Spirituality Without Politics Is Powerless

Note: The original title of this essay, “Spirituality Without Politics Is Lame” has been changed to eliminate ableist language, as have the words “lame” and “blind” in the text. The title was a rephrasing of Einstein’s aphorism, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind,” which written at a time before able-bodied people like myself began to become aware of the impact of ableist language. As I am coming to understand, words that have been used to describe disabled bodies sometimes take on negative connotations which are disconnected from the disability, but which then reflect back on disabled people. So, for example, a person could not walk used to be called “lame”. Later the term came to mean something or someone who is useless, which is not an accurate, kind, or just description of someone who cannot walk. I appreciate those who brought this to my attention.
“No one ever told us we had to study our lives,
make of our lives a study, as if learning natural history
or music, that we should begin
with the simple exercises first
and slowly go on trying
the hard ones, practicing till strength
and accuracy became one with the daring
to leap into transcendence …
– And in fact we can’t live like that: we take on
everything at once before we’ve even begun
to read or mark time, we’re forced to begin
in 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 Powerless

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 uninspired.

But a spirituality without politics is a spirituality that has not realized its potential.  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:

  1. Denounce white supremacy publicly on all your social media accounts.
  2. Donate to the Charlottesville Anti-Racist Legal Fund.
  3. Support you local Black Lives Matter and SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) groups.
  4. Donate to the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
  5. Demand that your representatives in Congress do more to fight white supremacy.
  6. Take peacekeeping training.
  7. 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.

12 Comments on “Spirituality Without Politics Is Powerless

  1. Reblogged this on Shamanic Paths and commented:

    In an odd way, the last couple of years has been such a rollercoaster; both in terms of simply observing the turning of a stone, always suspected but conveniently filed as “under-control”, and, more-so, in coming to the realisation that (self-proclaimed) spiritual activity does not equate, in any way, to a progressive, caring, empathetic political compass.

    Perhaps it was naivety, or an over-weening belief in the “goodness-of-heart” emanating from those on a path of self-analysis, discovery and development. Yet here were, self-exposed, many considered the “great and good” of their particular (RH) path, exposed as vocal advocates of reactionary policies. Misogynistic, homophobic, racist, nationalistic, xenophobic, alt-religion types, unexpectedly spewing their preferred vitriol, without a hint of irony, alongside their usual output of “Love-is-all”-memes.

    I’ve kind of come to terms with the revelation of the inner heart of such false messiahs, but have to admit to a deep level of political-fatigue engendered by it. Losing so many “assumed” allies, in such a condensed timespan, has so shocked an erstwhile conviction of the spiritual-political dynamic that I’ve been forced to much introspection of that dynamic, and how it can (apparently) throw up such wide disparity in outlook amongst those who claim to be active “seekers” on a spiritual path.

    Perhaps I just need to “grow a pair”, come to terms with the discovery that there are as many reactionaries within spiritual circles as there are progressives, and simply allow that friction of personal “expectation” to run its course; “let it be”.

    Notwithstanding, the spiritual path can never be trod in isolation. Social, economic, and political reality must necessarily affect, and be affected by, the spiritual expression of the individual. When that spiritual expression avoids the social, economic, and political, it becomes a mere denial of responsibility in the broader sense.

    As John expresses in this piece, “…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.”

    Get out in the world. Stand against. Stand for. Stand with. Stand apart. To do otherwise, seems unimaginable…

  2. Pingback: Spirituality Without Politics Is Lame – The Allergic Pagan

  3. Excellent analysis, thank you. I have been having this debate on various Druidry fora for a while now after getting frustrated with a constant stream of posts that I don’t feel relate to the world around me that I see suffering.

    My spirituality is based on the Earth and in society (mostly the human society) rather than some transcendent glory. That means that I care deeply with political issues, take action to protect the environment, refuse to fly, protest injustice and speak out in the media.

    Some of my fellow Druids don’t consider those actions should be part of Druidry – I disagree. The Warrior’s Call use the slogan Action as Ritual, Ritual as Action, i.e. taking part is spiritual.

    I want more of us Pagans to stand against injustice, environmental destruction and so on.

  4. I totally agree with the point you are making here, John – however, could you change the word “lame” to something less ableist?

