Religion's Role in Social Change

Tuesday, June 16, 2020
REUTERS/Mike Blake

Global Ambassador, American Jewish World Service

Program Manager, USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement

Founder and President, Muslims for Progressive Values


Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Ruth Messinger, former president and current global ambassador of American Jewish World Service, Reverend Najuma Smith-Pollard, program manager of the University of Southern California’s Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement, and Ani Zonneveld, founder and president of Muslims for Progressive Values discuss religion’s role in social change.

This webinar is part of the Religion and Foreign Policy Program's Social Justice Series, which explores the relationship between religion and social justice. 

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon to you all, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach at CFR. Thank you for being with us.

Today’s webinar is the first in our Social Justice Webinar Series in which we hope to explore the relationship between religion and social justice. As a reminder, the webinar is on the record. The audio, video, and transcript will be made available on our website, CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy.

I’m really delighted to present to you today Ruth Messinger, Reverend Najuma Smith-Pollard, and Ani Zonneveld, three really terrific women.

Ruth Messinger was the president of American Jewish World Service from 1998 to 2016 and is currently the organization’s inaugural global ambassador. She spent twenty years in public service in New York City as a city council member and Manhattan borough president. A tireless advocate and social-change visionary, Ruth mobilizes rabbis and faith-based communities throughout the United States to promote human rights. She previously sat on the State Department’s Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group and is currently a member of the World Bank’s Moral Imperative Working Group on Extreme Poverty.

Reverend Najuma Smith-Pollard is program manager for the USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement and executive director for the Southern California School of Ministry. She combines her experience as pastor and expertise as a community leader to run programs that train pastors to take on civic-engagement work. She’s a motivational speaker, author, life coach, radio personality, and community activist. Reverend Najuma was ordained as deacon in 1996 and as an itinerant elder in 2000. And since that time she’s held many positions as pastors at various AME churches. She also was in the ministries at Church Our Redeemer AME, pastor of A.K. Quinn AME Church, and pastor of St. James AME Church.

And Ani Zonneveld is a writer, singer-songwriter, and the founder and president of Muslims for Progressive Values. She spearheaded the founding of the Alliance of Inclusive Muslims, whose members span five continents. She’s on the U.N. Interagency Faith Advisory Council, and was recently commissioned by the U.N. Office of Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect to create an anti-hate-speech curriculum for Muslim communities in ten countries.

So welcome, all. Thank you very much for being with us.

I think we’ll start first with you, Reverend Najuma.

SMITH-POLLARD: Good morning.

FASKIANOS: In the wake of the tragic murder of George Floyd, can you talk about what role you see the American religion community playing and really bringing about social change, which is very much needed?

SMITH-POLLARD: Right. Good morning, Irina, and to everyone else on the panel. Thank you for having me, and I’m really grateful to be in this space, sharing space with you all and looking at how religion plays a role in social change.

When we look at the George Floyd murder, his murder is not the first, nor is it unique. We’ve seen this before. And so what I believe religion’s place in this is to help guide communities through looking at the systemic problem from a theological standpoint, because it’s not just about the individual murder. It’s really about the systemic problem and what does, in my case, as a Christian, using the Bible, what does the Bible say about systemic issues that affect the day-to-day lives of individuals? And then what does God say about that so that I’m able to help my community interpret the times and then know how to move forward?

So I think also it helps ground people, because this murder, like so many others, it has the ability of really shaking people. And in this particular case, George Floyd’s murder was so otherworldly in the way in which the presentation of a video and the way it came across—and I don’t want to trigger anyone by going into the details—but the way it just came across on camera, it has the ability to really cause people to lose hope, to lose encouragement, to lose grounding.

And so the other role that as me as a pastor and the other role that I think religion has is to help people get grounded, to not really walk away from their faith in seeing something that violent. It was just very violent. And so it’s the navigation, but also the grounding.

And then there’s the healing, right, because we know that religion has a healing aspect to it. And so, as community members, we have to heal individually, but we have families that we have to help carry through the healing process. And then the truth is America as a country has some healing it has to do. Yeah.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Let’s go now to Ruth to tackle the same question.

MESSINGER: Thank you, Irina. Thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations. I’m delighted to be on with Najuma and Ani. It seems—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—to me that it’s an all-woman panel.

I want to—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—the different roles that Najuma spoke to about healing, stabilizing, and then organizing to make change. But I want to say what I think is painfully obvious, and that is unless we are doing this in every faith community, in every country, and across every possible potential line of racial or religious division, we’re not going to get where we need to get. And so every issue—George Floyd’s one of them, but just one in an unfortunately very long string. Every issue, whoever is targeted and whoever does the targeting or does the attack, if it’s wrong, needs to be seen as wrong by all of us of any faith, and we need to be there to respond.

On the broader question, Irina—you know, religion’s role in social change—I need to start by saying that it’s probably impossible to pick a bigger topic than that, but also that there’s none that is more essential right now. We’re in, obviously—Najuma spoke to this—we’re in desperate need of organized efforts for social change.

