Category Archives: Religion

My Spiritual Passion for Social Justice: Speech at the Washington Ethical Society

This is a transcript of a speech I recently gave at the Washingtion Ethical Society (WES).  WES is a part of Ethical Culture which is basically a religious humanist community.  This means that people are humanist -their worldview is generally nontheistic; focused on human experience and human relationships and not so much on god.  But WES differs from secular humanism in that people have regular gathering times, religious services, and form a religious community which in many ways operates similarly to theistic congregations.  I was asked to give the following speech about my personal passion for social justice.  Enjoy!


When I think about social justice at WES, what really resonates with me is the spiritual underpinning behind my passion.  I grew up not raised in a religion.  There were no holy books, no Sunday services, no community of faith.  Yet I had a lot of what are called “mystical experiences.”  I frequently felt a sense of oneness with the universe, a sense of sacred interconnectivity and higher truths.  This was a sense of love and beauty.  The world was beautiful and deserving of love.  I suppose that is my fundamental spiritual belief, which also translates into a belief in the inherent worth and dignity of all people.

My beliefs, my faith, my background, became a commitment to social justice once I realized that society as a whole did not follow loving principles, and all of us are hurt because of this.  I remember being a student in elementary school who was eager to learn about so many things, but I was continuously struck by the fact that the adults who oversaw me never thought to ask what I was truly curious about and what I truly cared for.  I became an anti-war activist when I saw that the invasion of Iraq was manufactured from dubious reasons, and it cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who I believed deserved love and dignity.  In the working world I noticed a repeated tendency for people to be treated with respect or abuse depending on their pecking order in the hierarchy.  To me, all people deserved respect.  It wasn’t something you earned with your status or were denied because you failed to pull yourself up by the nonexistent proverbial bootstraps.

There are a lot of things I could talk about.  In the end I saw a dissonance between the world I lived in and what I knew in my heart was right –my spiritual commitment to love and dignity.  The beautiful thing about WES; it is one of the places where I can feel safe to live according to my heart.  We are all here to seek the highest.  Even better, we can seek the highest while not forcing ourselves to follow one version of what that means.

My passion is nurtured by the people and places where compassion, connection, love, respect, honesty, humility, listening, and generosity are valued.  Real community is built by the things we do for each other that make life worth living.  A commitment to social justice is a desire to nurture, protect, and expand such community.  It also means resisting the parts of the world which destroy what is worth preserving.  It means occupying wall street, desegregating lunch counters, protecting the natural environment, putting our voices and bodies on the line for the right to vote, putting our voices and bodies on the line for all our rights and the rights of our neighbors.

There is a cost to such passion.  The abusive world knows how to strike back.  I have been arrested, assaulted, kicked out of class, and fired because my passion for social justice would not allow me to quietly accept the hurt I saw people putting onto each other.  Despite the costs, every day I find myself feeling more free, powerful, and whole.   I suppose it is the sense of growing wholeness that most fuels my social justice passion.  I get something out of it.  I have something to live for which is consistent with human dignity and seeking the highest.

Ironically however, the more whole I feel the more meaningless my wholeness seems.  My life is sacred, but it is very short and very small.  I have spent a lot of time meditating on my own personal growth and liberation.  Now I have come to want something more.  It is collective liberation I care about; it is the healing of all who have been hurt; it is the transformation of society.  This to me represents a deeper vision of social justice which is constructed by all the loving people in all their safe spaces.  It says a lot that WES has been the safest religious community for me.  My hope is that we can still do more to engage with the world in a healing way, and strengthen the life-affirming bonds which hold us all together.

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Separation of Institution and State, not Belief and State

Last Monday I listened to prayers for jobs in DC.  Members of the Washington Interfaith Network had gathered together, two thousand strong, as a coalition looking to influence city officials.  I was there as part of my own faith community, the Washington Ethical Society -a nontheistic, humanist-leaning, religion.  Reflecting on the fact that I was with humanists who were attempting to influence politics with religion, I was suddenly struck with a sense of irony about the separation of church and state.

It was always an interesting principle to me.  I understood, we didn’t want theocratic despots and religious oppression.  Yet I had seen the separation of church and state applied in ways that did not make sense.  I remember, in high school, when friends were upset because they couldn’t pray in school.  One friend was a Bahai, who had an obligatory prayer to say at noon.  Also there were Muslims, who are supposed to pray five times a day.  In this example, the separation of church and state, a policy theoretically designed to encourage religious equality, was actually disproportionally burdening already disenfranchised faiths while probably not providing much of a burden to the more dominant Christian faiths.

Plus we said “under God” in the pledge of allegiance.  In other words, individuals were not allowed to privately practice their faith, but the state institution could actually promote the idea that the US was supported by God.  Thus I saw, separation of church and state was a principle like many legal principles, selectively applied when it was convenient to those who had power.

Separation of church and state can be misused.  Personally, I do not think it is the belief element which is the problematic part of the church involving itself in politics.  I really don’t know how I could oppose people’s religious, spiritual, moral, or ethical values influencing their politics.  In fact, the separation of church and state is itself a religious, spiritual, moral, or ethical value.  I also realize, if I did think that such values should be taken out of politics, I would have to oppose the work of Martin Luther King and the SCLC, the American Friends Service Committee, Father Roy Bourgeois and his work to end the SOA, Liberation Theology, and the work of the Washington Interfaith Network.

To me, the separation of church and state is really about separating the institution of the church from the institution of politics.  In other words, I am okay if a Hindu is in office; I am not okay if Hinduism becomes the state religion.  Ultimately this is a principle about undue influence in a pluralistic society, and I think it can be applied to much more than religion.  In the present day, corporations hold the same influence traditionally held by the church.  They spend billions of dollars lobbying to influence public policy, corporate executives move back and forth from political office, and corporations also have strong ties to the media, legal, and educational systems.  This power promotes our race to the bottom in terms of wages, how acceptable it is to give workers’ no say in their work environment, and our lack of any sort of real regulation for environmental, health, or economic security.  This is undue influence coming from the corporate sector, and dominating the broader interests of the plurality.

In general, no single institution should ever have that kind of power.  This idea that individual institutions should not dominate society is, to me, the spirit behind the separation of church and state.  In simpler terms, it is just saying that political officials should not have a conflict of interest.