be who arranged the social order to serve their own self-interest and called upon obliging priests to bless it as God's will," he said. He cited the spectacular rise in the number of gated communities, both in Southern California and in Buenos Aires, Argentina, as an example of today's powers that-be to keep the poor and the lonely invisible. "But," he said, "the realities on the ground don't go away," and told stories from contemporary life: woefully inadequate public education in New York City, deaths from Chicago's record heat wave in 1995, the plight of a homeless person in Los Angeles, and a UNICEF report card that ranks the United States near the bottom in child well-being in the developed world.
"I have to confess," he said, "it's a mystery to me. Jesus said, 'Let the little children come to me.' ... You have to wonder how this so-called Christian nation leaves so many children to suffer."
"For 30 years," Moyers said, "we have witnessed a class war fought from the top down against the idea and ideal of equality. It has been a drive by a radical elite to gain ascendancy over politics and to dismantle the political institutions, the legal and statutory canons, and the intellectual and cultural frameworks that checked the excesses of private power."
It's as if you invited 100 persons to a party, divided a pie into five pieces and gave four pieces all to one person, leaving one piece for the remaining 99, he said.
"Don't be surprised if they fight over it," he said, "which is exactly what's happening when people look at their wages and then their taxes and end up hating the government and anything it does.
"The strain on working people and on family life has become intense," he said. "Television sets and cell phones and iPods are cheap, but higher education, health care, public transportation, drugs, housing and cars have risen in price faster than typical family incomes."
What's been happening to working people is "the direct consequence of corporate activism, intellectual propaganda, the rise of a political religion of fundamentalism deeply opposed to any civil and human right that threatens its paternalism, and a series of political decisions favoring the interests of wealthy elites who bought the political system right out from under us," he said.
Moyers concluded with an "altar call."
"Poverty and justice are religious issues," he said, "and Jesus moves among the disinherited." He imagined Jesus "striding through the holy precincts that had been transformed into a market place, a stock exchange, upsetting the dealers, scattering their money across the floor, even bouncing them forcefully from the temple.
"Indignant at a profane violation of the sacred, Jesus threw the rascals out," he said. Challenging the audience, Moyers reminded them of that Jesus.
"Let's call that Jesus back to duty, and drive the money changers from the temple of democracy," he said. "If you don't, who will?"