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Racial Justice Requires Religious Freedom

9 Jun, 2020
Photo: Washington, DC, USA – June 5 2020: Street sign at the newly designated Black Lives Matter Plaza, with the steeple of St. John’s Episcopal Church in the background

by Brian J. Grim

Shock, outrage and calls for justice over the heartless murder of George Floyd under the knee of a white police officer continue to grow across America and the world. Communities of faith are at the forefront of the growing movement to address racial prejudice. It is cutting across party lines, as was seen when Republican Senator Mitt Romney joined a march this weekend organized by Christian churches in the Washington area, carrying signs that based their call for racial equality in the Bible.

And as Reuters reports, it is cutting across faith lines too. Conservative and mainstream religious leaders are joining with Black churches, progressive Catholics and Protestants, Jewish synagogues and other faith groups in calling for police reforms and efforts to dismantle racism.

“We’re seeing it at the grassroots level. We’re seeing rabbis walking alongside Muslim leaders, walking alongside Catholic priests and religious sisters,” said Johnny Zokovitch, executive director of Pax Christi USA, a national Catholic peace and justice group. “We are seeing that race cuts across all religious denominations.”

The flood of visible religious engagement included clergy from the Episcopal diocese of Washington DC distributing water in support of protesters demonstrating in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, directly across Lafayette Plaza from the White House. The church was damaged in the protests and, as the demonstrators were forcefully removed from the square, it became the site of a highly controversial Bible-in-hand photo op for President Trump.

Religious freedom’s clear role in this event is that the Episcopal leaders and many other faith leaders had the freedom to call out what they saw as co-opting religion for political purposes. The perceived political use of the Bible has even split Evangelicals, who are generally more supportive of Trump.

Religious freedom allows not only dissent by religious figures but also faith-based arguments to be heard in the public square, such as those made more than five decades ago by Rev. Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr.

Loving Your Enemies, MLK, Jr.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” – Matthew 5:43-45

Probably no admonition of Jesus has been more difficult to follow than the command to “love your enemies”.  Some men have sincerely felt that its actual practice is not possible.  It is easy, they say, to love those who love you, but how can one love those who openly and insidiously seek to defeat you?  Others, like the philosopher Nietzche, contend that Jesus’ exhortation to love one’s enemies is testimony to the fact that the Christian ethic is designed for the weak and cowardly, and not for the strong and courageous.  Jesus, they say, was an impractical idealist. …

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love an do that. Hate multiplies, hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. So when Jesus says “Love your Enemies” he is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition.

(Read Rev. Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr.’s full sermon,  Love_Your_Enemies.)

Indeed, because the world is so religious — with more than 8-in-10 people following a faith — and because governments will always be tempted to curry their favor in ways that break the Golden Rule and the Rule of Loving Your Enemies — as shown in The Price of Freedom Denied — religious freedom ensures that religion has the power to resist co-optation and remain prophetic and pertinent.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Compilation: Love Your Enemies Speech and Tribute Footage

Also see A Lesson on Race & Religion for Corporate America.