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Why Interfaith Organizing Matters: Social Change Starts With Values

Amy Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of "A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement" and is president and founder of ABD Ventures. She worked for nearly two decades in the labor movement and now works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations. Photo from Google Images.

by Amy B. Dean
from the Huffington Post

Sometimes, as an activist, you look upon the world and think you will never be able to see the changes you seek in your own lifetime. It’s easy to despair, to succumb to the isolation and self-doubt that come from being a thoughtful person trying to change the status quo.

In those moments, I’ve learned to find renewal and hope not in myself, but in other organizers, in our shared values and experiences. Saul Alinsky wrote, “We must believe that it is the darkest before the dawn of a beautiful new world. We will see it when we believe it.” A shared belief in what is actually possible to achieve, despite what others may tell us: that is the organizer’s gift.

In one respect, this principle sounds self-evident. And yet, while our social movements are often full of talk about policy, tactics or messaging, values are regularly left to linger in the background. They become things that are left to theologians to debate, or we allow values to be a walled-off part of the political conversation.

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Rebranding Interfaith

NewGroundby Rabbi Sarah Bassin

Inspired. Energized. Confused. Naïve.  I had asked a Jewish audience to share a single word to capture their thoughts of my presentation on Muslim-Jewish relations.  I had spent the last hour painting a picture of the broken communication between Jews and Muslims over the last 20 years – the public spats, the failed dialogues and the wounded relationships.  I devoted the last portion of the session to envisioning a more positive paradigm and cultivating the tools to get us there.

Some people entered the session eager to acquire the skills needed to strengthen relationships with the Muslims who share their city.  They had witnessed the breakdowns but refused to think of “Muslim-Jewish” as synonymous with “conflict.” They walked away from the session recharged.  Inspired.  Energized.

Others entered as skeptics, poised to dismiss interfaith work as a charming but ineffective effort to bridge an unbridgeable chasm of differences.   The cycle of conflict exists for a reason and those who champion engagement with the other don’t understand the threat to their own community.  Openness and vulnerability lead to exploitation.  Interfaith activists are unrooted. Confused. Naïve.

Those words may have felt cutting in the moment but they were also a gift.  It was early in my work as the Executive Director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change though I had long been devoted to interfaith relations.  As someone who grew up with a mixed religious background, the importance of interfaith was engrained in my Jewish identity.  But my own experience blinded me to the experience of those for whom interfaith was not a self-evident good.  It was beyond my worldview that someone could see interfaith engagement not only as superfluous but as threatening.  I realized that I needed to take a step back and explain why the work matters in the first place.  More specifically, I needed to make a compelling case for why the work matters to them.

There is something that feels base about using the language of self-interest to undergird interfaith work.  I imagine that many of us find ourselves committed to interfaith activism because our highest ideals have led us down this path.  As someone who chose to become a rabbi to pursue a career in interfaith relations, I certainly felt compelled by the holiness of the endeavor.  My tradition demands it of me.  The Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas captures my deeply held belief with his claim that we experience divine commandment through the face of the other.

But I am also in this line of work because I believe wholeheartedly that a commitment to interfaith relations and Muslim-Jewish relations in particular tangibly benefits the Jewish people.  This work is, as they say, “good for the Jews.”

As a teenager and young adult, I despised the “good for the Jews” cliché.  It seemed to be an excuse for isolation, a justification for turning a blind eye to the plight of others.  But those excuses represent a narrow interpretation of what is good.  Those justifications conflate that which is in our self-interest with that which is self-serving.

Asking whether something is “good for the Jews?” is actually a useful question.  As my colleagues in community organizing assert, acknowledging one’s self interest is the first important step to social change.

When I engage Jewish audiences now, I open by speaking to that self-interest.  I lay out the vast overlapping domestic agendas between the American Muslim and Jewish communities and spell out the missed opportunities for collaboration.  I articulate how changing demographics will impact Jewish community relations.  Jews are becoming a smaller proportion of the American population and we will need to rely more heavily on coalitions.  I cite how the younger generations of Jews understand “Jewish values” more universally than their parents did.  Interfaith activism thus has a role in engaging these generations’ Jewish identity.

