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Faith and Race: A Dialogue Worth Having

by Phillipe Copeland

According to the Abrahamic traditions, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Baha’i Faith, the universe itself was spoken into being. This offers a fitting metaphor for the promise of interreligious dialogue, the promise of a new creation. Like the speaking into being of the universe, for interreligious dialogue to fulfill this promise requires attention to detail. We must be attentive not only to what we are dialoguing about but who is engaged in the dialogue.

In my experience, interreligious dialogue is too often limited to issues of religious identity. The exception tends to be gender. Given that women represent at least half of the human race, talking about the intersection of faith and gender is time well spent. However, historical forces and contemporary social, political and social realities have conspired to make each of us not only gendered beings but also highly racialized beings. Race is always in the room when interreligious dialogue is going on whether we acknowledge it or not.

This may appear self evident, but ask yourself how many interreligious dialogues you have participated in where race is not discussed even in societal contexts rife with racial conflict and oppression? The silence can indeed be deafening. Can there truly be a full and rich exchange across faiths if the meanings people are making of race and the spiritual resources they draw on to combat racism aren’t being discussed? For example, when I participate in an interreligious dialogue, I am never only participating as a Baha’i, but as a Black, male, Baha’i living in the United States. Understanding my faith requires understanding how it is embodied in my experience of being a Black man in America.

For example, I have been invited to interreligious dialogue where participants would walk away having learned a great deal about the life and mission of Baha’u’llah (1817-1892) the Founder of the Baha’i Faith. They may have heard about Baha’i laws and spiritual practices. They most certainly would have heard something regarding Baha’i teachings about social justice. What they may not have heard is that Baha’u’llah compared Black people to the pupil of the eye which is “dark in color but a fountain of light and revealer of the…world.” They may not grasp the impact of this metaphor, which subverts centuries of propaganda making darkness an undesirable trait, on my healing from internalized racial inferiority. They might miss the contribution that the multi-racial, international community Baha’u’llah has raised up has had on the salvation of Black men like me. To offer one example, in 2006 I was welcomed along with thirty-one other Black men from the United States to the Baha’i World Center, located in Haifa, Israel. Our recent services, collaborating with Baha’is in Ghana in the process of community-building, were graciously recognized. Men, whom at home were so often the objects of fear and loathing were celebrated like heroes by people from virtually every nation on earth. It was a taste of heaven I will not soon forget. For me to engage in interreligious dialogue and fail to share such intersections of faith and race represent missed opportunities. Others may fail to appreciate an essential aspect of Baha’i teaching and practice. More importantly, they may miss the chance to engage in a dialogue about the role religion can play in freeing humanity from the inevitable consequences of the color line. Surely that is a dialogue worth having.

Thankfully, I’ve had opportunities to bring my racial reality to interreligious dialogues. One of my fondest memories of being a student at Harvard Divinity School was working with a white, male Unitarian Universalist on a series of dialogues about race and culture for students, faculty and staff. As an alumnus, I was able to participate in a panel discussion about faith-based responses to crisis among people of African Descent that included Baha’i, Muslim and Christian perspectives. These conversations deepened the theological reflection of all involved about the intersection of faith and race and were richer for it. In these conversations, I caught glimpses of the promise of interreligious dialogue, of new worlds of racial unity and justice spoken into being.

Phillipe Copeland is author of the award winning blog Baha’i Thought that provides commentary on religion, society, and culture informed by the teachings of the Baha’i Faith. He is a contributing scholar to the multi-author blog State of Formation that is sponsored by the Journal of Interreligious Dialogue. Mr. Copeland is an adjunct faculty member of the Boston University School of Social Work and is a clinical social worker specializing in behavioral health and forensics.