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CLS Class Highlight – Religious Leaders for Social Justice

religious leaders for social justice

What class?

LSAL 5443 – Religious Leaders for Social Justice

Why is it cool?

The impact a cause or social movement has on society often relies on the leader behind it. This is true in all forms of leadership, however, and is not confined to governance, politics, social movements or even corporate positions. Some of the world’s greatest leaders have found their home in religious movements. Religious Leaders for Social Justice uses an autobiographical lens to study some of the most well-known and highly influential religious leaders throughout history. Over the course of 16 weeks, students are invited to explore the lives of individuals from six major faith traditions and examine not just how they differ, but the various ways these leaders share in common their willingness and courage to stand up to grave social injustices of their time.

Throughout the course, students are invited to investigate the ways in which faith, life experiences and social situations have inspired leadership for the cause of social justice. It relies on primary rather than secondary sources, allowing students to learn about these various leaders through their own voices.

“To be sure, first-hand accounts are not impartial but they do offer direct access to the person of study,” said SME Nina Livesey. “We ask probing questions about these leaders and engage in interesting discussions. We also require that students compare one leader’s approach to another’s, often over the same issue of social injustice.”

Featured texts in the course include Black Elk Speaks, The Essential Gandhi, , Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters from Prison, Malcolm X Speaks and Eli Wiesel’s Night. Each one tells a powerful story that can have strong and long-lasting effects on the reader. “These leaders experienced injustice first-hand and we read about their personal encounters with it,” said Livesey. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer died for the cause he upheld, as did Gandhi. It is not easy to forget their stories.”

Above all, this course emphasizes that successful leadership has no simple formula.

“The longer I teach this course, the more I realize that the greatness of these religious leaders is attributable to various unplanned and non-strategic elements. It seems to me now that their greatness as leaders only in part concerns individual attributes, but that life circumstances play a large role in the development of a leader. For these individuals, their success as a leader is determined by such things as the influences of family and friends; their awareness of external events; chance circumstances, that is, by simply living in a particular place and at a particular time; and by a willingness—often based on a felt need, as though one could do nothing else but—to speak out against injustice. History, our ability to look back, also plays a role in how we come to recognize these individuals as noteworthy and successful. I hope my students will come away from this course with a more nuanced understanding of leadership.”

See what else is offered by the College of Liberal Studies.

Mary Wuestewald
Mary Wuestewald specializes in digital and content marketing at OU Outreach. In 2015, she earned a master's degree in Strategic Communication from OU’s College of Journalism and Mass Communication. She currently contributes to Insight magazine, the CLS blog and CLS social media efforts.

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