No part of me imagines that I will transform every skeptic in an hour by framing Muslim-Jewish relations in terms of Jewish self-interest.  But I often see something click for Jewish audiences when I cite the 2010 Gallup poll that directly links anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.  The single greatest predictor for whether someone holds Islamophobic beliefs is whether they also hold anti-Semitic beliefs.  This simple statistic reframes the issue from an abstract good to a concrete need.  Combating Islamophobia is not some altruistic endeavor for Jews rooted in the collective memory of our own historical persecution.  It is a strategic approach to prevent latent anti-Semitism from resurfacing today.

The rhetoric that we use to describe our work serves to undermine or enhance the power of our impact.  Early on, a supporter once described NewGround as “the ones getting everyone to love each other.”  She soon learned that this does not begin to capture what NewGround does.  We equip Jews and Muslims with the tools, space, and relationships to identify what matters to people in both communities– our fears, our values, our narratives and aspirations.  Sometimes, the conversation feels uncomfortable because interests do not always align (for example, we do not expect everyone to agree about how to handle the conflict in the Middle East). But the willingness to articulate what is at one’s core creates the foundation for a more honest and trusting partnership when there is alignment.  At NewGround, we are not the ones getting everyone to love each other.  We are the ones transforming intergroup relations in Los Angeles from a civic liability into a communal asset.

There will always be a core of people drawn to interfaith work for its more abstract ideals – people who need no convincing of interfaith’s inherent value.  But our goal ought to include preaching beyond the choir.  There is no shame in rebranding interfaith as savvy and strategic, substantive and smart.  Interfaith is all of these things and there is much to be gained by speaking of our work from this angle.  Those poised to call us naïve may instead walk away energized.  And those who thought us confused may instead find themselves inspired.

Rabbi Sarah Bassin is the Executive Director of NewGround: A Muslim Jewish Partnership for Change.

 

Religious Leaders Press for a ‘Faithful’ Budget to U.S. Congress

by Jerry L. Van Marter
from Presbyterian News Service

More than three dozen religious leaders today (March 22) unveiled a “faithful budget” that they say will address the nation’s needs and priorities rather than partisan political considerations.

According to a press release from the “Faithful Budget Campaign,” its priorities for a faithful budget are a set of comprehensive and compassionate budget principles that will protect the common good, value each individual and help lift the burden on the poor.

The “Faithful Budget lays out ideas for restoring economic opportunity, ensuring adequate resources for the country’s fiscal needs, fostering true security, reducing poverty and hardship, taking responsibility for future generations, caring for the environment, improving access to health care and recognizing the robust role of government in combating poverty,” the group said in unveiling its proposal at a Washington press conference.

“Drafted by Jews, Christians, Muslims and other faith leaders, the ‘Faithful Budget’ embraces our role as a united nation to take care of the most vulnerable among us, while making balanced investments in our future,” said Parsons in a prepared statement read by Nelson after Parsons’ flight was delayed.

“By following our sacred imperative to ‘love our neighbor as ourselves,’” Nelson said, “we not only can pass a budget that makes sense, but pass a budget that begins to create a more just society and a healthier world.”

Endorsed by 37 religious denominations and organizations, the proposal is a call to Congress and the President to enact a budget that “enhances the well-being of all Americans and to make a good faith increase in funding for the impoverished and the vulnerable here and abroad in fiscal year 2013,” the group’s press release states.

“For too long, our nation’s political leaders have fallen into a trap of starting with an arbitrary top-line budget number and then working within its parameters to fund the programs on which we all rely. Rather than follow Washington’s example, the Faithful Budget focuses on our national needs and priorities,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby.

“We hope our Faithful Budget model can serve as a model that Congress and the Obama Administration can use to help build a more perfect union,” she added.

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Occupy Interfaith: Why Millennials, Including The Irreligious, Need To Care About Religion

by Chris Stedman
from Huffington Post

When I was in high school, civil disobedience excited me. I participated in a school walkout in protest of the Iraq War, staged a demonstration outside of a conference for anti-gay “reparative therapy,” and regularly got together with friends to make T-shirts boasting our political positions. Though the underlying political motives behind these actions were sincere, I recognize in hindsight that a big part of why I was drawn to such activism was that it hinged on solidarity and cooperation.

I was reminded of these efforts this weekend, when I decided to take my Saturday night off to check out the Occupy America (a national movement born out of Occupy Wall Street in New York City) effort in my city.

I decided to go because I have been tracking it online for some time, and many of my friends and peers have been involved from the beginning. While the participants I encountered on Saturday ranged in ages, Occupy America has frequently been referred to as a “youth-driven” movement, and the statement isn’t without merit. Though participation has been and continues to be intergenerational, there seems to be a particularly strong representation from young people.