We all on this panel, and hopefully in this audience, know religion as a force in the world and, I want to say carefully a force in the world that we would vastly prefer to have with us than against us, because where religion or religious forces are present, it makes a difference. But it’s not always clear it will be useful, and I think we have to acknowledge that. This is not unique to any religion. All religions have tendencies at various—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—in their history and in their theology to support the status quo, and to be a form of stability, and to kind of not rock the boat. So there is a tendency that I see again and again across all religions to praise the vision of a better world to come, but not necessarily to support the upheaval in the way things are to get us from here to there. So that’s the caution.

And on the other side, of course, religions can be extremely useful in mobilizing for social change, precisely because they have this vision of a better world. They talk often about the world to come, using different language and different religious traditions. They can speak to people to convey—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—that a higher force, whatever the higher force is that you believe in, demands action. They have a way of providing people both with the stabilization that Najuma talked to, with the energy and determination to stick with efforts to make change over time. They can make it clear again, whatever their supreme being—God, Jesus, Allah, whatever—that this is a piece of what is expected of each and every adherent is to work toward that vision of a better world to come.

So just speaking from my tradition, for the Jewish tradition for a minute, there’s a wonderful rabbinic debate about which is more important, study or action. And the conclusion is study is more important because it leads to action, which is a way of copping out but also saying, like, there’s work to be done, and studying is simply not sufficient.

We all, from all religious traditions, have a mandate to pursue justice, something different than a passive state of just waiting for some magic thing to happen that will do the work. And we all have various traditions of prophets and people, again, speaking, on the one hand telling people that what they’re doing is destroying themselves), but again, reminding them that there’s a better way, reminding all of us that we need to go outside ourselves, to be there not only for ourself but for the other, and to act against evil.

So I see religion as a potential powerful force, but only if it is willing to step in in all crises, mobilize its adherents, but do that collaboratively with people of other faiths to work for the kinds of changes that all of us want to see. And I think there’s a great deal of text that backs that up.

SMITH-POLLARD: Absolutely.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, Ruth.

And now let’s go to Ani.

ZONNEVELD: Hi. I second what Ruth said. It’s ameen to that.

In Islam, the concept of justice is fundamental, and it’s mentioned fifty-three times in the Quran. But the mantra that we always hear, Islam is a religion of peace, rings hollow if it’s not being acted upon. And again, going back to what Ruth says, you know, it’s really time to act. And preaching it is just not enough. It’s sort of a copout. And so I think we hear this in the streets, no justice, no peace. It really rings loud and clear.

And in the context of Islam as well, it’s quite known that there’s a verse that describes how God breathes soul into the fetus in the womb. And that for me, as a person of faith, is a clear indication that we are all created equal. And so, yes, of course, black lives matter and everyone’s lives matter. But the problem with faith communities is that we tend to behave and only tend to advocate for our personal and our almost tribal rights. So if you’re not black, you’re not going to advocate for an African-American. And if you are LGBT, you’re going to only focus on your LGBT issues, et cetera. So it’s very siloed in our advocacy.

And this is the problem with social-justice movements. And I think until we collectively, regardless of what our issues are, we collectively come together and recognize our humanity, then only can we really, truly advance on the intersection of faith and social justice.

And I’m really glad, for example, the fact that the Supreme Court made that decision that they did yesterday, a monumental decision on Title VII to defend the civil rights of the LGBT community. That means recognizing that they are also human beings. And the fact that—why their humanity is even asked a question is at the crux of the issue of social justice in the United States and in many other parts of the world, for that matter.

So the way religion is used, Sharia law in particular, in the context of Islam and how Sharia law, which is basically 100 percent human-made construct over the centuries, an extrapolation by religious leaders and politicians of their understanding of the Quran with the social norms and culture norms of the day, like child forced marriages, female genital mutilation and cutting.

These are social-justice issues that we are battling with even here in the United States, not just in Muslim-majority countries. And the fact that Sharia law and the human-rights abuses justified in the name of Sharia law at the Human Rights Council in the United Nations, it’s really quite appalling.

So we have a lot of work to do in the context of faith and social-justice movement in redefining what does faith really mean, and how do we challenge the patriarchy system that has justified a lot of the abuses, human-rights abuses, no matter who that is?

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Thank you all.

So that is just the beginning of our discussion. We want to go now to all of you who are on with us for this webinar. If you click on the “participants” icon, you can raise your hand and contribute a comment, a question, so that we can have a very rich discussion. So I’m just going to look now. And, yes, we already have three hands raised.

So let’s go first to Helen Boursier. And if you can identify yourself, your affiliation, that would be fantastic.

BOURSIER: Hello. I am Reverend Doctor Helen Boursier, and I do research and writing on immigration. I volunteer with refugee families taking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.

So with all of the attention that’s been going on this summer, my colleagues, who also are volunteer chaplains in various contexts, have felt like the migrants have gotten lost in the shuffle. And thousands, literally thousands, are suffering at our border. And I’m currently researching a book on overcoming the limitations of religious love for refugees taking asylum.

