On February 17th, 2010 Anne C. Bailey walked into the room asking, “Is God part of the problem or part of the solution?” and I walked out with an answer. That answer begins with one concept: as worshippers the world over will tell you, God is love.
Two kinds of people among us will address this question with equivalent fervor: lifelong churchgoers and students of history. Those who feel they have a personal relationship with God provide a quick answer: God has a positive effect on racial relations, as it does on every worldly problem. At the same time, however, others with a different perspective provide the opposing argument. To them, one need only look at the historical record of organized religion to conclude that God has had a negative effect on racial relations. After all, that record is ugly. It’s not just about the crusades, or the history of European Christians in Africa, or Islamic radicalism. Any time a religious organization acts as a political organization, that’s dangerous. But there is a clear way to cut through the contradiction between these two answers: a distinction must be made between God and those who act in the name of God and especially those of them who are empowered by religious institutions. To keep this distinction clear, we must adopt a new paradigm for religious practice. Those who wish the world to see God as a force for good must embrace religion as a personal pursuit.
I come from a religion that focuses entirely on one’s personal relationship with God. We have no preachers, and we require no person to serve as a link from God to man. Our prayers – and therefore our lives – are focused on demonstrating a “fervent desire for growth in grace, expressed in patience, meekness, love, and good deeds” (Mary Baker Eddy, Science&Health page 4). Because of this focus on the individual’s path toward understanding, we don’t have strong social or political institutions. So after hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, my sister and I joined a local Methodist group that drove down to New Orleans and volunteered. In this way religious institutions can be strong forces for social good. However, to remain altruistic and benign, these institutions must perceive themselves as simple gathering places, venues, and givers of opportunity. They can avoid doing harm by staying in touch with their purpose: facilitating individuals’ spiritual development.
Some of you earnest believers in God will ask, “How can I spread God’s goodness and help other people without broadcasting my beliefs from a mountaintop or a TV?” If you express your best self – if you try to live by the teachings of Jesus, Muhammad, Moses, Buddha, the Guru Granth Sahib, or the example of Gandhi – people will notice. They will wonder how you forgave when forgiveness seemed impossible. They will wonder how you persisted when defeat loomed. They will wonder how you were honest when deceit appeared in your self interest. They will either want to follow your example or want to know how you set it, and this gives you the opportunity to tell them what empowered you to act as you did.
Few people who call themselves religious or spiritual – anywhere in the world – will deny the connection between deity and love. Now go back to the question, but insert “love” in place of “God”.
Is love part of the problem or the solution?
What kind of question is that?