Skip to main content
Articles

My God’s Love Is Just That Big

Jonathan Lee Walton Sees Interfaith Harmony as Acknowledging the Divine in All

Image of Jonathan Walton
After the United Nations proclaimed the first week in February as World Interfaith Harmony Week, BYU created an annual World Interfaith Harmony Week Lecture. Invited scholars and religious leaders share their insights about cultivating close and effective relationships between people of different faiths.

Jonathan Walton declared, “My God’s love is just that big” when underscoring the importance of seeing the divine in every living being. He believes interfaith harmony is a world where a Jewish life, a Christian life, a Muslim life, or a Buddhist life all have the same value.

Walton is president of Princeton Theological Seminary and was the BYU guest lecturer on February 1 for World Interfaith Harmony Week. Using the faith and experience of African Americans, Walton illustrated the interconnected nature of religions as we make sense of our circumstances.

To that effect, Walton opened his address titled I’d Like to Fly Far Away! Black Religion and the Quest for Black Freedom with the lyrics from the 1977 Commodores (Lionel Richie) hit song “Zoom”:

I'd like to fly far away from here
Where my mind, can be fresh and clear
And I'd find the love that I long to see
Where everybody can be what they wanna be

“I have to imagine that they — the song writers — had in mind the black folklore tradition of Flying Africans,” Walton said. “This is a folk tale that goes back to the shores of West Africa. [It’s believed that] Africans took off in flight to escape the shackles and chains of the North Atlantic slave trade.”

Image ofLecture Attendants

However, those African Americans who took flight, did not flee alone. They carried with them their faith, clinging tight to their religious beliefs despite personal tragedy.

Perhaps one of the best symbols of this religious valor is the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia. The edifice is filled with emblems of different faiths left behind by slaves to depict the enduring interfaith nature of Black religious expression.

“Enslaved, dehumanized, and socially degraded subjects were able to reframe and refashion even the Christian faith of their slaveholders to reimagine human possibility and democratic flourishing in this country,” said Walton.

We see the theme of “Flying Africans” between the 16th and 21st centuries when slaves were “flying” — or moving to new locations — out of survival rather than preference.

Lynchings were a growing form of punishment then. From 1882–1930, 3,386 African American men are known to have been lynched — meaning that an African American man was rounded up by a mob, without a trial, and publicly tortured and mutilated every five days.

To be able to “fly away” — to flee barbaric treatment and go where you wanted — was a symbol of liberty. They didn’t have the freedom to travel where they pleased.

“Mobility is seen as a mark of the sacred,” said Walton. “It's freedom to be what God has called us to be.”

This sentiment was particularly strong in the 20th century when people of African descent were moving throughout the United States to flee lynchings and racism. It enhanced cultural creativity and religious diversity, which was widely unanticipated. One example is how Judaism is seen in the African American community.

The Jewish observance of Passover is to remember the story of the Exodus — when Moses led enslaved Israel out of Egypt and out of captivity. The theme of escaping slavery looms large in Black religious sensibilities and within African American faith communities.

Walton explained that by claiming a different origin story for themselves and joining a different religion, African Americans had a commitment to refashioning and reframing the Black experience by reimagining prevailing notions of race and space.

The result of this history is that about 3% of the African American population began identifying as Jewish or Muslim as a way of reclaiming their freedom. This unity in faith is what Walton emphasized as he closed his remarks.

“If you are a child of and beloved by God,” said Walton, “then you have both the power and the moral responsibility to challenge the material conditions of all of the most vulnerable by doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly before your God.”

Walton challenged the audience to reach beyond socially constructed borders to see “the divine in every living being,” for no other reason than because it’s our moral responsibility to do so.

 To view Walton’s speech, and previous BYU World Interfaith Week lectures, click here. 

data-content-type="article"

These 5 Employees are Making a Noticeable Difference

March 29, 2024 03:19 PM
March 29, 2024
overrideBackgroundColorOrImage= overrideTextColor= overrideTextAlignment= overrideCardHideSection= overrideCardHideByline= overrideCardHideDescription= overridebuttonBgColor= overrideButtonText= overrideTextAlignment=
data-content-type="article"

From Dreams to Dilemmas: Navigating the Complications of DACA

March 22, 2024 01:39 PM
A Recap of the 20th Annual Marjorie Pay Hinckley Lecture with Roberto Gonzales
overrideBackgroundColorOrImage= overrideTextColor= overrideTextAlignment= overrideCardHideSection= overrideCardHideByline= overrideCardHideDescription= overridebuttonBgColor= overrideButtonText= overrideTextAlignment=
data-content-type="article"
overrideBackgroundColorOrImage= overrideTextColor= overrideTextAlignment= overrideCardHideSection= overrideCardHideByline= overrideCardHideDescription= overridebuttonBgColor= overrideButtonText= overrideTextAlignment=