This column by Sara Weinberger was recently printed in the Gazette. Thanks, Sara!
When religion makes the headlines, the focus is on extremism. Religious law is reinterpreted to justify the oppression of others. Religious leaders invoke their moral superiority to enter our bedrooms and condemn everything from homosexuality to birth control. The name of god is invoked to launch wars of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Religious traditions have kept women in abusive marriages, forced them into arranged marriages, and supported male dominance. We read about priests abusing children, imams calling for Jihad and rabbis fomenting hatred of Palestinians.
I am not an atheist, but I wonder whether organized religion does more harm than good. On Monday, November 3rd, the day before mid-term elections, I was reminded that religion can be a force for good in the world. That evening, about 45 people gathered at Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton. Catholics, Jews, Quakers, Unitarians, Episcopalians, Congregationalists and even a few unaffiliated folks sat in a circle of folding chairs. The purpose of the gathering, according to Rabbi Justin David, was “to brainstorm a path that we can walk together.” Clergy and members of their congregations’ peace and social justice committees described the work they are doing to help repair our broken world. The projects extended from service to systemic change; from feeding and sheltering homeless people to campaigning for a living wage. Some were actively involved in projects to rebuild Haiti, while others advocated for immigration reform. Almost everyone was involved in addressing the climate crisis.
We were instructed to introduce ourselves with one word that describes what fuels our passion for helping. People spoke of “Equity,” “Compassion,” “Human rights,” “Global consciousness,” and “Reconciliation,” as forces that propelled their work. I was particularly moved by one word that seemed to echo throughout the meeting. That word was “hope.” I thought of that word later that night, fighting despair as I watched the election returns. The principles that drive this country are shifting from democratic to corporate interests. I am puzzled at how voters can go to the polls and support increasing minimum wages and then vote for politicians who work to undo policies that help those in need.
“Why bother,” can easily become a mantra that justifies inaction. The belief that one’s actions don’t matter rationalizes doing nothing. I spent the day after the elections engaged in political rants with friends. I watched John Stewart and Stephen Colbert provide a humorous post-mortem of the elections. My husband and I congratulated ourselves on our moral superiority and talked again about moving to Canada. But then I remembered the forty-five people from Monday’s meeting. Forty-five people working tirelessly, refusing to let go of “hope” for a better world….Forty-five people who believed that their efforts matter.
U.S. history exemplifies how religion can be a force for social justice. The victories of the Civil Rights Movement can be laid at the doorstep of religious institutions and leaders like Revs. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Thousands of people representing a vast array of religions marched together through the streets of New York this past September to save our planet. Faith-based communities, when guided by principles of fairness, equality, and human rights can be the perfect feeding ground for organizing efforts. The movements that brought us the rights that we take for granted were not led by politicians. Grass roots organizing from the bottom up enabled women to vote, gays and lesbians to marry, and workers to organize unions. We need ordinary people with hope working together to restore democracy to the United States.
We did more than introduce ourselves at that meeting on November 3rd. In about an hour and a half, we had identified a number of core social issues that were ripe for collaboration. I added my name to the list of those interested in food justice and hunger. Others signed up to work on climate change, Haiti, homelessness and shelter issues, gun violence, and mass incarceration. As we rose from our seats at 8:30 to continue conversing over cookies and cider, it was clear that something amazing had happened. We suspended our religious differences to unite
as one attendee said, with ‘the guiding principle that our own personal actions can make a difference in the world.’ As an interfaith group, we viewed the issues that confronted us, not only as social problems, but as moral issues that compelled us toward action.
Two weeks have passed since that first meeting. Minutes have been sent; groups are being organized, and we’re even on our way to having a web page. I still laugh as John Stewart describes the November 3rd “Democalypse,” but I’m empowered to keep working for change, along with others in my community. I’m even hoping that someday religion will make this kind of headline, “Pioneer Valley’s Interfaith Community Sows the Seeds of Hope!”