As the number of young Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) individuals continues to rise in this country and around the world, religious institutions must face one very real and serious question: how to remain relevant in a world where fewer and fewer young people are walking through their doors?
As an SBNR from the millennial generation who believes that healthy religious institutions can have a productive role in society, I would like to offer my own advice on this question: Stop talking and do something. Our religious and political institutions have been polluted by words without action, which have resulted in liturgies and platforms that are hollow and meaningless. Young people are tired of words. What we believe in, what we run towards, what we revere is sacred activism: bold and courageous action rooted in love and justice for each other and the planet.
I am, like many others, appalled by the ideology that our government can somehow bomb its way into a peaceful world or incarcerate its way into a socially just one. I therefore decided with a group of other sacred activists to approach two progressive religious institutions in New York City who pride themselves on their involvement in social and environmental justice issues. We pitched an idea, which revolved around them hosting an indefinite fast in solidarity with the 100 plus detainees currently on a hunger strike in Guantanamo. Out of the 166 detainees, 86 have been deemed innocent by all necessary governmental agencies, yet still are being held indefinitely and have been for many years; some close to a decade.
By highlighting Guantanamo, we could then connect the dots to other issues such as the incarceration epidemic in America, unjust wars, drones, etc. Advertising it as an indefinite fast and rooting it in a reputable Christian institution meant we could garner solid press to help raise awareness and create action on these issues. At the same time, we hoped to support healing the growing rift between Islam and Christianity, which is being further fueled by drone warfare and the very existence of Guantanamo.
I personally met with the heads of both Institutions. As individuals, they deeply believed in what we wanted to do, but as representatives of institutions they could not support the project. The reason from one of the institutions was a lack of student support; however, the vast majority of the meeting was taken up by concerns over liability and the fear of getting sued. The other institution never officially told us why they could not host the action even though they did say they supported it. It seemed that the divided internal political landscape of the institution mixed with liability concerns, created a barrier impossible to overcome.
There were other churches we reached out to that simply did not respond to our request. Did we approach every religious institution in New York City? No. There well may be a church in NYC and perhaps a handful or so across the country that do have the courage to house such bold actions. This article is, however, a commentary on most of the religious institutions in this country that for one reason or another are not engaging in courageous action when it comes to social, economic and environmental justice.
Fear of liability, fear of rocking the boat, fear of offending patrons, are common concerns for institutions in this day and age. The question then becomes: at what point are these institutions completely selling out their values over fear? Are not the words they preach and the values they uphold sacred and therefore uncompromisable? How can they help to hold Wall Street, corporations and our government accountable for social and environmental abuses in their state of fear and apprehension? The answer is simple: they cannot. The only way these institutions can remain true to the sacredness of their teachings is through bold action that breathes meaning and relevancy back into their words and beliefs.
In a country and world that is addicted to war, consumption, incarceration, inequality and the pillaging of Earth's precious resources (which are on loan to us by future generations) it is simply not enough to speak every Sunday about loving thy neighbor. Sermons, lectures, and charity work can only go so far in tackling the great challenges of our time.
What we need now, are empowered religious institutions that hold accountable the political and economic leaders who claim religion and principles with one hand while dropping bombs, and plundering economies and resources with the other. What we need now is leadership based in action that will not back down; that will not compromise truth and justice for the security of dollar bills. What we need now, are religious leaders who embody their prophets. Jesus was a radical, yet today so many of the institutions that preach his words are anything but radical.
This type of leadership can only be achieved in religious institutions through surrendering their own need for security. After all, isn't trust one of the tenets of faith? Trust that you will be looked after if you are doing the right thing; if you are giving a voice to the voiceless; if you are standing up for and acting out on behalf of love, justice, compassion and understanding. Security breeds stagnation and as history and systems theory shows us, that which grows stagnant within a system ultimately falls away.
These words will sound radical to many within the safe walls of institutions whether they are religious, political or other. My question to you is: who are the people who are most revered in this world for the good they have done and the changes they have brought about? Dorothy Day, Mahatma Ghandi, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr., to name a few. These great individuals and leaders were all perceived as radicals in their own time. My generation aches for leaders like these. If religious institutions can put in front of us leadership that embraces bold action and calls not for revolution, but evolution, we will support you; we will again walk through your doors and pack your sacred halls with our bodies, hearts, minds and spirits.