Kairos - A Sign of the Times:
The role of the faith community in protest movements
By Brita Rose, May, 2014
Protest movements have been happening on a global scale since the turn of this decade – from Brazil to Ukraine, the Middle East, China, Russia, and North America.
Over the last few years, in the U.S. alone demonstrations have spanned North Carolina, Seattle, Wisconsin and New York. Out of this environment several grass-roots faith movements have sprung from New York Cities’ faith communities. KAIROS: The Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice, is one such example. As the Center for Religion, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary, Kairos “aims to strengthen a mutually reinforcing relationship between the world’s religions and the global struggle for human rights and to challenge efforts to create a conflict between them. Through rigorous scholarship, applied research, reciprocal education, and shared practice, it works to contribute to transformative movements for social change that can draw on the strengths of both religions and human rights.” The word Kairos is an ancient Greek word for a time when conditions are right for the accomplishment of a crucial action; the opportune and decisive moment; also a moment when the eternal breaks into history. (1)
Another example of a strong faith movement born out of New York in 2011 came to be known as Occupy Faith New York City, an outgrowth of The Occupy Movement which started with Occupy Wall Street (OWS). The larger Occupy Movement is an international protest movement which began as demonstrations against social inequality, with the primary goal of challenging the economic and political relations in all societies to be less vertically hierarchical and more equally distributed. While the goals of the numerous local and decentralized OWS groups differ, one of the primary issues common to all concerns the way in which large corporations, and the global financial system at large, control the world in ways that disproportionately benefit a minority and undermine democracy. When the Occupy protests, largely inspired by the Arab Spring of 2011, began in New York City's Zuccotti Park between September 17 and October 9 of that year, Occupy protests had already occurred in over 951 cities across 82 countries, and in over 600 communities in the United States. The spirit of Kairos was well underway.
It has been postulated by some that by the 21st century religious faith would disappear. On the contrary, notwithstanding the global resurgence of reforms occurring within religious institutions and traditions themselves, religious involvement and spiritual awareness continue to grow worldwide and to infuse other movements for change, sometimes by playing a prominent role. Occupy Faith New York (OFNY) City embodies one such example. By declaring solidarity with OWS, OFNY confirmed its own commitment to work towards justice and equality in the community. After the financial crisis of 2008, without knowing the outcome of such initiatives citizens began to question the systems of their societies. Communities at large, particularly the disenfranchised and oppressed, began to seek a different world and to show that they are willing to rise to the challenge, to think differently. Others listened and joined their peaceful activism in solidarity; hungry for change citizens are demonstrating that they are not voiceless, and they are gathering in multi-national, multi-faith movements to feed this hunger for a transformed reality - one that reflects justice, fairness and the common good.
A related faith movement to emerge from this ethos, ‘Faith in New York’ (FiNY) was founded in 2004 as an affiliate of the ‘People Improving Communities through Organizing’ (PICO) National Network. FiNY works through a congregation-community based model to “equip congregations and develop grassroots leaders to move significant public policy change that supports our leaders’ vision of a more just New York City with excellent public schools, violence-free neighborhoods, access to good jobs, adequate and affordable health care, decent housing for all, and a city where people of all backgrounds can fully participate in economic and civic life.” (2) As 'prophetic witnesses,’ people of faith are called by their confessions to bring healing, compassion, and justice to our world. Faith in New York -- a multi-religious, multi-cultural federation of the faith community found in 17 states, training leaders in 65 faith communities -- is doing just that by exercising faith in action through advocacy for social change. Dedicated to building a community that can make social change happen, it has, to date, challenged issues such as immigration, affordable housing, and recently Ban the Box reform to create a level playing field and promote the general welfare of all.
