Freedom of Religion, the New Economies, and the Golden Rule

However has it happened that the dialogue in America about the first of our First Amendment rights -- Freedom of Religion -- has devolved to a push and pull, powered by the conviction that some beliefs are better than others? After all the recent political talk laced with religious jabs, I'm inclined to agree with something John Traphagan wrote for the Huffington Post: "It is possible that many on the religious right do not believe in freedom of religion and instead want America to be a Christian nation (by which they mean their particular brand of Christianity) that is intolerant of beliefs of others."

2016-01-14-1452783438-4096802-1forall_logo.jpg Image from First Amendment Center

I'd like to suggest a more hopeful way of looking at things. My message is this: there's a great disruption underway and spirituality will prevail.

I belong to a denomination that took more than our share of hard knocks in the days before the First Amendment was adopted. You know us as Quakers -- a term originally intended to mock, but one that we also now use as a substitute for our more official but cumbersome title, the Religious Society of Friends. The non-conformist practices that made us "threatening" in the 17th and 18th centuries are among the very things we cherish most about our faith today. We believe that there is that of God in everyone and that God speaks to each of us directly, without the need for intermediary. Consequently, we have no creeds, no rituals, no icons, no pastors. During worship, we gather as individuals in community, listening to God in quiet stillness -- plain, simple, and unadorned.

Quakers' focus, therefore, is less on the form and structure of religion, and more on the eternal question that seekers in many religions ask: Where is God in all of the complicated people and circumstances that surround us, and how can we most faithfully respond? Keeping up with the news lately, have you not wondered the same thing?

I have an idea about where we might find some hopeful answers, in spite of today's discouraging religious posturing, promoting, and pushing. First, God is in the daily unsung deeds of compassionate folk from your church, synagogue, mosque, and temple and from my Quaker meeting who endeavor, in the words of the theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman, "to find the lost, heal the broken, feed the hungry, release the prisoner, rebuild the nations, bring peace among brothers, make music in the heart."

And second, we may well find God at work through people who do not even identify themselves as religious. I have met some of them, and their energy and commitment is so inspiring that I make it my quest to meet more. They operate in a vast and dynamic movement outside the walls of the faith establishment. They are social entrepreneurs, advocates, makers, educators, technologists, activists, and donors at work in the emerging New Economies.

• In the Social Impact Economy, they are forming B-Corporations and other business enterprises with a "triple bottom line" that values people and planet, while enabling workers to earn a decent wage - and they are holding themselves accountable for results.
• In the Gift Economy, they are giving time, energy, ideas without any expectation of reciprocity; they donate their own talents to help others complete a project, address a community challenge, deepen an understanding, start a business, get a job.
• In the Sharing Economy, they are making their own tangible assets - space, equipment, tools, software - available for use by other people, perhaps in part to supplement incomes, but also to build community and discourage over-consumption. They create co-ops and systems for bartering to facilitate sharing among neighbors.
• In the Maker Economy, they are giving of their free time to teach science, technology, engineering and math skills to children and teens, sparking creativity, encouraging self-reliance, promoting problem-solving skills and a can-do spirit.
• In the Learning Economy, they are forming learning co-ops that bring working adults together to expand skills and competencies; creating and posting instructional videos on YouTube, where they can be accessed freely; tutoring kids in local libraries and community centers.
• In the Collaboration Economy, they are creating digital platforms to support virtual communities of practice, convening affinity groups and Meet-ups to solve shared problems, donating money through crowd-sourcing, volunteering on community-improvement boards and committees.
• In the Green Economy, they act of stewards of the natural and built environment, participating in citizen science and neighborhood clean-up projects, forming recycling co-ops, advocating green practices with local businesses and non-profit groups.

These "economies" of people coming together to create, share, give, and add value are spreading organically around the globe as more and more members of all generations strive to create a world where everyone can participate and all can thrive. They are geeky millennials, enterprising Gen-Xers, aging Boomers, Greatest Generation volunteers. They are everywhere.

I warned you in the second paragraph that I was going to talk about disruption, so please hold on. Consider this: we know that significant changes have been underway in our economy for some time now, changes that can be characterized in part as shifts from the static to the dynamic. Looking in the rear-view mirror through Post-Recession lenses, we recognize that we have left the old industrial world of inputs and outputs behind. We focus now on sustainable beneficial outcomes, which cannot be achieved through short-term action or in isolation. Our attention now is on collaborative ecosystems (rather than individual firms), lifelong learning (as opposed to classroom time), knowledge flows (rather than stocks of information), renewable resources (as contrasted with the finite). The dynamic New Economies are a manifestation of this shift, as well.

The key here is that merely having something is of limited benefit; real value comes from being able to apply it in dynamic, ever-changing circumstances. I suggest that this is also the case with faith. As we are seeing all too clearly in current debates about religion in politics, having religion -- owning it - can mightily tempt one to think of a religion as "mine," which might ultimately be considered better or holier than "yours." We see too much of this these days. It is hard not to get distracted by the fits and throws of the old way as it squeaks for attention, but "mine vs yours" is just not where the world is ultimately headed.

Religious historian Karen Armstrong observes: "When people of all different persuasions come together, working side by side for a common goal, differences melt away. And we learn amity. And we learn to live together and to get to know one another." She's referring to a core tenet of all the world's major religions - the Golden Rule. There are two ways to express it: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. These are among the most simple and the most difficult of our spiritual challenges, because they require us to apply what we believe, not just hold onto it.

For my part, I wouldn't be a good Quaker if I didn't suggest that it is time to get back to basics. That means not getting distracted or discouraged by all the religiopolitical noise out there right now. It means holding firm to what really matters - that of God within each of us being a good starting point. Perhaps you are skeptical that Spirit is at work through the religiously unaffiliated of the New Economy, however kind-hearted they may be. But we won't really know until we take off our old lenses and give it a good look, will we? Seeking is one time-tested religious practice that always works well.