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.