image enhanced from original by Bird Eye
– by B. T. Newberg
Ten years after 9/11, what place has politics in your spirituality? Are you doing rituals outside your state capitol? Or do you separate politics from your spirituality? Or do you just say to hell with it all?
Please take part in the poll below.
No doubt a great variety of answers may come of this question. Spirituality strides the gulf of opinion from activist to cynic, and always has.
Yet I wonder if it is genuinely possible anymore to not have an opinion. There may have been a time when isolation, whether by mountain ridges or suburban picket fences, blessed us with the luxury of indifference. Recent events make that no longer possible.
The fact of the matter is that today, world politics is an existential condition. Each and every one of us cannot help but confront it sooner or later.
The attacks of September 11th showed the world, especially those of us who thought we were safe in our backyard pools and SUVs, that there is no more isolation. Like it or not, the dilemmas of world politics are our dilemmas.
It only makes sense, then, that any spiritual path worth its salt must reply to world politics. Whether it be civic duty, civil disobedience, or anarchic unrest, some response is demanded. How will you respond?
To put the question in perspective, we may do well to consider it in the long view of history.
Politics and spirit in the ancient world
There was no one dominant view toward politics in the ancient world. Spiritual traditions ran the gamut from political engagement to studied detachment.
It must be recognized, first of all, that although today we have separation of church and state, in the ancient world there was little or no distinction between the two. The mysteries of Isis developed from rituals for the sole benefit of the Pharoah, and politicians in Greece and Rome regularly consulted the Oracle of Delphi for advice. So it was not easy to sort obligations to government from those to gods.
Yet that did not mean all were politically engaged. A wide variety of opinions obtained. We could survey a vast span from Druid lawyers to Indian ascetics, but let’s just take two examples to illustrate the range: Stoics and Epicureans.
From the death of Alexander the Great till the fall of Rome, two of the most popular spiritual philosophies were Stoicism and Epicureanism. These had radically opposing views on politics. Stoics were deeply involved, Epicureans, detached.
The Stoic View
The Stoics considered themselves cosmopolitans, or citizens of the world. They felt an obligation toward their brethren, and advocated clemency toward slaves. The turbulence of politics was weathered with indifference, and all satisfaction lied in performing with virtue. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, a personal diary never intended for publication, betrays a thoughtful emperor striving to do his duty amidst the harry of constant war with tribes to the north.
The Epicurean View
In contrast, the Epicureans felt politics a stormy sea best avoided. The good life minimized suffering and maximized tranquility, and the best way to do that was to steer clear of the unpredictable tides of fortune. Instead, they lived lives of simplicity. Epicurus maintained a garden home outside Athens – not a monastery, but something close to a commune – to which he invited friends for meals of bread, water, and conversation. Within his social circle he was a radical proponent of change, admitting both women and slaves to his school. Yet public politics he studiously avoided.
These opposing poles of involvement and detachment represent the gamut of the ancient world. A ready parallel from China can be seen in the involved Confucian and the detached Taoist. Other ancient traditions can be located somewhere along this spectrum.
Politics and spirit in the modern world
A similar span can be seen today. There are both Thai forest hermits and engaged Buddhists like Thich Nhat Hanh. Within Neopaganism, there are such dedicated activists as Starhawk as well as those who eschew politics altogether. There are also anarchic views like this one.
As for Humanism, there has long been a political streak. Humanist Manifestoes I, II, and III lay out broad goals of world peace and prosperity. The American Civil Liberties Union enjoys few greater supporters than Humanists. Yet political office remains largely closed to them. At present, there is only one openly-nontheist politician in the United States Congress. This no doubt leaves many Humanists understandably jaded.
The spectrum from involvement to detachment remains the case even in today’s global village. Yet the events of September 11th re-open the question.
Spirituality ten years after 9/11
It is now a decade after nearly 3000 people were killed in the attacks on the World Trade Towers. In the time since, more than 100,000 civilians died in America’s war in Iraq, and thousands more in Afghanistan. With the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, the fall of Osama bin Laden, and the revolutions of the Arab Spring, it may seem that the storm is finally over.
But that is not the case.
The stage is set for the next act in a theater of war. Al Qaeda remains, and U.S. armed forces are now rehearsing for possible action against cells in Yemen and Somalia.
Somalia in particular hits home for me. Standing on my street corner in Minneapolis (nicknamed “Little Mogadishu”), I can see several Somali restaurants. And as a teacher of English as a Second Language, many of my students are Somali. It is more than an idle fear for me that a war in Somalia could turn the American public against them.
While I’ve never been an activist per se, it’s hard to stand by while people you know are under threat. This has led me to raise awareness about admirable Somali figures. There’s Hawa Abdi, for example – Somalia’s first gynecologist and current leader of a camp of 90,000 refugees. There’s her daughter, Deqo Mohammed, who fights against the practice of recruiting child soldiers. And then there’s Sada Mire, the country’s only remaining archaeologist still braving the chaos.
The American public is now far more educated about Islam than it was ten years ago. One might think this would lead to better interfaith relations, but that may not be the case. Muslims in America are divided on whether all their efforts at education have done any good.
Yet that is not the death knell for peace and understanding. Interfaith efforts have increased, a summit of religious leaders is underway in New York, and a 9/11 Unity Walk is marching in Washington, D.C. The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard is holding an interfaith community service event. And many Pagans across the country are no doubt lighting candles at this moment, as in the 9/11 Ritual for Tolerance and Remembrance.
Are these efforts meaningful, or all in vain? Should we engage politics like the Stoics, or intentionally retire from the circus like the Epicureans?
One thing is certain: post-9/11, we’re all a lot more aware of the immediacy of the problem. No longer can we rock in our chairs at home while wars rage on foreign soil. September Eleventh brought it to our front door. For good or ill, we no longer enjoy the luxury of indifference.
World politics is an existential condition. There is nowhere left to escape it. In the year 2011, no one does not feel its effects, and no one can afford to be ignorant of it. As such, it makes sense that any spiritual worldview must take a stance on world politics. Whether we choose to respond to it with involvement or detachment, a choice is necessary.
And the choice can be strikingly counter-intuitive. Take, for example, Patti Quigley and Susan Retik. These two women, both pregnant, lost their husbands in the 9/11 attacks. Stricken with grief, they decided the best way to make sense of it all was to raise money for war widows in Afghanistan. Rather than seek revenge, they empathized with those facing the same crisis but on the opposing side. How’s that for a contemporary answer to world politics?
To be or not to be… political
So, ten years after 9/11, what do you say? Do you stand by the Stoics, weathering tribulations with virtue and striving for justice? Or do you take to the Epicurean garden in search of serenity? Or is there a third way?
I would love to hear where you stand.
– by B. T. Newberg