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  • Samantha Hoch

Generating Global Activism Through Community and the Sacred

Updated: Feb 15, 2021

Global change requires human interconnectivity whose foundation is the shared transcendent human experience, and symbolic representations of that experience. These representations are what we describe as the “sacred.” The sacred can take many forms and be perceived very differently by different people, with different life experiences and cultures. What is always true of the sacred is that it is shared by a community of individuals who agree that it deserves to be recognized, honored, and preserved as a vital part of the human experience.

Recognizing the overlapping sacred experiences, symbols, objects and rituals of global religions, spiritualities and philosophies can bridge international and multicultural gaps that are currently preventing us from further development as a species. Considering what is sacred among us can not only help us to recall what bonds us in this human experience, but helps us to understand each other on a deeper level and create a collaborative environment that considers every voice. Religious leaders and social activists worldwide, regardless their spirituality, have an obligation to work together and to lead by example in creating a unified force for harmony and humanity.

Historically, social activists who are rooted in faith have made great strides for the equity of humanity and the inclusion of more diverse perspectives at the decision-making tables of society. However, atheist and agnostic activists also recognize the advantages of using a collective voice to promote just causes, and may understand deeper than most, the importance of celebrating diversity in unified and inclusive leadership. Whether the activism begins rooted in a particular faith, or stems from the hearts and minds of passionate agnostic activists, the goal of unity and higher-level communication should be clear, and religious and non-religious leaders in activism must leverage our commonalities and differences in order to progress toward future goals.

Among the major religions, spiritualities and philosophies of the world, there are overlapping and outlying understandings of the sacred, and therefore, overlapping and outlying values. Understanding the religious groups of the world also requires us to consider the cultural perspectives through which we try to share with one another the transcendence of the human experience. Regardless the faith structure, doctrine or philosophies, there are similarities in the values of nearly every world religion, which can be built upon and used to facilitate more global-scale conversations. Although religions are built on a code of ethics and compassion, ethical boundaries can be ambiguous depending on cultural perspectives and values, and may look different while representing some of the same core principles. Still, religion can be a means by which we bridge societal gaps and move together into a more just and inclusive future.

From my understanding of religions studied in this class, it seems a common thread among all of them is that the community within which the religion is practice is either sacred, or held with such high regard that it is crucial to the viability of the religion. One example includes in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s comments (regarding Christianity) when he asserts, “One has to live for some time in a community to understand how Christ is ‘formed’ in it.”[1] Another is that of the five pillars of Islam. Charity is one of those pillars, and social activism and community engagement is emphasized in rituals and prayer. During my virtual site visit to Friday prayer service at The Nations Mosque in Washington D.C., nearly a quarter of the service was dedicated to engaging the congregation in community-level social activism, in order to promote equity among Muslims and non-believers alike. A third example comes from Buddhism, a seemingly solitary type of religion, in the sangha and in modern “Engaged Buddhism,” within which the Buddhist principle of compassion is applied to “problems such as poverty, war, injustice, discrimination, and environmental degradation,” in order to relieve human suffering. Relieving human suffering, among Buddhists and non-believers alike, is the ultimate goal of Buddhism.[2] This implies that even religions whose emphasis is on self-reflection, self-growth, or celebrating the individual’s unique lifepath, serving the community still plays an integral role in self-fulfillment. A God cannot exist without the community to worship them, and each God or spirituality is a collective, symbolic representation of the sacredness of shared human experiences. The collective “sacred” of world religions and agnostic activist values is also in the shared goal of increasing equity, justice, peace, harmony and balance in humanity and the natural world.

Recognizing the value in the differences among what is sacred to each group, and inviting representation for every community of people with shared understandings of the sacred is key to operating as a global community. This begins in the grassroots, as we start to recognize and appreciate the intersectional experiences of those around us. The thoughts and actions of every individual become the habits of a society. This means that each of us is an activist, and must therefore work to acknowledge, understand, and celebrate the differences in perspectives among us while acknowledging, understanding, and working to alleviate injustices.

