Interfaith Disrupted: A Search for Action and Common Ground

As the tectonic plates shift across America's social landscape, it is evident that nearly every aspect of American society is experiencing some form of disruption. Amid this radical change, community-brokers, activists, and interfaith leaders are confronted by these and other moral-based conflicts that are unsettling and cannot be resolved by traditional forms of dialogue or diplomacy.

Such disruption requires a new response that is equally disruptive, even if it means readjusting how we practice interfaith relations in order to ensure peace and stability.

While the interfaith model of the twentieth century welcomed "symbolic gestures" as holding hands, singing "kumbaya" or sharing food and blessings in mainline church basements, it is evident that the interfaith work of the twenty-first century must connect itself to the unstable pockets of our society where disenfranchised voices reside. It has been the case for some time now that interfaith activity in parts of the United States often functions as a "cozy" safe-space.

Pushing this point forward, it is essential faith-based leaders grasp that many of these safe playgrounds for inter-religious exploration are experiencing a much needed disruption, brought on by an urgency that leaders incorporate key cross-cultural skills into their daily practice to promote peace and social justice at the grassroots-level. Whether working to ensure human rights in Jos, Nigeria or participating in peace-building endeavors in Dearborn, Michigan, we are learning that "interfaith dialogue" can no longer be the only option to satisfying societies ills.

Addressing these new challenges will require both faith-based and civic leaders move beyond "soft" dialogue to embrace an action-oriented posture. As faith-based issues continue to shape news headlines, it is evident that a new type of interfaith leadership that is rooted in compassion is needed in this era.

For example, new social movements as Black Lives Matter, resistance toward the controversial Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, and recent acts of terrorism in San Bernardino, California, Paris, and Turkey suggest that faith-based organizations and their leaders have a new role to play in transcending conflicts that are rooted in moral arguments.

In the days ahead, interfaith leaders committed to putting their faith into action should:

1. Implement approaches that focus less on theoretical truths and more so on promoting pluralism. As interfaith work moves into the 21st century, its leaders must learn to be more inclusive of perspectives held by secular humanist, indigenous traditions, and non-theist who wish to put their beliefs into action for good.

2. Embrace a posture of maladjustment in an effort to build a just society. Leaders should consider drawing on Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s commitment to social justice when setting out to challenge social structures designed to favor one group, race, gender or class over another.

3. Recognize public civility is not a luxury, but a social norm that faith-based leaders and their institutions must work to uphold. While silence is often popular to ensure harmony in religious circles, the reality is that silence only perpetuates acts of symbolic violence that sets the tone and context for physical violence. Bearing truth to power is essential to ensure civility and security in the public sphere.

4. Openly acknowledge that interfaith works best when one's power and privilege is left on the shelf. The interfaith space should not be a breeding ground for hierarchy or conversion. Instead, it should be a safe-space that fosters compassion and pluralism.

5. Develop constructive peacebuilding strategies that are inclusive and reflective of America's increasingly diverse population. As America becomes more diverse in population, understanding better how to cross religious and cultural lines with ease will be instrumental to avoiding moral conflicts and promoting mutual understanding. The Brookings Institute has highlighted this demographic shift in a recent report on the U.S. becoming a Majority-Minority nation by 2044.

6. Explore global approaches that work. Since the early 1990's, intergovernmental bodies as the United Nations have been instrumental in leading conversations on civility in public discourse and engagement. From Boutros Boutros-Ghali's Agenda for Peace (1992) that acknowledged promoting peace through religion to the UN's 2007 High-level Dialogue on Interreligious and Intercultural Understanding and Cooperation for Peace are constructive examples of international measures to promote pluralism and human security.

Disruption from the old interfaith model is in fact a good thing, as it has the ability to force interfaith leaders to build new bridges that reach into unchartered territory. If we are to ensure human security for all, interfaith leaders will need to work collectively to redirect the current interfaith narrative that is entrenched in exercising symbolic gestures.

Instead of just calling for prayer or a moment of reflection, leaders will need to bear truth to power and organize against hate speech, racism, and acts of public and private discrimination. If interfaith work in the U.S. wants to be taken serious by Millennials in the days ahead, it must awaken from the shadows to echo the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor."

Nonetheless, interfaith is not about conforming or being comfortable, it is about putting your beliefs into action to find common ground in an effort to promote peace and sustainable relations.