So one of my questions is, what is the culpability that we have for willful ignorance on what is happening in my state—in Texas—the U.S.-Mexico border? And how can the interreligious faith community speak to this, and speak loudly?

SMITH-POLLARD: I think something Ani said was very important, is at the base of our faith, I have to see everyone in their humanity first; so where we have a responsibility is to understand that those individuals are as valuable and that cause is as important as any other.

But part of it is our faith traditions have to really get back to that core of seeing each other’s humanity above all, above all the different isms and schisms and things that make us different, that those are human beings. And if we claim to be people of faith and people of God and people of justice, then the cause is as important as any other cause.

And I think that’s part of the discussion—and I’m so glad Ani brought it up—is that part of what, in the preaching and the teaching, is, like, reorienting communities around humanity, and then from there reorienting our activity to say I’m going to serve. I’m going to work. I’m going to act on behalf of all humanity, as opposed to all that look like me or all that talk like me or all that walk like me.

So I think there’s a lot of work. And that’s where religion and faith groups have been culpable and have responsibility, because we have not always taught and preached from a place of humanity, and we’ve allowed our layers to get in the way.

I had an experience yesterday. I was invited to be a part of another discussion. And the coordinator asked me, did I have a problem that one of the other guests would be transgender? And I said of course not. I said we’re the cause of justice for everybody. But the fact that he had to ask that question meant that apparently, in his interaction, he had met other pastors or leaders who would have been, like, oh, no, I won’t be on a panel with someone from the trans community. And it was, like, no way; like, who does that? But clearly we know that it has happened.

So I would say that one of the things that we have to do is get back to teaching as a starting place about humanity and that our faith is a faith for humanity and not just our personal likes and dislikes.

MESSINGER: So I actually want to—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—Dr. Boursier raised two questions. I just want to comment on the second one first, which is that, in this country, at least, America, people have a ridiculously short attention span. And so the children at the border were an issue file that no one paid any attention to. I’m going back about a year and a half. And then there was a picture of a little boy dead on the beach, and all of a sudden it became everybody’s focus and we were able to get out the fact that people were being kept in cages, that this country was violating—our country—violating its own laws on asylum and international law.

But I think Dr. Boursier is right to just say that part of the responsibility, then, of thoughtful leaders—I’m going to say both political leaders and religious—is to remind people that at the same time as we’re living through the horror of COVID-19, and at the same time as racism and police violence is exploding across our country, the situation at the border continues. And frankly, out of public view, we have to all assume that it’s worse.

But I (inaudible, technical difficulties)—one step further, if I could, and pick up on what Najuma said, because except for the people on this call who are Native American, we are all immigrants or children of immigrants. And I find it staggeringly difficult in my own community to get everyone to understand that virtually everything that’s happening, for example, in Guatemala that makes people flee to the border, it’s happening at the border, it’s happening with confused or destructive or violent U.S. policy against Guatemalan—just using that as an example—immigrants trying to get into this country, is an experience that in different ways, at different points in time each of our families had. If you are person of color here, then you were an immigrant possibly because—or your ancestors were dragged here as slaves, but everybody has a story. And the capacity, I say, in many of our groups and among many of our religious adherents to say, oh, yes, I know that story; but my story is different than the story of the people at the Mexican border, with all due respect, it’s fundamentally not different.

You know, it’s really different to have been brought here a slave. It’s really different to have come here under the green card rule, but fundamentally, people should be able to choose where they want to live, to have the right to stay in their own home and countries of origin, and when they need to leave—not because they are being dragged someplace—but when they want to leave to have people pay attention to their situation, their crisis, and not dismiss it as being someone else’s story.

So I think we need—and again, faith leaders can do this—to draw some of these connections: how my ancestors, and Ani’s ancestors, and Najuma’s ancestors got to this country. Of course the stories are different, and the stories are powerful, but all involve the question of whether or not people get to choose where they want to live and whether or not people are welcomed when they come to someplace different. And those are teachings in every one of our—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—and we should stop putting people in different boxes.

ZONNEVELD: I want to ask people on the call and to also ask their community and institutions to take a pledge, so in our effort to cultivate that culture that is rooted in human rights, we have to overcome our own prejudices, and so we started an initiative called No Hate in My Faith—it’s #nohateinmyfaith—and the pledge is affirming the following: I pledge to refute and combat discrimination against any individual or community, including blacks, the LBGTQ+ community, women, Jews, Shia, Sunni, and Ahmadis Muslims by non-Muslims, atheists, or any other no matter who that other is. I pledge to eradicate all divisive, homophobic, and/or misogynistic teachings in my community and religious institutions I’m affiliated with, and will affirm the dignity of all individuals.

What you teach in your religious institutions matter. If you want to address social justice at its core, it has to start with the hearts, and it starts with your own heart. We won’t get anywhere otherwise.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Let’s go next to Father Rafael Capo.

CAPO: Yes, hello. Thank you, Irina, and to our great panel, as well—great conversation.

We have seen recently in the protests and all that’s happening many, many young faces out there, and we also know that many of these young people are unaffiliated, nons that are not connected to institutional religion. Do you have any experiences or thoughts from your religious perspectives on how to accompany those young people and make them realize that their faith gives light to their commitments for social change?

