You’d be hard pressed to find a clearer example of faith’s power to inspire and sustain social movements than African Americans’ long struggle for freedom and equality. From the beginning, when slaves found in faith the strength to endure (and in some cases resist) indescribable oppression, to the high water mark of the Civil Rights Movement when Christians, Muslims and Jews gave their lives to the struggle, the cause of justice has always been rooted in and animated by religious faith.
As Black History Month begins, that is an example to honor, not just by listening to “I Have A Dream,” but by recognizing that the struggle is not over, and by involving ourselves in it. As long as we have separate and unequal education systems, unequal access to healthcare, and an ever-widening chasm between the haves and the have-nots — all breaking down on racial lines — faith should compel us to act, in our own communities and in areas of greatest need. The best way to honor our heroes is to emulate them.
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I’m writing from my home in a section of Washington, DC, that burned after Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
The motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum, has preserved the room in which King spent his last night on earth, and in the anteroom you can play his “I have been to the mountaintopâ€ speech by pushing a red button. A wreath marks the spot outside where he died as his companions pointed at the shooter’s position. It is heartbreaking and inspiring, to an extent that dwarfs the power of words.
The Bible is replete with such powerful stories, and from time to time I thank God for animating them by guiding me to the history of civil rights movement (my undergraduate concentration), and especially to Martin Luther King, Jr. Reading and hearing the words of a person willing not only to challenge the powerful to honor the word of God, but to follow his Christian convictions to an early grave is humbling and gratifying, and it has repeatedly reminded me of the power of faith.
The fire that destroyed my neighborhood following King’s death must be viewed within the context of the world from which he was violently taken. While the rage of oppressed people consumed uptown Washington and gave grist to opportunistic segregationists, a few miles down the street the federal government was escalating a war that was antithetical to everything for which King stood. That he gave a speech condemning the Vietnam war and the socio-political structure that enabled it exactly one year before his death is a detail lost to the cliffs notes history fed to us by popular culture.
Some 40 years on now, we have a Martin Luther King federal holiday, but a mixed (yet sum positive) record of racial and socio-economic progress, and a seemingly steadfast commitment to the militarism and economic inequality King decried in his final years. In recent years it’s become common to commemorate Dr. King by using his holiday as a day of service; in keeping with his words and deeds, we should also use the day to call leaders to honor the teachings of the faiths they espouse.
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The National Labor Committee (NLB) reports that US-based Christian retailers are selling crosses made in Chinese sweat shops. Charles Kernaghan, director of the NLB, said “the factory’s mostly young, female employees work from 8 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., seven days a week and are paid 26 cents an hour with no sick days or vacation. Workers live in filthy dormitories and are fed a watery ‘slop.’”
The Association of Christian Retail denied the claims in the AP story. Association president Bill Anderson’s statement downplayed the sweat-shop issue entirely:
While we occasionally hear this issue raised, and believe there are factories in China where human rights are violated, we believe claims that products sold through CBA member stores are made in these shops are irresponsible and unfounded.
His statement leads one to think that there may be a few human rights violations here and there, but that talking about them is somehow uncivil.
These workers, and millions like them, are left exhausted and dehumanized at the end of their work day. With one poor soul at the end of a 19 hour shift, crying out, “Jesus, take pity on me! I’m going to die of exhaustion.â€ Shouldn’t the primary consideration be finding the truth and remedying such horrible abuses? It’s irresponsible to dismiss these charges, not to make them.
These sweatshop crosses, most likely, were to be purchased as gifts. As we purchase gifts for our loved ones this holiday season, let’s support products from businesses that offer fair wages and livable, humane, working conditions.
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Hate crimes were up 8% in 2006. Religious bias was blamed for 18.9 percent of the incidents; sexual orientation bias for 15.5 percent, and ethnic or national origin for 12.7 percent. Explicit religious bias is shown at close to 20%. Certainly there is a link between the homophobic stances of many religious groups and the atmosphere of intolerance that gives space for violent actions taken towards the GLBTQ community.
