I realize that I cannot stand by silently as my government executes its citizens. If I do not speak out and resist, I am an accomplice.
~Helen Prejean, Activist Nun and author of “Dead Man Walking”
For decades Sister Helen Prejean has resisted the death penalty and devoted her life to educating citizens regarding its economic, social, and spiritual costs to a society. She is one of myriad activists who are informed and supported by a spiritual path and a sense of something greater at work in the world and in their lives than the purely rational-scientific paradigm of industrial civilization. Sacred activists throughout history are legion, but contemporary sacred activists include Andrew Harvey, Matthew Fox, Julia Butterfly Hill, Adam Bucko, Linda Tucker, Megan Rice, the Dali Lama, Simone Campbell, and physicist/activist, Vandana Shiva who declares that “real science is spiritual.”
Activists emerge from a plethora of milieus. Many insist that resistance has nothing to do with spirituality, and that in fact, spiritual and psychological perspectives are “individualistic” and “self-serving” indulgences which only perpetuate injustice and oppression. Other activists such as Dorothy Day, W.E.B. Du Bois, Wendell Berry, the Berrigan Brothers, and Malcolm X have woven the psycho-spiritual into their campaigns and into their lives.
In his 2009 book The Hope: A Guide To Sacred Activism, Andrew Harvey defines the integration of activism and the sacred:
A spirituality that is only private and self-absorbed, one devoid of an authentic political and social consciousness, does little to halt the suicidal juggernaut of history. On the other hand, an activism that is not purified by profound spiritual and psychological self-awareness and rooted in divine truth, wisdom, and compassion will only perpetuate the problem it is trying to solve, however righteous its intentions. When, however, the deepest and most grounded spiritual vision is married to a practical and pragmatic drive to transform all existing political, economic and social institutions, a holy force – the power of wisdom and love in action – is born. This force I define as Sacred Activism.
As if it were yesterday, I clearly recall myself in my twenties—a petulant, strident feminist on the front lines and in the streets with issues related to women’s justice, racism, imperialism, workers’ rights, animals, and the environment. In those days my heroes were Marx, Lenin, Emma Goldman, Rosa Luxembourg, Mao Zedong, and the Black Panthers. Only a few pioneering minds were beginning to distinguish between religion and spirituality, but I would not be able to make that distinction for at least another decade. For me, all things beyond rational were, in Marx’s words, “opiates of the masses.” Emotions? Really? Any indulgence in these would only perpetuate the misery engendered by capitalism, I insisted. Reason, science, activism, and above all, justice were fundamental because they advanced the well being of the collective, particularly those who were oppressed, but all things psychological were compartmentalized by me as “individualistic”.
I can’t say that this perspective worked well for me in my thirties, but it was never far from me. I resorted to it whenever possible. However, in my forties, my life blew open. A series of conflicts and losses eviscerated my reasoned, superbly-managed existence. I was confronted with a deeply personal crisis: Would I allow reason to occupy the back burner of my psyche and willingly explore my emotions, or would I continue to repress them in favor of a lifestyle of control that was rapidly descending into abject chaos?
Never losing my passion for justice, I surrendered (which does not mean ‘give up’) to the relentless demands of the psyche and began a journey of self-exploration which I have never regretted because I now understand that had I not embarked on it, I may not be alive today writing these words. I needed some years to devote to my profoundly neglected soul before I could quite naturally begin to integrate the sacred with my activism.
Some people who do not understand my work believe that in the face of the collapse of industrial civilization and catastrophic climate change, I am only seeking to dispense “inner peace” and assist people in comfortably capitulating to our collective predicament. Were they to pay attention to my writing and speaking, they would hear my incessant rants on resistance and service in a time of collective demise. But just in case I haven’t been clear enough: If you’re not living on the edge, as the saying goes, you’re taking up too much space. If you’re not resisting in every way possible, and at the same time using your gifts to heal, serve, and confront the death machine, part of you has “given up” and chosen to abide in hospice from a perspective of meaningless waiting for the inevitable. We can all do better than that.
People younger than 40 often lack appreciation for their personal/familial/intergenerational wounding and the likelihood that attending to their wounds will re-make them into more compassionate, vital, and empowered human beings whose activism is informed not by libraries of statistically-based information but by being ripped open and turned inside out emotionally and spiritually. In traditional societies, this was accomplished at puberty during formal initiation rites in which the young person was supported and held by the community through life-threatening ordeals that dropped them into their depths to discover precisely what resources lay deep inside them.
In modern times, our “initiations” often occur during mid-life in isolation, without the support of the community, and in an inordinately extroverted culture that demeans both the existence and value of the inner world. Somehow, perhaps by something greater than our own efforts, many of us get through our initiations and come to reverence them as gifts of inestimable value.
