Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marching together from Selma to Montgomery.
Every third Monday of January we reflect on the life, work, and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We celebrate King for his leadership in the civil rights movement and his struggle for racial justice. What we don’t popularly remember King enough for is his role as an interfaith leader. I don’t think one can come up with a better example of an interfaith leader than the Rev. Dr. King.
Dr. Eboo Patel, the founder of Interfaith Youth Core, provides a succinct definition of an interfaith leader. Patel defines an interfaith leader as someone with the vision, knowledge, and skillset to bridge understanding and cooperation for people who orient around religion differently. By this definition, King is the paradigm of an interfaith leader. To see this more fully, let’s break it down and see how King earned this title.
The vision of interfaith leadership, as outlined by Patel, is an America that isn’t just diverse (which is simply a demographic fact), but actively engages people’s diversity toward the common good. This is the idea of religious pluralism. We need to be able to understand that the world we live in is diverse and that diversity must lead to peace.
When we think of King and his vision, it’s almost too easy to reference his ubiquitous “I Have a Dream” speech. King had a strong vision of what interfaith work could lead to. He saw interfaith cooperation and collaboration as essential to creating a peaceful world.
“This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited ...a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together — black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu ...Because we can never again live apart, we must learn somehow to live with each other in peace. An excerpt from King’s "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community"
An interfaith leader has to cultivate what Patel calls an “appreciative knowledge” or an “interfaith literacy”. Interfaith literacy means not only knowing and sharing about your own faith tradition but engaging in discussion and education with other people of other religious traditions. In order to work together, we must understand each other’s context and values. While King was not a scholar of world religions, he did learn about other traditions and drew inspiration from them.
King was eager to develop relationships and learn from people of all backgrounds and religious traditions. King first learned of Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings and non-violent activism during a trip to India in 1959. King could relate his Christian values to those of Gandhi's Hindu tradition.
King developed a friendship with the great Buddhist monk Tich Nhat Hanh in the late 1960s. King learned about Buddhism and found that he shared the common values of peace-building, community-making, and religious devotion. King would write an endearing letter, recommending Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Interfaith leaders must be skilled in several areas, including storytelling, relationship building, creating open and active spaces for people to come together, and facilitating interfaith conversations.
The Selma to Montgomery Marches were about racial equality, but they also were an incredible example of interfaith cooperation. King made his call for clergy and people of all faiths to join him in his marches for justice--he created the spaces for action among people who oriented around religion differently. He marched hundreds of religious leaders, including Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Unitarian minister (and Wyoming-raised) James Reeb, the Franciscan Sr. Mary Antona Ebo. King was a master of inclusion, bridge-building, and creating spaces of togetherness.
If you’re like me, reading about King brings up feelings of unworthiness in the wake of his seemingly unattainable steadfastness. But we must remember that King didn’t achieve anything alone. He drew upon the wisdom of his Christian tradition, he relied upon the support of his community, and his unrelenting hope for justice.
Today, this week, this year, let us be steadfast in our work towards justice. Let us draw inspiration from King, guidance from our faith traditions, and strength from our community. We have a lot of work to do to fulfill King’s vision of what America could be and we can’t get there alone.
Wyoming Interfaith Network
I drew upon Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Leadership: A Primer for his definition of an interfaith leader. Do yourself a favor and pick yourself up a copy.