Part of the acknowledgement, understanding and celebration of differences among us begins with recognizing the advantages and cultural biases we may have had as a result of privilege. Activism cannot begin until the activist not only recognizes his or her advantage over the oppressed, but spends time within the oppressed population. This time of brotherhood and real-world education must be ongoing, in order for the activist to properly understand and frame his or her role in creating change. The community-level activist can benefit from this process as much as world leaders, spiritual activists, and everyone in between, binding movements together with their mutual desire for equity and justice. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is an example of a spiritual activist who recognized and denounced his privilege, before spending his life trying to protect the persecuted and the oppressed. His family was very well educated and part of an elitist social hierarchy. He was said to have felt that his privilege “sheltered him from some of the darker sides of life and isolated him from those less fortunate in society,” which he felt detrimental to his social justice aspirations.[3] Toward the end of his life, Bonhoeffer rejected his privilege and began to teach and live from a perspective he called “the view from below,”[4] which meant a view from the eyes and minds of the oppressed, without the veil of privilege. This is also referred to as acquiring a “marginal worldview,” in order to get a “deeper analysis of oppression,”[5] and is crucial in creating change on a global scale.

Finding, leveraging, and celebrating commonalities within what is sacred to a community of people is also a crucial element of successful activism, and can begin at the ground level. Facilitating communication at a scale that is powerful enough to inspire and direct global change requires dedicated personal cooperation. Because the world becomes a reflection of how each of us act, interacting individually with acceptance, compassion and guidance in everyday settings can affect change in bigger ways than are immediately recognizable. Recognizing the intersectionality and nuances of the human experience as something sacred helps the activist not only leverage the strengths and experiences of others, but to create a more inclusive and comprehensive space for problem-solving dialogue. It is important to understand the intent of celebrating intersectional experience and cultural/religious differences through a historical context. Previously, and repeatedly, the privileged among us (notably, wealthy European leaders and families during the Age of Imperialism, and Christians during the Crusades) saw differences in religious and cultural views as a problem to be eradicated, instead of the resources for progression that they are. Acknowledging that previous approaches to religious and cultural freedoms and a lack of ethics in human rights from oppressive parties has been damaging to world unification is an important first step. Understanding that differences in beliefs, cultural lenses, and ways of life are important, constructive, and in themselves sacred, is the next.

Without the unification in action of world religious leaders, mystic activists, and non-believer activists alike, progression toward equality, harmony and justice is unlikely. Global changes require global community and togetherness, a concept that is sacred or highly valued in nearly every world religion, spirituality and objectively developed philosophy of life. From the most influential among us whose activism is rooted in faith, to the religious world leaders who seek to enlighten and evangelize, to the agnostic activist at the very ground level, each of us must establish the clear and present goal of a more just and equitable future. We must also facilitate conversation and exemplify the behaviors that promote those goals. Investing the time and compassion required to understand the lives and perspectives of the oppressed requires each of us to not only be honest with ourselves, but to relinquish our own privilege, acknowledge our role in the oppression of others, and provide and promote inclusion for people of all faiths, cultures and intersectionalities at the global table.

This call to action should encourage each and every one of us to examine what we contribute to societal change, to recognize the power in each and every one of our actions, and to work to facilitate conversation from the community level up, for as long as we seek to change the world.

[1] Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison, (New York, Macmillan, 1972), 358. [2] Prothero, God is not One, (New York, Harper, 2010), 169-190. [3] Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Jews, (New York, Edwin Mellon, 1981), 19. [4] Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison, 17. [5] Deyoung, Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice, (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2007), 25-50.

Bethge, Eberhard. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Jews.” In Ethical Responsibility: Bonhoeffer’s Legacy to the Churches, edited by John D. Godsey and Geffrey B. Kelly, 43-96. New York: Edwin Mellon, 1981.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters & Papers from Prison. Enl. Ed. New York, Macmillan, 1972.

Deyoung, Curtiss Paul. Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2007.

Prothero, Stephen. God is not One. New York, Harper, 2010.

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