Global threat, local communities of faith

This Saturday I hosted a conversation about the role of faith communities in activism as part of the Reducing the Danger of Nuclear War conference at MIT. A dozen of us gathered around our invited speakers – the Rev. Herb Taylor from Harvard Epworth Methodist Church, Pat Ferrone of Masschusetts Pax Christi, and Professor Elaine Scarry from Harvard University.

I’m a firm believer in faith as a foundation for moral action. Believing in something greater than our national identity allows us to ask better questions: not just “Is Iran living up to its nuclear treaties?” or “Does this presidential candidate have the character to be in charge of nuclear weapon?” but “Is our own country fulfilling its promise to disarm?” and “Should any president have access to such enormous and devastating power?”

I can be skeptical, however, of the ability of faith communities to respond to such a global threat. As Herb Taylor pointed, churches would be the first in line to aid the victims of a nuclear blast, but they are less skilled at responding to systemic issues and potential threats. My own Episcopal community can be quick to table a resolution or refer it for further study at the first hint of real dissent.

Out of all the helpful examples and insights that our conference participants brought to the conversation, there are two points I want to share with you.

Pat Ferrone, who referred to herself as a lay “Disarming Sister for Peace”, mentioned Erica Chenoweth’s work on nonviolent social movements. Chenoweth studied campaigns from around the world since 1900, looking at every major attempt to overthrow of the current government structures. She found that a government cannot withstand sustained, nonviolent resistance from just 3.5% of its population. You can hear the TED talk here. Changing the world seems less daunting when I focus on finding and supporting that 3.5%.

Elaine Scarry teaches a course on government by consent, and she said that denominational assemblies are more valuable than we think. When we do the hard work of reaching an agreement, we provide both a model and an experience of how democracy should work. The resolution we pass may not by itself sway the minds of those in power, but it can educate our members and give them courage to go out and speak in the public sphere.

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