Many activists already consider their work to be meaningful, but fewer seem to consider it sustainable or spiritual. And there are many people who don't consider themselves activists, yet are yearning to do something for their local or global community that resonates more strongly with their spirituality. How do we make sense of this misalignment between activism and spirituality? What do we do about it? Here are some fresh ideas – let's dive in!
It's helpful to start with an assessment of our social situation. We live in polarized times, marked by antagonism between various factions in our society. Many religions have been both resistors and enablers in this, and ultimately they may be casualties: there’s reason to believe that as zeal for religion wanes, it’s being reinvested in politics. At the same time, it’s also being reinvested in spirituality. So people are seemingly getting both more combative and more curious? How do we make sense of this apparent contradiction?
For me, these dynamics speak to our fundamental needs for both effective action and deep meaning. Many of us feel religion and other institutions have lost touch with either or both of these, so we turn to different outlets. But, in our secularized world, there doesn’t seem to be the meeting place we long for between politics and spirituality, so our lives become compartmentalized.
We talk and live politics in one moment, spirituality the next, as if meaning and action were somehow separable. This leaves us dissatisfied: the focus of politics merely on material reality doesn’t address our longings for and understanding of a deeper reality, and modern spirituality can be exasperatingly sentimental and disconnected from tangible change. Such artificial fragmentation fuels our anxiety and resentment, fueling in turn more polarization.
We can no longer afford this vicious cycle of gridlock, burnout, and alienation – the stakes for the planet and every one of us are too high. So how do we find a fulfilling, elevated middle ground between politics and spirituality? How do we find meaningful action and sustainable spiritual activism?
The ideas I offer here don’t replace the majority of what we typically consider activism, though they can alleviate – and I do hope they replace – the hostility that a more narrow-minded version of activism espouses. On the contrary, I think what I offer here can empower new gains for peace-and-justice-loving activists: a way out of our national animosity trap, a way into deeper Soulfulness, and a way to reconnect activism with an ethic of radical service.
Such values of peace-making, contemplation, and service have been much maligned in recent decades as naïvely ineffectual – even actively harmful – in the quest for a better world. But when we reexamine them through the eyes of our ancient ancestors, we can reclaim their wisdom, and reunite them in an understanding of ancestral activism. I think we’ll find these kinds of action more meaningful, more spiritual, and truer to who we are and want to be as Divine beings.
COHERING OUR WORLDVIEW
Our nation and our world desperately need to establish a common understanding of reality. If we continue fracturing into separate orbits of belief, we’ll only keep fraying our social fabric, until nothing but shreds and pain remain. We need to find relative political agreement, which means we need to first find relative spiritual agreement.
Per our working definition of spirituality, we need more deliberate social conversations about the meaning and nature of life and the Divine. These conversations should be hosted anywhere and everywhere – living rooms, public venues, conventions, podcasts, blogs, in our own journals, etc. These need to include people representing the diversity of backgrounds and belief systems – especially people who disagree with each other – with the express purpose of drafting and broadcasting resolutions of common ground. In this, mutual questions are as important as common beliefs. And we need to consider skilled curation of these conversations and reconciliation as activism, the way the founders of the great religious traditions and their even-more-ancient forbears did.
None of this reinvigoration of talking precludes action on the causes we care about – we will still have to advocate real change in the face of resistance. But if we continue only doing that, succumbing to cynicism about the power of conversation, we will be acting essentially in bad faith. This will only deepen the stalemate, inspire fewer and fewer people, and pave a road to ruin. (How many wars dragged on and on, destroying untold lives, because their combatants refused to verbally hash things out? Lives aside, how much sheer energy and time was wasted?) What if we could have something better, something that inspires even people who seemingly disagree – a shared, collaborative vision for our world that can facilitate more collaborative action?
If we can do this co-visioning, I think we’ll be surprised how much spiritual agreement there actually is, and how much more easily other agreements can then fall into place.
COMMUNING WITH NATURE
We can no longer afford to treat the Natural world simply as a resource to be expended, or as a concept to be idealized from the cushiness of the indoors. We need to fast from our consumptions and distractions, immerse ourselves regularly in Nature, and cultivate our spirituality there.
