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The Interfaith Community and The Crisis of Racial Injustice and Inequity
by Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis*
On June 4, the leadership of four interfaith organizations—Religions for Peace USA, Parliament of World Religions (PoWR), United Religions Initiative (URI) and the Interfaith Center of New York (ICNY)—issued a statement: “This Perilous Moment: A Statement from Religious Leaders and Communities on the Crisis of Racial Injustice and Inequity and Current Protests.” This statement is important, as Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’i, Humanists, Indigenous, Jains, Sikhs, Taoists, Unitarian Universalists, Zoroastrians, and many others signed on to the statement and were able to address, in one voice and with a sense of urgency, the systemic evil of racism that plagues our country. Drawing inspiration and empowerment from the spiritual resources of their respective tradition, each faith community is underscoring their commitment to justice, peace, and reconciliation.
The Orthodox Church, as an active member of the Interfaith Organization Religions for Peace USA, is also a partner in this interfaith witness. Her participation in these efforts reflect her ethos as it has been authoritatively expressed in the Great and Holy Council (Crete 2016) to seek inter-religious understanding and co-operation for the advancement of peaceful coexistence and harmonious living. His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, in his address to the Global Peace Conference of Al-Azhar and Muslim Council of Elders (2017), expressed the belief of the Orthodox Church in the need for human solidarity and the commitment of the Orthodox Church in advancing that goal through interfaith collaboration building a culture of justice and peace. He stated that the credibility of religious communities in today’s world depends on whether they are active advocates and guardians of human dignity and freedom of all people. His All-Holiness has suggested that it is only through dialogue and collaboration that faith-based communities, governments, and civil society are able to respond together to the challenge of building a just and peaceful world.
He stated: We can face these challenges only together. Nobody—not a nation, not a state, not a religion, nor science and technology—can face the current problems alone. We need one another; we need common mobilization, common efforts, common goals, common spirit. Therefore, we regard the present multifaceted crisis as an opportunity for practicing solidarity, for dialogue and cooperation, for openness and confidence. Our future is common, and the way toward this future is a common journey. As it is written in the Psalms: “Behold now, what is so good or so pleasant as for brothers to dwell together in unity?” (Psalm 133:1)
Advancing the cause of justice, peace, and reconciliation is primarily an act of God. The faithful, filled with God’s love for all humanity, are co-creators with God, creating a world that reflects as much as possible God’s love, peace, and justice. Liberation from injustice, oppression, racism and violence in today’s world requires the collaboration of the Church with other faith communities and people of God based on their shared humanity and their God-given vocation to love one another. The joint statement issued by four interfaith organizations described today as a “Perilous Moment” and underscored the shared necessity to work together to combat the injustice, oppression, racism, and violence in American society. This statement is not an ethereal discussion about an otherworldly realm of existence – it reflects the conflictual nature of history. It recognizes the evil of racism, white supremacy, and police brutality against African Americans that has justifiably contributed to an explosion of a justified and righteous anger.
The faith communities jointly recognized that the “wicked scourge of discrimination and racism is structural, systemic, systematic, and institutional.” The origins of this systemic evil that plagues the country are not only cultural, economic, political, and social factors but also spiritual and moral. The legacy of racism affects every aspect—“seen and unseen”—of our personal and communal life. The religious communities jointly admit that they are complicit in the evil of racism and injustice because of their long silence and lack of action. They recognize that, in many different ways, false tenets of their respective religious tradition have been used to perpetuate the evil of racism. “Our sacred texts and traditions have been used, wrongly so, to further racial injustice.” But religious traditions are, in their view, “a deep well” from which they draw inspiration and power that empower them to be agents of peace and justice. “People of faith must stand for love and stand up for equity, equality, and justice.” Religious communities, including the Orthodox Church, once they acknowledge that their faith has been manipulated for oppressive and unjust purposes, have the responsibility to identify those aspects of their tradition that promote justice, human dignity, and the rights of all people. They should review their religious education programs and their spiritual traditions, trying to identify better ways to raise the consciousness of the faithful concerning their responsibility to respect and care for all people who are beloved children to God regardless of their world views, race, color, or culture. Interfaith collaboration and dialogue provide opportunities to all committed and involved religious communities to critically rediscover aspects of their respective tradition as they seek to address issues of common concern. Yet, it is important to recognize that within each of the faith communities, there will be people who for a variety of reasons have embraced in faith a “tribal God” and refuse to recognize the universality of God’s love that demands from them to love, care, and respect humanity in its diverse racial, religious, cultural, and ethnic existence.
The evolving social unrest and the polarization that the evil of racism has ignited challenges religious communities, civil society, and governments to hear the voices of the suffering people and address their legitimate concerns. In trying to quell social unrest, the statement of the religious communities rightly warns that each of the actions that people take “represents steps towards one of two possible different paths: inclusive democracy or authoritarian state.” The interfaith communities unreservedly have opted to “decisively to walk towards inclusive democracy, where faiths and freedoms flourish.” They must responsibly “act now” and live with intention through the real discomfort of this crisis, and all the things after it, that require faith communities to co-steward the healing that society needs. Of course, such an active involvement in the process of social transformation and reconciliation that aims to eradicate the evil of injustice and discrimination should be grounded not in a particular political ideology but in the “deep wellsprings” of each religious community’s faith in fostering hope, justice, and reconciliation. The effective expression of their respective faith traditions to the current situation requires people of faith to educate themselves about the very real impacts of racism and sojourn with movements led by persons of color for justice, equality, and equity. A dynamic witness of the religious communities against the evil of racism in all of its insidious forms includes participating in protests, calling out racial injustices, and partnering with affected communities. Religious communities must also encourage volunteerism and philanthropic commitments to institutions working to advance racial justice and harmony.
Thus, the faith communities do not remain indifferent, praying to God to bring healing and reconciliation, but they dare to take sides: “We are here to stand with those who are rightly and justifiably enraged at police brutality and racial injustice, and who feel unheard and unheeded in their lamentations.” They join their voices and their actions with the protestors, as they pray unceasingly for peace and justice to prevail and for healing of hearts of all those feeling the pain of these traumas. This, however, does not mean that they condone irrational explosions of violence and looting. Looting is viewed as distraction from the main reasons their collective concerns gave rise to protest demonstrations in the beginning – namely, addressing racial injustice, police brutality, and white supremacy.
Police brutality as a tragic epiphenomenon of systemic racism that needs to be addressed should not become a pretext of dismissing the importance of law enforcement for people’s safety and well-being. “Law enforcement has an important and vital role in our society to serve and protect all of us, and we support their peaceable actions to uphold just laws.” People have to be able to trust that the rule of law is applied fairly and equitably to all parties. Political leaders, as well as law enforcement, must ensure that people have the space and freedom to express their will through constructive peaceful protests against all forms of injustice and racism.
The systemic nature of racism, violence, and injustice requires “a longform response effort that will span generations.” Even if the moral indignation subsides and the attention of the mass media has shifted to other matters (though they should not), faith communities must continue to pray with their “feet and hands” and work together to resolve the insidious impacts of the ugly legacy of slavery, the blight of racism, and the multiple forms of discrimination in our communities. The religious communities would give credence to their joint vision of an inclusive society by advocating changes, not only in the society, but also in their internal life by supporting efforts at diversity, equity, and inclusion in their places of worship, workplaces, and lives.
Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis is Archbishop Iakovos Professor of Theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.
This article first appeared in Public Orthodoxy, a medium that seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity.