Incorporating Religion into Social Justice Education Approaches by Misty Denham-Barrett

As a new professional in student affairs, I am still navigating the twists and turns of social justice education. One of the major topics I have found myself dealing with is religion and its importance in how I attempt to educate my students on areas of social justice and diversity. I am finishing up my first year at a religiously affiliated institution, so as you may assume I am still learning what it means to incorporate faith, religion and spirituality into my experiences of social justice. More importantly, I find myself exploring my own spirituality, a part of my identity I had not explored for some time.

In my research on the topic, I came across an article in the Journal of Religion, Conflict and Peace, “The Significance of Religions for Social Justice and a Culture of Peace” by Patricia M. Mische from 2007. I thought, “Oh this is perfect!” This was the first article I found or information I had come across that put religion into a social justice perspective that I could relate to. As I stated before, religion is not a strong identity for me. I would like to touch on some of the points made in the article and their potential significance on social justice education.

As Mische states in the article, religion is very important to the ideals of peace and equality because often religion is the source for people’s “archetypes, images, and symbols of meaning” (pg. 1). Below is one of the definitions of religion she uses in the article:

“[those] believes and practices by means of which a group 1) designates its deepest problems of meaning, suffering, and injustice; 2) specifies its most fundamental ways of trying to reduce problems; 3) seeks to deal with the fact that, in spite of all efforts to eliminate them, meaninglessness, suffering, and injustice continue (2007 pg 2).

This is a definition I think I can most relate with. To me, religion and the idea of believing in something greater than oneself should be founded in these ideas. Prior to working at a religiously affiliated university I did not have exposure to so many individuals with such faith and dedication to their religion. I was drawn to this university because of the values and mission of the university which for me just so happened come from a foundation of religion. I wasn’t seeking a purely religious experience, at least not consciously. As I continue to work here, I find myself questioning and exploring my religious thoughts including my desire to have faith in something bigger than myself.

The ideas expressed in this article helped me gain more understanding on the topics of religion, social justice and peace.

I never realized the level at which Individuals may use symbols or ideas from their religion to create and identify with their thoughts and actions when responding to the suffering of others.  Depending on how ingrained their religion is to their lives, these things may happen unconsciously or subconsciously. This is important because as social justice educators, we must realize the depth at which an idea or thought may be embedded within an individual’s understanding of the world. (Mische, 2007)

“If we understand why and how religions affect war or peace within and between societies, we may be better enabled to engage the strengths and transcend the limitations of religions in developing sustainable peace” (Mische, 2007 pg 1). Understanding how someone’s religion effects their decision making and the foundations of their values can help those of us at religiously affiliated institutions or any institution make a greater impact on students’ social justice education.

Religion is seen as two sides of an injustice coin. The symbols of religion and their meaning can prevent individuals from fighting against inequality or injustice but on the other side it can also be a driving force to empower people, institutions and systems to fight against these things. In my own development on this topic, I found it interesting to look at religion this way. I think in recent times especially, religious groups have been seen as a “bad guy” in many social justice topics including gay marriage. An example of this duality used by Mische is Jesus on the cross during the crucifixion. This image can portray Jesus as a victim suffering at the hands of evil but that same image can also be seen as someone standing up against evil and oppression. This double sided coin can be used as a means for “repressing or awakening a sense of injustice” (2007, pg. 15)

As stated in the article, religion is often the way in which people or a culture create a sense of meaning and infer causes of injustice, furthermore how they respond to that injustice. In my own experience, religion was never something that I felt impacted my morals or values. Growing up, I wasn’t exposed to religion in the same way that a lot of my colleagues were. Because of this, I don’t believe that religion impacted my conviction and dedication to social justice topics. Honestly, I can’t point to any specific experiences, I believe that my values have developed from all the experiences that I have gone through and the lessons I have learned from them independent of religion.

One of the statements from this article that had the most impact on my understanding of this issue is the following, “Asceticism, Hindu caste, identification with a suffering Christ, and to a lesser extent the concentration camps… describe…a general pattern of cultural explanation that stifles the impulse to do anything about suffering.” Suffering is explained or rationalized because it is part of the “cosmic order, hence inevitable and in a sense justified” (Mische, pg 16). This is the idea of religion that I struggled with for so long to understand. In reading this article and learning from my recent experiences at a religious school and working with individuals who have such a strong connection to their religion, I have come to realize that religion is not one specific set of ideas and is a multifaceted set of ideas that mean different things to different people.

In conclusion, religion can be used as a source of understanding and education for social justice movements and causes. Social justice educators must educate themselves on how best to approach these issues. The construct of religion is no easy task as I have learned. For someone like me, who finds it difficult to personally identity with religion, it can be extremely hard to empathize with others when trying to educate on social justice topics. This is one of the reasons I chose to challenge myself by working at a religiously affiliated institution. As a profession, we must work to understand why and how religion could have an effect on students understanding and interpretations of social justice, peace and diversity. I believe that I can continue to learn a great deal from my time here while also adding to the experience of others.

References:

Mische, Patricia M., (2007). The significance of religions for social justice and a culture of peace. Journal on Religion, Conflict and Peace, 1(1), 26.

Misty Denham-Barrett is a new student affairs professional.. She was born in Southern California and went to high school in Virginia. She currently works at La Salle University in Philadelphia. If you are interested in contacting her, please email her at denhambarrett@lasalle.edu

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