This interfaith organization seeks to communicate a bold, prophetic vision for change across New York City by improving economic opportunities for working families. It continues to develop faith-based organizing as a pillar of the broader social change infrastructure, as evidenced by the following campaign results: One of several key accomplishments includes securing a pledge of $1.2 million in emergency relief funds for undocumented Sandy victims from the NYC Commission on Immigrant Affairs. It also worked to denounce the rising tide of unjust deportations, which in turn helped prompt President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order in June 2012. (3)
In the midst of working towards greater social justice, such faith communities are uniquely positioned to be able to offer spiritual healing and wellness to social movements; prayer, ritual and beauty can all contribute to building healthy and sustainable movements for positive change that are based on strong relationships of reciprocity and mutual-corporation. And they can provide the much needed comfort and support activists yearn for amidst the turmoil of upheaval. Faith leaders can also harvest religious language to serve movements’ strategies as they seek to transform our world. The late Pete Seeger offers one such example of the ability to use words and music to bring positive change to the environment. It may have taken him 40 years, but with patient and peaceful activism he succeeded in bringing the Hudson River from death to life; a once uninhabitable river now streams with a variety of aquatic species and activity.
In the work of activism, faith convictions can carry us through the dark times; sacred scriptures can provide a life-giving force to seemingly insurmountable struggles and can turn our weapons of destruction into instruments of peace. Everybody wants their sacred humanity to be seen and respected. By recognizing the dignity of each individual and community, by imagining their future, by realizing their potential, and by helping to empower their dreams, faith leaders can be part of the socio/political transformations for which their communities are crying out.
By reading the moral compass of society, faith leaders are uniquely positioned to present the hopes of their respective faith traditions while speaking truth to power and challenging their decrees, just as Isaiah did centuries ago: “Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes.” (Isaiah 10.) Today, in sync with the times, the pope, the president, and the new mayor of New York have each voiced their concerns regarding social inequity. Many disaffected communities are barely struggling to make ends meet and are losing hope. Such despair leads people to resignation, and thereby to thoughts fixed not on the lives of those around them in the present, but purely on the afterlife - the extreme outcomes of which, of such detachment, are demonstrated in the faith and actions of individuals (among all belief traditions) that resort to destructive actions such as suicide missions and violence.
By taking up the individual issues of an entire community, faith leaders can offer new hope. They can pose questions, such as: in what kind of society do we want to live? How can we improve our lives? What can we actively do to contribute? Faith leaders can help us to ask the right questions for the good of all. We may be quick to point fingers at inept leadership, but when we look at the big picture, any change of heart begins with each one of us examining ourselves. We, the people, can lead the way by our own example and influence. What can we change first within ourselves? How can we nurture our own soul, mind and spirit? By virtue of that, how can we impact our circles and our systems to be a positive influence? It is a ripple effect that springs forth from our hearts and overflows to our families, friendships, and larger communities.
Worshipers and faith leaders can also offer the most profound comfort to protest movements; both the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements were led and re-ignited by faith leaders. Though we each carry the voices of our respective communities, by owning and informing the debates through active engagement in public life, faith leaders are well placed to represent and support these movements. People of faith do not believe we are merely passive beings drifting in a formless world, but that we are dynamic physical beings in a physical and constantly changing society and we can interact with and be a part of its transformation. This interaction is part of the human story.
Activists for socio-economic change can look to Jesus for inspiration - for no one has been more profoundly engaged in the social struggles of his time. His was a spiritual message that directly played out in communities of first century Galilee, as it does today throughout the world. Jesus did not need to run for office in order to carry out his transforming work, for he brought the healing power of God’s Kingdom. Yet he was directly and powerfully engaged in the lives of individuals -- pleading on behalf of the vulnerable, the poor, the disenfranchised of his community, and actively confronting the rulers of his day to enact fairness aligned with the values of God’s Kingdom. His life was the ultimate demonstration of faith in action. He is our ultimate divine role-model for spiritual, physical and social transformation.
Rooted in faith, social activists can exemplify and embody his message to bring the healing power of God’s Kingdom into the social, physical, and spiritual welfare of our own communities. We can, as Rev. David Rommereim and Rev. Bob Emerick put it, “bring soul affirming, soul power into public life.”
Originally inspired by Kairos Conference, Union Theological Seminary, NYC, February, 2014