Thursday, March 22, 2007

Standing on the Side of Love

I wrote this essay to express why the faith community should be involved in social justice issues rather than playing it safe and being reclusive.

This paper addresses the critical question of why religious institutions should be engaged with public issues and how they might do so most effectively. The question of engagement is at the heart of the faith community’s relevance today as it grapples with connecting to the needs of individuals and society in such complex times. This paper will consider the sources that affirm religious institutions engagement in public issues. The paper then considers specific strategies for public witnessing utilizing lecture notes from the recent course taught by Bill Schultz titled, Problems of Public Ethics at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, Illinois and also drawn from his book, In Our Own Best Interest.
Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is. --Ghandhi

Many religious scholars maintain that religion functions for the well being of people. Among these scholars, John S. Mbiti asserts that morality facilitates harmony, control and enhancement of its institutions and individuals. Furthermore, Mbiti contends that religion protects the individual members and the survival of society. Rob Eller-Isaacs, Unitarian Universalist minister, recently defined the purpose of the church as follows, “To help engender the holy in people’s lives so that they might blossom into compassion and grow souls.” Eller-Isaacs suggests that Unitarian Universalist congregations are called to “transform suffering in their midst and in the world.” Similarly, Roger S. Gottlieb professes the following, “authentic religion must be an activist transforming presence in the political world; that the moral and psychological insights of religion are of enormous value for those seeking progressive social change.” Gottlieb, while asserting that religious groups in the twentieth century have not had to confront oppression, nevertheless maintains that religious voices are needed to “achieve the goals of justice, community and a rational society.” According to A. Kevin Rheinhart, individuals will be judged for their acts done or undone. We might extrapolate from the perspectives articulated by these authors that if it is the responsibility of individuals to act morally, it is also incumbent upon the religious institutions whose responsibility it is to provide spiritual guidance to do so in as public a manner as is possible whereby impacting the greatest number possible.
Returning to Roger S. Gottlieb, he contends that authentic religion must be a transforming presence in the world. One can extrapolate from Gottlieb’s contentions that in order for religion to be a transforming presence that they must be effectively engaged in the world to do so. Gottlieb identified some concrete ways that religion can be liberating. Upon close examination, they all presume involvement in public issues:
1. First and foremost it (religion) must change, develop and progress.
2. must be rooted in its own traditional ethical teachings
3. must learn to connect passionately held ethical beliefs to our political situation and to collective movements to change that situation
4. reach outside (of itself)
6. be willing to break with the past
Liberation theologians ascribe to the belief that God is known through the doing of justice. Thus, we could speculate that they would endorse public witnessing as a way to do justice, thus experiencing God. Virtue ethicists embrace the belief that our actions reflect who we are. Thus, they also would endorse public witness as a way to reflect values. Additionally, religious institutions should be engaged with public issues because they can legitimately serve as the moral authority, the voice in the wilderness, that prophetic voice warning of grave dangers – that is, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. They can provide the early warning signs through their prophetic messages. Case in point, the lack of will that failed to provide resources to the people of Darfur might have been circumvented if the moral outrage of the religious community had been in place to send out a call to stand up for what is deemed right and just. Again, part of the role of religious leaders is to be the moral compass of society. Personally, I believe that one of the basic roles of religious institutions is to call individuals into solidarity with others in order to transcend the tendency toward self interest. What better way than through public witness. Rob Eller-Isaacs contends that the purpose of the church is to engender the experiences of the holy in order to awaken compassion and foster a life of loving service. Thus, creating a spirit filled life would require that religious institutions be engaged in public witnessing. One of the primary contributions of feminist theologians is the rewriting of Christian theology to transform the concepts, methods, language and imagery into a more liberatory message depicting women’s realities. Additionally, many theologians of different persuasions would endorse the public engagement of religious institutions as a way to put their “faith in action.” Two final endorsements for public engagement by religious institutions are derived from two Black sources, Black literary tradition and the historical Black Church. The mission of every serious Black writer is hinted at in the poignant articulation by late author, Toni Cade Bambara. Her goal when writing is to “produce stories that save our lives.” Similarly, religious institutions mission is to save lives. Implied in that is the ability to reach individuals by being an outwardly focused institution that moves beyond the limited walls of its physical edifice and even beyond its denominational walls. Thus, in the twenty-first century, interfaith dialogue will be critical to changing the world. Three Black theologians that were committed to justice and love, community relatedness and altering oppressive situations were Thurman Howard, Martin Luther King, Jr and Al Haj Malik Shabazz (AKA Malcolm X). By their very ministries we can surmise their belief that being fully present to life’s conditions requires public engagement. We oftentimes foist that responsibility onto our “superstars” but were we to assume the attitude that we are all leaders we might live our lives differently.
. . . I always believe that struggle and the unleashing of moral energy in the form of moral outrage can make a difference no matter what the situation is. . . (Cornel West)
This next section contains quotes from several faith traditions that explicitly or inexplicitly support engagement in public issues:
Do not touch the property of orphans, but strive to improve their lot until they reach maturity. Give just weight and full measure. . . Speak for justice, even if it affects your own kinsmen. Be true to the covenant of Allah. . . (Sura:6, Ayats: 151-152)

