Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC (State Department photo)

When Religious Leaders Fight for Social Justice

By Shaun Casey serves as the Special Representative for Secretary Kerry’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs

Lagos, Nigeria is perhaps an unlikely location to be re-inspired by American history and the great men and women who have shaped it. During my recent trip, however, I was reminded just how powerfully Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy continues to resonate around the world and embolden others to advocate for social justice, civil rights, and dignity for all.

In cooperation with the U.S. Consulate General, I traveled to Lagos to help convene a workshop with influential Nigerian Christian and Muslim leaders to discuss the negative impacts of systemic injustice and corruption. Although the links between corruption and injustice are complex, corruption has the corrosive potential to weaken governing institutions and diminish credibility and accountability of leaders. Corruption also often leads to the diverting of funds needed for basic services for the most vulnerable and can exacerbate socioeconomic inequalities. Given the timing of the trip — just days before Martin Luther King Jr. Day — it seemed fitting to draw upon the incredible story of Dr. King, whose work as a grassroots organizer, civil rights advocate, negotiator, and a Christian pastor resonated in a powerful way with these leaders.

Many are familiar with the story of Dr. King’s work to right a deep and profound injustice in how African Americans were treated in the United States. Despite legal protections codified in the Constitution, African Americans’ rights were still being systematically and repeatedly denied. In the face of this injustice, Dr. King used nonviolent resistance, often mobilizing religious networks and churches to take action together. Dr. King recognized the impact unified voices could have in forcing the government to make changes that affected the needs and concerns of all its citizens.

However, the enormity of the risk that Dr. King and other brave civic leaders took to rally their communities around fighting injustice is often lost in the annual commemoration of African American history month. In highlighting these types of courageous achievements, both past and present, we often forget the extent to which leaders risk their lives, reputations, relationships, possessions, and well-being in order to bring about change.

The reality of this struck me as I conversed with the 40 Nigerian religious leaders whose reach includes millions of Nigerians, many of whom are impacted by the scourge of poverty and corruption. It was also apparent as I learned about the work of a Nigerian civil society organization boldly calling for transparent federal and state budgets in Nigeria. And I sensed it when I spoke with representatives from an NGO that promotes financial accountability and accessibility within churches.

Over the course of the workshop, participants highlighted some of the key issues they face as moral leaders in Nigerian society and how they felt they could raise their voices in a collective way to transform society. As one pastor said, “If all religious leaders begin to hold government accountable … there will be major change.”

The religious leaders spent time discussing tools they could leverage to empower their congregations and religious communities in the fight for social justice. They cited options such as media and social media campaigns, calling for a year-long focus on anti-corruption, instituting formal mentoring programs to promote anti-corruption principles among congregants who hold public office, and developing educational materials that promote integrity from a religious standpoint.

Perhaps most noteworthy was the importance that Christian and Muslim leaders alike placed on uniting behind a shared agenda. As one minister noted, “preaching would not be enough to stop corruption.” This united approach, the minister emphasized, would require Nigerian religious leaders — Muslim and Christian — to use their combined influence to “redefine the moral compass of the society.”

In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King sought to redefine the moral compass among American religious leaders. He wrote, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” As the annals of history can testify, it also “causes the arc of the moral universe to bend toward justice.” In Nigeria, participants pledged to take a stand on a pressing social issue that obstructs opportunity and dignity for millions, illustrating the power that exists when religious leaders fight for social justice.


Editor’s Note: This blog originally appeared on DipNote, the U.S. Department of State’s Official blog.