I am a secular Jew who was raised by a Jewish father and a Muslim Syrian, Lebanese mother. We were active in our temple and celebrated the high holidays. We were not the most religious family on the block, but we were observant Jews. Faith was something that was not discussed in my childhood household but it was certainly practiced. Growing up in a totally Semitic family meant that I was raised with a big dose of distrust for Christianity.
Over the years many of my personal and political experiences have countered the narrative that all Christianity is bad and that faith is always hurtful to LGBT people and other communities living on the margin of society. As I grew older and came to understand the powerful role faith can play in combating hate, I began to realize that I needed my progressive brothers and sisters of faith by my side. I also began to realize that progressive faith traditions and spiritual practices of all kinds are a powerful connecter of people, communities and issues.
For the LGBT community this is a particularly important point. At the heart of the religious right's agenda is a deep opposition to the way we live, love, build family and community. As we know, the religious right's "theology," which they actively spread, is rooted in the understanding that LGBT people are sinful and that we need to be saved through reparative therapy and religion. Yet the LGBT movement often disregards the voices, expertise, and moral authority progressive faith leaders bring to our political organizing.
In a report written by the Task Force's National Religious Leadership Roundtable entitled "A Time to Build Up: Analysis of the No On Proposition 8 Campaign and its Implications for Future Pro-LGBTQQIA Religious Organizing," it was found that LGBT faith leaders were not included in the pro-LGBT response to challenging the rabid homo/bi/transphobia espoused by the religious right in the No on Prop 8 campaign.The report powerfully states that:
It is naive to believe that rights-based arguments can trump the value-based arguments of conservative religious leaders. It is also naive to ignore the power and influence of moral authority given to religious leaders within communities of faith. The voices of conservative religious leaders must be responded to by the voices of progressive faith leaders whose religious beliefs and traditions allow them to speak to people of faith as moral equals, within the context of their faith traditions and racial/ethnic cultures.
For any LGBT secular political organizer out there trying to organize a campaign or engage in community organizing without the power of progressive faith leaders and institutions, I want you to listen up! Your campaign is doomed to fail if you fail to understand the important role faith plays in secular political organizing. Forge relationships with leaders of faith across communities and faith traditions. Undoubtedly your organizing will be stronger with progressive faith leaders by your side who are committed to a range of social justice issues including immigrant rights, reproductive justice and LGBT issues.
I too have had to interrogate my own assumptions about the role of progressive faith leaders in political organizing and I have come face-to-face with the truth of the matter: faith has historically been one of the critical factors in fueling the strategic direction and momentum of movements for social justice. More importantly, faith traditions of all kinds have anchored communities as they have creatively, courageously and uncompromisingly resisted oppression in all of its insidious forms. As a secular political organizer, it was not easy to come to this understanding until I started to take stock of what I know about the role of faith in social justice movements.
One of the clearest examples of the power of faith in movements for social justice lies in the Civil Rights Movement. The role of the church rooted the struggle for Black liberation in an ethic of love and justice that led to the mass mobilization of millions of African Americans and their allies against generations of racist oppression and slavery. In the following video Dr. Cornel West talks about the relationship between faith, the Civil Rights Movement, democracy and the Black community.
In this moving speech Dr. West states, "The Black Freedom Struggle is the best example of bringing together a quest for unarmed truth and unconditional love in the face of 400 years of terrorism." He goes on to say that rather than creating counter terrorists, the Black Freedom Struggle produced warriors of love and justice such as Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer and Frederick Douglass. Faith is what gave each and every one of these leaders, along with millions of Black folks across the country, the courage and wisdom to struggle from a place of love and nonviolence rooted in their faith tradition.
In April 1963 in his Letter from A Birmingham Jail Dr. King wrote with such searing insight about how faith, love and justice were such a powerful combination that he was labeled an extremist:
But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God."..."[ So] the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremist for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?"