Not one of you believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself. (The Prophet Muhammad, 13th of the 40 Hadiths of Nawawi)

To work along you have the right, but never personally to the fruits thereof. Do not be actuated by the motive for return, do not be sunk in inaction. (Bhagavad Gita)

Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere: its temple, all space; its shrine, the good heart; its creed, all truth; its profession of faith, divine living. (Theodore Parker, 19th Century Unitarian Universalist minister)

As long as I have will and am physically capable, So long will I teach mankind to strive for truth, order and peace. (Zoroasrian scriptures – The Yasna)

This essay has reviewed arguments supporting religious institutions engagement in public issues. Are there arguments opposed to religious engagement in public issues? Those that are opposed might argue for the separation between church and state. These opponents would point to the extremes like Jerry Falwell to make their case. Other detractors might point to the “Faith-Based Initiatives” endorsed by the Bush Administration. This Initiative merges church and state to provide social services through faith community’s receipt of public subsidies for such services as after-school programs for children, job training, drug treatment, prison rehabilitation and abstinence education. The effort is based on a concept known as “charitable choice” that allows the government to fund churches and other ministries. In essence they are religious institutions engaged in public issues representing conservative solutions to social problems. Thus, charitable choice is a government endorsement of religious institutions engagement in public issues.
It is important to remember that religious institutions serve as bridges to a new and expanded humanity. As part of that bridge building, religious institutions can facilitate the long arc of the universe which we are told and know bends toward justice. However, that long arc of justice requires conscious intent on the part of religious institutions and cannot happen without their engagement in the world. Thus it is incumbent upon religious institutions to engage with public issues to enlarge the vision of humanity’s service to the world. Reverend John Heagle, a Roman Catholic priest, psychotherapist and writer reminds us that if we are seriously committed to the mission of our faith communities that we need to develop effective responses to put our faith into action on behalf of justice. In the end, our religious institutions help to shape and inform our decision making about our engagement in public issues. I believe that in order to live out those values our religious institutions must be engaged in the larger world, thus bringing a message of hope and renewal to the suffering and poor. The central narrative of the church of liberation, justice, reconciliation and peace requires moral ethics and practice of our faith. Rebecca Todd Peters succinctly states it this way, “Living as justice were our calling is a critical way of defining what it means to be human.” Our religious institutions have a duty to be at the fore front of efforts to teach the meaning of humane actions in an increasingly inhumane world.
In the next section this essay will examine how religious institutions can effectively engage public issues.
Effective Engagement
In a democratic society one of the most obvious ways to engage public issues is through the use of the democratic process. Engaging the democratic process is a viable and effective way to shape public opinions and policy and thus represents an important vehicle to be utilized by the faith community. Effective engagement involves strategies that include a community coordinated response addressing both the macro and micro levels. Once a congregation decides that religious institutions should be engaged in public issues the board and minister should include a component in the long range planning to solicit feedback on what particular issues members feel they want to put their human and fiscal resources behind. Once that is decided then creating a body of individuals to gather the necessary resources to focus on educating the congregation is an important step. Identifying others already doing this work is a crucial component in this phase of the work. Content experts and activists will be invaluable resources to effectively address the issues.
