Trialogue: Protest in God’s Name. Religious Dissent in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
This Trialogue is the culmination of the upper-division seminar course Religion 120 by the UCLA Center for the Study of Religion. The panel discussion is being co-sponsored by the Academy for Judaic, Christian, and Islamic Studies.
Convener and Moderator
Reinhard Krauss, Ph.D.
Lecturer, UCLA Center for the Study of Religion
Elliot Dorff, Ph.D.
Rector and Professor of Philosophy, American Jewish University, Los Angeles
James Heft Ph.D.
Professor of Religion, University of Southern California, Los Angeles
Amir Hussain, Ph.D.
Professor of Theological Studies, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles
Thursday, December 1, 2016
4:00 – 6:00 PM
Reception to Follow
Free Admission • All are welcome!
Charles E. Young Research Library, Room 11360
For most of human history, the majority of political rulers derived their legitimacy from some form of divine right. In such theocratically conceived political systems, any protest or resistance against the government is per definition defiance of the divinely ordered status quo.
In 1776, the drafters of the United States Declaration of Independence decided to make a radical break with this long tradition of divinely sanctioned government. Among the self-evident truths enumerated in the US Declaration Independence is the novel notion that governments derive “their just powers” not by divine right but “from the consent of the governed.” Arguing from this radically new political philosophy, the Declaration of Independence thereby not only legitimizes political protest but goes so far as to grant the citizenry the right “to alter or to abolish [the government] and to institute a new government” if the existing form of government is no longer effective in implementing its previously defined functions. In our political system, government is therefore not an end in itself but is defined strictly functionally as the means to implement the collective will of its citizens.
But what if this ‘consent of the governed’ is itself difficult to ascertain? According to estimates, only a little more than half of eligible voters cast their ballot in last month’s Presidential election – the lowest turnout in two decades. And the majority of those who did vote, cast their ballot for the candidate who is not going to be next leader of our country’s government. It therefore seems that this election was not so much based on the ‘consent of the governed’ as it was on their ‘dissent.’ Many cast their vote not in favor of a candidate but in protest against what the opponent stood for. And given the divisiveness of the presidential campaign, it would seem that social dissent and political protest will be with us for some time to come.
It is – perhaps paradoxically – religion which frequently has played a major role in movements of protest and dissent; paradoxically, because religion, as already mentioned, traditionally also functioned as the force to sanction and legitimize the political status quo. But religion does not just have a legitimizing but also a politically subversive function. Due to the claim of a transcendent origin of their message, religious leaders and practitioners have, at various points in history, felt not just entitled but compelled to critique the social and political status quo in the name of a divinely ordained social and/or moral order. In so doing, religious dissenters have at times even felt entitled to break duly enacted laws in a given society. Before jumping to the absolute position that laws ought to be obeyed under all circumstances, it is helpful to recall what Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr. wrote from his prison cell in his famous Letter from Birmingham jail: “We should never forget,” Dr. King wrote, “that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal.”
Nazi Germany is a very extreme case. But the underlying issue nevertheless poses pressing and contentious contemporary questions as well: Who decides which laws are just? Who decides whether a social order merits to be called moral? Is it decided by the consent of the governed; by a simple majority, perhaps? Or is there such a thing as a ‘higher law’ that may at times justify dissent or even overrule obedience to existing laws?
These are some of the questions with which each of the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have wrestled for centuries and which will be discussed in this forum.
The event is free and open to those interested in exploring a key issue of concern in contemporary religious and cultural studies.