It is heartening, then, to hear of Faith In America’s newly launched “Call to Courageâ€ campaign, which is being run in early Presidential primary and caucus states to engage and educate citizens about religious teachings and practices that foster discrimination and oppression against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. In an interview with Bob Abernathy of Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, Rev. Jimmy Creech, Faith in America’s Director said, “We really do believe that conversation, that dialogue, that being together in a civil, neutral setting will make it possible for us, first of all, to understand one another better, and then secondly to begin to recognize the need for change.â€
The debate over homosexuality centers on scriptural interpretation, but disagreements over theology and doctrine need not lead to discrimination and disrespect. That is something that all people of faith should be able to agree on.
UPDATE: A Washington Post Article Today focused on the geographical disparities in hate crime reporting. Alabama, for example, does not consider crimes connected to sexual orientation to be hate crimes.
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Note: FPL intern Nouf Bazaz recently led an interfaith response to Islamo-fascism Awareness Week. Below is her reflection on the meaning of the event.
David Horowitz’s Islamo-fascism Awareness Week, hosted by the Young America’s Foundation (YAF) recently concluded at universities across the nation. At George Washington University, the Peace not Prejudice campaign simultaneously launched as a peaceful alternative similarly came to a close. In the aftermath, one thing has become painfully clear: the entire campus, including YAF, played right into the hands of the political machine that will continue to churn out hate long after Islamo-fascism Awareness Week is forgotten. Several other key lessons can be drawn from the highly politicized sequence of events that divided our campus.
On Thursday, October 25th, Peace not Prejudice and Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week met in a climactic fashion. A speech by David Horowitz was juxtaposed to an interfaith prayer vigil titled “Pray for Peace,â€ headlined by six prominent religious figures and Ambassador Edward Gnehm.
When David Horowitz stepped on stage he began shouting at the GWU administration and student body in a fit of rage. He accused the president of the University of heading a “lynch mobâ€ against conservative white students and further shrieked about the treachery of the American Left. If it was not evident enough before, it now rang crystal clear: The purpose of Islamo-fascism Awareness Week had nothing to with Islam. Muslims were merely the latest in a long line of victims carved up at the political chopping block. Horowitz serves only as the overzealous errand boy behind the knife, dutifully obliging the system for paycheck after paycheck. In typical fashion, he went on to depict Muslims as violent and merciless henchmen that would bring about the destruction of the West. At the end of his diatribe he dramatically stated, “You have to understand who your enemy isâ€ or else you are “defenseless.â€
Lesson 1: Hate is the greatest weapon of war.
By accurately equating Horowitz’s words with hate speech, one serves only to strengthen Horowitz’s claims of being victimized. With this coveted “victim cardâ€ tucked safely in his pocket, he adroitly avoided and twisted every question he was asked. There was no room for dialogue.
The ending of Horowitz’s speech pushed the prayer vigil off to a late start. As a modest-sized crowd settled in their seats, the speakers made their way to the podium. Immediately hope permeated the room as they exclaimed that equipped with the message of “Peace on Earth,â€ we will move forward united. Each speaker expounded on the idea that if we truly live our lives with the understanding that all of mankind is created in the likeness of God, all outward differences, and thus sources of prejudice, fade away. Ambassador Edward Gnehm related that same sentiment to his tenure in the Middle East: Behind the deceptive veil of politics, we are one and the same.
Lesson 2: Division is merely a political artifice
As the vigil drew to a close, one of the speakers posed a question to the few dozen people in the audience: Who believes that if we were talking about hate rather than love, and division rather than unity, that this room would be full? Every single hand immediately went up.
It was undeniable that the peaceful vigil failed to draw close to the same numbers that Horowitz’s hateful speech did. Playing right into the hands of the political demon, hate conquered love. The division of our campus not only formed the crux of Horowitz’s speech but attracted reporters from across the globe. It is amid this sea of shouting voices and empty words that truth ceases to exist. Within this vacuum, the mainstream media had their story long before George Washington University heard anything about Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week.
It is our responsibility to break the cycle of hate that has trickled down from the political juggernaut to our own universities. Through the darkness of the storm that inundated our campus, the prayer vigil stood as a beacon of light. In order to truly eliminate the ignorance that breeds prejudice and division, we must strengthen interfaith and cultural bridges. If you say that you love God, then you must prove it by embracing the simultaneous diversity and unity of creation.
Lesson 3: It is often the few that bring about the liberation of the many.
Islamic Alliance for Justice, President
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