March 27, 2006

Guest Blog: The Ecumenical Call to Social Justice Work

When the SRS editors asked me to consider how Christians and Jews have worked together to advance the cause of social justice, I thought immediately of the historic struggle for civil rights in this country. I thought of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, and of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (both of blessed memory), and of Rabbi Heschel's famous assertion that when he marched with Dr. King in Alabama he was praying with his feet. In the words of Harold Schulweis, these "two men from different geographies, color, creed, theological background were joined in a spiritual kinship whose legacy address[es] our own times."

Their admirable work inspired the current generation of social justice movers-and-shakers. Who's carrying on the legacy of Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel in today's world?

One answer is the Shalom Center, under the stewardship of Rabbi Arthur Waskow. The Shalom Center helped give rise to the Tent of Abraham, "a gathering of Jews, Christians, and Muslims who have been building a 'Tent' of shared spiritual concern for peace, justice, and healing of the earth." (Here's their mission statement).

Among their projects is God's October Surprise, a "call to share sacred seasons" which began last fall and will continue in 2006 and 2007. In this rare convergence of calendars, these Octobers mark the confluence of the sacred Muslim lunar month of Ramadan and the sacred Jewish lunar month of Tishrei (which includes the High Holy Days), the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, and World-wide (Protestant/Orthodox) Communion Sunday. The month was marked with a series of events, and will be again over the coming two years; there's tremendous opportunity for ecumenical social justice work here. (If this kind of thing inspires you, don't miss The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, a new book due from Beacon Press in July, written by Rabbi Waskow, Joan Chittister OSB, and Sufi scholar Saadi Shakur Chisti).

Also noteworthy is Clergy and Laity Concerned About Iraq, a multifaith organization of clergy and layfolk who oppose the Iraq war and who agitate for peace and justice. Their official existence began last April 4 at Riverside Church; the date was chosen in memory of Dr. King (and with the intent of continuing his legacy). They've written an open letter to the President, held a multireligious tent revival on Independence Mall and staged a civil disobedience action (those latter two events are described by "prisoner 151" here).

Another place to look for ecumenical social justice work is Rabbi Michael Lerner's Tikkun (both the magazine, and the community). They describe themselves as "an international community of people of many faiths calling for social justice and political freedom in the context of new structures of work, caring communities, and democratic social and economic arrangements."

One of the Tikkun community's projects is the Network of Spiritual Progressives (you can read about their core vision here). They're holding a Spiritual Activism Conference in May, designed to be an ecumenical and interfaith experience which will bring together social justice-minded folks across the religious spectrum.

(I can't resist here putting in a plug for the Progressive Faith Blog Con, a July gathering for liberal religious bloggers which is also designed to be interfaith, and which will surely have a social justice component. I'm one of the organizers, and don't want to hijack this post to promote the event -- if you're interested, read more about planned programming here).

Those of us who care about social justice care about it deeply, but there aren't nearly enough of us to achieve the work that needs to be done. I'd like to see more people involved in this important work -- not just those of us on the liberal fringes of our traditions, but everyone who identifies themselves as a Christian or a Jew. How can we bring this dream to fruition? I think one answer lies in our scriptures.

The verse most often repeated in Torah is "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Out of this arises one of Judaism's most central teachings about the way God wants us to live. We must live in a way that empowers the marginalized, protects the vulnerable, clothes the naked and feeds the hungry -- a way that enacts the mitzvat ha-borei, the mitzvah of the creator, to love our neighbors, our "others" as ourselves.

Though I'm no expert on the Christian Scriptures, I know that the gospel of Matthew contains a pivotal passage about separating the sheep from the goats. Jesus will separate, the text tells us, those who fed him when he was hungry, and clothed him when he was naked, and welcomed him when he was a stranger, from those who did not. When his followers ask, baffled, when they could have done these things, he argues famously that when we do these things for the least of his brethren, we do them for him.

Jews and Christians both hear the call to be active in "the care and redemption of all that God has made." We need to set aside our doctrinal differences, our history of disagreement about thorny theological subjects like the nature of God and redemption from sin, and focus on our traditions' common teachings about the imperative to heal the world. Redeeming creation from its brokenness is some of the most valuable work we can do. And as the famous quotation from Pirkei Avot holds, "it is not incumbent upon us to finish the task, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it."

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Rachel Barenblat is a rabbinic student in the ALEPH Rabbinic Program and an accomplished writer in a variety of genres, including poetry and liturgy. She maintains the popular blog Velveteen Rabbi and also contributes to Radical Torah, a collaborative blog which takes a look at the Torah through the lens of progressive religious and political viewpoints. Rachel is part of the Jewish Renewal tradition, and she is the shaliach tzibbur (services-leader) at Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue in North Adams, MA.