We avoid this for many reasons, including that we’re afraid we’ll feel a Divine calling out there that forces us to challenge our comfort. And we will feel that, no matter how “called” we already feel we are to what we’re doing – our Souls crave constant growth. We’re also afraid Nature will evoke our own unfathomable spiritual depths. And it will evoke that, as it uniquely can. Our fears of Sacredness here show these are tasks to be leaned into.
As the lives of contemporary ancestrally-connected people demonstrate – as do the lives of many prophets, from Moses, Gautama Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad, all the way to Harriet Tubman, Jane Goodall, and beyond – contemplative time in the wild world is the most accessible and direct path to our deepest selves and highest Soul commitments. It is, therefore, a form of activism everyone needs to engage, and one that opens us to further forms of activism.
None of this precludes partaking in those further forms in the meantime – our planet and people can’t wait for us each to feel 100% Soul-full before we step up to protect them. But like every other organism, each of us has a unique niche in which we can best serve the grand project of Life, a place from which we can personally offer the most leverage for evolution. The Divine is yearning for us to learn these, and to enable pathways for others to do the same. And the Earth itself is always ready to teach.
In Nature – and when we return from it – the connection between the spiritual and material is never more apparent. If human spirituality can learn directly from the Earth, soon the rest of human society will too.
CONTENDING WITH ALL FORMS OF POVERTY
Nowadays we tend to see poverty only as an issue of material/economic deficit, prompting various responses depending on one’s political persuasion. But the words “poverty” and “poor” have their roots simply in the words “few” and “small,” untethered to monetary connotations. In fact our ancient ancestors, closer to these roots, saw poverty less as financial deficit and more as relational deficit, coupled with spiritual deficit, and decoupled from judgmental accusations of a person’s failure.
Poverty was simply a small, isolated life with few relationships or spiritual supports. And this could befall anyone whether you made mistakes or not, thereby prompting more humility and compassion.
By this definition we are all impoverished to some degree, and the “poor” – living in relative solidarity with each other, and often more grateful for what they have – may actually be the “richest” among us in this way. Indeed, most prophets throughout history knew this and pointed it out, much to the chagrin of the power-brokers of their time, who feared popular camaraderie and self-possession.
If spiritual connectedness is the true measure of wealth, and that resource is found simply in the life of each human being, then the way to riches is relationship with the greatest sustainable number and variety of them. And this means real relationship: mutuality and co-mentorship, inviting each other to deeper Soulfulness, opening your door and providing family, home, and belonging for one another. This is the model exemplified by some of our greatest spiritual leaders. And there’s a lot of evidence that losing this form of community-building ancestral activism lies at the root of many of our other contemporary social ills.
None of this precludes supporting others materially/economically – in fact the more our lives are woven together, the more likely we are to share these gifts too. Nor does this radical service approach preclude things like tax-and-spend programs or donations to nonprofits. But it’s not as clean, glamorous, or removed as these more modern notions of welfare. It’s more like a spiritual version of mutual aid and the service-activism of many monastic orders: messy, humbling, face-to-face work. That’s partly how you know it’s more transformative, for everyone.
Here again, we find spirituality made manifest on the realest level, illuminating solutions that call forth who we truly are.
WHERE DO WE GO NEXT?
You might find one or more of the ideas above resonates with what you're looking for as part of your Spiritual Moment and community search, thus it may be something to talk about with people you encounter in that. And in many cases, these ideas can be readily woven into outlets we’re already engaging in for activism, service, and spirituality in our local communities.
Beyond that, these proposals don’t have a ton of traction – yet: our r/evolution toward ancestral activism has only just begun. Still, there are a few lesser-known, visionary organizations and thought-leaders that are helping kickstart the next generation of meaningful action. Here is a (very-incomplete) introductory list of (imperfect but) thought-provoking examples:
Ideological reconciliation: the interfaith movement, Heterodox Academy, and the projects of the #ListenFirst Coalition; religion/spirituality scholars Karen Armstrong and Reza Aslan; political commentators Van Jones (progressive) and Yuval Levin (conservative)
Addressing poverty: the mutual aid movement
As you explore these examples and ponder ancestral activism, I wonder... what other ideas would you add?
And I offer you some final reflection questions:
How have you been engaging in activism, peace-making, contemplation, service, and spirituality?
How have you been cultivating the power of conversation, seeking common ground with those you disagree with?
How have you been learning – especially in Nature – where you can offer the most leverage for change?
How have you been experiencing the riches of relationship, solidarity, camaraderie, gratitude, and self-possession?