Is the ORL MIA?

May 31, 2017, 12:13 a.m.

The Office of Religious Life (ORL) recently – and very quietly – changed its mission statement. The previous mission statement read: “To guide, nurture and enhance the spiritual, religious and ethical life within the Stanford community.” But sometime in February, the ORL decided that an “ethical life” was beyond the scope of their work and dropped it from their mission statement.

To be sure, guiding and nurturing an ethical life is difficult, and more than a few religious institutions and preachers have abused their authority. Yet the question that begs for an answer is: Why make such an important change? And why do so quietly?

This change in the ORL mission statement must be viewed in the context of the strife, conflict and the extreme polarization of the political and civil society in our country. Candidate Trump encouraged violence against protestors and those who disagreed with him.

As president, he has excoriated the media as being “dishonest” or “fake news” and suggested some reporters should be arrested and prosecuted. Journalists have been pushed, shoved and, just recently, body slammed.

Since Trump’s election, the incidences of hate crimes and threats have skyrocketed. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that there were 1,094 reported incidents of bias in the first 34 days after the election.

Those targeted include women, people of color, Jews, LGBTQ people and, of course, Muslims. We have seen some these incidents right here on the Stanford campus and in the Bay Area.

In times like these, shouldn’t the ORL be more involved in discussing ethical issues, rather than less? And not just discussing, but actively engaging with the thorny ethical issues of climate change, immigration, uncivil society, inequality and militarism ( to name just a few)? 

We must resist any spiritual schizophrenia that would subordinate justice and mercy to the “lofty ideals” of religion. When Rabbi Hillel (first century BCE) was asked by a Gentile to explain the entire Torah – the core of Judaism – while standing on one leg, he replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: This is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”

One of the opportunities of the ORL is to model for students and our community how to integrate our intellectual and ethical lives. Are there moral imperatives when refugees are being turned away and immigrants are being deported? What is our responsibility as a privileged community and nation in the face of global warming? What role can and should our faith traditions play in helping us to find our way?

With this small change in their mission statement, is the ORL signaling that an ethical life is, well, not really that important? Are they choosing to step back from these challenges, to be MIA? Unfortunately, with this change, they are giving credence to those who rightly complain that the church and religion rarely speaks to the crises in their lives and too often fails to speak truth to power.

Religious and moral leaders past and present have warned against taking the easy way out, of avoiding these difficult subjects. To paraphrase Dr. King, our lives begin to end the day we – and our religious leaders – become silent about the things that matter. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor executed by the Nazis for his “crime” of actively resisting evil, warned against silence and passivity, saying, “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

– Geoff Browning

Geoff is a Presbyterian minister and campus pastor for Progressive Christians @ Stanford. This is a personal opinion and not necessarily the opinion of the PC@S students.



Contact Geoff Browning at geoff.browning ‘at’

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