posted Oct 31, 2005In the spiritual folklore of India, there is a recurring image of Mother Earth, unable to bear the sufferings caused by human beings, going to Lord Vishnu to beg for relief. This image was invoked years ago by Ammachi, one of the most popular of India's living spiritual teachers, when she warned that the abuse of the Earth by modern economies would soon lead to a backlash if we did not learn to live sensibly—that is, lightly—on the planet that bore us.
Then came Katrina. At every level—from the global warming that likely increased the severity of the hurricane, to the ecological devastation that caused the flooding, to the shocking abandonment of the city's poor, to the severity of the deluge—this is a human-made disaster. And not the last. Bill McKibben now warns that “New Orleans ... very much resembles the planet we will inhabit for the rest of our lives.” You cannot fault him for this pessimism; people who seem to be intoxicated with their own reckless folly have unleashed a wrecking ball of greed and violence against the miraculous life-support system that is our Earth, already causing damage at every level, from our DNA to the weather.
Like most myths, the story of Mother Earth going to Vishnu for help contains wisdom that can be translated into modern terms: When things get this bad, the story is saying, only spiritual energy can save us. There is evidence that many of us feel that way.
In July, 2005, Tikkun's Rabbi Michael Lerner, along with myself and many others, convened a gathering of more than 1,200 participants for a Conference on Spiritual Activism. The number would have been larger, but we had to close registration two weeks early because we filled the space.
The enthusiasm is not hard to understand. It was partly a pent-up reaction to the highjacking of Christianity by the Religious Right to support policies that are, in fact, condemned by the wisdom traditions of all cultures?—not the first time this has happened to that otherwise fine religion. As Evangelical minister Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine and a featured speaker at the Conference on Spiritual Activism put it, “When they're stealing your faith, you fight back.”
But there's a deeper and more positive reason, and that's the growing hope that “spiritual activism” might just be the missing ingredient, the lightning rod, to galvanize the progressive movement and help it radically turn things around.
What is Spiritual Activism?
Spiritual activism arises from awareness of the inter?connectedness—for some, the unity—of all life. This awareness may have little to do with your formal religious affiliation.
A powerful example is Third Party Nonviolent Intervention (TPNI), in which volunteers go into conflicts to intervene among, and, if need be, interpose themselves between, conflicting parties. There you will find explicitly faith-based groups, like Christian Peacemaker Teams, Michigan Faith and Resistance, and the Muslim Peace Teams recently formed in Iraq, working alongside secular ones like the venerable Peace Brigades International. But they are all doing the same, very spiritual thing: risking their lives for “strangers.”
People across a wide spectrum of political and religious belief have been moved by an experience of interconnectedness; a U.S. Marine who was handing out food to tsunami victims in Banda Aceh said, “I've been serving my country for 34 years, and never got anything out of it like I'm getting today.”
When the progressive movement learns how to harness the power of this vision, watch out. Because spiritual activism tends, among other things, to unite where religious identities divide, thus offering a “way out of no way” in today's often sterile debates between “Left” and “Right.”
A Hundred Flowers in Search of a Garden
In fact, most progressives are already acting out of a sense that life is an interconnected whole. Take economic justice projects, for example. People who work on microlending, fair trade, and such efforts work from, and make manifest a profound sense of solidarity with their fellow human beings.
Further, those who are involved in simple-living experiments, intentional communities, local currencies and barter systems are not just redistributing wealth, but redefining it. Instead of defining their personal wealth in terms of what they own, they are calculating their wealth by the quality of their relationships and their experiences of meaning. These are all spiritual activists in the sense just defined, and so are those working on progressive projects in many other areas.
Why isn't their collective energy prevailing?
Because, I believe, we still lack a frame (á là my colleague George Lakoff) with which to embrace all these projects and give them meaning and coherence. But I don't think we are far from finding one.
If you read Gandhi's classic Satyagraha in South Africa, you will come across a deceptively simple remark from the very beginning of his politico-spiritual career in 1894: “The question of internal improvement was also taken up.”
In other words, even as he was mobilizing his fellow Indians to resist exploitation by the European-based Natal government, he saw that there was constructive work to be done within his own community. So was born the famed “Constructive Programme” that informed and empowered his 30-year struggle to make the British give back the jewel in the crown.
Imagine it Gets Real
A Network of Spiritual Progressives has grown out of the July conference, with chapters in two dozen cities and groups of youth, professionals, and members of the Democratic and Green parties forming caucuses.
The Network is also developing a campaign to identify and label products that are healthy for people and the planet, produced in ethical ways. And a group is forming to counter “Consumption Frenzy,” especially around the holidays.
Now imagine if we were to take the next step. Imagine if, instead of saying, “Get the troops and corporations out of Iraq now,” we were to say “Get the troops out of Iraq in X months or face massive civil disobedience.” In other words, imagine getting real.
Envision spending those intervening months in intensive training for civil disobedience, including outreach to uncommitted—or even hostile—parties to explain our alternative.
And now imagine that we actually realize that alternative, that we build sustainable lives with spiritual relationships among ourselves and the world, based on contact with our own deeper selves; economic justice; food security; restorative justice; a healthy tax base that draws on the resources of those who can afford it; “off the margins” experiments like non-money exchange; decentralized media and real communities; microlending and community banks; community supported agriculture; demilitarization; decommercialization—all the projects that are reported in the pages of this magazine.
We would be doing nothing more nor less than recreating Gandhi's famous movement. We would combine Constructive Programme—for him, village uplift, cottage industry, women's empowerment and the 15 other projects humming like his spinning wheel behind the threats and obstructive actions taken when the occasion demanded—with Satyagraha, or definite obstructive action. Seen in this light, an environmentalist saving forests and an activist “crossing the line” at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning are already part of the same movement. The time has come to be more aware of this. The knowledge of the interconnectedness of our work has power.
But something else has to happen if we are to capture the spiritual energy we want and keep those two modes of action in balance. Those involved in both obstructive and constructive work need better links with the overtly spiritual practitioners among us. These include the people of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, who have been active in prison work and against the death penalty since the group was founded by Thich Nhat Hanh in 1978; the young people of the more recent “new monasticism”—evangelical suburbanites who, inspired by students from Eastern University who joined 40 homeless families being evicted from a Philadelphia church in 1996, have begun to form intentional communities to counter materialism, living with the poor, themselves; even the meditators in their closets—or their ashrams, or their sanghas, or their “prayer of silence” retreats out in the desert. We should now understand that even when not engaged in outward action, these people are changing the world, if only by helping to keep our activism nonviolent and our constructive action relevant.
We are, in some ways, close to this kind of movement already. We only need to be more coordinated, even (dare we say it) organized, so that we can not only get over our mutual distrust, but also decide together when to take part in Constructive Programme, when to invoke civil disobedience, and when to engage both modes.
In the kind of spiritual progressive movement we seem to be groping for, we would be “joined at the heart” not only by our sense of common purpose, not only by the overview that we would be able to articulate, but by our rootedness in a new spiritual vision (which we could also articulate) of what it means to be human and alive on this planet.
It is this movement which—in the words of Arundhati Roy—we can almost hear breathing in the spiritual activism trying to be born around us.
I believe we can make it work.
It's not like we can afford to fail.
Michael Nagler is the author of Search for a Nonviolent Future, Inner Ocean, and Our Spiritual Crisis (Open Court).
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