“Why We Can't Wait: The Legacy and Promise of Interfaith Leadership”
gurur brahmā gurur viṣṇuḥ
gurur devo maheśvaraḥ
guruḥ sākṣāt paraṁ brahma
tasmai śrī gurave namaḥ
I bow down to my Teacher, the embodiment of Truth, and to all those gathered here today.
Sometimes I wonder how we dare invoke the name of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I still tremble when I hear his sermons, the fervor of the Hebrew prophets rippling through his words. King remains perhaps the greatest moral witness in American history. He stood at the vanguard of a nonviolent revolution against white supremacy (both overt and covert), against the U.S. military-industrial complex, and against systemic capitalist exploitation of the poor. He was nourished by the spiritual force of a people who found the strength to sing, even when “strange fruit was hanging from the poplar trees.” Their movement has etched itself in the hearts of those of us who still believe in what Cornel West calls “this precious democratic experiment.” From the Montgomery Bus Boycott to Beyond Vietnam, King demonstrated a radical commitment to justice, liberation, and fellow-suffering love. But there is another narrative which strings together these two poles of his activist life: the narrative of interfaith leadership. And that's the theme of my reflection today: the legacy of Dr. King as an interfaith leader, and the urgency of recapturing that story.
As a young, twenty year-old seminary student in Pennsylvania, like many of us still negotiating his own identity, King would hear a great Christian preacher, Mordecai Johnson, give a lecture one night on Christian pacifism. He listened to Dr. Johnson describe his trip to India, where he had found a man who embodied the ethic of Christian love in the 20th century—a Hindu named Mahatma Gandhi. Now King's reaction to this encounter with religious diversity was seminal to his future leadership. He recognized that there was this love in Gandhi's Hinduism which resonated deeply with a love in his own Christian faith. And when he heard that this love was used not only to unite a nation, but even to redeem the oppressor, King knew he had received a blessing from the most unexpected of places. He saw in Gandhi's satyagraha movement a phenomenon of religious diversity coming together in a struggle for the freedom of all people. This ethic would permeate his activist life. In 1965, he marched in Selma, Alabama, with the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He supported the efforts of the United Farm Workers here in California, led by the Catholic activist Cesar Chavez. He disagreed with but nonetheless admired the work of the brilliant Malcolm X, a Muslim minister. And finally, he corresponded with the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who convinced King that the fight for civil rights was inseparable from the fight to end the unjust war in Vietnam.
Why is this narrative so forgotten, yet so central to our lives? Too often, in popular media and political culture, the dominant image of strong religious affiliations in close proximity is one of violence and mutual incomprehensibility. Moreover, the face of religious extremism is one of highly motivated young people taking action. But while religious diversity is a fact, the direction it will take—as King's story shows us—depends on specific leaders. And the leaders who have the loudest voice right now are clear on which side of the faith line they stand on. It's not just a side which pits different religious groups against each other, or opposes religion and secularism, but a side which says only my group dominates, and others suffocate. Those voices are clearly a minority. But their message of an inevitable and endless cosmic clash looms heavy overhead, because we have failed to provide a more compelling alternative. Under vague liberal notions of tolerance, our institutions and public spheres maintain a fragile indifference to engaging young people's diverse religious identities. We can no longer afford this expensive façade of neutrality. “There comes a time,” King would thunder, “when silence is betrayal.”
The interfaith youth movement—of which Stanford is a growing part—is about removing that silence. We speak with our hearts and hands; in service and dialogue, in activism and reflection. Today's clothing drive is a symbolic expression of our vision: a world where diverse religious communities engage in common action for the common good, witnessing and learning of each others' commitment to serving others; a world where young people are at the forefront of building bridges instead of bubbles, or barriers, or bombs; and most importantly, a world where interfaith cooperation is not an anomaly, but a social norm. In other words, we want to change the headline from “Religious Clash Erupts Again in Nigeria” to “Interfaith Cooperation Breaks Out Again in Nigeria, as young Christians and Muslims work to eradicate malaria in their communities.” Are we reaching too high, or have our hands been in our pockets all this time?
The interreligious encounter is woven into my spirit. It has been with me since I first set foot on the Stanford campus five years ago, in my senior year of high school. I came to this very church, to hear His Holiness the Dalai Lama speak about nonviolence and compassion. In my freshman and sophomore years, I would spend long hours alone in these pews, Thomas Merton in one hand and Rumi in the other. As a junior, I was blessed to be a part of the Fellowship for Religious Encounter, where I made so many wonderful friends, who took their tradition as seriously as I did my own. And then I met a young Indian-American Muslim, Dr. Eboo Patel, who opened to me a different interfaith narrative: the one of Dorothy Day and Badshah Khan, of Howard Thurman and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The following words from Rabbi Heschel encapsulate that shift: “Early in my life, my great love was for learning, studying. And the place where I preferred to live was my study and books and writing and thinking. I've learned from the prophets that I have to be involved in the affairs of man, in the affairs of suffering man.”
Through all of these encounters, what has stood out to me is how they have strengthened and enriched my own Hindu identity. I grew up very involved in my religious community, with a deep knowledge base of my tradition: its liturgy, music, philosophy, and ritual. Now I know that I was the preacher's kid—or in my case, the priest's kid—which probably explains why I'm up here today. But that identity didn't take root in me until I came here, and met those completely different from me. To me, the very measure of that identity is the extent to which I can connect with the suffering of a people beyond my borders, and outside my tribe. So when extremists attack others on the basis of their identity—like they may do outside Hillel this upcoming Friday—my faith calls me to stand up, and respond to hate with solidarity and love.
Faith was, in the final analysis, at the heart of King's identity. He was unapologetic about his inspiration from Jesus Christ, from the prophets of Israel, and as a Southern Baptist preacher. Yet it was precisely this commitment that urged him to build bridges of cooperation across racial, economic, and religious lines. King knew that building such bridges was never an equal-opportunity affair. But he also understood that a painful embrace of our tortured histories was necessary; and what I'd like to close with is that same invitation: that we, as James Baldwin says in The Fire Next Time, “we...the relatively conscious...must like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others.”
May His grace and blessings flow through us to the world around us. Thank you.