Indeed some younger individuals grasp the necessity of opening to the sacred as articulated by Adam Bucko, an activist in his late-thirties and author of Occupy Spirituality—a book which is essentially a dialog between two activists, Adam and former Catholic priest, Matthew Fox. Adam works with homeless youth in New York and has been active in the Occupy movement there. On the topic of sacred activism, Adam writes, “The Occupy generation can boast that one true sign of spirit: courage. Life is to be lived not through the language of a frozen system but from the ‘shaman’ in us. Spiritual democracy challenges politics because it enables us to interact with other human beings and other beings in a way that is democratic and respects that grace that is coming to all and through us and others.”
The Icarus Project of Richmond, Virginia has published “Mindful Occupation,” a manual for activists produced by its Occupy Mental Health Project. Icarus approaches activism from a holistic perspective and assists its readers in nourishing mind, body, and spirit—as well as one another. Clearly, they do not view the psycho-spiritual aspect of activism as “individualistic” or “self-serving.” Icarus activists also understand the emotional and spiritual toll that living and campaigning only from our heads takes on the whole person, and they grasp the ultimate cost of using a fragmented approach for creating change.
I cannot help but notice the name “Icarus” for this project. Icarus was the mythological character who wanted to escape from the island of Crete and decided to do so by flying away using wings he constructed from wax. He was warned not to fly too close to the sun because his wings might melt, but he did not heed the warning and fell into the sea and drowned. We might say that when we attempt to escape from oppression or radically alter it, if we are not grounded in the body and fortified by our sacred core, we become vulnerable to our ego-driven tendencies, end up “flying too high,” and risk a fatal fall on one level or another.
History is replete with failed revolutions and monumental shifts in societies and cultures that ultimately reverted to former oppressive patterns because change was attempted only through rational means. How often have pre-revolution activists championed the rights of women but post-revolution, allowed themselves or their associates to return to misogynistic behavior? How often have pre-revolutionaries crusaded for free speech and uncensored creativity, yet post-revolution, monitored, censored, or even imprisoned artists and poets for their diverse and controversial works?
The sacred has often been disowned by activists who argue that the sacred does not exist and that qualities such as compassion, acceptance, justice, equality, democracy, non-violence, and sharing are not “sacred” qualities but rather inherently “human” qualities. Indeed, these attributes are aspects of the human spirit, but so are violence, greed, oppression, and hate. Something greater that is both within us and beyond us must be enjoined in our activism. As Charles Eisenstein writes in Ascent Of Humanity:
For the mystic and the artist, something greater than ourselves flows through us. Breath flows through us, food flows through us, matter flows through us, replacing every cell and atom in our bodies repeatedly over the course of a lifetime. Life flows through us. Life lives us, despite our misperception that it is the other way around. To accept and not fight this is to return to the original affluence of the hunter-gatherer.
Rather than assume that emotions will stultify our activist fervor, we can skillfully employ passion to inform and motivate it. Activist Jack Adam Weber who spearheaded the successful 2013 campaign against GMOs on the Big Island of Hawaii writes of “The Power of Heartbreak”…
Heartbreak, sadness, and fear are not distractions and impediments to fulfillment, enlightenment, and belonging; they are the way to a fertile, just world made of sane, caring people. To deny these emotions, as well as genuine humble joy and celebration, is to sow the seeds of sociopathy….The courageous path, then, is to love more, fiercely more, to reconcile as much of the pain of the world through service and the celebration of radical beauty as we can.
Implicit in Weber’s statement is the suggestion that if we do not allow ourselves to consciously work with and be transformed by our emotions, we risk the likelihood that the so-called “revolution” we are forging will begin to resemble the vapid, anesthetized culture we have so fervently forsaken. For this very reason, change is not only an outward shift; it must be mirrored internally by a transformed psyche, or else we risk falling into the same post-revolutionary oppression mentioned previously.
When confronted with the decimation of our planet, Weber writes, “Let your heart break in the face of its decimation; sit with that feeling in your body, and let your good mind register the unedited upshot. Of its own accord, in its own time, this sadness can catalyze you, as the passion of devastation. Keep channeling the passion and compassion of your sacredly broken-open heart towards more reverence of nature, one another, and yourself, while acting to protect and enjoy and care for all of it. This is radical embrace.”
We are not engaging in activism for the sake of change only. In fact, making change is the easy part. Much more challenging is the gestation of incipient change in a well-discerned paradigm for the future, sustained by compassionate forethought and a willingness to honor our intuitive sense of the outcome, even if we do not know it with certainty. For this, the heart, as well as the intellect must be fully engaged.
Cherishing the sacred in our activism and in our visions of revolutionized communities and cultures increases the likelihood that we will resist from our hearts and not simply from our heads. As a result, the new paradigms out of which our visions are realized will engender authentic transformations with more enduring resilience as opposed to reinventions of formerly oppressive systems. As we integrate the sacred with activism, we ally with all aspects of our being beyond merely the mental and physical, thereby opening to an expanse of possibilities that we had previously excluded. In sacred activism, the mystic, the artist, and the activist become one integral person who realizes that both great works of art and social change derive from a source within, yet also beyond the bounds, of their own skin, to embrace the body of the world.
I am pleased to have my latest book Collapsing Consciously included in Andrew Harvey’s Sacred Activism Series with North Atlantic Books