In Search of the North Star
“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” – Albert Einstein
Over the past decade we have witnessed public discourse descend to all-time lows. Conversations focus less on public welfare and more on who is consolidating power. The public square is bombarded with toxic messages – disinformation, ad hominem, name-calling – that reinforce the views of the powerful at the expense of the less powerful.
We are standing at a crossroads that will determine what kind of country we want to be. Shall we intensify our divisions, or become one nation under God with liberty and justice for all?
Despite these chaotic times, or perhaps because of them, the faith community has opportunity, indeed responsibility, to serve as the North Star to guide the nation to a place of hope and justice, a place that honors and dignifies each of us. If this is to be the case, people of faith must confront and redress their share of the responsibility for the chaos that engulfs us.
A Widow Who Defied Odds
One passage in Luke 18 provides remarkable lessons for this moment from a woman who defied the odds. A widow asks a judge to grant her justice against her adversaries. After being told no repeatedly, she returns again and again with the same request. The judge finally relents and gives her the justice she seeks. The passage provides three lessons for the church in navigating turbulent times: 1) Advocate for what is right. We must be committed to the cause of justice and pursue it relentlessly. This means responding in the moment to confront and disrupt the status quo for the betterment of humankind; 2) Be persistent. We cannot let a “no” end the conversation; we must continue to fight for what is right; 3) Activism is for everyone. In antiquity widows had limited resources, but that did not deter this nameless woman from demanding justice. We are all called. This is not contingent upon our circumstances.
Blessing Enormities in God’s Name
The weight of perverse policies that reward greed, encourage gun hoarding, ignore misogyny, promote environmental degradation, applaud racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and the mistreatment of the most vulnerable members of our society feels unbearable. Each is the result of human choices. The enormity is compounded when faith leaders endorse those peddling these policies, then slap a “Christian” label on themselves, and proceed to baptize inequalities or biases in the name of God. Their stance perverts the Christian witness and contradicts the very values that are foundational to Christianity – truth, love, justice, compassion, wisdom, courage, and service. This public clash between faith and politics comes at a precarious time in the life of the church. By various measures, attendance is declining, in part because of politics. The Southern Baptists have lost more than a million members over the last decade. Millennials are leaving religion in droves, according to persistent evidence.1
A deeply flawed public assumption identifies faith or religiosity with a particular political party – and says people of faith, or “values voters,” only care about two issues: abortion and marriage. On the contrary, religious leaders who vocalize support for destructive policies do not represent the broader faith community. The relationship between faith and political engagement is far more nuanced than taking a stand on just one or two contentious issues. People of faith have a duty to examine all aspects of public life, particularly those affecting the marginalized.
The credibility of the church is badly damaged when the story of Mary and Joseph is used to justify pedophilic behavior, or when the US Attorney General quotes Romans 13 to defend border mandates to snatch babies from their mothers in order to stop asylum seekers, or when Thessalonians is cited to deny critical social services to the poor. It is urgent today that we increase the number of voices who will challenge misappropriated theological precepts that justify harmful public policy.
Neutrality = Complicity
Will we stand up for righteousness and denounce these policies as wrong? Or will our silence, inaction, and neutrality convey complicity in such policies? Our silence surely will stunt the spiritual growth of some and drive others away from faith. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice,” said Desmond Tutu, “you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” And that is not the side of Jesus.
We must swallow our pride and engage with those with whom we disagree. By talking only with those who share our political and religious views, we are not challenged to explain the reasoning behind our beliefs. Nor need we wrestle with new data points that may challenge – even change – how we think. Real intellectual growth comes when we consider differing viewpoints that may expand our thinking and reveal unexpected connection with other people. We may, for example, disagree with someone about the right to choose, but join hands with them in restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated citizens.
From the Exodus and American slavery to the Holocaust and apartheid, faith in action has served as the North Star for generations of believers – an enduring force that centered morality in the fight for justice and has helped sustain oppressed people through the worst of times. As American history shows, the black church was at the vanguard throughout the civil rights movement. Yet in recent movements, from #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter to #NoMuslimBan and #TakeAKnee, the secular world has led the righteous conversation, with the church haltingly following. What does this suggest about the moral standing of the church? Why aren’t we leading conscience-reckoning conversations?
It is easy to become discouraged and overwhelmed by the sheer volume of issues we face. Nevertheless, I am inspired by biblical and modern-day examples of courageous women who used their situation to challenge unjust systems to improve lives. The named and nameless women in the Bible, along with women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Coretta Scott King, Pauli Murray, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and the African-American women in Alabama whose moral barometer spurred them to change the outcome of a Southern election – all demonstrate ways of navigating social turbulence and unrest. In so many cases, they relied on their faith despite the odds.
As the motto of Frederick Douglass’ newspaper The North Star declares, “Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are Brethren.” As a community of faith, we must serve as the moral North Star. It is the key to our liberation as a people and as a nation.
LaShawn Warren ’15 M.A.R. is senior vice president of campaigns and programs for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Founded in 1950 in Washington, DC, the organization is the nation’s oldest, largest, and most diverse civil and human rights coalition, committed to the protection and advancement of civil and human rights for every person in the US.
1 See Frank Newport, “Church Leaders and Declining Religious Service Attendance,” news.gallup.com., Sept. 7, 2018; Bob Allen, “Southern Baptists Have Lost a Million Members in 10 Years,” baptistnews.com., June 9, 2017; Betsy Cooper, Daniel Cox, Rachel Lienesch, Robert P. Jones, “Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion – and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back,” prri.org., Sept. 22, 2016.