Faith and Forests is a special monthly series by Joseph Frankovic. In the series, Joseph will explore how his deep connection to spirituality and faith intersects with our forests and the work of Dogwood Alliance. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by Dogwood Alliance.
Dogwood Alliance works with diverse communities and partner organizations. As the alliance part of its name implies, the organization seeks allies to accelerate the formation of a movement to halt commercial logging of intact forests and to shield vulnerable communities from harmful development and resource extraction. The formation of such a movement requires cohesion and mutuality of responsibility to pursue justice —what a Parisian or a Haitian might call fraternité and solidarité.
American reform movements comprising diverse groups that are committed to progressive change have a checkered record of remaining united. In 1868, an early and particularly painful example to recall occurred: ratification of the US Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment, which was Congress’s response to emancipation and the issue of Black suffrage. Section 2 of that amendment lowered representation in the US Congress in proportion to the number of male citizens whom a State denied the right to vote. Like a bolt of lightning and rolling thunder, the inclusion of the word male shattered the longstanding alliance between abolitionists and feminists. The damage included the splintering of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony’s joint-efforts as social reformers. A decade later, Southern Black people would face the era of Jim Crow. The civil rights of Black people would be stripped away while independent feminists focused on their fight for women’s suffrage.1
For an alliance working to effect progressive change, maintaining unity is a serious matter because people power can offset shortages of money and lack of political influence—if people stick together and hold firm. Moreover, bobbing beneath a raft of our Nation’s economic, environmental, political, and social problems is untethered capitalism, which is concentrating wealth and consolidating power in the hands of a small number of beneficiaries with unnerving efficiency.
Capitalism is a system that separates working people from the means of their work and that gives to the owners of those means the power to organize the economy. Thoughtful advocates for progressive policies generally know that capitalism defends itself by dividing people. Consider the comment of Professor Emeritus Michael A. Lebowitz, who retired from Simon Fraser University, on capital and the efforts of labor to organize:
“Capital certainly uses racism, patriarchy, national, and ethnic differences to divide the working class, to weaken it and to direct its struggles away from capital. But, it can find many [additional] ways to divide and weaken workers.” 2
I speculate that capital also has specialized ways of weakening and distracting diverse communities and partner organizations when they scale up an alliance.
Beyond these two pragmatic reasons—the superiority of people power and capital’s tendency to divide and deflect that power—people of faith place a special premium on unity and solidarity.
In an old collection of rabbinic comments, which are called aggadot in Hebrew, one can find an explanation of the prophet Jeremiah’s rhetorical question, “Is not Ephraim a precious son to me?”3
בזמן שהן נאגדין כאגודה אחת לעשות רצון
אביהם שבשמים, הן חשובים כבן יחיד לפני
אביו, ובזמן שהם ממוסמסין לכאן ולכאן, הן
חשובין כבנים מרובין לפני האב, שאינה
דומה אהבתו שליחיד לאהבתן שלרבים,
שכל מי שיש לו בנים מרובין אהבתו מתחלקת
על כולן, ואהבת יחיד לא כן
When they are united in tight union to do the will
of their Father who is in heaven, they are regarded as a father’s only child.
When they are separated in factions here and there, they
are regarded as many children before their father, because
[a father’s] love for a single child differs from his love for many children.
For whoever has many children, his or her love is distributed
among them, but the love for an only child is different.
This comment has been preserved in a manuscript fragment from the Cairo genizah, which means that it is old. Despite its age, the explanation, which links the adjective “precious” to the special status of an only child, can continue as a source of encouragement for us today. In a creative, playful way, this aggadic comment associates a rabbinic form of activism—the preoccupation with doing God’s will in concert with others—with an unexpected benefit. The writer describes an intensification of God’s love through concentration on a single focal point when the Jewish people unite to do his will.
Pause for a moment and consider this proposition: Saving Southern forests and shielding vulnerable communities from corporate predators and venal politicians are two priorities that align with God’s will. That assumption, I think, is a reasonable one to make. The challenge is to act and remain united—and then experience the love concentrate.
Another comment from an old rabbinic collection of interpretations on the biblical book of Exodus echoes a similar idea. In the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael, Israel’s arrival at the base of Mount Sinai, it says:4
כל מקום שהוא אומר ויסעו ויחנו,
נוסעים במחלוקת וחונים במחלוקת,
אבל כאן השוו כולם לב אחד,
לכך נאמ’ ויחן שם ישראל נגד ההר
Every place where Scripture says, “They traveled and encamped,”
they traveled divided and encamped divided.
Here, however, all of them were of one heart.
Scripture, therefore, says, “Israel encamped there before the mountain.”
An odd feature of the narrative’s grammar, namely, inconsistent use of plural and singular forms of the verb “encamped,” inspired this interpretive approach. The writer makes a connection between the plural form and the presence of strife and altercations among the Israelites, whereas he treats the singular form as an indication of their singleness of heart.
What happened next? Moses ascended the mountain to receive the precious gift that God wanted to give—his Torah. The people’s oneness of heart had captured God’s attention and so moved him that he chose that moment for giving his Law to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as to others who were outside that bloodline and had joined them in the wilderness.
Social justice echoes as a clarion theme throughout the Law of Moses and throughout rabbinic commentaries on that Law. The Torah admonishes its hearers to aid and protect the vulnerable: the orphan, the widow, and the stranger, as well as others. In one of the more emphatic ways that the Hebrew language can convey urgency, the Torah makes the pursuit of justice a priority:5
צדק צדק תרדוף
Justice, justice, you will pursue!
