Spirituality and Activism

December 1, 2009

in God Made the Rainbow

Originally posted to God Made the Rainbow on 14th August, 2008.

I recently returned from the Kingsnorth mass action at Climate Camp, where 2000 protestors gathered at Kingsnorth Power Station and tried to shut it down. This brought the issue of combining sprituality and activism to the forefront of my mind once again. I set up this blog because I was concerned at the lack of belief among activists, but what about the lack of activism among believers?

This is not to say that there is no interest at all. There are plenty of religious people in the world who agree with social change, writing strongly worded letters to MPs, signing petititions. But where are they when push comes to shove (literally) and direct action is the only answer? Why are the majority of people I meet at the protests, the marches, the blockades, why are they anarchic atheists? Wasn’t it Jesus who physically drove the money-changers from the Temple and said “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me." (NASB Mark 8:34)? Didn’t Muhammed reply when asked "what is the best type of jihad", ""Speaking truth before a tyrannical ruler"? What’s happening here?

My friend Ela made a very good point the other day that there is no venerated spiritual guide who doesn’t also engage in social good works The Dalai Lama speaks on human rights around the world. Neem Karoli Baba dedicated his life to teaching other people how to serve others. Some are political, some are not.

There are many who follow their teacher’s example and they are held up as exemplary believers – but why? Shouldn’t everyone be fighting for a better world? Everyone seems to agree that the hungry should be fed, the sick should healed, but not so many people want to roll up their sleeves and start dishing out soup and vaccines. Still less want to campaign on vital issues of civil liberties and human rights or think about the suffering that has gone into the food on their plate. Don Helda Camara said "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist", and how right he was. It’s great to put a sticking plaster on the wounded of the world, but heaven forbid we ask how they got hurt.

It’s easy to see why there is a lack of enthusiasm among the religious to really throw themselves into activism. Institutionalised religion discourages rebelling against the law of the land, and frequently to truly stand up for ourselves and others requires a stand against the state and all the attendant trouble that brings. At climate camp we were systematically searched by the police, had our photgraphs taken and our belongings confiscated before we even got anywhere near the power station. Tens of people were arrested in the week before the action by jumpy police and let go for lack of any wrong-doing. I can well see why people would automatically recoil from putting their heads above the parapet.

And yet, and yet the greatest revolutionaries this world has seen have been the founders of the very faiths we hold so close to our hearts. Jesus’ politics were so radical he was killed for it. Muhammed’s preaching so threatened the Quraysh of Mecca they, too, tried to kill him. Moses had to flee Egypt after killing an Egyptian who was savagely beating a helpless slave. Let’s not get started on what the Sikh gurus had to deal with when preaching their brand of social justice.

There are so many people out there who are already trying to copy this. A great example is the members of Bradford Soulspace, who do "exciting Bradford justicey/churchy type stuff". As a church, they went up to Faslane Naval Base and blockaded it to protest nuclear weapons. Several of them attended climate camp and again, risked arrest to demonstrate against fossil fuels. They combine their spiritual beliefs with a committment to social justice and freedom. Would that everyone were like them!

Some people may feel in reading this that I am conflating social activism, like soup kitchens, with political activism, such as environmental protesting. But these are simply two sides of the same coin, and you can’t have one without at least considering the other. There’s no point in supporting asylum seeker housing programmes if disastrous government policy means there will always be another in need of a home. By that token, how can one march for animal rights and eat battery hen eggs?

Teilhard de Chardin argued in his book The Phenomenon of Man that evolution was a way of the creator drawing people to him until we reached an ultimate "unity of consciousness" at the end of the world. That consciousness cannot come until we reach a unity of humankind, a world where every person can live happily, freely, and safely. As believers in the omnipresence of God, how can any other us stare into the eye of suffering, be it of person or planet, see the divine, and then walk away?

Our holiest teachers were willing to put life and limb at risk in order to ensure that truth, justice, and mercy prevailed. If we truly want to emulate them, to obey their doctrine, we, too, should take that same stand.

"He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." – Micah 6:8

"Love people, serve people, tell the truth and remember God." – Neem Karoli Baba

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