    • Good point. I missed that. It was a gloss on an Einstein quote about religion and science. Any suggestions for a replacement?

  5. Hello John! Thank you for discussing this. I’m afraid the things you describe about my position seem very alien to me.

    In referring to my article/position, you said, “…it’s a mistake, I think, to conclude from this that activism is not itself spiritual.”

    In the article you link to, the third and last section is titled, “Politics as a Spiritual Practice”. There I outline how politics can be spiritual.

    Regarding emotions and inner peace, you state, “I would expect any truly spiritual person to be “unhappy, heartbroken, or angry” when confronting the injustice and suffering in world.” I would expect most to be, but studying specific Buddhist and Stoic principles has lead me to believe that such inner turmoil is not inevitable for the compassionate person, or necessary to proper and even vigorous political action. The reasons for this are far too large to cover completely in a comment, unfortunately.

    In ‘putting the cart before the horse’ I do not mean that a person should be fully enlightened before they do anything. You said, “I never felt like I had achieved the level of personal development to qualify me to go forth and do good in the world.” This is not what I suggest. There is no ‘level’ one should reach before acting.

    Rather, political and other social action should be integrated into one’s practice. The ‘putting before’ is not a reference to chronological order, but order or primacy. ‘Being the change’ is as much about doing as saying or thinking. But in this way, the doing flows from the seeing, and comes back to help nurture more seeing.

    You said, “I needed to engage the world in order to become the kind of person I wanted to be.” This is it, exactly.

    Perhaps the reason you got the impression that I advocated the practitioner refrain from politics was because of the general tone the presence of the second section of the article gave, which referred specifically to ‘spiritual communities’ on an organizational level. I would hope many or most of our members are also engaged in and with other political action organizations, as a part of and in service of their spiritual practice. This is how what you are saying about politics playing a role in personal spiritual development is true and important, and yet how spiritual commuinities can and should be organizationally apolitical in my view.

    I agree that politics is wider than political parties. My comments really refer to social action in general. The reason I make the distinction I do is not because of conflating partisanship and politics, but rather because when positions are taken on specific social policies, they necessarily become more partisan in the sense that they involve people who are applying general principles toward specific cases. This specificity creates and requires sides and interpretations – all important to engage in. But there must be a spiritual home for both sides to come back to, in which those foundational values are shared and exhalted. Otherwise there is no common will upon which to engage productively on partisan issues in the public forum, no sense of shared community, which is what we see now.

    The ruin of most of our religious bodies (the vast numbers of people who are only a religion ‘by name only’) has been because those institutions moved away from their role as shared sacred spaces that reinforce common values and into highly specialized policy positions. They have done this mostly through the egos of their leaderships, who felt empowered by their role, to use it to advance their personal positions or power.

    Keep in mind that no part of what I said suggests a refrain or diminishment of political activity for any individual, or for any plethora of important and worthy political organizations working on worthy causes – only for the additional presence of a shared sacred space promoting shared (and necessarily generalized) values and principles.

    Like MLK, we can march in the street all we like (and should!), and we can build organizations to support it. Note that when King marched on Washington, he did so representing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which was one of six civil rights organizations putting on the march. His church (Ebenezer Baptist Church) in Atlanta was not the entity that put on the march. A civil rights organization was better suited to pull off this kind of activity, and unlike King’s church, lesser suited to provide religious services for the people in Atlanta on Sunday. MLK seemed to have no problems with this.

    It is also important to note that the principles of organization I’m describing pertain to politics within those broad shared principles the spiritual community rests upon. When some take actions which are even outside of those foundational values, this cannot be considered ‘mere politics’. This is why our next episode of our podcast will be on mindfulness and racial bias. It is also why we have made a formal public statement condemning the recent actions in Charlottesville. Nazism and White Supremacy are not ‘a political position’, but are examples of anti-wisdom and viciousness that touch on the very compassion and reason we are about. Therefore, in our statement on Charlotteville, we are simultaneously promoting Spiritual Naturalist thought and practice – our mission. We could not say they same were we to take up support or rejection of a House Bill on the minimum wage or even specific healthcare policies (other than supporting that we all work for a society that is humane to the less fortunate).

