Part 2 of 5: Social Change
A Practical Theology of Social Change
I draw upon a practical theology of social change in which faith communities and other groups engage in grassroots community organizing to empower displaced, marginalized and silenced groups to transform their own lives and the structural conditions which deny them justice. This model is grounded in congregations and neighborhoods and transforms global issues into local issues. “Practical” in this religious context does not mean “useful” or efficient”, but instead means “based upon the notion of praxis”–a somewhat intellectual concept emerging from philosophical discourses emphasizing theoretically-informed and change-oriented interventions6.
Practical theology as an academic discipline used to focus on the religious actions of clergy and other pastoral concerns. Today there is an increased focus on “lived religion” — that is how people do religion. Praxis happens when we “walk the talk” and “live our values”. It also implies taking insights derived in classrooms and bringing them to the real world. Typically praxis is conceived as a cycle of action – reflection in which we closely monitor the outcomes of our behavior. Often praxis can refer to novel actions (as opposed to routine habits) in which we evaluate the ethical consequences of our conduct.
The praxis cycle of action – reflection forms the foundation of my theology of social change. We act and then reflect, and then, based upon our insights and evaluations, we act again. If our values are based upon an ecological consciousness we will understand that our well-being is linked to the well-being of the whole and that we all face the same fate. Interconnection and interdependence are defining attributes of our complex web of existence.
This approach is greatly needed at this historical moment if we are to successfully address our environmental problems and create a sustainable society. Something so seemingly small as momentarily pausing to contemplate our values and intentions, and the unintended consequences of our actions, can have significant impact when performed by millions of people. Our personal choices bear unanticipated transformational power. By fully embracing the sacred practice of praxis we become powerful change agents having a positive influence on the world.
We are all intimately connected and we need each other for our health, happiness and survival. Our bonds with each other bind us into what Martin Luther King, Jr;. called a “inescapable network of mutuality”7. The well-being of each of us is linked to the well-being of the whole and we all face the same fate. Relationships define our lives. Yet each of us is able to make a difference to the whole. We are kin with all other life forms, sharing similar compositions and made from the same stardust. We celebrate the circle of life and know that we must live in harmony with the rhythms of the natural world. The following principles are based on how Nature works.
This is a holistic framework for understanding complex systems, focusing on relationships and interdependence, with the cyclical nature of existence mirrored in the action – reflection cycles. The reflective processes serve as forms of feedback loops, which are standard in ecosystems. Rootedness in the elements of place helps to keep our bearings as we re-acquaint ourselves with the soils beneath our feet, the waters which flow in our creeks and rivers, the air which feeds our lungs and the fires which ignite the passions of our hearts. We must connect with the soul of our local landscapes and draw inspiration from our surroundings.
The guiding principles of this practical theology of social change are outlined here in a roughly sequential manner, but this should not be seen as a simple cookbook recipe for changing the world:
- As people of faith we take responsibility for the state of the world and know that our actions make a difference;
- We bear witness to the injustices of the world and listen to the songs of sorrow of those who suffer (including our non-human friends).
- We thoroughly gather information on the problems we are concerned with, including carefully listening to the voices of our “enemies”, knowing that nothing reveals our moral character as much as our encounters with our adversaries. Listening to our adversaries requires that we “step outside ourselves” (Greek “Ekstasis”). Fighting ignorance and raising consciousness is the best way to confront tyranny.
- Grounded in congregations, neighborhoods and communities, and inspired by our own witnessing of injustice, we undertake grassroots community organizing to empower silenced, displaced and marginalized people to transform their own lives and the structural conditions which deny them justice.
- As diverse communities we come together to affirm our shared values, which we strive to always put into action. The revolution is how we live our lives. If we want a Beloved Earth Community that is just, compassionate and sustainable we must “prefigure” that world today in our behavior. We also come together as communities to decide which issues to tackle and by what means, and then to evaluate their successfulness;
- Prophetic critique of our existing society allows us to name “what’s not working” and prophetic envisioning allows us to imagine “how it should be” (The Beloved Earth Community). As a spiritual practice, prophecy enables communities to access the sacred in order to critically evaluate their existing society in terms of social justice, ecological sustainability and compassion, and points to the systems of domination and oppression and “calls out” the powerful elites who benefit from them. Prophesy also energizes communities with hopes that their visions of a better world can yet be achieved.
- This is a model of social change in which we aim to transform the very structures of our social world and get to the root causes of our social ills through strategic direct actions. While charitable acts are often needed, they are not enough! These strategic direct actions are spiritual practices embodying our life-affirming values, including non-violence, compassion, social justice and respect for the dignity and worth of all life forms. Being “Dionysian”, we hope to insert celebratory, carnivaleque and transgressive pleasures into our transformative actions.
- Through contemplative practices, such as prayer, meditation and reflective discernment, we make contact with the sacred to clarify our intentions, affirm our values, evaluate the ethical outcomes of our behavior and potentially decide to change directions. Sacred reflections on our actions allow us to persistently return to our goals with fresh insights until those goals become reality.
- Awareness of our interconnections with the web of all existences keeps us committed to the common good and to the life of our planet and working to eliminate the poisonous effects of ego.
Most social movement activists do not yet fully incorporate spiritual practices into their organizing. There is often a “hush-hush” around issues of faith in progressive communities for fear of hearing about fundamentalism. This practical theology of social change brings to community organizers and social activists a set of well-developed spiritual practices which infuse political dissent with spiritual passion. They elevate the playing field with thoughtful and compassionate actions. They link our actions to a history of value-rich ideals and noble intentions. Most importantly by demanding that we thoroughly live our values they shift our behavior with our adversaries.
On Spiritual Practices
Spiritual practices are tools that allow us to experience the sacred – that which is most important for our lives. They transform us in numerous ways – opening our hearts, reducing our anxiety, expanding our compassion and developing our wisdom. With clearer minds and calmer bodies, we become aware of those gentle voices in our heads. In the following sections, I highlight four spiritual practices found within this practical theology: praxis itself, prophecy (critique and envisioning), contemplative practices, and direct action. These practices are, I believe, some of the best resources that religion has to offer revolutionary activists.
These spiritual practices are specific techniques which must be cultivated with discipline, but eventually become natural ways of being. They are powerful, yet simple, exercises directly applicable to our lives. If life is a spiritual journey in which we awaken from our slumber and potentially reach higher levels of awareness, spiritual practices such as these propel our progression.
For those who regard Nature as sacred, how we experience the sacred is often through direct experiences in wilderness in which we become aware of the interdependence of the web of existence. This “cosmic consciousness” is crucial to Nature Religions. It fills us with awe and wonder as we feel the mystery and majesty of the natural world, realize our absolute dependence on this world for everything we need and have, and recognize our humble fragility compared to its vast powers.
Because much social movement engagement will happen on our city streets, we must remain creative in finding ways to bring our particular sense of the sacred to these struggles. Pagan-inspired and “Earth-centered” rituals that acknowledge and strengthen our relationships to the natural world can be useful. In celebrating the Wheel of the Year, for example, we honor the cycles of Nature. Or through Wiccan practice of “casting a circle” by invoking the four directions and the four elements, we become more deeply emplaced in our local settings.
Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D.
Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. is a Santa Barbara-based social justice activist, writer, and educator who uses spiritual practices to create a better world. Specifically, Wayne is very active in helping our neighbors of the streets transition into permanent housing and environmental issues. He has taught at the Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley campus of the University of California, Ventura College, the Fielding Graduate University and Antioch University Santa Barbara.