Social Justice


In the summary of my religious beliefs that I posted earlier, I included the following comment:

The religious life also includes the pursuit of social justice, which implies a belief in making the world a more just, more loving place. That means living one's life on behalf of poor, the oppressed, the suffering, and the downtrodden.
This statement was placed within a long list of theological statements, which might give the incorrect impression that it is not of great importance to my religion. In fact, I believe that this element of religion is absolutely essential.

When examining various religious communities, I think it is important to consider how that community views its social mission, if at all. Many religions have charities or service organizations. There are, for example, many Catholic charities. The Quaker faith has the American Friends Service Committee, a famous organization that won a Nobel Peace Prize for its humanitarian and war relief efforts. The UU church has the Unitarianian Universalist Service Committee. Various local churches, such as San Francisco's Glide Memorial Church, sees its charity work as an essential part of its mission.

But charity and relief work can only treat the symptoms of social injustice. A commitment to social justice goes further than that; it necessarily seeks to overturn the causes of the problem. It means becoming active politically. And many denominations and individual people of faith have been committed to opposing war, racism, and poverty at the institutional level. For over 350 years, for example, Quakers have been at the forefront of social change, including but not limited to fighting for the abolition of slavery, for women's rights, for prison reform, and so on.

To me, any religious community without a commitment to social justice as an inherent part of its mission is, necessarily, stillborn. It is a stale and useless religion that does not seek to make the world a better place. I say this because I believe quite firmly that we reveal our relationship to God through our service to the community and by working to make a better world.

I would like to stay positive in this blog, and although it isn't really my purpose here to criticize other religious denominations, I do want to cite two examples of religious communities that I feel do not match my own conception of a religious mission of social justice, which is why, in my various searches for religious communities, I felt that they didn't suit what I was looking for.

The first example comes from the world of New Thought religions (this includes Divine Science, Unity, and Religious Science.). Some religious communities seem to be mostly about "me" and simply don't bother with a broader social mission, and I think that this seems to characterize much of New Thought religion. These denominations emphasize personal prosperity as one of the chief goals of their religious faith--not just monetary prosperity, but all the ways that an individual can prosper, although monetary prosperity is certainly a component of that. I will concede that I think that New Thought denominations can have some value to many people in their emphasis on "me"--particularly as it pertains to giving people the ability to live life confidently, which New Though promotes with its use of such things as daily affirmations. I am not against self-fulfillment or confident, positive living; I just think that New Thought overemphasizes this to the expense of a broader focus on the community.

I can't help but notice, by the way, that these religions typically preach that an individual can achieve greater prosperity by contributing more money to the church. In fact, the churches often seems to take on a life of their own and only exist in order to serve themselves. It is my impression that the kinds of service that some of these churches expect their members to provide are first and foremost not to the community at large, but to itself. That isn't to say that I think church members should not contribute their energies to the life of their church--of course they should. But I believe that there has to be an outward focus as an essential component of religious participation.

My other example comes from an offshoot of Unitarian Univeralism. A group of Unitarians--and I have no idea how big this group is--who wanted to place greater emphasis on Christianity formed a group called the American Unitarian Conference. Reviewing its web page shows that one of its goals is to divorce Unitarian religion from politics altogether. While it is true that religious people can disagree with one another on many of the details of politics and social issues, I don't agree with the principle of divorcing religion from politics altogether.

As the Jewish prophet Amos once said, "Let justice flow down like waters." The great religions have always called for a commitment to social justice. This includes, but goes way beyond, the mere giving of alms. Islam, for example, has always placed great emphasis on alms for the disadvantaged--in fact, the zakat, or giving of alms, is one of the five pillars of Islam. Judaism has always had a strong commitment to alms, and Christianity has a tradition of alms giving as well. But I believe we can reveal the divine ourselves not just by giving alms, but by seeking to transform the world to one of equality, justice, and human liberation.


lionspride780 said...

Mystical Seeker, this is a fine post, and doubles as a commentary on much of what I have been reflecting on lately. My religious history includes participation in Christian organizations, New Thought churches, and the Unitarian-Universalist movement, so I can closely relate to your point of view.

