The Pitfalls and Possibilities of Interfaith Work

by Eboo Patel

Interfaith organizations seek to bring together religiously diverse groups and individuals to build understanding and cooperation. This paper focuses on two questions central to the interfaith enterprise: Which groups and individuals should interfaith organizations target? And, what difference does building understanding and cooperation amongst these groups make? The first question deals with inclusiveness. The second deals with justice, which I will define broadly as increasing peace, creating equality, alleviating suffering and encouraging freedom.

Many scholars and activists in the interfaith movement will tell you that inclusiveness and justice are inextricably linked. We will point to the interfaith character of 20th century social justice movements like civil rights in the United States, Hind Swaraj on the subcontinent and the struggle in South Africa. We will quote from the savants of these movements—King, Gandhi, Mandela, Heschel—on the necessity of interfaith cooperation to create justice. We will highlight the pluralistic character of the contemporary world, and note that many modern injustices occur between religious communities. We might even say that the definition of inclusiveness includes justice because a diverse society must strive for some semblance of peace, freedom, equality and prosperity for its constituent communities. Conversely, the definition of justice includes inclusiveness because justice will never be achieved unless all groups are involved. But this understanding of the relationship between inclusiveness and justice fares better in books than it does in the real-life work of interfaith organizing. My purpose today is to explore the relationship between inclusiveness and justice in real-world interfaith organizing.

Let me begin with an example. Last year, the Interfaith Youth Core's high school leadership group, which we call the Chicago Youth Council, included a Mexican Catholic and several South Asian Muslims. When we discussed the relevance of the faith value of hospitality, these teenagers often talked about their own experience of not feeling welcomed in American society because of their immigrant backgrounds. The other members of the Chicago Youth Council also had some experience of immigrant issues, albeit a less visceral one than their peers. One white Catholic participant attended a church where a significant percentage of the parishioners were recent immigrants, and the two Jewish members each had some experience working with Jews who had recently immigrated to Chicago. Collectively, they decided that the Chicago Youth Council should focus its social action projects on the issues that immigrants face.

As immigrant issues have been a 'hot topic' recently, our funders at progressive foundations were pleased that the Chicago Youth Council was making some noise on this matter. But they often pointed out that we did not have enough African-Americans involved.

I began having conversations with African-Americans about getting involved with the Interfaith Youth Core's emerging campaign on issues concerning immigrants. Although not oblivious to the trials that immigrants faced, the African-Americans I talked to made it clear that their primary social action concerns were poor schools, few jobs, neighborhood violence and a juvenile justice system destroying the lives of an increasing number of black teenagers. And though none of them stated it directly, part of the undercurrent in the conversation was a concern that resources added to programs focusing on recent immigrants meant resources depleted from programs focusing on African-Americans.

Here was a clear example of the tension between inclusiveness and justice. If we maintained the current composition of the Chicago Youth Council, they could focus on making a difference on issues facing recent immigrants. If we invited African-Americans to join, we would either have to tell them that the focus for the social action campaign had already been chosen or we would have to begin the discussions over again and hope that we reached agreement on a social action campaign.

There is at least one glaring criticism to be made of the process I just described: Why weren't the African-Americans at the table in the first place? Here is my response to that criticism: This is real-world interfaith organizing I'm talking about—the world of extremely limited organizing resources and extremely busy student schedules. Even in an ideal situation, it is impossible to have all groups represented at the beginning stages. Moreover, the criticism of why X group wasn't at the table to begin with simply speaks to the tension I am trying to illustrate.

One of the first questions that groups ask when they are invited to participate in interfaith work is "How is this relevant to me?" One model of doing interfaith work is to choose a justice issue that many groups want to work on, and then create a space where they can work on it together. The benefit to the groups that this is relevant to is that they get to expand their forces and therefore increase their chances of winning on this issue. Chalk one up for justice. The downside is that it precludes groups that the justice issue does not speak to directly, and perhaps turns off groups that consider your position on the side of injustice. Subtract a point from inclusiveness.

The thornier issue at stake here is, of course, the understanding of justice. Even if we can agree on the broad definition of justice that I offered earlier-increasing peace, alleviating suffering, creating equality and encouraging freedom—groups clearly have very different ideas about how to achieve these ends. Religious groups wind up on different sides of a vast array of such issues. Some Christians, Muslims and Jews considered the Iraq war just, according to the broad definition laid out earlier. Other Christians, Muslims and Jews, according to the same terms, considered it unjust. A spirited interfaith campaign could be started on both sides of that particular issue, but it would certainly not achieve the goal of inclusiveness. Pick any number of contemporary issues—Middle East policy, budget allocations, immigration matters—and you will find diverse people of faith who believe their religion calls them to be on either side of those issues.

The matter of justice is complicated by the fact that it is often closely linked with, and sometimes follows, theology, which I will define broadly as how humans understand their relationship with God. Stanley Hauerwas, in his piece September 11, 2001: A Pacifist Response, is a stark example: "I am a Christian pacifist. Being Christian and being a pacifist are not two things for me. I would not be a pacifist if I were not a Christian, and I find it hard to understand how one can be a Christian without being a pacifist." There are, of course, Christians who are not pacifists. Many will say that their theology allows for, even requires, violence at times. Take Bush's war in Iraq, or Bonhoeffer's plot to assassinate Hitler.

The very nature of interfaith work requires its activists and scholars to affirm that there are many authentic ways of understanding the divine. I am not saying that all interfaith professionals think all religious traditions and interpretations are right or true. What I am saying is that most of us believe people genuinely experience and relate with the divine in a variety of ways. We are loathe to make judgments between "good theology" and "bad theology".

When we take sides on justice issues, justify our position by our theology, and assail alternative positions, we have to recognize that we are implicitly criticizing the theologies of others, and thus in some way, violating an important standard in interfaith work. But if we don't take sides on justice issues, then we are not being true to our own understanding of God, and thus violating an equally important ethic in interfaith work.

In real-world interfaith organizing, the question of inclusiveness presents several challenges as well. Should interfaith organizations strategically choose the groups to involve, or practice an open-door policy? In my experience of interfaith work, marginalized religious communities such as the Unification Church and the Church of Scientology are eager to participate. The problem is, "mainstream" Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups are not that interested in interfaith activities that include those groups. Does that mean the Scientologists and the Unification Church should not be invited to interfaith activities? Is this tantamount to judging their theology? Are we essentially giving some religious groups veto power over other religious groups? On the other hand, if we practice an open-door policy and marginalized religious communities fill the room, how should we handle the problem of mainstream religious communities opt-ing-out of involvement?

We are left with several significant challenges. If we privilege the goal of inclusiveness and seek to bring a wide diversity of groups together in a spirit of understanding and cooperation, it is likely that we will not all be able to agree on justice issues. If we privilege the goal of justice, take positions on issues and create interfaith coalitions to wage campaigns, it is likely that many religious groups will not participate, and moreover feel as if their theology is being negatively judged. I believe the manner in which we navigate this challenge will help define the interfaith movement in the 21st century.

Let me bring up a practical matter which complicates the situation. It is the question of reputation. Although in formalized existence for about a century, the interfaith movement has recently experienced rapid growth. An increasing number of groups are hearing about interfaith work and wondering if they should get involved. The type of work we do now will have consequences for years to come because it will shape how groups perceive us. An interfaith organization taking a stand against the Iraq war or in favor of increasing immigration might cause some groups who disagree with such positions to dismiss the whole movement as the left wing of the democratic party in theological garb. Groups who came to the table because they thought interfaith work meant sharing their faith might well feel betrayed by organizations which carry a hidden political agenda. On the other hand, people who come to the table because they think that interfaith work implies making common cause with diverse people on justice issues are likely to be just as turned off if they find that we are nothing but a mutual-enrichment club that arranges high teas full of polite talk.


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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 2005, Vol. 55,  No 1.