“No one ever told us we had to study our lives,make of our lives a study, as if learning natural historyor music, that we should beginwith the simple exercises firstand slowly go on tryingthe hard ones, practicing till strengthand accuracy became one with the daringto leap into transcendence …– And in fact we can’t live like that: we take oneverything at once before we’ve even begunto read or mark time, we’re forced to beginin the midst of the hardest movement,the one already sounding as we are born.”— Adrienne Rich, “Transcendental Etude”
In light of the hate and violence seen this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, I feel it’s important to raise again an issue which is frequently debated both in Pagan and Religious Naturalist circles: the relationship between religion and politics or between spirituality and activism.
Politics as a Spiritual Practice
I recently was perusing the Spiritual Naturalist Society’s site, curious about their perspective on this question. If you’re not familiar, SNS is a sister organization to HumanisticPaganism.com. B. T. Newberg, who founded this site, and DT Strain, who has been a contributor and a long-time supporter, both play important roles at SNS. DT himself has written several articles on this issue at SNS, and he has done a good job of articulating one of the perspectives that I frequently hear in both Pagan and Religious Naturalist circles. Like many Religious Naturalists, DT sees an absence of spiritual grounding in much of current activism. “Politics,” says DT, “is a poor substitute for spirituality.” As proof of this, DT observes, that “it is in the socially active political organizations that some of the most unhappy, heartbroken, or angry people can be found.”
I agree, but I don’t draw the same conclusions from this as DT. DT defines “spirituality” in terms of the attributes of equanimity, wisdom, compassion. If compassion is an element of spirituality, then I would expect any truly spiritual person to be “unhappy, heartbroken, or angry” when confronting the injustice and suffering in world. Unhappiness, heartbrokeness, and anger are not only natural responses to injustice, I would argue that they are spiritual responses. And I would argue there may even be times when equanimity is not a spiritual response to the situation (or at least not the appropriate spiritual response).
Now, I agree that many activists (myself included) would benefit from spiritual exercises that would help ground them and sustain them in their activist work. Burnout and compassion fatigue are real problems among activists of all types. And when it’s not spiritually grounded, the message activists communicate may be counterproductive. But it’s a mistake, I think, to conclude from this that activism is not itself spiritual. DT describes SNS as a quest for a set of practices, grounded in naturalistic assumptions, which foster spirituality–and I believe that activism can be just such a practice.
Getting the Cart Before the Horse?
Whenever I hear this issue discussed, there always is someone who argues that we need to get ourselves straightened out first before we engage the world, or else we will end up reproducing our internal issues externally. There’s an appealing logic to this argument, which is summed up in the maxim, “Be the Change” (i.e., be the change you want to see in the world). Just the past weekend, as events were unfolding in Charlottesville, a member of my Unitarian congregation argued that our congregation over emphasizes “Doing” at the expense of “Being.” (I actually agree with him in the case of my congregation.) This is what DT seems to be saying when he writes that activists “put the cart before the horse.” The “horse,” for DT, is individual spiritual practice, and the “cart” is doing good in the world.
I am willing to admit that there are different kinds of people and what works for one person may not work for another. But in my own experience, I have found that trying to “Be the Change” before trying to make the change just didn’t work. For years, I ascribed to the model of putting individual practice before social action. What I found was that I never got to the point of engaging the rest of the world. My personal spiritual practice always stalled out, and I never felt like I had achieved the level of personal development to qualify me to go forth and do good in the world.
It wasn’t until I reached my middle years that I realized what I had been missing. I needed to engage the world in order to become the kind of person I wanted to be. My spiritual practice was faltering because I was doing it in a vacuum. In my case at least, positive social action did not flow out of personal development; personal development flowed out of positive social action. Joanna Macy explains my experience of the relationship between self-transformation and social change thusly:
“When we posit a fundamental separation between liberation of self and transformation of society, we tend to view the personal and the political in a sequential fashion. ‘I’ll get enlightened first, and then I’ll engage in social action,’ we say. ‘I’ll get my head straight first, I’ll get psychoanalyzed, I’ll overcome my inhibitions or neuroses or my hang-ups and then I’ll wade into the fray.’ Presupposing that world and self are essentially separate, we imagine we can heal one before healing the other. … It is my experience that the world itself has a role to play in our liberation. Its very pressures, pains, and risks can wake us up–release us from the bonds of ego and guide us home to our vast, true nature.”
― Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self
I don’t think I would ever have been able to recognize my elitism until I started working with people who were economically disadvantaged. I don’t think I could ever have woken up to my inherent biases until I gathered in a room of mostly Black activists. And I don’t think I would ever have had my mystical epiphany about the interconnectedness of life until I had until I had started advocating for climate justice.
DT argues that by focusing on self-development, individuals become more capable of acting for positive social change. The thing is, I wonder if many of them, like me, will never get there unless they also engage the world. I know so many people who are focused on personal development and never seem to get any closer to being agents of change. Meanwhile, the world calls for actors. And if we do not step up to answer that call, others will, who are perhaps even less suited to the calling than we are.
The Unavoidability of Politics
I agree with DT, politics is not spirituality, and activism is not spirituality. But political activism may be a practice to help us cultivate spirituality, just like the mindfulness and contemplative practices which SNS encourages. And this is why I disagree with DT’s conclusion that spiritual communities should be apolitical.
To begin with I think DT conflates (as many people do) politics with partisanship. Partisanship has to do with political candidates and parties. But politics is much broader; politics has to do with how power is exercised in society. This includes official forms of power, like political offices and state functions like the police. But it also include less obvious relations of power, like the relationship between a male supervisor and a female employee or even a husband and wife.
Yes, religious organizations are supposed to refrain from political campaigning or endorsing political candidates or parties. But there are many ways to be political, in the broad sense of the term, without engaging in partisan politics. In fact, I think being political is unavoidable. If we’re not actively political, trying to foster change, then we are passively political, reinforcing the status quo. Let me give you one example …
The reason why I actually was reading about politics on the SNS site is because I had noticed that SNS had just started posting on Patheos again last month after a lull of about a year. A lot has happened in that year, and I was curious if SNS had acknowledged what had happened. As you may or may not know, Patheos was purchased by Beliefnet. In January, Patheos sent new contracts to all of its bloggers which greatly expanded the Patheos’ editorial control. The contract prohibited “disparaging” of Patheos or any “related” company.
A little online research by one Pagan blogger revealed that Patheos is affiliated with an number of right-wing organizations, including the NRA, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America, the American Family Association, and the American Center of Law and Justice, the latter of which has promoted legislation in Africa which would have made homosexual sex punishable by death. (You can read more about the connections between Patheos and these groups here.) These affiliations rendered the expanded editorial control Patheos was claiming even more problematic.
As a result of all of this, about two dozen Patheos Pagan writers left the site. In addition, the editor and the regular columnists at HumanisticPaganism.com decided to discontinue discussions with Patheos about moving the site to Patheos. These were political decisions, as was the decision of many writers (including SNS) to stay at Patheos.
Some of the writers, like SNS, may have chosen to stay for reasons they consider to be non-political, but the effect of their decision is nevertheless political. And even if they chose to stay for non-political reasons, Patheos writers like SNS cannot avoid other political choices, like what they will write about. Will they advocate in their writing for LGBT issues? Will they write critically of Patheos for its association with anti-LGBT groups?
These are political questions, and they cannot be avoided through silence, because silence is its own kind of answer. As Pagan Patheos writer and activist, Melissa Hill, recently wrote in response to the murder of Heather Heyer by a Neo-Nazi in Charlottesville,
“Choosing to not speak is an action in and of itself. Each of us needs to think very carefully about who we are and what we stand for. What does our religion stand for? … We must be actively be speaking against these actions. Silence makes us complicit.”
A Spiritual Politics
DT sees the role of spiritual organizations as providing “refuge,” and I know several people in by Unitarian congregation who would agree with him. There is definitely a need for places of spiritual refuge, sanctuaries for the soul. That is one function which a spiritual organization can fulfill. But, unlike DT, I don’t think it is the only function. In fact, I think it would be wrong for spiritual groups to limit themselves to this role.
Many of the world’s great social leaders, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi, saw their spiritual and social callings as intertwined. Imagine how the world would be different if King had stayed in his pulpit and out of the street, or if Ghandi had just stayed home and made salt by himself? For both King and Ghandi nonviolence was a spiritual practice, and–this is key–one which could only be practiced in the confrontation with power outside the refuge of their own communities. DT correctly observes that “there is no Martin Luther King, Jr. without church on Sunday.” But, likewise, there is no Martin Luther King, Jr. without marching in the street.