Lately I have been feeling an increasingly urgent need for spiritual community, but have been in a quandry regarding the issue of whom to approach for affiliation. There are liberal Christian churches that I like in part, but it feels to me as if when you step into even that friendly and reflective strain of Christianity, you have one foot resting upon the lighted ground of love, compassion, acceptance, and respect, and the other in the twisted dogma and violent imagery so easily gleaned from the Bible.

The New Thought organizations are more free of such dogma, and are pleasingly positive and affirming; but as you note, they are nearly devoid of an active social conscience that goes beyond visualizing the world in a globe of golden light. In my research, I've tried executing web searches for the phrase "Social Justice" paired with either "New Thought", "Religious Science", or "Unity School of Christianity", and even among the vastness of the internet I can find nothing - save a collection of web pages that happen to contain links to other websites that happen to reference at least two of these topics, but not both together.

I admire the social ideals of the UU tradition greatly, but in my UU participation I too have noted the absence of any experience of reverence - a necessity perhsps, for them to be able to embrace people of many faith traditions without causing offense. It is probably a perfect spiritual home for many people, but I need something different.

So, I continue to contemplate what to do. Besides answering my inner yearning for community and worship, I'm also of a mind that the numerous potential calamities that may unfold before us could lead us into a world where the only assets that remain of any real worth are the communities to which we belong; if so, it is of course important to be part of a larger group. If I were God, and I were trying to teach humanity something important that it could only seem to learn through catastrophe, I think the odds are pretty good that the lesson would have something to do with reaching out to other people.

I hope more people post on this topic. Right now, I have a lot more questions than answers.

Peter Burr said...

I've recently been attending a couple of New Thought Centers, in deference to my wife, actually, who has had an interest for many years. I have been very strongly impressed by the same characteristic that you have discussed...that there seems to be a remarkable concentration on "me" and "my serenity" and "my relationship with the all" with absolutely NO evidence of a social commitment, social justice orientation, or even social concern other than how it affects "me". I have, of course, met some individuals who prove the exception to this generalization, but they stand out quite obviously from the crowd, who seem to have little interest in following their lead.

I have no doubt that these disciplines are helpful to people, especially those struggling with deep emotional issues, but they absolutely fail the test of empathy in my book. Spirituality, I think, to be genuine, *must* involve a deep and abiding commitment to social justice.

danc57 said...

There are hopeful signs of change in the New Thought world. Michael B. Beckwith is a voice for social justice and others are following.

See the Association for Global New Thought where are lot of exciting things are happening.

lionspride780 said...

I hope you are correct. I have heard a few references to Mr. Beckwith regarding his expressed desire to introduce a stronger emphasis on justice into the New Thought community, though confess to not knowing the specifics of what he is doing.

But, I confess to some skepticism. At your recommendation, I visited the Association for Global New Thought website, and observing on their home page that they offer the "opportunity to directly participate in our carefully crafted programs in spiritually-guided social action", I reviewed their current programs. With just one exception, every one involves generating publicity, convening to share visions of how our world could be better, or networking - in short (and in words that may sound harsher in print than I hope), talking a lot. The exception is a program arranging religious tourism experiences.

This contrasts strongly with programs in which I see from other traditions which offer more tangible aid, which often involves a degree of self-sacrifice. In recent months, I've read of religious individuals and groups finding ways to provide food and shelter for the homeless; offering hope and a way out for people trapped in the reality of modern-day slavery (usually, but not always, involving sex trafficing); providing room, board, and guidance for runaway teens trying to survive on urban streets; travelling to remote, impoverished locations to set up programs for long-term development; and getting themselves sent to jail as a result of peacefully protesting the activities of the School of the Americas, from which so many dictators have emerged. There's a marked contrast between the results of these activities, IMHO, and those in resulting from the most publicized programs of the New Thought community.

Again - this probably reads more harshly than I would like. I've known plenty of New Thought adherents, and in the vast majority of cases their vision of a happier world burns brightly in their hearts. I know they are sincere. To me, it just seems that too often, their efforts are misdirected; for all the good meditation, visioning, and prayer may do, they produce few fruits without energetic hands and a willingness to walk into the world's murkier places to help someone else out of them.

I hope I am wrong, and am always open to new evidence, but this is how I see the current relationship between New Thought and social justice.
(an afterthought: a current Web search still shows only a few websites discussing both New Thought and justice, and for whatever it may mean, this short collection of four posts in five years is #2 on Google's list, right after the Association for Global New Thought reference.)