Religion and Social Change

DR. GINA A. ZURLO

CO-DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF GLOBAL CHRISTIANITY


Most religions have some kind of social service aspect as part of their observance. In Sikhism, many gurdwaras (houses of worship) have a langar (kitchen) where they cook and serve vegetarian meals to the community, free of charge and regardless of religion. The largest of these is in the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, where they feed 100,000 people a day. One of the five Pillars of Islam is zakat, giving to charity. Muslims usually give, on average, 2.5% of their income to assist people in need and relieve economic hardship. In Judaism, the concept of tikkun olam – repair the world – is often interpreted as a responsibility, a commitment to act constructively to help heal a broken society. Jewish social justice ranges from helping to alleviate poverty in the developing world to protecting refugees fleeing persecution.

In June 2020, I attended a virtual event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations on Religion’s Role in Social Change. The guests were Ruth W. Messinger (American Jewish World Service), Najuma Smith-Pollard (USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement and also a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church), and Ani Zonneveld (Muslims for Progressive Values). It was not lost on me that all the panelists were women. The panelists were asked to explain, each from their different religious perspectives, why it was important for religious communities to be a part of the solution for addressing difficult issues in American society. As most religions have a vision for a better world, they each emphasized similar themes and spoke into the challenges we collectively face today.

In Judaism, it’s the “world to come,” in Christianity, the “kingdom of God,” in Islam, the “garden of paradise.” There are obviously theological debates about what these terms mean, and what the relationship of the “now” is to the “thereafter.” Yet, most theologians and lay people alike agree that it takes action to achieve a better world in the here and now. Religious texts mandate their followers to do justice in this world, now.

Micah 6:8 – He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

James 1:27 – Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Quran 5:8 – O you who believe, be upright for God, and be bearers of witness with justice!

It’s human nature to naturally think inward instead of outward; to think of yourself before thinking of others. Perhaps that’s why the Greatest Commandment directs us otherwise:

And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:35–40)

Religion is a powerful force for societal change; religion brings people together, it grounds them. Religion gives people meaning; it organizes their daily lives, and helps people think outside of themselves and their own experiences. Religious leaders have the ability – perhaps even the mandate – to mobilize their congregations, encourage people to work across religious and ethnic differences, and seek positive change together.

The myriad challenges in American society today are overwhelming: the COVID-19 pandemic, systematic racism against Black Americans, anti-Asian hate, voter suppression, political discord, immigration crises, and LGBTQ discrimination – to just name a few. And it feels impossible to navigate all of them at the same time.

But fortunately, we don’t have to do it alone. As people of faith, people of God, people of justice, we have the ability to see the humanity that unites us, above all the things that make us different. Many Americans have given up on religion because religious leaders have failed on social justice issues. But though people have failed, we know that the scriptural mandate has not. In fact, it remains as clear and as urgent as ever. These aren’t new ideas. This kind of integral thinking is core to many global Christian organizations, such as Micah Global.

Serve God and serve others.

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