The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta, both wearing garlands, are received by admirers after landing at the airport in New Delhi on Feb. 10, 1959. King, who was known as the American Gandhi, went on what he called a “four-week pilgrimage in India, which to me means Mahatma Gandhi.” (AP Photo/R. Satakopan)

From King to Gandhi, racial justice brings faiths together

(RNS) — Recently, my Muslim family joined a Hindu family and a Jewish family at a protest for racial equity near our home on the North Side of Chicago. A couple of days ago, my older son and I went to an event on the near South Side with fellow Muslims. As we talked about the verses of the Quran and the values of Islam that inspired our involvement, I made sure to point out the people wearing crosses around their necks, the clergy with collars or kippahs, the religious scripture prominently displayed on several signs.

On the way back, I talked about how Sikhs were setting up makeshift kitchens to feed protesters, a sacred practice called langar.

I want my kids to know from an early age that racial equity is an interfaith movement. It is imperative across religious traditions, and therefore a site where people from different faiths meet, get inspired by one another, deepen their own convictions and advance a cause that we view as a sacred command.

I was considerably older than my children are now when I realized the powerful relationship between racial equity and interfaith cooperation. In fact, I remember the exact moment. It was early December of 1999 and I was at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town, South Africa. I had gone largely for personal reasons, namely because my own spiritual journey had been deeply influenced by multiple religious traditions.

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But then Nelson Mandela spoke, and what he said changed everything.

He began by pointing out into the cape, toward Robben Island, where he spent over 25 years in prison, and uttered these words:  I would still be there if it were not for the Christians, the Jews, the Hindus, the Muslims, the Baha’is, the Quakers, those from indigenous African religions and those of no religion at all, working together in the struggle against apartheid. 

Marcel Proust famously said that the true journey of discovery was not in seeing new landscapes but in developing new eyes. It felt like Mandela had given me new eyes.

In South Africa, a movement of racial equity had been a site for interfaith cooperation. I had taken a range of courses on race in college, but my explorations into faith had been largely private, and mostly about my own personal spirituality.  The idea that racial equality could be advanced through interfaith cooperation was brand-new and totally inspiring. 

I took those new eyes into my study of other racial justice and anti-colonial movements. I read more closely in Mahatma Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj; a movement deeply personal to me, as I was born in India and saw that this too could easily be understood as an interfaith movement.

Gandhi was a Hindu whose core idea, ahimsa, was a concept he learned from Jainism. Furthermore, Gandhi had been deeply inspired by the Sermon on the Mount and the Russian Christian writer Leo Tolstoy, even naming one of his ashrams Tolstoy Farm. 

Muslims were always an important part of Gandhian movements, starting with his work against the racist pass laws in South Africa (a movement which inspired the young Mandela). So, too, were nonreligious people. In fact, amongst Gandhi’s two closest companions in the movement to free India was Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a Muslim from Afghanistan, and Jawaharlal Nehru, a famous secularist who rose to become India’s first prime minister.  

Martin Luther King Jr. was a young seminary student when he went to see a great black intellectual, Mordecai Johnson, then president of Howard University, speak on the topic of Christian love. In that talk, Johnson said that the paragon of Christian love in the 20th  century was actually a Hindu from India — Mahatma Gandhi. 

Those words changed King’s life. He had read about the pacifism of Jesus in the Bible but believed it to be advice relevant only to close personal relations. Gandhi had put nonviolence at the center of a movement for racial equity and against colonialism — and he had won. 

King took Gandhi’s lens into his own reading of the Bible and applied it the first chance he got, as leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. These were only the first few steps on King’s road as an interfaith leader. King deliberately made interfaith cooperation a hallmark of his movement both for civil rights and for peace, working with people like the gay Quaker Bayard Rustin, the avowed secularist Stanley Levinson and the famous rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

He also spoke often of the visions of equity and harmony at the heart of every religious tradition. For example, in his famous sermon  “A Time to Break Silence,”  he said: “The Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality” is that love is the “supreme unifying principle of life.” 

We are witnessing a movement for racial equity that echoes some of the highest hopes of the civil rights movement, the struggle against apartheid, and the Hind Swaraj movement. This, too, is a site for people from diverse religions (including none at all) to bring their deepest visions of love, equity, harmony and justice.  The Black Lives Movement is deeply spiritual, while not associated with any one religion.

Yet, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is and Buddhists are compelled by the moral call of this moment and are mobilizing in support of Black Lives. This movement for racial justice is yet another opportunity for an interfaith coalition to come together and move forward together for a just world.    

(Eboo Patel is the founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core. This article first appeared on Interfaith America, a website of the Interfaith Youth Core. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)