ZONNEVELD: If I may something, the youth have given up on religion, and it’s because the religious leaders have failed in addressing social justice issues in the name of religion. As a matter of fact, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is being used by religious institutions to defend their right to discriminate in the name of religion. So the youth are very smart and up on it, and they’re not going to take it. And so the fact that a lot of the religious leaders are absent in the marches, are not marching with the people is indicative of the problem. And until religious leaders take the leadership, and take ownership and their responsibility, and how they cultivate the culture of discrimination within their religious institutions, the youth are leaving faith in masses.

So it’s our responsibility as community leaders and religious leaders to redefine what it means to be a person of faith.

SMITH-POLLARD: Right. And I would just add to Ani’s point—and because you asked the question—you used the word how, and so the how to is that we have to be where they are.

It was important for me in Los Angeles to be present—I couldn’t attend all the protests. I have small children, and a compromised immune system, but I made it a point that on two occasions I would go and be present. And on one of them I had the opportunity to just share a prayer. And let me say this: when young people see people of faith present and accounted for, but also using their voice—there was no, well, she’s praying, I’m not going to pray; or she’s saying God and Jesus, I’m not. They all participated. And I bring that up because I think part of what happens is that we want young people to be where we are, as the faith leader, but we got to go where they are. So I can’t be on my laptop preaching justice—no justice, no peace—and I don’t get out there with them. And I’m not—and everybody may not be called to protest and march, but you have to be where they are. And sometimes, as religious leaders, we’re guilty of operating in our privilege, or operating in our comfort, and saying, well, I’m going to speak from my comfort zone. I’m not getting out there where they are. And the how to is that—(laughs)—sometimes we have to apply the riskiness of faith, and get where the young people are, and go where they are so they can see our faith in action.

And to Ani’s point, they just don’t see it. And don’t see it enough, let me say that—not that no one is doing it, but you don’t see it enough. And so what I would offer to anybody and everybody is if you want to connect with young people, go where they are. If they are protesting, find a space in that protest where you can be available and visible. If they are rallying, find a space in the rally where you can be present and accountable. That’s how it happens. But to remain in our comfort and then say, well, come to me, this is—and right now especially, this is a season now where we have to go to them and show them that we mean what we preach and teach.

MESSINGER: So I would say amen to that, but it’s even more dramatic right now because at least in some of our cities, not meeting in physical buildings. And so you can be certain that no young person is going to see her or his religious group, or some other religious group, find them online—forget it.

So if they want to be moved by religious—if you want them to be attentive to religion and religion speaking for social justice, you first have to get where they are, you have to make it clear that you are on their side and that you are there for faith reasons, and then slowly, over time, the rest will follow.

And I’ll issue a challenge—Irina, I promise to be careful now—(laughter)—but in every one of our cities and where every one of our audience people is, an interfaith effort to support voting in November would have an impact on that same generation of young people because they’re not only turning away from some faith organizations, I’m not sure that elected officials or politics speak to their lives.

SMITH-POLLARD: Absolutely.

MESSINGER: So the responsibility to vote is, A, a democratic responsibility, and B, entirely non-partisan. And I would love to see, from now to November, in every jurisdiction imam, pastors, priests, rabbis standing up and saying, wherever we find you, whatever your orientation, whatever your interests, if American, you need to go to the polling place and put your beliefs into action.

And if that was done by faith leaders, A, I think it would inspire more people to actually go to the polls, and B, it would certainly tell young people that their faith leaders—excuse my language for—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—but are operating on this earth instead of on some cloud.


FASKIANOS: Fantastic. Let’s go now to Tereska Lynam.

LYNAM: Great. This is Tereska Lynam from the University of Oxford, and I’m attached—well, first of all, I’m from—my hometown is Minneapolis, and I live part-time in Miami, Florida, and part-time in London, but I’m attached to various religious organizations of various faiths throughout mainly the U.S. and Europe, but also a little bit in like Malaysia—and so really interfaith, right?

And what—Ruth Messinger talked about this a little bit—what I have noticed is that people have a very short attention span, as she mentioned, and we tend to get really excited about social justice with whatever is in the headlines. I think one of the blessings of COVID-19, if we’re going to call it that, is that people have had more attention to pay into the news, which is what made the—not just George Floyd, but right before that, Amy Cooper. So it really made white people see—and presumably Christian white people—how psychopathic and sociopathic people can be, right? And what does discrimination—how arbitrary it can be, and there was no deserving of it, or anything—you know, like, really hard.

But this— even a few weeks later I’m noticing, even in my Minneapolis groups, people—their attention is like, oh, I don’t want to pay attention to that anymore. Now it’s going to get hard, now we have to figure out what’s going to happen with the police.

And in Miami, we’ve had what we call the American child hostage crisis going on—now it’s 801 days of the asylum victims being held in concentration camps for kids, right? And so I was just wondering kind of how you guys think we should address the low attention span and really affect change so that we’re not just another part of the flash in the pan?

