Do faith leaders and secular human rights activists have anything in common? Earlier this month, we decided to find out.
For some in the human rights community, religious people are narrow minded, intolerant, and part of the problem
For some in the faith community, human rights activists are moral relativists, naïve secularists, and dismissive of transcendent truth.
Fortunately, none of those we brought together were in either of those camps. It was a unique gathering of people of good will from both communities exploring new ways to work together and to increase collaboration in support of peace and justice for Palestinians and Israelis.
Those of us who still seek and hope for a political solution to end the conflict are a pretty discouraged lot at the moment. But our work at Telos is predicated on the view that there is a direct link between peace, justice, and security and that this conflict will not be solved until we take seriously issues of human rights and the inherent dignity of every Israeli and every Palestinian.
To the American Christian leaders who met with us, this conflict takes place half a world away, but they’ve found themselves strangely implicated in it. And they’ve found it’s in some ways as divisive here at home as it is there. The human rights activists who gathered are accustomed to working in a world that is mostly secular, but they have seen the impact, both good and bad, that American faith communities have on their own community and on their work. And they came because they hope it can be a force for good. And let me assure you, it can be. It isn’t always a force for good, but it can be. Religious faith has been an animating force in America from the beginning.
Take the issue of race in America. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has so often said, America was born with a birth defect. Our Founders created a system that aspired to respect the inherent dignity of all humanity and yet went on to enshrine the disenfranchisement of most adults and condemned millions to lives of slavery and cruel subjugation.
The movement to abolish slavery was largely born in churches, led by faithful Christians, and fueled by the demands of faith to love justice and literally set captives free. And it was a devout Christian woman with a deep faith and a gift for storytelling who wrote a book called Uncle Tom’s Cabin that became an unprecedented bestseller. It told the story of the horrors of slavery from an unabashedly religious point of view and it both inspired and offended in equal measure. So much so that when Mrs. Stowe met President Abraham Lincoln he said “So you’re the little lady who wrote the book that started this big war.” Harriet Beecher Stowe had seen too much and felt too implicated to remain silent and she and her fellow abolitionists helped change the American story.
Of course the history of race relations in America is a long and complicated story, but let’s skip ahead to the 20th century where we find an entrenched system of legal and societal separation nearly 100 years after the freeing of the slaves. And as men and women began to push back against the oppression and the gross injustice, a movement was born that we now call the Civil Rights Movement. And it spokesman became Dr Martin Luther King, a Baptist pastor whose deep Christian faith compelled him to preach a form of resistance that was ennobling to both the black man and the white man. King actually listened to and lived what Jesus said as he refused to hate his enemies. And he had real enemies.
This movement was born and nurtured and given voice in the black church. And it stood so firmly on the moral high ground that it was joined by Northern white Christians and by many Jewish Americans and by legions of nonreligious people all who also believed in justice and human dignity and freedom. And this movement, which transcended race, class, and culture, also changed the American story.
In our gathering we brought together a micro cosmic group of Israelis and Palestinians who have been unable to ignore the problems in their own societies and they are each trying to change their stories.
And we invited faithful American Christian leaders and other activists who see that the things that happen so far away from us concern us and divide us here at home. All know the way in which America is a part of the Israeli story and the Palestinian story and they came because they want to change our story and at the same time change theirs.
The religious landscape in America is very diverse, and this gathering in no way represented that diversity. But within all the major strains of American Christianity there are tremendous opportunities for constructive engagement. Catholic social justice teaching is a rich and deep well to be mined in support of peacemaking, as is the history of social justice activism by Mainline Protestant churches. In many ways, American evangelicals have been the problem children on this but that is changing and there is tremendous opportunity for further change as well as important theological resources to tap in to.
And there is a long history to draw on from each group of advocacy for abolition and civil rights, prison reform, orphan care, and in addressing topics like homelessness, disease, environmental degradation and the like. Faith remains a potent force in American society and the potential for collaboration between these two communities is strong. And as people committed to the inherent dignity of all, our ability to write a new story for ourselves and for the Israeli and Palestinian people is great.