“Without the church, without religious institutions, I would never have been here today.”
On December 5, 1999, I was fortunate to be one of the 7,000 people to hear these words spoken by President Nelson Mandela at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town, South Africa. President Mandela expressed gratitude to the audience, many of whom were religious or spiritual leaders. He told us that while he was in jail, it was Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu leaders who gave him hope that one day apartheid would end and that he would be free.
Because I am deeply committed to promoting interfaith dialogue as a path to peace, I believe that the same change that was brought about by religious leaders in South Africa can also become a reality in America. It will require the clergy of our country to fulfill their moral obligation to teach tolerance, respect, and peace to their congregants. There are still too many clergy who remain ambivalent about such endeavors, because they believe that their traditions alone represent the full truth. Therefore, they are not interested in dialogue with members of other faiths. Still, they believe that we are all children of God and that as people of faith we must struggle against oppression.
To me, this foundation is enough for the clergy to bring healing during these difficult days in America. Yes, we have Nelson Mandela as a model, but we can also look to the Civil Rights Movement of the nineteen fifties and sixties, when Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist minister from the South, “the apostle for non-violent action,” asked his dear friend Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “the apostle to the Gentiles,” to march with him from Selma to Montgomery to help with the struggle against oppression of the Black community.
I believe that during this painful time of pandemic and injustice, we should look to the deep friendship and love between a Baptist minister from the South and a Polish-born Jewish rabbi from New York to inspire us to bring about meaningful change. This is the time for us to unite and help make the dream of Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel a reality. After the senseless death of George Floyd, religious and spiritual leaders, whatever their vision of truth, must stand together to fight the disease of racism.
Heschel, who was called “Father Abraham” by the Civil Rights leaders, also spoke of the need for deep humility when speaking of God, and he stated that “we are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers.” For Heschel, “God is everywhere save in arrogance.” I believe that if more spiritual leaders would open their hearts and minds to Heschel’s call for religious humility, they could influence the members of their congregations to create a better world.
I believe that what unites members of different faiths, especially of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is far more important than what divides them. First and foremost, they agree that all humans are created in God’s image. Therefore, we must not only respect all people; we must also stand up against any form of injustice. We must never compromise with evil.
The 1974 Lausanne Covenant, which is one of the most influential documents in Evangelical Christianity, stresses social action and states that we must “denounce evil and injustice wherever they exist. . . . [F]aith without works is dead.” I believe that this, and similar statements by other denominations, can form a foundation for the clergy of all traditions to unite and make a substantial contribution in the fight for racial justice.
In 1963, Rabbi Heschel sent a telegram to President John F. Kennedy in which he stated that as long as we continued to humiliate the Black community “we forfeit the right to worship God.” That same year, in a speech Heschel gave at the National Conference on Religion and Race, where Rabbi Heschel first met Martin Luther King Jr., he spoke of how his heart breaks because of our indifference to evil and of the “monstrosity of inequality.” He further stated that “prayer and prejudice can’t dwell in the same heart.” He asserted that “worship without compassion is . . . an abomination.”
I began with the voice of one man, President Nelson Mandela, and then turned to speak about my teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and his dear friend, Martin Luther King Jr. I could also point to a religious Muslim leader, Ako Abdul-Samad, the president of the African-American Association in Iowa, the nearly seventy-year-old man who stayed up until 2:00 at night in order to prevent violence and to bring peace and comfort to the marchers in Des Moines.
In closing, may I suggest that in this turbulent time we all ponder these words of Rabbi Heschel: “We must believe that, morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society some are guilty but all are responsible.”