And I just will add that what I have seen work really well is if the religious organizations have specific arms to stay married to a particular justice issue so they have to go and lobby politicians, and work to get the legal stuff to really help it and keep that sustained attention.

So thank you for allowing me to talk so much, and thank you for this beautiful presentation, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

MESSINGER: So just very quickly, I suspect we might all agree on this, but I think this is another example, as you said, of like attention span or doing the easy thing. And Najuma when she spoke, I think, in the first round, used the word privilege, and this is the part of the issue is that to make the social changes that are needed, everyone is going to have to examine our own privilege and what we’re willing to put on the line to create societies that are more equitable and just.

And so it’s one thing to gasp in horror at the murder of Floyd, and another thing to sit down and debate the intricacies of the Minneapolis police department budget and what kinds of changes should be made. And some faith leaders for sure are going to say, I can support these changes—and I think you should all be supporting them—but I can’t support—and then some people will be angry. That’s the process of American democracy. We don’t all agree on every next step, but we have to be willing to hear each other’s point of view, and the message has to go out just—now forget the kids on the border because there is now police violence—you can’t solve police violence by going to a demonstration or holding up a powerful sign that says, “black lives matter.”

And for some people, that’s called crossing a huge bridge, as it were, in their minds to say, yes, black lives matter and I understand black lives are under attack. And then the question is, OK, what are you going to do about it? What are we going to do in New York to—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—alterations in our police department budget so that—small example—we cut the police budget enough so that we fund summer youth employment, which otherwise has no money whatsoever in the budget coming—(inaudible, technical difficulties)?

But that’s something again that faith leaders—and this raises the issue that I was skirting around before, but speaking out on issues and speaking out on voting is part of how you help a congregation or a community take concrete steps toward justice. It is not partisan activity. There is a difference between political activity and partisan activity, and working to make social change is likely only going to work if it involves some politics and some political effort. That’s allowed. That’s allowed by clergy, it’s allowed by religious organizations.

And then I want to say one thing, Tereska—and I don’t want to start a firestorm—but I do know a lot of people in New York who hated watching George Floyd be murdered. They watched that eight-and-a-half-minute video longer than they watched the issue in Central Park because the issue in Central Park is so much more close to home and so much more a question of like, my god, that’s a woman that looks just like me. How could she have done that? Have I ever done that?

And so even there I want to say that it’s hard to bring these issues right up for people to look at them, and I actually would urge people that are doing social and racial justice teaching, look at those two minutes and have an honest conversation about what was going on in that woman’s mind, and how dangerous it was, and how likely it is that those who are never going to kneel on someone’s jugular could be in a situation like that and act incorrectly.

SMITH-POLLARD: Thank you, Ruth. That was beautiful.

And I would just add social change is like—what’s the race where they pass the baton? What’s it called?

MESSINGER: Relay. Relay. Relay.

SMITH-POLLARD: Relay. Thank you. Relay. And I would say social change is like a very long relay race, and everybody has got their leg. And I think protesters kind of like are that first leg; they give you that first burst, and you get out there, you get ahead of it. And then it’s passed to the next leg, which is those who are going to do the organizing. Now they’re going to organize meetings and conversations. The next leg is those who are going—to Ruth’s point—to have the meetings with the politicians and the electeds and, you know, the stakeholders. And so there’s a leg that’s passed, and then it’s finally passed to the next leg which is now the legislative leg where people who know how to write laws—because most protesters don’t know how to write legislation so that baton has to get passed to the person who knows how to then take the cry of BLM, defund the police, and now write that as legislation, and then lobby for it. But that leg is like two or three legs down, and then it makes it to the courts, and then it becomes policy change.

And so I think that’s what we have to all—and I think what’s important is all of us have to identify what leg am I on. What leg do I run the best in? Because I may protest, but strongest run might be in the legislative piece where I’m helping now to take the cry to a legislative bill, to write it up and to submit it, and all that—you know, all that kind of good stuff. That’s—clearly that’s not my leg. (Laughs.)

And so I think that’s how it happens, and for those of us that are in those spaces, what we can do is help people identify what leg that they’re strongest in. But social change is long, it’s hard, and no one person, no one group can do it all, so that’s where come back to the interfaith piece is that all of us have to come and be part of this relay race and then pass the baton to the next leg, and the next leg until we get all the way around and win the race. But it takes a long time.

And Pastor Murray used to say, catch on fire and people watch you burn. And the trick is not just to catch on fire but to stay lit. And so part of that is maintaining our candles, you know, and maintaining the oil so we stay lit. And then they’ll still—as long as you—as long as you’ve got—as long as you’re on fire, somebody can watch you burn. (Laughter.)


I’ll do a quick answer so that we can take on more questions—

FASKIANOS: And we have a lot. (Laughter.)

ZONNEVELD: Plus, I can add, Tereska, I’m originally from Malaysia, so it was interesting.

But to stay lit, this is the thing. So I’ve put up on my Facebook page, when the malls are open, the theaters start screening your much-anticipated films, and the concerts are back on, are you still going to be paying attention and going to those marches?

