If religion were Wall Street, we should be calling for its occupation. The New Year is supposed to generate a bit of optimism, but in early 2012 we are not feeling very optimistic when it comes to organized religion. We sense that it is failing where it is needed most -- to guide our sense of right and wrong in a way that will promote the greatest public good. Like Wall Street, the problem with religion is not that it doesn't work, but the perception that it is not working for enough people.
Despite all the issues that divide religions and their adherents, what they share still holds great promise for humankind. All major religions wish to see Good advanced and Evil shunned and overcome. History's major evildoers spoke of the need to destroy the firewalls of moral conscience constructed by religions. As Hitler railed: "The Ten Commandments have lost their validity. Conscience is a Jewish invention, it is a blemish like circumcision."
But what use is religion in an era where, despite a consensus about evil, religious leaders often fret but largely fail to act against it?
We know the excuses. We all suffer from TMMI: Too Much Moral Information. In our global village, the Internet and satellite TV inundate us with too much information vying for our moral attention. Catastrophe follows tragedy follows horror. Too many of us simply tune out.
In 2012, religious leader must create hierarchies of evil, identify the areas we can agree deserve our strongest and most vigorous outrage.
Let's start with protecting The Child.
A pilgrimage to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp is an unbearably difficult experience. Yet even in Auschwitz, there is no more intense moment of outrage than when the visitor is confronted with the mounds of shoes taken from children before they were herded into the gas chambers. Children universally represent innocence, exuberance, unbridled potential, the future. They are also our most vulnerable dependents.
How could people do this to 1.5 million Jewish children during WWII?
Yet, our children are dying today -- by the thousands in the Congo as they flee devastating famine but slaughtered on the way to sanctuary by roving tribesmen. Elsewhere, children are pressed into the service of warlord armies, and taught to kill in order to survive. Children are forced into marriage with men decades older than them in some countries; in others, they are openly sold into prostitution. Here in the U.S., every day reveals another scandal about children abused by parents, siblings and clergy.
Shouldn't the sanctity and safety of the lives of children be religion's job No. 1?
Probably won't happen, because the so-called 1 percenters -- the folks who have the power --often unconsciously waste the religious resources they control. Power-grabs, pettiness and parochialism, too often blur their moral vision.
Take the debacle in Syria. During its deadly response to the Arab Spring the Syrian government has killed more than 5,000 of its own citizens. According to a recent U.N. report, that includes at least 250 children! Two hundred and 50 children! Has the World Council of Churches, one of the largest religious umbrella groups on the planet said a word? Who is giving voice to the abduction and killing of children in Iraq's Christian Triangle by Muslim extremists who seek to drive Christians out of the country? How many more children will die in suicide bombings before religious NGOs, synagogues, churches and mosques demand that the civilized world proclaim such terror that targets Israeli kindergartens, Christian Churches and Muslim pilgrims, crimes against humanity?
This may be a do-or-die moment for religion. As more and more people rise up against, or at least question, institutions that govern their lives, the gatekeepers of religion must assume two responsibilities. They must stand up to protect children and post a list of global evils that demand real action from the faithful. Rather than interfaith dialogue and photo-ops at conferences, religious leaders must together draft a new Moral Charter to defeat the evils besetting our world. If a broad consortium of religious leaders could agree on a short list of the world's worst evils, we could see effective action from billions of believers.
If the power brokers of religion cannot come up with that much, organized religion may not be worthwhile occupying. Its leaders will have demonstrated their bankruptcy, and will likely go the way of the sub-prime mortgage.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, co-authored this essay.