Interfaith Work and Continuous Struggle
Responding to: How Does Religion Promote Social Justice?
By: Baasit Bhutta
January 30, 2018
“Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in a time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1967 (emphasis added).
This year’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend was marked at Georgetown by the “Let Freedom Ring” Initiative. The initiative encouraged the student body to reflect on and celebrate the achievements and legacy of Dr. King through several events. I was drawn to the spiritual service honoring Dr. King, in which I was able to consider the spiritual dimensions of Dr. King’s life and calls to action. The idea that struck me the most is the idea of continuously renewed struggle.
This idea of continuous struggle is a concept that I have been grappling with in my personal life. Struggle, that thing that stands between you and anything worth doing, is a difficult tide to wade through. I have found that it is much easier to brave those tides in the beginning, when your motivation and determination is fresh. It is much easier to break through to that first goal or achievement. But after that first bit of success, it is easy to rest on your laurels and expect smooth sailing ahead. The unrelenting and continuing struggle, the push and pull of that tide you thought you had conquered, becomes increasingly uncomfortable as time goes on.
The passage at the beginning of this piece is taken from a speech titled “Beyond Vietnam.” This was the seminal speech in which Dr. King unequivocally condemned the Vietnam War and urged America to halt the war effort on moral grounds. At the time of the speech, Dr. King had already watched President Johnson sign the Civil Rights Act into law, a victory in which which he was instrumental. Additionally, participation in the war effort was a ladder through which African Americans could improve their social mobility. Dr. King’s stance was unpopular amongst seemingly everyone; his enemies accused him of treason, liberal media called it an “error” or “tragedy,” and he was even criticized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. What motivated him to take his anti-war stance, and why involve himself in foreign rather than domestic issues?
In the past, I assumed that each time I found it difficult to pursue a purpose it was because I was not living in a balanced way. Balance and moderation are very important concepts in my religious tradition. Thus, when I lulled myself into apathy, I immediately felt that I was imbalanced in some way. I would stop to reconsider the spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and physical areas of my life and think about balancing them before moving forward. Now, I am beginning to come to new conclusions. The same difficulties—the apathy, the conformity, the feeling of being perplexed—no longer make me as uncomfortable as they used to.
When Dr. King delivered his speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” he was not prioritizing balance. He did not want to balance his statements with his popularity. He did not want to balance the practical benefits of African-American participation in the war with his clear moral vision for universal justice. In fact, he was not even thinking along the lines of balance and imbalance. Instead, his speech shows that he was mainly concerned with the question of continuing to struggle. But struggle was not simply a question to Dr. King, it was an imperative. “We must move on.” Dr. King knew that it wasn’t easy to motivate and re-motivate yourself. He knew it was not easy to do what others are not doing. He knew that it was not easy to launch yourself in a direction when the situation is not entirely clear. And yet he told us all that despite this we must move on.
Dr. King made clear to me a paradigm shift that I had been struggling to articulate. We do not have problems with pursuing noble ends because of a personal imbalance. Rather, we struggle because it is supposed to be hard. It is supposed to be hard to push past apathy, to break conformity, and to feel conviction in light of uncertainty. It is supposed to be messy, but that should not grind us to a halt. Rather, we should embrace that struggle and push on regardless. Balance is less important than the will to continue.
As we move forward into this next semester with the Doyle Fellowship, I will keep this lesson in mind. The hard parts of interfaith work do not have to be imagined as obstacles, instead they can be imagined as part of a process. A process that is not foolproof, not figured out, nor always fruitful. Nonetheless, a process through which great things can happen. I will get things wrong, but I will also get some things right. Not everything I plan to do will pan out, but perhaps one or two will. Hitting speed bumps won’t paralyze me and send me back to the drawing board, searching for an explanation of what went wrong. Instead, I will try hard to take the difficulties in stride and keep pushing forward.
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