When the Israelites abandoned strife and factionalism, their unity and solidarity stimulated God’s love. Responding to that moment, he gave the people a timeless gift to support their pursuit of justice and enjoyment of peace through the ages.
I am so grateful to the ancient rabbis for helping us experience Scripture anew and for stimulating us to rethink the relevance of its message in the ongoing struggle against injustice.
In the opening chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, an early piece of Christian literature, Saint Luke the Evangelist describes events in which the closest followers of Jesus and members of his family participated.6
οὗτοι πάντες ἦσαν προσκαρτεροῦντες ὁμοθυμαδον τῇ προσευχῇ
All of these [followers] remained constant in prayer with one accord.
The unity and fervency of the group during the days leading up to the holiday of Shavuot, or Pentecost, had an effect. The time had come for God to respond by giving. On the day of Pentecost, the narrative describes the Holy Spirit visiting them like a rushing wind.7
These people had embraced Jesus’s teachings and joined a movement. Joining or entering the kingdom of heaven required doing the will of their heavenly Father and centered on doing good with an emphasis on healing. Acting in solidarity, doing God’s will in concert with others, attracted the Holy Spirit who then strengthened Jesus’s disciples in their efforts to ameliorate harmful effects of injustice.8
The narrative offers another glimpse of this nascent movement’s commitment to solidarity. In a short time span, Peter and John had enraged the chief priests who exercised power over the temple area and managed its services, including the exchanging of foreign currency and offering of sacrifices. The authorities already had summoned this pair of activists and threatened them. Despite growing persecution, Peter, John, and their allies remained together.9
Τοῦ δὲ πλήθους τῶν πιστευσάντων ἦν καρδία και ψυχὴ μία,
Καὶ οὐδὲ εἳς τι τῶν ὑπαρχόντων αὐτῷ ἒλεγεν ἲδιον εἶναι ἀλλ᾽
ἦν αὐτοῖς ἃπαντα κοινα.
The entire multitude who had become believers were of one heart and soul,
And none referred to his or her possessions as personal property.
Rather, all things were shared by them.
This group’s oneness influenced its choice of a community-wide economic policy that de-emphasized private property. I imagine that if these first followers of Jesus were still alive today, they would support restoring the commons, protecting ecosystems that provide critical ecosystem services, resisting the commodification of natural resources, and creating worker cooperatives as well as additional agendas that favor the public.
Unity and mutuality, fraternity and solidarity are essential for winning progressive struggles against social injustice. Money and political influence can cause a lot of harm by winning elections, buying appointments, and securing confirmations. By dividing and deflecting its opposition, capitalism effectively obstructs initiatives to regulate or replace it. Despite these advantages, it cannot repulse a nonviolent mass movement moving forward with shields locked, gaining and holding ground like a Greek phalanx, and propelling itself with peaceful and sustainable people power.
Yet beyond these basic reasons for prioritizing fraternity and solidarity, Jews, Christians, and other people of faith can offer additional ones. Within the interpretive world of midrash—the distinct type of exegesis used by ancient rabbis to interpret Scripture—the Israelites achieved unity and singleness of heart when they reached Mount Sinai. That achievement moved God, and he gave his Torah as a precious and eternal possession. This Torah commands its adherents to pursue justice. In that respect, God regards everybody who receives his gift as an activist. After the Roman prefect of Judea Pontius Pilate had ordered his soldiers to execute Jesus, those who adopted the Galilean’s teachings remained together and in solidarity. They devoted themselves to prayer, partook of their meals together, and opted out of owning private assets and personal wealth. According to Luke’s narrative, God responded with a mighty rush of the Holy Spirit to superactivate their activism, which they interpreted as good news and associated with the kingdom of heaven.
- “In May 1869 the annual meeting of the Equal Rights Association, an organization devoted to both black and female suffrage, dissolved in acrimony. Out of the wreckage emerged rival national organizations: [Elizabeth Cady] Stanton and [Susan B.] Anthony’s National Woman Suffrage Association, an embodiment of independent feminism, and the American Woman Suffrage Association, still linked to older reform traditions.” Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1990), 114–15 and 192–193. The excerpt on the National Woman Suffrage and American Woman Suffrage Associations comes from page 193.
Listen also to the comments of David R. Roediger, Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Kansas, on race, class, and solidarity, when he was recently interviewed by Sasha Lilley as part of the radio and web media project Against the Grain.
- See Michael A. Lebowitz’s online article “What Keeps Capitalism Going?” in the independent socialist magazine Monthly Review. Professor Lebowitz italicized the verb “uses,” and I added the adjective “additional” in brackets.
- Jacob Mann, “Some Midrashic Genizah Fragments,” Hebrew Union College Annual 14 (1939), 304–05 and 325–26. The passaged that I translated above dynamically is part of one of the aggadot to Psalm 34 in Fragment 3.5 The comment is on Exodus 19:2. See the end of Chapter 19:2 in the Mekhilta.
My Judaica library is in storage. I did not have handy access to either the Lauterbach edition or the Horovitz-Rabin edition; therefore, I visited the website of the open source and nonprofit project Sefaria to access the Hebrew text of the Mekhilta.
5. Deuteronomy 16:20
- See Acts 1:14.
- See Acts 2:2.
- Matthew 7:21 and Acts 10:38. Broadly speaking, the rupture between Judaism and Christianity occurred sometime between the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. and the battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 C.E. It did not occur throughout the ancient world in a single moment. The Acts of the Apostles is an early Christian text that Luke composed before 100 C.E., perhaps two or three decades earlier. I am inclined to use the Bar Kochba revolt, which started in 132 C.E., as the breaking point. This decision of convenience is nothing more than an educated guess.
- See Acts 4:32. Compare with Acts 2:46.