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Reconciliation then and now.

Curtiss Paul DeYoung

Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice

Fortress Press, 2007, 186 pp, $15

In Living Faith, Curtiss DeYoung offers spiritual profiles of three figures who worked for social change in the 20th century: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Malcolm X, and Aung San Suu Kyi. Describing them as "mystic-activists" (a term he borrows from Alton B. Pollard III, author of Mysticism and Social Change), DeYoung demonstrates how each of them was inspired by their faith to take up the battle for the rights of the oppressed. The figures he has chosen to examine come from three different generations, three different continents, and, most importantly, three different faiths: Christianity, Islam and Buddhism.

Although arriving at their activism through very different traditions, Bonhoeffer, Malcolm X, and Aung San Suu Kyi have a surprisingly lot in common, DeYoung points out. All three came to their worldviews thanks to contact with the margins of society. All three eventually rooted their identities in a belief in mankind's common humanity. And all three embraced a revolutionary ethics that demanded structural changes in society, a demand for which all of them paid a high personal cost.

Although born into privilege, Bonhoeffer made contact with American blacks in Harlem when he was studying at the Union Theological Seminary nearby. These contacts gave him the opportunity to look at life from the eyes of those who faced injustice. It was a perspective that led him, although he was a Christian, to identify with the oppression of Jews in Hitler's Germany, an identification for which he paid the ultimate price. Hitler ordered his execution just two weeks before he himself committed suicide.

Malcolm X was born and raised among the oppressed. He analyzed the wisdom he found in his community, refined it and gave it voice, says DeYoung. Initially a black separatist, toward the end of his life, as he moved closer to traditional Islam, he began to redefine his cause--the liberation of African American people--as a fight for human rights. "Malcolm X's exit from the Nation of Islam and its ideology allowed him to think about identity in fresh ways. He exhibited a sign of healthy esteem when, through his Mecca pilgrimage, 'human' became his primary identifier," writes DeYoung. It was a move that would cost him his life.

Although she was raised primarily outside of her native Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was the daughter of an assassinated national hero, came to identify with her people when she returned to aid her ailing mother. Joining the struggle against her country's military dictatorship, she now refuses to leave, accepting house arrest instead, because she identifies so completely with those on the margins exploited by the regime, a move that has separated her from her husband (who has since died) and her children. Like Bonhoeffer and Malcolm X, she uses the beliefs of her faith--in this case Buddhism--to call not only for political change, but a revolution of the spirit, a spiritual change of hearts and minds.

By highlighting the commonality of these three mystic-activists, despite their starting points in three different faiths, DeYoung offers something rarely seen in religious studies: points of reconciliation that bring together people of seemingly vastly different faiths. At a time when religion has been used as a divisive force and not a uniting one, pointing out the similarities among these religions on the subject of social justice is in itself a revolutionary act. By analyzing these faith-inspired social activists--and dozens of others in passing, including adherents of Hinduism (Mohandas Gandhi), Judaism (Abraham Joshua Heschel) and Native American spirituality (Winona LaDuke)--DeYoung, a pioneer in the nascent area of reconciliation studies who now teaches at Bethel University in St. Paul, provides an invaluable tool for those who have not given up hope in linking spirituality and the fight for social justice.

"I invite those who seek to link the worlds of social activism and contemplative faith to build more bridges of reconciliation across the chasm of religious division. Moves toward reconciliation embodied and led by everyday faith-inspired activists and religious leaders may be our only hope for greater peace in the world," DeYoung concludes.

The key, of course, is finding ways to reconcile so that no one is left behind.
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Title Annotation:BOOKS
Author:Hammond, Margo
Publication:Cross Currents
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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