The Multicultural Imperative of our Faith
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Do you ever wonder what this congregation will be like in forty or fifty years? We live in such a rapidly changing society; I can well imagine it will be noticeably different. Certainly in relation to the question of race and ethnic diversity it is perhaps a simple matter of following the increase demographics of such diversity to extrapolate that all open communities that don’t actively fight against diversity will grow more racially diverse as the population in general does so. King’s dream of blacks and whites living, working and worshiping along side each other may sneak into reality over the next few generation barring, as I say, efforts to actively discourage it.
If accomplishing King’s dream were simply a matter of demographics, we could just wait for it. But of course that is not the full dream and racism in America is a trickier problem than just a matter of numbers and population densities. King’s dream was one of equality, respect, and fairness. His was a vision included the dismantling the conditions that perpetuate injustices and inequalities under whatever guise.
King didn’t spend a lot of time critiquing religion, though he did do it. One of my favorite quotes from him on the topic was when he said religion should serve not as the thermometer of society but as the thermostat. King saw religion to hold the potential to lead change in our society, not just to fallow it, waiting for it to filter in through the stained glass windows over time. Religious communities should be in the position of choosing who they shall be and who society should become as well. The church should be in control when it comes to setting values.
I remember reading a passage from a book by evangelical mega-church pastor Rick Warren. It was his book Purpose Driven Church in which he said a church needs to have a target culture, a target audience. He compared it to a radio station. If a radio station wanted to develop a followership, it needed to develop a consistent play list. If a person tuned into the station and heard a country song and the person liked country music, they were likely to stay with the station to hear more country music. But if the next song was pop, and after that it was rap, followed by a classical song, then a Brazilian folk dance, and then something hip hop … the station would not be able to maintain a followership. People would not stay with the station.
But as I read this passage from Rick Warren’s book I thought about the NPR stations I liked and how they did that sort of thing. Certainly not to the extreme of shifting genre that quickly, but they did have a jazz hour and then a bluegrass hour and then a talk radio program followed by news and then world music. And to Warren’s point, we do that as a church. We do offer a variety of genre if you will from Sunday to Sunday. As church member Ron Clupper likes to say to new people, “It’s not like this every Sunday.”
It has been sometimes offered up as a compliment and sometimes as an intended slight against us to say Unitarian Universalists are the NPR of religion. The part of that comparison that is tugging at me now is how we offer a broad range of musical genre – by which I analogously mean beliefs.
How does this fit with the vision of beloved community that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. cast, that dream of equality, that demand for civil rights? The dream called for a particular kind of community. King’s vision included a call to be in community in such a way as to encourage diversity to flourish.
In Unitarian Universalism we thrive on religious diversity. I’m not making so grand a claim as to say we are the reality King dreamed about. No. Our Unitarian Universalists congregations are no more racially mixed than most churches, no more integrated really than they were in the 60’s – which does further beg the question of what we will be like forty or fifty years from now. But first, let me say the connection I am drawing is that diversity is a central aspect of our identity. It is theological diversity first and foremost, but it spreads out from there.
We strive to honor and accept the difference of each individual within our own community. We have humanists, pagans and theists, mystics, atheists and agnostics all mingled together in one community. Respect of other people’s beliefs is a central aspect of our faith; it is our covenant. We’ve codified it in the core of our faith identity. We strive to embody religious pluralism, and to live it out in a shared community as a form of radically interconnected pluralism.
But that is not unique to Unitarian Universalism. Indeed, what I point toward is a broad feature of progressive religion today. We sometimes feel ourselves to be an outpost of sane and humane religious discourse. We occasionally get stuck in a bunker mentality saying we are the last safe place for scientists to be spiritual and for mystics to be rational. But that’s not true. Yes, there are a multitude of religious groups who take it as their mandate to exclude the stranger. Yes, there are forces under the guise of ‘true religion’ that push for extreme interpretations of faith and scripture that advocate violence and hate. Yes it is true that, in the neighborhoods around us and around the world, religion is practiced by many as a method of extremism and intolerance. But it is also true that countless others practice religion with the values of compassion for the stranger, respect for the common good, and tolerance for differences.
I have begun reading the book that has been selected by the UUA and Beacon Press for a common read. The concept of a “common read” is to get as many people as possible to read the same book at around the same time so as to encourage conversation and communal growth. This year’s common read is Acts of Faith by Eboo Patel.
