(RNS) — Recent statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation confirm what grassroots and community organizations across the country have been saying for months: Hate is becoming more vocal, visible and violent, with reported hate crimes at the highest levels since 2001.
At the outset, it can feel difficult to comprehend the enormity of this epidemic. But hate crimes seldom exist in a vacuum — rather, they are an outgrowth of repeated rhetoric targeting certain communities. From community gatherings to your congregation’s pews, the impulse has long been to stifle such bigotry, casual or overt, with silence.
However, it is now evident after years of prevention efforts that hate speech and hate-based violence cannot be simply ignored or deplatformed. Legal and legislative efforts to combat hate crimes have been essential to keep marginalized communities safe, but grassroots efforts at the local level, where people are affected the most by bias and bigotry, are equally important.
Religious leaders and people of faith are uniquely positioned to reject hateful rhetoric framed as religious expression by providing an alternative message of love, inclusion and mutual respect. Regardless of their background, a wide array of diverse religious traditions vehemently condemn hate and summon us to recognize the dignity of every person and treat them with respect.
Many religious traditions also ask their followers to live not just by word but in deed as well. Each one of us has an obligation to mobilize against hate and collaborate with one another to protect our friends and neighbors, especially with the consideration that religious communities are risking hate-based violence on themselves while doing so.
Interfaith Alliance, where I serve as director of field and organizing, has partnered with faith communities to stand united in the fight against hate, eye to eye with the religious right at the grassroots level, too; together, we’re offering Americans of faith the Partnering Against Hate Toolkit in order to equip congregations with the strategies to do just that.
According to the FBI’s 2019 Hate Crime Statistics Report, close to 60% of hate incident survivors were targeted based on their perceived race, ethnicity or ancestry. Religion was the second biggest category at 20%, followed by sexual orientation at 16%. This toolkit outlines the definitions of hate crimes and hate speech as opposed to bias incidents and details the communities that are disproportionately affected by hate-based violence.
The toolkit will also assist faith-based organizations or congregational leaders in setting a baseline to move forward and grow from after learning about the effects of hate-based violence by offering room for reflection and discussion of first-hand accounts of hate crimes.
Above all else, the toolkit emphasizes the value in grassroots partnership and how effective it can be to root out hate where it exists and depose those who seek to build power through fear and division.
Our commitment to the First Amendment includes respect for free speech, even from those with whom we disagree. However, as with every constitutional tenet, the line is drawn when those affected by hate speech are denied their own freedom to exercise their civil liberties. Hate crimes and extremist rhetoric are uniquely damaging, impacting those targeted, their loved ones and the larger group they represent.
Long after an incident occurs, people in targeted groups experience fear and instability, some of them struggling with mental health issues like anxiety and depression or sleeping and eating disorders. Inaction or neutrality always works in favor of those who espouse hateful rhetoric and perpetrate hate crimes, so we must do more than simply shut out the messages.
By taking an active stance against hateful rhetoric and hate crimes, religious leaders and people of faith can send the message that hate speech and hateful violence will never be tolerated. This solution will take action and hard work, but it will be worth it.
Though our nation has been marked by violent hate crimes since its founding, all people, no matter where we live or who you are, deserve to feel safe and welcomed in their communities.
(Maureen O’Leary is director of field and organizing for Interfaith Alliance. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)