    Regarding Patheos, I (and no one I know of) were aware of any of the events you described and none of us signed or were aware of any contract. We began publishing on there again only because we recently were joined by additional volunteers and could once again handle the workload. As such, none of us have been writing (or not writing) with any restrictions in mind. I would have appreciated knowing about Patheos so we could have saved ourselves the trouble and excluded them from our publications. Thanks to your information, we will do so.

    As a point of clarification related to Patheos, none of my position on spiritual communities suggests that it is therefore ‘ok’ for them to align themselves with other groups who take positions incompatible with its values because “hey we’re not political”. So, I’m afraid our use of Patheos was not a very good ‘case study’ of my position, as it played no role due to our simple unawareness.

    On a minor side-note – the Spiritual Naturalist Society is not solely about contemplative practices if, by this, one means something like ‘calm sitting there not feeling strong emotions’. “Contemplative” to me simply means it includes careful thought and insight, and MLK’s thought was extremely contemplative. Ecstatic dance, music, and even sexuality are every bit as much a part of Spiritual Naturalism and what we include. We have recently published articles on Burning Man and before that Drumming, and more.

    Spirituality without Politics is indeed lame. This is why I have not advocated that our spirituality be without politics.

    You link to another article of mine, with the phrase, “…an apolitical spirituality which tells us that we need to accept the world as it is because we are powerless to change it.” This is highly misleading and promotes a very common and destructive view about these philosophies.

    First, ‘acceptance’ should never be taken to mean inaction or ‘allowing to be’. Acceptance refers to a mature inner adjustment to reality so that we can handle it better. It does not mean a refrain from action to try to change it (handle it). In that article I state that progress is ‘definitely possible’ (thus agreeing wholeheartedly with Margaret Mead). I also say, “please know that this is not a call for indifference or to do less good work in the world. We, in fact, need more of it. This is about our internal disposition as we do that work. Doing good is an essential part of the spiritual life.”

    In that article I describe some of the mental processes that allow one to do vigorous work in the world without inner turmoil and with long-term sustainability. I suspect knowledge of some of these details may be why you suspect that anyone who engages against injustice would suffer so.

    On your points about privilege. I support and believe in the notion that I and many others have privilege in this society. But the kinds of mental practices we promote were developed by and for people living in the most cruel and harsh circumstances and times imaginable. Epictetus was a slave and centuries later Admiral James Stockdale was able to use Stoicism to endure torture as a prisoner of war. Contemplative practice is not chiefly for people who ‘sit back’ and have it good. To say that people in hardship do not “have this path as an option” is false and sells both them and these powerfully transformative practices short.

    To say “Equanimity does not suffice under these circumstances” is to promote the misconception that equanimity means sitting still doing nothing, which is really unfortunate because greater awareness and mental health are what we need to be even better and more motivated actors in the world.

    Your article has made me realize just how far we have to go in getting people to understand Spiritual Naturalism and what we are about. Thanks for this – we will try to do better. If you would like to be sure we are understanding one another better, I’d be happy to dialog more any time friend 🙂

    With love and thanks,

    DT Strain
    Spiritual Naturalist Society

    • DT,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I appreciate the clarifications you have made. I apologize if I mischaracterized what you intended to say or took any of your statements out of context. It was not my intent. This is a nuanced issue and I think it is easy (for either of us) to be misunderstood. While I think maybe we are closer in agreement than initially seems, but I think we do have strong differences of emphasis still.

      For example, I appreciated this clarification: “There is no ‘level’ one should reach before acting. Rather, political and other social action should be integrated into one’s practice. The ‘putting before’ is not a reference to chronological order, but order or primacy.” But I still feel like we neither should be really primary. Somehow both need to have equal importance. I think it’s one of those both/and paradoxes that Buddhist sages like.

      I appreciate the challenges you have highlighted for spiritual organizations which need to foster unity in order to be effective. A similar discussion is going on in my UU congregation. Many members, some of whom are sympathetic to “Black Lives Matter”, feel the “divisiveness” of the slogan/organization undermines our unity and so we should not use it. Others feel that the time for compromise is past and we step into a leadership role. It’s a difficult issue with no simple answers.

