Reclaiming the Legacy of Prophetic Witness
An Interfaith Vision for the Future of Faith
by Jennifer Bailey
Several times a month, I have a standing lunch date with three of my favorite people. We gather online over laptops and our meals in Boston, New York, and Nashville to form what we have come to call our “community of praxis.” This sacred space is a place where we, as young adults working in the interfaith movement, can reflect our experiences, ask challenging questions, and be vulnerable enough to confess that we may not have the answers
We are Millennials. Our praxis community is a snapshot of the diversity and fluid identities that have become defining characteristics of our generation. Among our flock is a Jewish yogi who chants with Hare Krishnas every week, a seminary grad organizing local communities to combat Islamophobia, a social movement strategist discerning a call to the priesthood, and myself—a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church who began my journey in the interfaith movement as a senior in high school. Though distinct in our identities, we are united in our belief that communities of faith can be a force for good in helping combat the most pressing social concerns of our day from economic inequality to ecological devastation.
Our idealism is pragmatic. As young adults who emerged into adolescence in the post-9/11 era, we are not naïve about the challenges to making this vision a reality. Our social and political identities were shaped in response to ongoing narratives of war and religious conflict: spiritual versus religious, Islam versus the West, and fundamentalism versus rationalism, among others. In the face of these narratives, it comes as no surprise then that nearly 30 percent of our peers reject labels of religious affiliation. Even the non-religious financial institutions that we were told to put our faith in because they were “too big to fail” faltered. Within this context, we cultivated a deep commitment to social justice and a sincere aspiration to make the world a better place.
In the interfaith movement we found a framework for connecting our organizing and activism to our deepest moral and ethical commitments. Interfaith voices have played an essential role throughout American history, inspiring and animating movements for social reform from the Civil Rights movement to the fusion politics of the contemporary Moral Mondays protests in North Carolina. Yet, like so many of our social institutions, the interfaith movement finds itself at a crossroads. Models of dialogue and cooperation, so crucial to the movement’s work over the past quarter century, have begun to fall flat in the wake of demographic trends that have called into question the relevance of religious institutions in public life.
My hope for the interfaith movement is that it will thrive in the 21st century by reclaiming the legacy of compassionate justice and prophetic witness that guided our work in the fight for civil and human rights. To do so, we must see our collective work across moral and ethical traditions as a means to an end, rather than the end itself. Put simply: It is not enough to build relationships of cooperation and inspiration across lines of faith. We must leverage our collective power to speak and act boldly to transform those systems of structural inequality that allow widespread suffering to persist. This work requires becoming deeply aware of the moral and ethical commitments that root us, evaluating the social conditions that surround us, and creating innovative strategies to confront the challenges before us.
My friend Michelle, a fellow Millennial interfaith leader, once told me that “leading from a place of our deepest moral and ethical commitments and engaging others at that level means touching the soul and its longings; questions about what matters to us, why we were put on this Earth, and what we hold most dear.” These words of wisdom deeply resonate with me as I think about the future of the interfaith movement. The interfaith movement must resist the temptation to be shallow in our identification of shared values. It is easy to cut and paste verses from our sacred texts that may align well with texts of other traditions. Yet in doing so we divorce our traditions from their ethical, theological, and historical contexts and strip them of the very substance that has given them meaning to generations of practitioners.
An interfaith leader must be a leader rooted in a critical awareness of one’s own moral-spiritual orientation. For many of us, this will mean exploring our particular religious or ethical tradition. As a Christian rooted in the Black church tradition, I take this invitation to explore my roots as an opportunity to dig deep into the rich and painful history of slavery, forced conversion, and audacious claims to human dignity that form the foundations of my religious context. This historical context is important to framing my contemporary experience as a young clergywoman emerging into ministry at a time when it is still controversial to claim that #blacklivesmatter.
Being rooted in our traditions also means holding a mirror to those parts of our moral and ethical contexts that do not align with our visions of a just and compassionate world. We must be brave enough to recognize that the very traditions that have given us life have also been manipulated to marginalize others. When we dig into the depths of our traditions, we are invited to bring our whole, authentic selves and our experiences to the interfaith movement. Those experiences can help us to identify common challenges across our communities, open space for us to hear one another deeply, and do the hard work of recognizing our own complicity in the suffering of others.
In my work at the Faith Matters Network, I have seen a number of innovative programs that do this work well. Interfaith organizations like Interfaith Worker Justice, Auburn Seminary, Interfaith Youth Core, and the PICO National Network invite participants to explore the intersection of race, religion, and class in their movement-building work. And tradition-specific groups like the Criterion Institute’s 1K Churches program and Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice are piloting cutting edge programming deeply rooted in the core values of their communities.
The time is now for interfaith leaders to claim their prophetic voice and lead. The world is in need of people with the moral and ethical courage to dig into the richness of their traditions and take a stand against the structural injustice in their communities. This is my prayer. Amen.
This article was originally published by Huffington Post on May 7, 2015.
Header Photo: Pixabay