The world needs people willing to change their religion. I’m not actually suggesting mass hopping or swapping between houses of faith, but a mass movement, individually and collectively, to transform whole faiths.
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls humanity to liberate peoples from compulsory religion.
The article states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
In that same spirit, I’m urging the faithful to liberate religion (specifically their own) from both compulsive close-minded thinkers and the continuously cautious.
In this country, if there’s any takeaway from the 2022 midterm elections, it’s that the general public is getting fed up with extremism. And the marriage of white evangelicalism and conservative politics has led both to new and dangerous designs.
A few years ago, I attended a conference on engaging young people of faith to get more energized for Democrats in elections. One of the presenters included a study conducted on two-time George W. Bush voters.
In the study, they monitored the brain wave functions of the voters being asked their perspective on public policy questions and what they believed Bush thought on the topics. Corrections were offered to respondents if they were wrong factually.
The study found that in a great many respondents, when their perception of Bush met a divergent factual reality, the reptilian part of the brain would engage, prompting respondents to blurt out phrases like, “That’s a distortion of the mainstream media.” The respondents’ brain would create endorphins to make the respondent feel better for rejecting observable truth.
The consultant’s conclusion for engaging this type of voter was that facts don’t work but telling a more compelling story might.
A lot of what’s polluting our politics and our globe is unchallenged, unfettered and unbridled religious extremism. And the only cure is for faithful people to reclaim faith traditions one religious center at a time.
People of goodwill have the right to change their religions, and the future is dim if we don’t start recognizing our responsibility to change our religions.
Challenging religious norms is lonely work. At the beginning of the pandemic, in the shadow of George Floyd’s death, young people loudly called for change.
I took my cue from them and joined in a symbolic fight over a Confederate monument at my county’s courthouse. I announced a Juneteenth press conference, and invited Black Lives Matter protestors, professors, civil rights leaders, local officials and clergy to stand together against this “idol.”
But minutes before the conference, I got a call that every single Black pastor had pulled out, leaving only white ministers and me to represent religious communities. Their rationale: “We have to live here.”
We carried forward and garnered national attention for our cause. A few weeks later, that inspired 200 armed men to descend upon our town to “defend” a statue from “BLM Terrorists.” When the vigilantes were threatening actual Black people in our town, those same ministers remained silent.
But the movement we inspired — preaching a Jesus of justice at the county commissioners court each week for nearly a year — became the longest sustained civil rights fight in my county’s history.
Eventually, we started seeing some of those same Black pastors show up to the hearings and protests in later months. The whole community saw a different church being born in their eyes. One that didn’t need denominations or titles, just believers willing to congregate and keep a message alive.
We just kept telling the story, whether the ruling class wanted to hear it or not. A sermon I developed in this season was entitled, “The Dangers of Being Pathetic in Prophetic Times.” It remains a cautionary tale in my spirit.
As women and girls in Iran demonstrate for their own version of bodily autonomy, I think about the vital work of my friend Sabahat Ashraf with Muslims for Progressive Values in California’s Bay Area.
He is drawing a wider ideological circle for Islam, speaking out prophetically of this coming struggle over the burqa and hijab well before the present unrest broke out.
Sabahat shared with local officials that the clothing mandates did not gain popular sanction in the Muslim world until late 20th century, and they have become a mode of social control over women.
So, when the protests emerged, I comprehended what the fighting was for. And though small, MPV, and other groups like it, are creating space for people (especially young people) to explore new ways of living Muslim in modern and pluralistic societies.
Dyron Holmes in New York City created the People’s Monastery several years ago. It served as an interfaith meeting space for sharing themed worship experiences. Included once was a West African Traditional Spiritual Bath to cleanse us to honor our transitioned ancestors.
Participating, adorned in white, I comprehended my baptism more profoundly, as the fragrances and essences engaged my senses. I savored my baptism in that moment, coming up and wiping the petals off my face. I’ve preached on it since.
Authentic exchange and participation in common practices helps us transcend old misunderstandings. Dyron’s creative community grew my appreciation for allowing multiple lenses to speak on the human condition and shared experiences. And in opening up our sacred traditions to be sounded with those of others, we achieved un-walled worship.
Changing a pew in most of our churches is a controversial subject. Change in general is difficult in institutional culture. Those of us who envision a more inclusive and cooperative world must recognize how religions have fashioned cultures and societies.
They still have that same power now. But what moves churches and other religious institutions are individuals taking what they learned and sharing it.
Mae Jemison once put it this way, “Timidity does not inspire bold acts.” It is no different in religion. Progress and evolving public morality call on us to re-examine evangelism and outreach as people of faith.
What white evangelicalism did to our politics makes a lot of us wary to even think about it, but we can’t keep putting the light of our better world underneath bushels of politeness.
Bishop Yvette Flunder suggests that those who experience liberation must go back to the places that bound them and expand freedom beyond the safe spheres where we learned it. Otherwise, it’s a closeted freedom we experience.
To make better nations and societies, people of faith must start owning our faiths and pressing our institutions for more than personal prohibition reminders.
Justice unites many faiths, and seeing our local churches, mosques, synagogues and temples as social laboratories of community innovation and reflection would help us “altar” realities faced by millions on the margins.
Fights for rights, and the responsibilities on faithful people to do the hard work of creating more space for the many, carry forward the spirit of the UDHR’s Article 18.
Recognizing in oneself the right to actually change their religion is an awakening that groups like MPV and People’s Monastery seek to promote.
To actually change religions requires both possessing history and vision, and just a touch of spirit to unite disparate peoples in common cause.
So, exercise your human rights to declare a better faith, knowing that a powerful change in you is the first step toward building the truer religions we all seek.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week, calling attention to December 10 as Human Rights Day. The first article in the series is:
The Capability Approach and Human Rights: A New Perspective | Jack Boles