Religion’s role: Draw lines or cross them?

Religion’s role: Draw lines, or cross them?
By Christian Piatt

Last week yielded a number of memorable events which might not seem particularly related. However, upon looking back, they all got me thinking about where organized religion fits in matters of justice.

Friday, December 1st marked the fifty-first anniversary of when Rosa Parks earned the moniker as the “mother of the civil rights movement.” Her defiance of the Jim Crow laws that required her to concede her seat to a white passenger pushed her into the public spotlight, helping pave the way for the likes of Rev. Martin Luther King.

A lesser known, but similarly significant, event took place five years earlier in New Orleans. Jerome Smith, ten years old at the time, removed the screen placed between the black and white passengers on a streetcar. He was subsequently boxed on the ears by an older black woman on the car for disrespecting the white travelers, though she later embraced him in private, urging him to never stop in his struggle for equality.

Smith later became the founder of the New Orleans Chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality.

Last Thursday, Pope Benedict XVI completed his trip through Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country, with a visit to the famous Blue Mosque. He removed his shoes, entered silently and prayed alongside the local cleric in an ongoing effort to express his respect for Islam. His fence-mending mission was seen as a significant step forward in repairing the rifts caused by his remarks in October, deemed offensive by millions of Muslims.

Finally, December 1st marked World AIDS Day, reminding us that nearly 40 million still live with HIV in the world today, including more than 2 million children, and almost twelve thousand new infections every single day.

Though most religious institutions remain woefully silent about the HIV pandemic, others have taken the opportunity to teach the world a lesson. Pat Buchanan calls AIDS “nature’s revenge on homosexuals,” and Jerry Falwell claims the disease is “proof of society’s moral decay.”

Though it is not a popular public position today, it wasn’t so long ago that politicians and religious officials alike celebrated the sanctity of segregation. I have a friend who told me recently that his grandmother used to believe that separation of the races was ordained by God, as taught in her church. It took someone like Rev. King, from within the racist, religious status quo, to finally push for change.

Pope Benedict took a risk not only in traveling to Turkey to begin with, but also in worshipping within a Mosque. He could have been harassed by locals, incensed by his previous insensitivity. Instead, the world breathed a sigh of relief as his trip was concluded in peace.

There are those who believe it is religion’s responsibility to draw the boundaries of propriety within which the rest of society should operate. Others feel it is their spiritual calling to step across some of these same lines, drawing cries of heresy from the ones making the rules.

This moral tension changes form over time, but it never goes away. Siddhartha Gautama shocked his stewards by leaving the safety of his father’s palace, along his journey to become the Buddha. Jesus challenged the authority of the Pharisees to the point that they played an integral part in his arrest, trial and crucifixion.

Religious leaders historically play both sides of the fence on many major societal issues. I’m not necessarily claiming the righteousness of one position over another, but as one who places Rev. King, Jesus and Buddha higher on my list of role models than Rev. Falwell and Pat Buchanan, I’d say there’s still room for a few agitators within the church.

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