In the 21st century, there is one primary role for religion in the public sphere: Radical Spiritual Intervention.
Riots sometimes occur when people within a community become so enraged at authority that they unleash their fury. This often overflows into an indiscriminate attack on anyone in the rioters’ path. It takes enormous courage to face this uncontrolled violence. As Fidel Lopez, an innocent victim, was being viciously beaten, cut, and burnt in the streets during the Los Angeles riots, Reverend Bennie Newton entered the dangerous streets waving a Bible in the air, warning the attackers: “Kill him, and you have to kill me, too.” Risking his life, the holy reverend saved the innocent victim’s life as the attackers backed away.
Local, state, and even national authorities can also be guilty of rioting against their own people. During the height of the civil rights struggle in 1963, nonviolent demonstrators were beaten, sprayed with fire hoses strong enough to strip bark from trees and break ribs, and bitten by attack dogs; some were even murdered. In spite of this, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., fellow members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and allied clergy (including Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel) risked their lives in staying with the movement.
One little-known episode is worth relating. On May 5, 1963, two days after the notorious use of fire hoses and attack dogs at the orders of the notorious sheriff “Bull” Connor, Birmingham civil rights demonstrators, accompanied by their clergy, came out of church dressed in their Sunday clothes. They knelt and prayed in front of the same firemen who had earlier sprayed and injured dozens of demonstrators. While the exact details have been debated, it is apparent that the moral force of the clergy and those praying had an effect on the firemen, who refused to turn their hoses on. There was no violence that day.
Religious leadership has a unique role: to carry the Bible into the streets and to protect the vulnerable. This is what Moses did when he risked his life three times to save others under attack (Exodus 2). There are complicated questions about how religious values can legitimately be appropriated in political discourse, but there is nothing complex about the role of religion in stopping brutal violence. When a woman is being raped, a homeless man beaten in the streets, a child molested, an animal abused, one must grab a Bible and enter the scene. It is not for everyone, as it may be dangerous. But there is no place where the voice of G-d is more necessary.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder & CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available on Amazon. In April 2012, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the most influential rabbis in America.