Social justice and interfaith dialogue


I stumbled upon a blog on a web site focused on Jewish issues in which Michael Rosen, a progressive Jewish author, describes his frustrating experiences in attempting to promote his recent book to progressive Christian audiences. He writes that he encountered a resistance by Christians who are interested in social justice issues--whom he assumed would be a natural audience for the story he tells in his book:

I figured that our story- a White couple with two White sons in New York City meeting five disadvantaged Black and Latino teenage boys on a blacktop baseball field, welcoming the boys into our home and also becoming our sons, then the story of navigating the whole ship of boys to safe harbor - would naturally to be of interest to religion-based groups dedicated to the Biblical call to social justice.
Instead, it seemed that the Christians he encountered were hesitant about inviting him into their own politically focused religious communities. He felt it was as if they were a bit too involved with the orthodoxy of their own faith to want to link up with someone of a different faith, despite a common cause of social justice. He thought--perhaps naively--that Matthew 25 would serve as an inspiration for Christians to put aside theological differences when the real thing was whether you fed the poor or took in the stranger. (Among those Christian social justice groups who he felt spurned him was Sojourners magazine.)

I can't help but wonder if part of the problem he faced was in mistaking a commitment to social justice with being uninterested in orthodoxy. What isn't always obvious is how vague and confusing the term "progressive Christian" can really be. For some, it means being theologically orthodox but politically progressive. For others, it isn't necessarily focused on politics but instead means being theologically progressive in the sense of embracing religious pluralism, not taking the bible or its miracle stories literally, and perhaps embracing a theology such as process theology or panentheism (groups from that category do tend to be interested in social justice as well, however.) And for still others it means focusing almost entirely on orthopraxis as the basis of the faith and denying that anything can really be said about God.

I can't speak to Sojourners specifically, about which I don't know a lot, but my guess is that it falls a little more closely into the "theologically orthodox but politically progressive" category. On other other hand, if you take a look at an someone like Jim Burklo, a Presbyterian pastor who has been involved intimately in the Center for Progressive Christianity, he appears to be all about orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy, and I'd be willing to guess he would embrace what Rosen is doing (at a church he used to pastor, the web site said that they were about the "deeds rather than the creeds".) I similarly know of a Lutheran pastor in the city where I live, San Francisco, who is very much involved with both progressive Christianity and interfaith dialogue. And so on.

I guess the point is that it does get complicated and one might suggest that Michael Rosen was just talking to the wrong "progressive" or "social justice" Christians. It is also possible that many social justice Christians will always be hesitant about joining forces with religious communities outside the Christian orbit.


Frank said...

I don't know. He put a bunch of "evidence" out there, but it is inconclusive to me. And since he's so willing to jump to conclusions it makes me wonder how pleasant this guy is to work with. Perhaps he hasn't done enough work building relationships but rather just expecting the world to be his oyster.

Most people I know in the justice/outreach world are truly ecumenical in approach and often go out of their way to embrace someone of another faith. If there is anyplace where ecumenism exists, it is in the justice/outreach world!

These outreach workers are also ridiculously over-worked, over-committed, and often have learned through painful trial and error that they must focus their scope on a small segment of justice or outeach issues and not take on too many new and different ministries.

As a director of a justice/outreach organization I often find myself just telling folks "sorry, there's no room at the inn right now" not because I don't believe in their mission, but because at some point I have to move forward with my mission and not put it on hold to accomodate someone else's mission. I may want to embrace every opportunity and take seriously anybody who knocks on the door with an offer, but at some point I have to consider limited resources and the fact that if I try to do everything I'll end up doing nothing.

I would suggest to this guy to work more on building relationships and realizing that the kind of dialogue he wants is a two-way street--he seems focused on presenting his material but doesn't seem to focus much on mutual-exchange, and that approach won't help him get a foothold out there.

Mystical Seeker said...

Frank, you raise some good points. It sounds like maybe this author was being a little sensitive or perhaps overreacting a bit. If he was primarily interesting in using interfaith dialogue as a means of promoting his book, then that does sound like a of a bit one-sided view of what this kind of dialogue is about.