At the end of his article, DT does acknowledge that there is a kind of “spiritual politics”:
“For the practitioner of spiritual politics, every word, vote, sign, march, publication, and rally is an opportunity to reach the hearts of others, to cultivate understanding, to reach out and connect with rivals, to love our enemies, to disarm with sincerity and kindness, to ignite their empathy and capacity for good, to buck the common understanding of ‘political strategy’, to have more in mind than the next election, and more. Spiritual politics requires far more patience, far more strength, and far more endurance than common, profane politics.”
I agree that a spiritual politics looks and feels very different from a profane politics. And I also agree that a truly spiritual politics “requires a regular rejuvenation and renewal in inward-focused practices and ritual, both alone and in spiritual communities.” But I disagree with DT that a spiritual politics will always have contemplative tone (the kind reflected by the contemplative practices that SNS favors). Contemplation is only one form of spirituality. Ecstatic practices are another form, and I think a spiritual politics can be ecstatic as well. Just look at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches and tell me whether they were more contemplative or ecstatic!
Spirituality Without Politics is Lame
I don’t mean to pick on DT or on the Spiritual Naturalist Society. The view DT expresses is one I have heard from many others, in my Unitarian congregation, on the Pagan blogosphere, and elsewhere. And perhaps this really comes does to a difference of personality. What happens to be your “cart” may be my “horse,” and vice versa. Or it may just be a difference of emphasis. DT worries about the negative impact of profane politics, and looking at some of the activist groups, I think he has good reason to worry. A politics without spirituality is indeed blind.
But a spirituality without politics is lame. And that is why I worry about an apolitical spirituality. Specifically, I worry that individual spiritual practice in isolation from engagement with the world will never lead to real personal development and thus never lead to positive social change. That was my personal experience, at least.
And I also worry about an apolitical spirituality which tells us that we need to accept the world as it is because we are powerless to change it. For one thing, such an attitude perpetuates the status quo. For another, it’s just wrong. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” History has demonstrated that small, but dedicated minorities can indeed create widespread positive social change.
And there is another aspect to this issue which needs to be highlighted, that is, the issue of privilege. Sitting back and practicing equanimity and a contemplative attitude is a privilege that many people do not have. It is a privilege of mostly white, educated, middle-class, cis-gendered, heterosexual males. It is not a option for many people of color. It is not a option for many gay, lesbian, queer or transgender people have. It is not an option for many poor people, or for many women, or for many others who are disempowered by systemic injustice.
There is a tension between Being and Doing, or rather, a reciprocal relationship between them. But I don’t think we can choose to start with one and then proceed to do the other when are ready. The world calls us to do both now, at the same time, as the Adrienne Rich quote that opened this article says. Or as Pancho Ramos-Stierelec, a 26 year old who was arrested at Occupy Oakland while mediating, said:
“It is time for spiritual people to get active and the activist people to get spiritual. I think we need both now. In order to build the alternatives to our collapsing system which is built on structural violence we need to have a total revolution of the human spirit. We need to combine the inner revolution with the outer revolution.”
— as recorded in Adam Bucko and Matthew Fox’s book, Occupy Spirituality:
Yes, we must have compassion for our political opposition, and yes, even for the murderer of Heather Heyer. But if we are not to be made complicit in her murder, we must also act. Equanimity does not suffice under these circumstances. Heartbrokeness and anger are the appropriate spiritual responses here. Especially if they give rise to concrete social action. Especially if they move us to speak out against the hate speech which inspires such violence.
If you hear the call too, here are some other things you can do:
- Denounce white supremacy publicly on all your social media accounts.
- Donate to the Charlottesville Anti-Racist Legal Fund.
- Support you local Black Lives Matter and SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) groups.
- Donate to the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
- Demand that your representatives in Congress do more to fight white supremacy.
- Take peacekeeping training.
- When your racist family members or friends say something about “n—-ers” at the family reunion or on Facebook, speak up!
John Halstead is Editor-At-Large and a contributor at HumanisticPaganism.com. He blogs about Paganism generally at AllergicPagan.com (which was previously hosted by Patheos) and about Jungian Neo-Paganism at “Dreaming the Myth Onward” (which is hosted by Witches & Pagans). He is also an occasional contributor to GodsandRadicals.org and The Huffington Post and the administrator of the site Neo-Paganism.com. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which can be found at ecopagan.com. He is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community, which is described at GodisChange.org. John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans.