“It is customary to blame secular science and antireligious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless.” ―Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom
I heard these words recently on an OnBeing podcast episode celebrating the life and work of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel, a Jewish mystic and an activist during the Holocaust, also marched with his dear friend Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma.
Needless to say, I was struck by the relevance of Heschel’s words to our time, and the economic, social, and religious climate of America in 2018.
We have become well-versed in arguments on religion and politics, right and left, conservatives and liberals. We are past the time when our differences should so deeply divide us — and yet that’s exactly where we find ourselves.
But the relationship between a Southern Baptist black man and a Jewish mystic can teach us a lot today about how to work across divides, and how to become one in the face of hatred and racism.
There is hope.
There was hope in 2016 at Standing Rock, when natives and non-natives together gathered around a body of water to call it sacred, when the world began to see that there is a part of our history that has been ignored for years.
There is hope when black and white people say together that Black Lives Matter.
There is hope when churches hold abusive leaders accountable and work to decolonize their spaces for those who have been left out for so long.
Here we are, under a president who utters abusive, derogatory, and racist remarks in the presence of others, and we have to ask ourselves whether it’s about politics or matters of the heart. We have to ask ourselves where we are willing to stand — not because we belong to a political or social party, but because we belong to one another, to the oppressed, to the brokenness of the world.
Some people [including in the pages of Sojourners] are asking whether we are in another Bonhoeffer moment in history. I’d answer with the famous line: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [and women] to do nothing.”
The civil rights movement was a time to do something.
Standing Rock was a time to do something, as was Wounded Knee.
All of our wars have been times that we do something, that we stand with the oppressed and make room for the work of shalom.
And today is such a time, because we are still here, yearning to be the peacemaking, prophetic voices who will stand with that which is good, who will do something in the face of injustice, in the face of the triumph of evil in all of its forms, all over the world.
And so we go back to Heschel. We remember his words, and we ask if our own religion has become irreverent, dull, oppressive, and insipid, and we answer honestly.
We answer based on the God of the Jewish people, the Jesus of the New Testament, and the Holy Spirit born to us by the grace and love of Christ.
We answer as we look back on the history of our nation, which was born through oppression, assimilation, and murder of indigenous peoples, and on the backs of slaves.
And if our answer is yes, we must get to work. We must do something, and that something must be grounded in peaceful nonviolence, in sacred resistance, for the sake of the gospel that we claim to live by and the Jesus who, in every way, lived this narrative out in his life.
In a few days we will honor the life, voice, and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
What if, this year, we honor him by reaching across our divides for the sake of peace?
What if we honor him by saying that this is no longer about politics, but about the value of our created world and the human lives in it?
What if we honor him by being willing to go into unchartered territory, into new wildernesses that are foreign to us, because we want something different for future generations than what we have been given?
What if we honor him by proclaiming that history does not have to repeat itself, and we put ourselves on the forefront of that holy struggle, our fists raised to the air, to proclaim that shalom has the last word — and we will honor her work in our generation and the next?
May we write the words of Abraham Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr. on our hearts today — along with the words of other prophets, who, across time and place, have held steady to the work of ensuring that religion doesn’t become meaningless, but the very force that fuels our love, compassion, and sense of justice in the world.
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