As a 24-year-old, I’m part of the Millennial Generation – the generation following Generation Y, born in the 1980s and 1990s. We’re a generation that, according to studies by Pew and others, is supposed to be unconcerned and unengaged with the political process. Yet we defied such classification by coming out in droves for the 2008 Presidential election, and I believe that the Occupy America movement is demonstrating once more that we can surprise prognosticators and muster up unanticipated energy and organization to mobilize for social change.

Still, we remain a generation that is, in some ways, defined by apathy. This is perhaps no more obvious than it is in Millennials’ relationship with religion.

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Why the Buddha Touched the Earth

Eco-Buddhismby John Stanley and David Loy
from Huffington Post

“The entire cosmos is a cooperative. The sun, the moon, and the stars live together as a cooperative. The same is true for humans and animals, trees, and the Earth. When we realize that the world is a mutual, interdependent, cooperative enterprise — then we can build a noble environment. If our lives are not based on this truth, then we shall perish.” –Buddhadasa Bhikkhu

“The term ‘engaged Buddhism’ was created to restore the true meaning of Buddhism. Engaged Buddhism is simply Buddhism applied in our daily lives. If it’s not engaged, it can’t be called Buddhism. Buddhist practice takes place not only in monasteries, meditation halls and Buddhist institutes, but in whatever situation we find ourselves. Engaged Buddhism means the activities of daily life combined with the practice of mindfulness. –Thich Nhat Hanh

In one of Buddhism’s iconic images, Gautama Buddha sits in meditation with his left palm upright on his lap, while his right hand touches the earth. Demonic forces have tried to unseat him, because their king, Mara, claims that place under the bodhi tree. As they proclaim their leader’s powers, Mara demands that Gautama produce a witness to confirm his spiritual awakening. The Buddha simply touches the earth with his right hand, and the Earth itself immediately responds: “I am your witness.” Mara and his minions vanish. The morning star appears in the sky. This moment of supreme enlightenment is the central experience from which the whole of the Buddhist tradition unfolds.

The great 20th-century Vedantin, Ramana Maharshi said that the Earth is in a constant state of dhyana. The Buddha’s earth-witness mudra (hand position) is a beautiful example of “embodied cognition.” His posture and gesture embody unshakeable self-realization. He does not ask heavenly beings for assistance. Instead, without using any words, the Buddha calls on the Earth to bear witness.

The Earth has observed much more than the Buddha’s awakening. For the last 3 billion years the Earth has borne witness to the evolution of its innumerable life-forms, from unicellular creatures to the extraordinary diversity and complexity of plant and animal life that flourishes today. We not only observe this multiplicity, we are part of it — even as our species continues to damage it. Many biologists predict that half the Earth’s plant and animal species could disappear by the end of this century, on the current growth trajectories of human population, economy and pollution. This sobering fact reminds us that global warming is the primary, but not the only, extraordinary ecological crisis confronting us today.

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Do Only Religious People Have a ‘Calling’?

From State of Formation

In a recent interview with BBC Radio 4, musician Jack White (of the White Stripesand other bands) reflected on his “calling.”

“I was thinking at 14 that possibly I might have had the calling to be a priest,” said White. “Blues singers sort of have the same feelings as someone who’s called to be a priest might have.”

That he connected his sense of a calling to a career in ministry isn’t surprising. The word “calling,” or “vocation,” has explicitly religious roots; derived from the Latin vocare, or “to call,” the terms originated in the Catholic Church as a way of referring to the inclination for a religious life as a priest, monk, or nun.

During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther broadened the term beyond ministry to include work that serves others, but still couched it in a religious framework.

Today, “calling” has become common currency in the American parlance, its meaning expanded to refer to the realization of an individual’s passion or drive. Though the term has long had religious associations, it is used just as often to refer to secular work as it is religious.

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Venerable Dharma Master Hsin Tao Calls for Climate Change Action

The Age has written an article on Parliament major speaker the Venerable Dharma Master Hsin Tao.  Recounting the Master’s personal experiences as a child soldier for Kuo Min Tang, the piece also describes his monastic vocation and ongoing interreligious work and activism.

Speaking on climate change, Hsin Tao observes that “if we can achieve a common understanding of the real problems — the ecological problems facing the earth — then the other problems will solve themselves.”

To read the full article, click here.