Racial Justice Work: A Spiritual Imperative

Over the course of the last few years, I have had the privilege of working with various communities of faith on racial equity issues and I usually title the training “Racial Justice: A Spiritual Imperative”. I do this for two reasons: First, the word “imperative” tends to stimulate curiosity among congregants and draws them to the training. And second, it is true. I explain it this way – in Karen Armstrong’s recent publication, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, she states that every major world religion or system of faith has at its core love, compassion, and service to others. Importantly, the centrality of these issues is not limited to the monotheisms, or to the Eastern religions, but is evident in a wide range of examples within various systems of faith. Even “spiritual” (but patently not religious) organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous have love and service at their core.


And so, if love, compassion and service are at the heart of many of the world’s systems of faith, then it stands to reason that the mere existence of something so hateful, so inhuman, and so toxic as racial oppression (or any form of oppression for that matter) is an affront, or even an impediment, to one actualizing their chosen spirituality. Conversely, and this is something that most congregants intuit, it is logical to presume that engaging in racial equity work draws one closer to the core principles of their faith or spiritual path. Putting all of this together, it does not seem too much of a stretch to assert that racial justice work is imperative to the lived experience of many of the world’s faith systems. And this is exactly the approach I take when training communities of faith on these issues, especially communities of faith that are predominantly white: I help congregants understand the ways racial oppression undermines their faith, and in turn how racial justice work feeds and strengthens it.


Once understood, many congregants are eager to get started and “jump right in”. However, there are two very important issues to be mindful of before a community of faith undertakes racial equity work. The first is the occasional notion in predominantly white congregations that, while this work is part of their spiritual path, they are really only engaged in it to help people of color – a paternalizing (sic) attitude that does more harm than good. In fact, when congregants understand that racial oppression is based on both the way systems of racism target communities of color and how systems of white privilege benefit white people, the white members realize that they are part and parcel to this system and begin to engage in it more honestly and effectively. As such, much of the work these predominantly white congregations need to do when embracing racial equity work as a spiritual imperative involves addressing both racism that targets people of color and an examination of their white privilege.


A second caution for predominantly white congregations when doing racial equity work as a spiritual imperative is that many in the U.S. (and perhaps other Western societies) tend to individualize systems of faith or religious philosophy, often with the result of distancing themselves from the suffering of their fellows. This results in a predominantly white congregation’s racial equity work having the feel of charity instead of real equity, thereby maintaining a certain privileged distance while trying to address racism. The solution is to reach deeply toward our common humanity and remember that there really is no separation between us – whether it be “whatsoever you do unto your fellows you do to me”, or the teachings of karma, or the notion of tikkun olam, or the pillar of hospitality, the base principles of many of the world’s systems of faith do not actually allow one to extricate themselves from their community of fellows. Thus, racial equity work is not about “charity” work for others, but personal work that deeply connects us to each other and to our essential humanity.


In the many trainings I have done for communities of faith, it has been deep and abiding faith that draws many predominantly white congregations to this work and buoys them as they do it – even though it can sometimes be intimidating, confusing or frightening. I witnessed this a few months ago while working with a group of Catholic teachers – the racial equity content was clearly challenging for this predominantly white group of teachers, but when I asked them to identify ways their Catholicism buttressed their racial equity work, it became immediately evident in their body language and what they shared that their faith was a source of courage and motivation to continue to lean in and learn about racism and white privilege. Let this be an example to all communities of faith engaging in racial justice work: this is not charity work, this is not only about supporting communities of color, it is about ending the dehumanizing impact of racism and white privilege on all of us so that who we aspire to be as people of faith lines up with who we actually are on a daily basis.

© 2013 Hackman Consulting Group – Do not reproduce part or all without permission.