Eboo Patel, founder and director of the Interfaith Youth Core and an international leader in creating healthy religious pluralism (including cooperation between secular/atheist/agnostic people and religious folks), is coming to campus to give a keynote address at 7 pm this Wednesday, and this is a great opportunity not just for those of us concerned with religion but also for anyone interested in social change.
In his writing and speaking Patel argues passionately and persuasively that discussions of diversity should not ignore religious differences (including those between religious and atheist/agnostic people). All over the world, religious disagreements and differences are the cause of many conflicts. Closer to home, religious beliefs are often deeply held, and when they are ignored or belittled, the bearers of these beliefs are often hurt—I know that this happens all too often in our community.
Even if you’re not convinced that healthy religious pluralism is highly significant in its own right, there are at least two compelling reasons to come and learn from Patel. First, building religious pluralism can be a crucial catalyst for other kinds of movements for social justice. In his book, Acts of Faith, Patel writes, “At the heart of every social movement I studied—the civil rights movement, the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the movement to free India—had been a group of religiously diverse people putting their skins on the line for social justice.” In Interfaith Leadership, Patel writes that when he was in Cape Town, South Africa in 1999 and got to hear Nelson Mandela speak, Mandela opened by pointing towards the ocean and Robben Island where had been imprisoned and said, “I would still be there, where I spent a quarter of a century of my life, if it were not for the Muslims and the Christians, the Hindus and the Jews, the African traditionalists and the secular humanists, coming together to defeat Apartheid.” Obviously, if a movement can call on a bigger base of support, its power is amplified. In a religiously diverse country—and the United States is among the most religiously diverse countries in the world—the ability to create diverse coalitions can make the difference between success and failure. In my experience with the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia (NSM), an immigrant-led interfaith social justice movement, members of different religions share the richness and power of their traditions in meetings and public actions. NSM’s work has made Philadelphia one of the strongest sanctuary cities in the country. If you would like to see social justice movements grow, you should come hear what Patel has to say about religious pluralism.
More importantly, you should take advantage of Eboo Patel’s visit to Swarthmore because many of the same things that make it possible to build religious pluralism also make it possible to connect across differences. After all, if people can bridge religious differences, which have led to bloodshed for millennia (though, as Patel reminds us, we shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that religious differences always lead to violence—coexistence and tolerance have always also been a part of the story), the techniques that make that bridging possible are worth considering for their potential to bridge other differences. Patel has written a book defining and describing these techniques (Interfaith Leadership) and I won’t summarize it here, but two concepts strike me as especially promising for bridging differences on our campus and beyond.
The first is the idea of appreciative knowledge, or the ability to get enough information about where someone else’s worldview comes from in order to respectfully disagree with the person while continuing to build your relationship by working on shared priorities. As an example of the potential impact of appreciative knowledge, Patel writes, “What if a pro-Palestinian Muslim could look at a pro-Israel Reform Jew and think, ‘I do not agree with her view, and I will protest and vote against it. But given the history of her people and her commitment to a particular tradition, I understand why she stands where she does. My position is also, after all, a function of my particular commitments to tradition and community.’”
The second is relatability: treating people kindly and with respect and working towards a shared goal is more likely to change people’s minds and actions than shouting at, belittling and dismissing them. This does not mean we have to swallow all insults and ignorance and “be nice;” rather, the achievement of certain goals might make it worthwhile to sometimes practice forbearance.
Here’s an example from my own experience of how relatability and appreciative knowledge can combine to advance social justice. For about a year, I worked for the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO), which brought together a diverse group of religious communities. Prioritizing relatability and with a good amount of appreciative knowledge of each other, GBIO congregations found many issues to collaborate on (affordable healthcare for Massachusetts residents, education, and youth issues, for example) but deliberately avoided issues that divided them, such as gay rights. Over time and as a product of the relationships between the leaders and members of each congregation, the experience of cooperation and the trust that they developed, relationships improved and they became more tolerant. When Massachusetts considered banning gay marriage, even the leaders of GBIO congregations who were opposed to gay marriage refrained from campaigning actively for the ban.
So, if you want to hear stories about how to change the world, come hear Eboo Patel this week. Patel’s keynote address is this Wednesday, 7-8:30 pm in LPAC followed by a book signing, and his visit to the World Religions class, Thursday morning, 9:55-11:10 am in Bond is open to the community. Patel and Noah Silverman, a colleague from IFYC, are also offering workshops for a variety of groups from the campus and surrounding community, and if you are invited to one of these be sure to take this opportunity.
Rabbi Michael Ramberg is the Jewish Student Advisor at Swarthmore College.
Featured image courtesy of the Interfaith Youth Core.