Eboo Patel is the founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based international youth movement. Patel talks in the book about growing up an Indian Muslim in America. But the premise of the book is much deeper than just his story:
One hundred years ago, the great African American scholar W. E. B. Du Bois famously said, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” I believe that the problem of the twenty-first century will be shaped by the question of the faith line. On one side of the faith line are the religious totalitarians. Their conviction is that only one interpretation of one religion is a legitimate way of being, believing, and belonging on earth. Everyone else needs to be cowed, or converted, or condemned, or killed. On the other side of the faith line are the religious pluralists, who hold that people believing in different creeds and belonging to different communities need to learn to live together. Religious pluralism is neither mere coexistence nor forced consensus. It is a form of proactive cooperation that affirms the identity of the constituent communities while emphasizing that the wellbeing of each and all depends on the health of the whole. It is the belief that the common good is best served when each community has a chance to make its unique contribution. (p. xv)
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called us to become a nation where we judge one another not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character, he was speaking from the pluralist side of the faith line. When Gandhi proclaimed that an eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind, he was speaking from the pluralist side of the faith line. When Dorothy Day said that loving thy neighbor is not just good for the neighbor, it is essential for our souls, she was speaking from the pluralist side of the faith line. And when Karen Armstrong advocates for a charter of compassion based on the ubiquitous golden rule, she also is speaking from the pluralist side of the faith line.
But let us not get stuck in the trap of seeing religious pluralism as akin to mere religious tolerance. Religious tolerance implies peaceful coexistence. Peaceful coexistence is not a bad thing, but it’s not enough. Peaceful coexistence is agreeing to disagree. There is a middle ground between enforced conformity and blandly ignoring each other. Those two options, each in their own way, gloss over the differences and the particulars of belief or culture.
I think the particulars matter. The particulars of time and place, the details of practice and culture, are important to the religious endeavor. We cannot be religious in general, the details matter. Day to day living is intertwined with eternity. At times, people make an effort to create a single homogenous religion, a universal religion based solely on, for example, the golden rule. But the particulars of time and place matter. This tree, this river, this building, this hour, this series of steps and movements – they are the particulars of time and place that serve as the vehicle by which we transcend time and place. We cannot be religious in general.
The implications that this faith perspective has on racism follow quite closely. We cannot be human in general. The color of my skin and the mix of privileges and disadvantages I grew up with make a difference. The details matter, but the goal is universal. Thus, we still pay attention to diversity. Diversity is more than a means to an end. The essential unity of all humanity is not separable from the unique differences that make each of us beautiful.
Consider trees – there is a remarkable variety to be found. And even when you consider two oak trees, they still grow differently, uniquely. Difference and diversity is the order of life. It is the way we have been designed by God, or if you prefer, it is the result of an effective process of evolution. Either way, it is the way it is! We are each, wonderfully, different. Theologically, we Unitarian Universalists grasp this point quite well. Each person approaches that which is holy in the way that fits for them. The question of race circles back to the larger question of faith today. The same problems of race people were wrestling with throughout the past century are played out in parallel problems along the faith line in this century. It is a question of whether or not it is ok to be different.
Eboo Patel’s writes in his book about the reason he has devoted his life to creating progressive interfaith communities for youth. He is convinced that it makes a huge difference. “Young people have always played a key role in social movements, from the struggle against apartheid in South Africa to the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany.” His point is that young people learn their values and their prejudices from their communities. We learn when we are young either the fundamentalist, totalitarian perspective or the progressive, pluralistic perspective from our communities.
“We live in an era where the populations of the most religiously volatile areas of the world are strikingly young. Seventy-five percent of India’s one billion plus are not yet twenty-five. Eighty-five percent of the people who live in the Palestinian territories are under age thirty-three. More than two-thirds of the people in Iran are under the age of thirty. The median age in Iraq is nineteen and a half. All these people are standing on the faith line. Whose message are they hearing?” (p xvi)
Osama bin Laden started his terrorist career at the age of nineteen (p 127), and Martin Luther King led the Montgomery bus boycott when he was twenty-six years old. (p xviii) Young people are the key to this conversation about the faith line. Patel argues in the book that the groups with extreme totalitarian perspectives on faith do a very good job at recruiting and indoctrinating young people to their side of the faith line. Progressives and pluralists don’t do ‘indoctrination’ and tend to be poor at ‘recruiting. We tend to rely on secular institutions to do the work for us. Public schools and public television programming offer the diversity and the call for tolerance. But it too often comes out at Political Correctness still because it is not grounded in religious values.
I’m not saying secular institutions are doing it wrong. I’m saying religious institutions can’t rely – shouldn’t rely – on secular institutions to do our work. It is a public school’s job to require all children to read something like Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. And some religious totalitarian groups will augment that education with stories about how the Holocaust was a hoax. Are there enough youth groups run by religious pluralists offering the messages of compassion and respect for differences? Are there enough groups for young people where the message of religious pluralism is heard, the message of diversity and of honoring differences that is grounded in the religious values of love and respect?
I am convinced the world needs more communities such as ours. The world needs places where children are encouraged to question and to seek and to grow. I am convinced that we have a role to play in how this unfolds. That is what is behind my need to do anti-racist multicultural work as a congregation. Our voice and our presence is needed in the world – not just to help heal the world and guide society as King’s thermostat, but also because if we don’t we will be diminished. I don’t mean we will be diminished demographically. We will be diminished by the shallowness of our reflected faith for we will be turning our backs on our calling. Diversity is at the core of our faith identity. The world needs more communities such as ours. Our work is to respond to that need with integrity – but we do need to respond.
In a world without end,
May it be so