I think it is also the responsibility of religious leaders maybe to put down on their calendars every sermon, every khutbahs that they do, religious services, they include a few sentences, a reminder, this is an issue that—social justice issues that we need to address, pay attention. I think the constant reminder every week is necessary by religious leaders.

SMITH-POLLARD: Absolutely.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you. Let’s go to Besheer Mohamed next.

MOHAMED: Sure. My name is Besheer Mohamed. I’m a researcher at the Pew Research Center.

So at the beginning of the year, before these protests, the Pew Research Center actually did a survey, and we found that about four in ten white adults said that houses of worship shouldn’t address topics like immigration or race relations. And only about 8 percent of white adults said that it was essential that houses of worship address them. And I’m curious if the panelists think that recent events will change that, will increase the appetite among certain people to hear this in their congregation because before all this happened we were seeing a lot of people saying that, no, we don’t want this in our church.

ZONNEVELD: Well, that’s basically what I was saying. I think it is the responsibility of religious leaders—if they claim to be leaders—then step up and do it. And so I don’t think it’s necessarily the congregation. I think there is an awakening moment for many of the congregation members to understand the issue, for example, of anti-blackness. Even with the Muslim societies and communities it’s terrible. And so I think it is the responsibility of religious leaders to take these issues on and to be brave if they are really standing up for—in the Islamic context of justice. So that would be my response to that.

MESSINGER: So I do work training rabbis and rabbinical students, and for me—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—critical which applies across all faiths, and Ani really just spoke to it, but I’ll just give it two words—is moral courage, and you need to have moral courage to be a faith-based leader of value.

Along the issues that we are talking about, I am sure there is a way—and I’m sure that Pew itself should be— as a person seriously steeped in ritual and going to what Najuma spoke about right at the beginning—able to offer solace, able to be there for people, and able to be a comforting leader. That is a piece of what it means to have faith and be a faith leader.

But I think it has always also meant to prophesy, and to go out, and to act in ways that will make a difference toward justice. And we need to educate our future clergy and our current clergy to be able to do that.

And just one point I’d make to you is then the clergy need to be clear about that, you know? And a clergy person of any one faith that we’re talking about needs to be able to stand up and say, I’ve been looking at the current crisis of racism in the United States or the current problems of police violence. I am going to be leading this congregation or this community to take stronger steps to remedy these problems. I hope you will all be with me, and I hope you will be with me for the following reasons. And to quote some text, I have a great text that is a Jewish text but it’s not used very often, but it’s in a—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—and it basically says—I’m now paraphrasing—it’s really nice to get (inaudible, technical difficulties)—of being well off and sit back and enjoy things, and it’s comfortable to look out and—what are those people fussing about? And I don’t want anything to do with them. And then the text continues, but of course if you do you contribute to the overthrow of the world, and it really does say that, so people not hide behind what is comfortable in their faith community. If they are serious, if they are leading faith communities, they have to stand for justice, and that’s not always comfortable.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go to Mark Fowler next.

FOWLER: So I’m the CEO at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, and I thank you all so much for your comments so far.

I wonder if you could speak to—so one thing is trauma because, there was a conversation a little bit earlier about tribalism, and I actually have difficulty with that word because people have lived in isolation and segregation so the result of that would be tending to one’s own or tending to one’s self.

And I wondered if you could all speak to the work of working around trauma, not just for religious communities, but also religious leaders because the calls I think are important in terms of the role that religious leaders can play, but we’re also—to Ruth’s point—talking about human beings, people who have calls and visions on their life that may not actually, in their own mind, spirit and heart, jibe with what’s being called for today.

And also, if you could address the idea of what does the end of white supremacy look like because we’ve talked about—I’ve heard the word patriarchy, and I think there was a mention of the word white supremacy before, but religion’s intricate role, and not just Christianity, and throughout time, the idea of the passing back and forth of power between religious institutions and political institutions, and then societal institutions—but really what does the end of white supremacy look like and what is religion’s role in that? Because I do feel that there is— we often lean into the ways in which we are the same, and the ways in which our traditions call for love, and peace, et cetera—leaving out the whole rest of those sacred texts and experiences where war is justified, rape is justified—like there are any number of human rights violations—which we would call them today—that are justified within our sacred texts and within our teachings.

And I would love to have you all speak to what are the—I guess what would be the curriculum, if you will—not in its totality obviously, but what would be the curriculum that we would need to begin to fashion or give more time, attention and money to—of existing programs and policies that are really getting to those questions because we’ve got a fingerprint on all of this, and without a kind of declaration of this is where we—this is where we contributed to the events we see today; this is what we are prepared to do about it now. And we’re going to support clergy, and lay people, and congregants, and members otherwise to enact that change. And we also want to hear how difficult that’s going to be for you to change your heart and mind from where it’s at right now.

So if you can all address my mad ramblings to the degree that you feel comfortable, I’d appreciate it. (Laughter.)

SMITH-POLLARD: That was great, Mark. So if I heard you correct, the first part was about trauma, what does the end of white supremacy look like, and what does a potential curriculum look like. So I’ll go in that order and just answer what I can.

