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When Dialogue is Not Enough

Interfaith Service – Interfaith Justice

When Dialogue is Not Enough

by Cody Nielsen

Last month, I sat alone in the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center at Pennsylvania State College. I sat and cried for all the senseless acts of violence against Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities across the nation and world that have taken place over the past two months. I’m tired. I’m tired of the violence, but more than anything I’ve grown tired of the limited ways in which we have been approaching religious intolerance for a generation or more now.

Photo:   Unsplash

Photo: Unsplash

Much of the last 20 years of “interfaith” engagement in the world of has come to mean the promotion of dialogue between communities. Evangelicals and Muslims, Jews and Christians, Hindus and Buddhists, Jews and Muslims, and on and on. We encourage people to get together and get to know one another. The goal is to have more compassion and understanding between individuals. We promote interfaith understanding as our mode of success, and when people come to understand one another, we call it pluralism.

But to think that is the solution to our society’s hate is surely misguided. Yes, the people that choose to get engaged in “interfaith dialogue” are certainly changed, but most people who participate are predisposed, born into a generation and raised in households that are generally accepting of all forms of what our organization calls religious, secular, and spiritual. At the outset, they are more likely to be curious, critical, and engaged. We encourage them to form clubs and groups with those predisposed individuals and we help them to know each other better. All this is good, but the people choosing to engage are not the ones who are terrorizing our communities.

In our society, there is a bias against religion. I am a liberal democrat. But the liberal wing of the country is dismissing religion outright. In institutions of higher education where I spend most of my time, we often see the “liberal” faculty as dismissive of religion, saying it has no place. Professionals hide behind a perceived “separation of Church and State,” a weapon that is an abundant lie to the very essence of America’s First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. In more conservative environments we tend to see appreciation for Christianity, but a dismissal of most of the rest.

The Need to Reengage

Disengagement with religion within our institutions must stop. The intrinsic biases that are held by our institutions, higher education and beyond, are a much greater threat than the failure to support dialogue. The people served by these institutions, the many millions of college students, the millions of professionals in business and tech companies, corporate and non-profit alike, are given permission by such institutional environments to either reinforce, or at minimum, maintain their currently held biases and feelings against religion in general.

I have heard in recent days pointed remarks about how the attacks against religious communities is a sure sign of why religion is bad for the world. They point to the fact that Muslims are bombing Christians, Christians are shooting Jews, and Buddhists are killing Muslims. But let’s make something abundantly clear: those who would choose to use their religion as a weapon against another are not practicing their religion. That is not to say they are atheist, agnostic, humanist, or any one of the many categories for those who don’t believe in God. But make no mistake: these terrorists are not following any form of authentic religion.

Interfaith dialogue is not going to change the most extreme individuals in our society. It’s not going to change them because they are not the audience that participates in this “dialogue.” The only way to have even a chance of shifting their mindset, of being able to help them see anything that might alter their beliefs, is through a systematic, environmental, and ecological shift in the very fabric of our society, starting within our social institutions and organizations, as well as levels of state, local, and national government.

In many ways, it feels to me that we’ve been doing the “service” versus “justice” approach to the issues of religious, secular, and spiritual inclusion. In the “service” corner is “interfaith dialogue.” It’s hip, sexy, and easy to document. You get people together, do a project together, have a little get-to-know-you gathering, sing around the fire, and everyone goes home happy.

The “justice” model, the systematic policy and practice model, requires something different. It doesn’t justify its outcomes by what happens in one day, nor does it allow itself to claim success simply through “understanding.” The “justice” approach sets visible markers of inclusion within its ecosystem. Kosher and Halal options in dining centers on campuses are a demonstration of an institution’s values emulated outward for the whole campus to see. Prayer spaces at businesses tell us that something more is happening than simply your productive value as an employee. Adding religious holidays, floaters, and accommodations to institutional policies is a marker of an informed management structure that takes seriously the needs of their clientele, as well as their own workers. But these are not “sexy.” They are systematic, calculated, and ultimately the way to change environments. And these markers demonstrate the moral value of inclusion, something that is laid out in front of those members of our society who see religion as a threat, offering a counternarrative of welcome for all forms of religious, secular, and spiritual identity.

Photo:    Unsplash

Photo: Unsplash

The persons in our society who are choosing to make hell for all of us through their acts of hatred are hard to change. Their viewpoints are set – at least we believe them to be. But I believe people can change. The chance to interact with others might do that, if we could simply get them into the room. But those at the extreme edges will not come to the table of dialogue. And maybe nothing will change their minds. But I believe the environment they live in holds a key to their thinking. If we can create environments of inclusion through our policies and practices within institutions, we have a chance to reduce these stigmas. If we can provide visible markers that demonstrate that all forms of religious and non-religious identity are welcome, we can help everyone know they have a place and don’t have to fight for their share. And if we can step into a systematic approach, we can address lingering issues in our society like Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and even Anti-Atheism.

It’s time for the interfaith movement, active in most communities across the country, to take the next step. We’ve been doing the service project model of “interfaith” for too long, and it’s about time we start doing the justice model as well. We should never stop dialogue, but the real work, the hard work, and the one that can provide the most holistic change, lies in systemic transformation. And we’re well overdue to recognize and act on that.


Header Photo: Wikimedia