Effective public witness should involve sufficient advance preparation that invites questions such as the following: 1) what do we believe about this issue and why do we believe it? 2) how can we best persuade others about the efficacy of supporting this issue? 3) what are the foundational stories of those we are in opposition with? Finding ways to unpack the issues and getting people to address these questions are critical. Any conversation with others should begin with introspective components to allow for a groundedness and maximize self awareness first with your members before engaging others. This includes rigorous interrogation about ones motive for doing the work. Posing the question, “What does this mean to me?” is an important start. Getting rid of negative influences like paternalism, guilt and elitism will make more effective advocates with fewer buttons that can get pushed in public debates. Additionally, understanding the issues will ensure competency and confidence.
The scope of this essay does not allow the time to devote to coalition building. While building coalitions in the larger community is time consuming, it assures broad base support so that you are not engaging in individualist lone ranger tactics. So while who you know is important when identifying speakers or gathering references for a resume, having the ability to garner sheer numbers speaks volumes to politicians. Also, nothing is more depressing than a straggly group of demonstrators with ten or fifteen chanting slogans. An old maxim, Go big or don’t go at all, is appropriate here and nothing else needs to be said. Many of our congregations want to either be hit and miss or unwilling to commit to “protracted struggle.” We must know that we are in this struggle for justice and human rights for a life time.
As your congregation moves to public forums, Bill Schultz reminds us that one of the most effective ways to undercut an opponent’s argument is to be able to articulate their issues before they do. Also, framing the issue in ways that is attractive and provides appeal beyond our religious community is important if we want to recruit new allies. We also need to be able to engage the best of the American ideals. For example, pride in America is highly valued. Being able to juxtapose these values with dissident behaviors like recently publicized human rights violations at Abu Grave or Guantanamo Bay invites the use of a statement like, “this is not what we want our country to be known for.”
Identifying pragmatic arguments is another important strategy to be linked with telling stories about exploitation and inhumanity. This allows others to vent their moral outrage and simultaneously indulge their human compassion. It also allows for effective integration of statistics. Schultz reminds us that, “one death is a tragedy and a million deaths is a statistic.” If we want to be effective and not come across as lecturers of boring statistics, then we have to put human faces to our statistics and witnessing, hence the effectiveness of story telling.
This essay concludes with a tool kit of tips on effective public engagement edited in

part from Bill Schultz’s book entitled, In Our Own Best Interests:

1. Moral suasion and law, that is, appeal to conscience and resorting to court reflect very effective strategies. World opinion counts- use it. However, they are best used in conjunction with number two;
2. Develop compelling practical reasons why people should care about and support the issue. What impact does this issue have on individuals in your audience and who is your intended audience?
3. Maximize use of technology. Email and internet have linked advocates with their constituencies in ways that level some communication playing fields. Use it to your advantage to build capacity, transparency and to strengthen coalition efforts. The educational and training implications have not even begun to be explored.
4. Nearly every movement for social change in the United States has combined a moral, religious or aesthetics dimension with a pragmatic rationale to win public approval. Framing your mission in both visionary and practical terms will go a long way toward your effectiveness.


More and more the world is coming in and shrinking. The global village is here at hand and the consciousness of the world is expanding tremendously. Religious institutions must be ready in these fragile and vulnerable times to assume a leadership role as spiritual guides on this journey toward a just and equitable world. They must be engaged with public issues as well as interfaith dialogue and modeling to the world what the best in humanity looks like as they contribute to the critical thinking of the times. Anything less will simply not do.

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