Faith without works is dead
"Show me your faith apart from you works, and I by my works will show you my faith" (James 2:18). This idea that "faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead" (James 2: 17), was proposed early in the first century by the Jamesian Christian community. I submit this a good starting point for the exploration of the relationship between religion and the public sphere and the public good.
The public display of religion can experientially provide a sense of "ultimate or existential meaning, values, order or purpose"--an awareness of the divine. Furthermore, a public display of religion can manifest institutionally, facilitating a recognizable community and reinforce "defined beliefs, ideas, practices, rituals and symbols." (Promey p. 42). Moreover, Promey asserts that "display and performance" are "fundamental to the process of constructing human reality"--that visible religion plays an active cultural role marking boundaries for the formation and re-formation of identity (Promey p. 47-48).
Two examples: 1) The Salvation Army; and 2) The Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism; illustrate how religion in the public sphere shows itself through good works.
As an "army for missionary purposes", the Salvation Army's crusade is to "sanctify the commonplace"--buildings, streets, public squares, saloons, brothels, shelters--to spiritualize urban space--to saturate the secular with the sacred (Winston p. 369). Early Salvationists use of sensational tactics such as, parades, marching brass bands and marching women created a spectacle of religion attracting much public attention. With a focus on saving slum dweller souls, the Salvationists' message was strait forward, only the power of God's love could help. Thus a battle to save souls and to care for bodily-material needs (Winston p. 381). The Salvation Army's pioneered urban religion. Stationed around stores, theaters and commercial centers, Salvationists displayed their spiritual values symbolized by the belling ringing "lassie", Christmas kettle and tripod signifying love, service and compassion. By making the entire city their sacred space and the public their congregants and financial supporters, the Salvation Army enabled people to engage their religious mission in various ways. Some gave because the kettle invited them to do so, others wanted to help the poor, others to assuage their conscience, and those who supported Christianity and its growth. The Salvation Army embodies the Christian belief that, by its' good works it shows its faith.
The Free Tibet Movement is a non-Christian example of how religion in the public sphere exemplifies that religion shows up in good works. The Dalai Lama urges Buddhists to get involved with the world, explaining at first, Buddhists need isolation to develop the inner self, but afterwards, Buddhists need to remain in contact with society and to serve society, adding, "the purpose of practicing the Great Vehicle is service to others--in order to serve, in order to help, you must remain in society" (Powers p. 231). Robert Thurman, a spokesperson for the Free Tibet movement, views his social activism for a free Tibet as religious practice--"a way of putting into deeds attitudes like compassion for others that otherwise are just verbal" (Powers p. 233).
Sally M. Promey, "the Public Display of Religion" in The visual Culture of American Religions pp. 27-48
Diane Winston, "The Cathedral of the Open Air: The Salvation Army's Sacralization of Secular Space, 1880-190, in Gods of the City, pp. 367-392
John Powers, "The Free Tibet Movement: A Selective Narrative," in Engaged Buddhism in the West, pp. 218-244
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