Extremists for justice cannot only be found in the Black Freedom Struggle but they can also be found in other faith traditions. Mahatma Gandhi, a spiritual and political leader in the Indian Independence Movement, not only lead the struggle for justice in India using the principles of nonviolence, but he also lived and organized based on the principal that "ever step in liberation must have liberation in it."
Gandhi first employed non-violent civil disobedience during the Indian communities struggle for civil rights in South Africa. In 1915 he returned to India and organized protests with working class and poor people around land-tax and discrimination. In 1921 he rose to leadership in the Indian National Congress and lead nationwide campaigns on a wide range of social justice issues including ending poverty, the independence of India from colonial British rule and expanding women's rights.
In an article written by Fania E. Davis entitled Gandhi's Justice and Restorative Justice Davis articulates how Gandhi's principles as an organizer were rooted in his Hindu faith and she connects his principles of nonviolent civil disobedience to those espoused by Martin Luther King in this way:
What are the philosophical foundations of the Ghandian vision of justice? This do-no-harm approach to justice is rooted in the Hindu principle of ahimsa. Ahimsa means non-violence, doing no harm to anyone, even and especially not to those you consider enemies. Ghandi equates love with Ahimsa: If you express your love- Ahimsa-in such a manner that it impresses itself indelibly upon your so called enemy, he must return that love. ...And that requires far greater courage than delivering of blows. Like Dr. King's, Ghandi's vision is of a justice grounded in love. You will recall Dr. King's words: ... [J]ustice is really love in application. Justice is love correcting that which would work against love. Standing beside love is always justice. Ghandi's conception of justice as Ahimsa flows from Hinduism's fundamental principle affirming the interidentity and interconnectedness of all beings.
Interdependence of all human beings is a principal that cross cuts many, if not all, faith traditions. It's a principal of justice that is also deeply rooted in two faith traditions that are close to my heart: Judaism and Islam. In the Jewish faith Tzadik means justice. Justice is one of the major tenants of Jewish social, cultural and religious life. Although the Jewish diaspora's history around movements for social justice is very complicated and cannot be oversimplified, it is true that Jews have been active in all movements for social justice beginning with the Civil Rights Movement through to the current movement to end the occupation of Palestine. Tzadik, meaning a faithful commitment to justice, is what has led many Jews across generations to become "extremists of love" in the face of injustice.
As with Judaism, justice and peace are core tenants of Islam and the Quran. In the face of deep and unjust Islamaphobia, Islam has always been a peaceful faith grounded in justice and community. Islamaphobia is what has created the mythology that Islam is not a peace loving and justice religion, not the principles of the religion itself. Muslims for Progressive Values
, an organization dedicated to organizing Muslims across a wide range of social justice issues, is an excellent example of the progressive faith-based organizing happening in Muslim communities. Their mission states:
Muslims for Progresive Values (MPV) is an inclusive community rooted in the traditional Qur'anic ideals of human dignity and social justice. We welcome all who are interested in discussing, promoting and working for the implementation of progressive values -- human rights, freedom of expression, and separation of church and state* -- as well as inclusive and tolerant understandings of Islam.
As with all of the faith traditions, Islam is yet another example of how hate can distort the power of faith in our work towards justice. Although all of the faith traditions that I have touched on are not the same, they do shared a common vision of justice and a deep, abiding commitment to the interdependence of all human beings. The voices of progressive faith leaders are grounded in a clear moral imperative as they resist oppression and led millions across the country and across the globe to resist the injustice of their political, social, economic and daily living conditions.
Gandhi and King's legacies underscore the important role that progressive faith leaders and movements can play in lifting the conditions, consciousness and collective resistance strategies of whole communities and nations. Our work as secular political secular organizers is to reach out across faith traditions for those powerful voices of faith. We must create meaningful relationships of solidarity and communication with progressive leaders of faith because they bring to the work incredibly valuable insights, resources and constituencies that can not only make the difference between winning and loosing but they can transform hate into love.
Artwork by Ricardo Levins Morales