      I’m not sure I agree with you about the reason for the decline of religious institutions, though. I think there’s a lot of reasons for it. To the extent that clergy taking social justice stands is part of the reason, I think it’s because their doing so made people uncomfortable, which most people avoid, because it calls them to change. Balancing the sanctuary aspect of religion (which involves comfort) with the prophetic aspect (which involves discomfort) is the challenge. As a friend of mine likes to say, religion needs to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. How to do both at the same time is the question.

      For what it’s worth, I’m very glad to see SNS taking a stand on the Charlottesville violence. I missed it on FB. Is this a common practice for SNS? You might consider having a tab set aside on the site for such statements. (Just a thought.)

      Again, I apologize if I mischaracterized anything you wrote. I appreciate the clarification of your views on the relationship between spirituality and political action. You comment here has made clear that your views are more nuanced than my reading of your article. This may be one of those situations where people at different levels of spiritual development hear the same words but understand different messages. I’ll readily admit I have a lot of spiritual growing to do and so I probably read your words through a very idiosyncratic lens based on my personal history.

      As I said in the post, I didn’t mean to single you out, but you did such a good job of articulating a view I have been hearing recently (or I thought you did), I wanted to use it for my foil. In doing so, it seems I lost some of the nuance of your position and I apologize.

      • John wrote: “But I still feel like neither [spiritual enlightenment or politics] should be really primary. Somehow both need to have equal importance. I think it’s one of those both/and paradoxes that Buddhist sages like.”

        I find this approach appealing, John! I think you are right in essence. Perhaps my emphasis is such because human beings are linear creatures and it is so much more difficult for a person to begin to ‘get’ these practices and ideas than it is to take an action (march, protest, vote, etc). The consequences of unmindful political action can be significant.

        Yet, I have often thought that one of the first things I would do, were I to begin taking on an apprentice, would be to send them to do charitable work of some kind, so they could begin to see what thought alone could never show them.

        I’m surprised by your reports of your UU church. My impression is that UU churches have always been very much into political action. Very interesting. I hope it all goes well.

        To answer your question about SNS, we have made proclamations before, such as calling for cooler heads and more listening and reason during the heated campaign season, for example.

        I sincerely thank you for bringing all this up. Not only does it show me I need to do better in my communicating, but I share your concern regarding the ideas you rightly criticized, and agree that merely sitting in temples quietly is no way to improve ourselves or the world. Thank you for all you do!

        With love and thanks,

        DT Strain
        Spiritual Naturalist Society

        • Thanks DT. I appreciate your graciousness.

          I just want to clarify about my UU congregation. They are very much engaged in social action. It’s the BLM statement specifically that is proving challenging for some. Some folks who are very much in favor of other anti-racist statements are uncomfortable with “Black Lives Matter”. Actually, IMO, we probably do social justice better than we do spirituality. That’s been a complaint of mine for a long time there.

  6. Pingback: Charlottesville – a Druid’s reaction – A Druid Voice

  7. John, thanks for this very important article, and it’s also great to see the discussion with DT.
    Nearly everything I would say has already been covered better than I could do. One small point:
    DT wrote: ***most of our religious bodies ….. moved away from their role as shared sacred spaces that reinforce common values and into highly specialized policy positions. ***

    Each issue (and body) is different, of course, but many of them (and many of the worst) are bad not in spite of their tradition, but because of it. The Bibles are clear over and over that all other religions are forbidden, that women are property, that owning slaves is perfectly fine, that LGBT people are to be rejected (or killed), and so on with issue after issue. By enforcing “highly specialized policy positions” of hate and intolerance, they are indeed living out their spirituality to the letter. Exceptions exist, of course (such as giving to the poor), but that doesn’t change the fact that many of the most egregious enforcements of privilege and intolerance are well supported by their oldest traditions and scriptures (just read them!).

    DT also wrote: They have done this mostly through the egos of their leaderships, …. to use it to advance their personal positions or power.

    Authoritative religions based on an unquestionable and absolutely powerful deity of course breed exactly that in their leaders, so this is to be expected as well. Even with that, these leaders still both advance their own power as well as advancing the many socially devastating requirements of their religions.

                          -Jon Cleland Host
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