Recently I went to a panel discussion that's part of a series on Revolutionary Nonviolence organized by a coalition of groups, including Quakers and representatives of Occupy Philadelphia. There were supposed to be four panelists on this particular night, but the one representing "Faith Community-Based Nonviolent Action" could not make it -- a perspective I missed when a young African-American man stood up and asked how we can make members of privileged classes care about those who are oppressed.
The question was directed at Derrick Jensen, a white author and "deep green" activist, who had insightful comments on many topics, but seemed stumped by this one. "This is where we need a faith-based voice," I thought.
When I think of my life as a white, heterosexual middle-class American and ask what made me want to be an ally to people of color, people in the LGBT community, and people in other parts of the world, the answer is clear: love. Once you love someone who is part of a group considered "other" -- really love them, whether it is platonic, romantic or familial love -- then it becomes more difficult to believe the lies told about that group. Their exploitation is harder to accept. And once you start to question the stereotypes about one group of people, it becomes easier, though not automatic, to question other indoctrination as well.
Not even love can "make" people change, but it has the potential to move people beyond their own narrow concerns. Every white person I know who actively works against racism has at least one person of color whom they truly, deeply love. I know heterosexual parents of gay children who care about equality in a way that they would not if it were not their own child facing discrimination. Love is the reason I have been trying to educate Americans about climate change, especially how it will affect Africa, where I served in the Peace Corps. The possibility that tens of millions of people will die of starvation and thirst as a result of the world's refusal to respond to climate change is not something I can dismiss as a hysterical prediction or a horrible abstraction. It's personal to me because there are Africans whom I love.
Love is not a word you hear a lot in secular leftist circles, but it's essential to faith-based approaches to change. It's love that changes us and has the potential to change others beyond our rational expectations. We need rational analysis -- don't get me wrong. I was grateful for the panelists' focus on strategy and tactics. We need their clear thinking. We need organizing skills. But we need to add the language of faith to our vocabulary and reclaim it from the conservative forces that try to monopolize it.
Faith has often been used to separate people and to justify the status quo. If some are rich and some poor, the old argument goes, it must be the way God intended things to be. That is what I call "phony theology." Within every spiritual tradition that I'm familiar with, there is a prophetic voice that calls us to love in a bigger, deeper way, a way that fosters compassion and transformation, not apathy. In the Christian scriptures, Jesus says essentially that the way to love God is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the imprisoned. If you don't love those people, then you haven't really loved God.
We need to highlight this rather challenging bit of scripture and remind Rick Santorum that there are only four references in the whole Bible that are believed to refer to homosexuality, while there are about 2,000 that mention poverty. We need to ask, not just that our society take better care of the poor, but what conditions lead people to become hungry, naked, sick, and imprisoned in the first place.
Faith traditions that involve service -- whether it's serving soup at the homeless shelter or mentoring in a low-income community -- are most helpful when they lead us to a deeper relationship with those whom our tribe defines as "other," when they break us out of the roles of server and served and lead to the kind of love that moves us past self-interest and to the deeper questions. The truth is, if humanity is going to create a more just and sustainable way of living on this planet, an awful lot of us are going to have to move past self-interest, whether we like it or not. I'm rooting for the kind of transformative love that makes us welcome the revolution -- and even help to organize it.