And I’m going to tie this to a little bit to what Besheer had mentioned about congregations that didn’t want to hear sermons around these social justice issues, and part of that is because it is traumatizing. It is traumatizing to talk about a man losing his breath, or an individual—an unarmed person being shot. All that is traumatizing. As one who lost her son—my son was murdered, and I remember sharing that in a space, and somebody came up to me, and they were like, well, maybe you should give trigger warnings before you share that because that’s traumatizing for the listener. And I thought, that’s interesting because sometimes we’re more concerned about those who don’t want to be traumatized than those who have been traumatized.

And so part of what this retraining looks like is saying to those who don’t want to hear about trauma, to say, but consider the children at the border who are being traumatized; like, I know you don’t want to be discomforted to hear about my trauma, but imagine what the trauma is doing to me. And so when we talk about religious leaders, I think what—especially in this season, what a lot of religious leaders have to work through is their issues with trauma, you know, and realizing that, if I’m going to live into my faith—I’m going to really live into my faith, it’s not enough for me to just deal with the parts of my faith that are non-traumatizing.

If you read the Bible from beginning to end, there are texts that are traumatizing, but the only way that my faith informs me to see about your issue is I’ve got to be willing to step into your trauma, even if it makes me uncomfortable. And I think that’s where a lot of clergy may have to do some work, is wrestling with how they manage trauma, and maybe even go through some informed training around trauma. But to say, I don’t want to hear it because it’s too traumatizing—well, what about the person that’s being traumatized?

The second thing about what does the end of white supremacy look like, it’s not just shared power. It’s giving power, right? I remember being in a practical kind of practicum where they shifted the room around, and they put those who were in the front, white, and those who were in the way, way back last row, black. And we were asked some questions. And the reality is it’s not that you share power; it’s actually that you give power, right?

And so I think what the end of white supremacy looks like is individuals willing to give up power. That’s the only way that that happens. Part of why there is such a protection—people are trying to protect their power, which also has a lot of psychological stuff attached to that.

And then a curriculum, I don’t know if you can retrain—I don’t know if you can—because that’s a part of heart matter. It’s also a heart and mind matter. I don’t know if there is a diversity training for white supremacy. I don’t know if that exists yet. Yeah, I don’t know. Maybe Ruth or Ani has that answer. (Laughs.)

MESSINGER: Ani, go ahead.

ZONNEVELD: So I’m going to touch on the trauma of faith leaders and the trigger issues that Najuma addressed.

I think it’s really important, when we address a lot of the social justice issues, we also include maybe counselors. And I think this is an issue that’s often—these individuals, these experts are oftentimes left out of the conversation, which I think would be an important contribution to the discussion and to resolve a lot of the trauma, or trigger points, or what have you.

And on curriculum, in my introduction, Irina mentioned that I was commissioned by the United Nations to develop an anti-hate curriculum, and this is in the Islamic context. So the curriculum was basically a workshop on how to retune and how to unwire the prejudices people have towards the other. And so this is on the issue of apostasy and blasphemy laws. But it is really—the structural workshop is basically putting yourself—do unto others as you want others to do unto you. It’s that simple. But then, you really have to actually construct the conversation to question the participants and those whose minds and hearts you need to change to really go through a particular exercise. And the exercises that we have—or that I’ve developed is from the religious and faith context. And so that’s out there.

But there’s also ex-KKK members that have come around, so there are programs out there, discussions and forums out there, and there’s also the curriculum that I’ve developed in partnership and with the support of the U.N office. So that’s my two cents.

MESSINGER: Just a quick comment. First of all, Mark, congratulations on the ongoing work of the Tanenbaum Center.

I think trauma is something you have to acknowledge for everybody, and Najuma talked about it, first of all, the people who are actually traumatized and bringing them front and center through a loving community, but then recognizing that some of these stories are traumatic.

I can’t tell you what the end of white supremacy looks like, but I can tell you—and this is the hard thing—that nothing we do in the next three months to change police department budgets, or to control some of the centers of particular race-based violence in our communities right now, is going to end white supremacy because it has been operative in this country for over four hundred years.

And so it’s a pretty rough curriculum—to be able to find the right language—I’m not suggesting my language, but the right language to say to people, your ancestors concentrated on brutalizing people; threw the Native Americans off the land that they were farming and stewarding, and that was of religious value to them; transmitted diseases to them that killed them; and then set about systematically bringing people of color over here to be their slaves.

Now I am not doing that with my seven-year-old grandson in that language, but I think places like our faiths, and like the Tanenbaum Center, need to think about how do we teach(inaudible, technical difficulties) of our faiths allow, which is a history of error and redemption on some level or another, so how do we say we’ve been wrong on some things and we need basically to reform our ways and the big-picture story. And—the point that each of us has made a little bit—it will involve giving some things up.

There are—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—very simple. This probably exists in other cities. There are criteria right now for young people to get into certain specialized schools, and there is evidence—growing statistical evidence that those tests have a race bias that works against people of color. So, obviously, we want to get rid of those things. But if you get rid of those things, you will change the mix of who gets in.

Now some of us know that that’s a huge value to the society, but it means that the pie is not infinite. Some people will, quote/unquote—please don’t misquote me on this—“lose” places because we’ve broadened the space for everybody. But where is the greater good, and how do we adjust in our own thinking to accept that?

FASKIANOS: We have so many questions and comments. We’re not going to get to them all, so let’s go next to Katherine Marshall.

MARSHALL: Hello, and how wonderful it is to see the four of you on the screen. (Laughs.)

I’m from Georgetown University, Katherine Marshall.

I’m very struck by a number of the comments that you’ve made. Ruth, on the issue of the short attention span, it’s not very long ago that we were struggling with women’s rights and women’s issues, which seem to be completely obscured as well as the refugee issues. And the turning inward in the United States means we’re not looking at so many of the social justice issues in the world that are profoundly affected by the COVID crisis.

You have the wonderful metaphor of the relay race. I think we also use the marathon, but I think we need something better, but I’m—maybe in your final comments—because we’re right at the end—you could give us some sense of how we bring these together. How do we overcome the short attention span and the inward obsession—from the religious perspective deal with some of the difficult issues that religious institutions shy away from as we’re looking ahead into the post-COVID dream.

MESSINGER: I think we’re almost about out of time, but I’m going to make one counterintuitive comment, Katherine—and thank you for your ongoing work at the Berkley Center.

I’m actually going to make two comments. One is we should note that the Berkley Center at Georgetown—Georgetown is the university that has done the most to identify its role in perpetrating slavery and come up with an actual program of reparations. I have no idea how well it’s working, but they are light years ahead of a large number of institutions that a lot of us profess to love. Congratulations.

But the second point I’m going to say—the counterintuitive point is we’re going to get there only if we celebrate all the good news. Every time Ani or Najuma’s community somebody stands up for justice, or somebody does something really magnificent, or a young person that some—Father Capo asked about earlier—but a young person that really is there on the front lines doing an act of service, getting recognized. We have to celebrate all of those small victories or we will not be able to sustain the marathon or even bring in the new teams. So I think that’s a piece of the answer.

FASKIANOS: OK. Ani, do you want to do next? Because I want to give each of you the opportunity to just wrap up, and then we’ll—

ZONNEVELD: Yeah, I think—I’d like to echo, I think, the persistency of religious leaders, community members, institutions—educational institutions like Katherine’s—the one that Katherine is at and others—CFR. I think—I think CFR does a good job about raising issues on social medias through their short forums and also their short summaries of issues that they have their experts write on, for example—and for us to actually share those concerns as well and those issues.

And I think the more we work together, regardless of what those issues are collectively, in support of each other’s work, I think that’s the other way to sustain the attention and to also challenge the status quo, that patriarchy, the supremacy ideology, what have you—whatever that supremacy ideology is because it’s not just white supremacy. There’s all kinds of other supremacies, and I think they all need to be challenged.

And I think that, at the end of the day, it is how much effort and how are we, particularly the male religious leaders, how comfortable are you at giving up that space or sharing that space with others. And I think this is the challenge, even in the United Nations. Even at the United Nations Faith Advisory Council you have some very patriarchal faith organizations on the committee, and this is a constant challenge that we are chiseling away—(laughs)—let’s put it that way. (Laughter.)

FASKIANOS: And Najuma. Go.

SMITH-POLLARD: And I will just close with the word accountability. There were a few of us here in Los Angeles who are working together, and what we’ve talked about is if we’re actually going to see the mayor, and the chief, and all these electeds do the things that they have promised in some of these short-spurt meetings up front, you know, doing the urgent things, is that there just has to be a level of accountability. And the only way to see the change is to keep holding people accountable to their words.

And one of the things that we’ve asked for is ongoing meetings and conversations because you’re right—and to Ruth’s point about the short attention span, what tends to happen is that everybody swarms in, and then the attention span like a wave just kind of goes back out.

But there has to be people, a cohort of people that stay up in it to hold people—themselves—accountable, hold faith groups, hold faith communities, hold electeds, council members, whoever is stakeholders accountable. And so I would offer that everyone maybe try to get with an accountability group, create an accountability group to say we will hold our faith community accountable, or we will hold our electeds accountable, or we’ll hold the police department accountable, or—wherever you are stationed to serve and work, get with an accountability group and make the commitment to hold accountability there. That’s the only way it happens is someone has to do the holding of accountability.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Well, thank you all. We have gone over, and I apologize to everybody who had their virtual hands raised. We obviously should have allotted much more time for this conversation, and we will think about that going forward. But we are going to be continuing the discussion.

So a big shout out and thank you to Ruth Messinger, Najuma Smith-Pollard, and Ani Zonneveld for this terrific discussion, and you’ve launched a really great series for us.

We encourage you to follow their work on Twitter at @Ruth_Messinger, at @RevJuju, and at @AniZonneveld. And you should also follow us CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy program on Twitter at @CFR_Religion for announcements and information. Also send us your comments, suggestions to [email protected]. As we start developing this series we’d love to hear from you.

So thank you all, stay well, and we will reconvene.

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