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The On Being Project

The Spiritual Is Political

These days I find myself thinking a lot about the boundary, if there is one, between the political and the spiritual.
If you walk into a bookstore, much of the material on what is classified as “spirituality” is in the “self-help”/New Age section. Some of it is quite profound and deeply transformative. A lot of it, well, perhaps less so.

The “help” part of “self-help” — with the assertion that we are somehow in need of help — has its own issues. And of course, there is the unavoidable part where the “spiritual” solutions are commodified, thing-ified, marketized, and sold. A workshop here, a book there, a retreat here, an escape there. Promise of “happiness” and “wholeness” abound…

But it’s the “self” part of these books that grabs my attention. The “self” part asserts above else that we treat matters of spirit as a matter of individual concern and pursuits. To be generous, I get it. Any real change has to begin from within.

Ultimately, if we want to change the world we have to change our own selves. We have to embody the change we want to see in the world. As Confucius reminded us a long time ago, virtue begins in the heart, and it ripples outward and outward, to transform the family, community, nation, and the world.

Yet spirituality is also not ever the exclusive domain of the individual. Let’s even go beyond spirituality, which has acquired a somewhat “soft” connotation. Let’s talk about the mystical, that bold and audacious assertion that there is a mystery to the human being that connects what is unseen in the human to the utmost in the universe. And it is we, the embodied spirits, who contain this mystery. The spiritual is also about our bodies, our lives, the spaces we inhabit in the physical world.

The spirit mingles.

The physical is already illuminated with the presence of the sacred. If we care about the spirit, we cannot avoid concern with the here and now. The spiritual is about the social, the mystical is also about the political. The cosmic in us has to be about both changing the human and changing the world of which we are a part. The healing inside and the healing of the world are wrapped up in one another.

Was Moses not concerned with the political as he led the Hebrews out of bondage?

Was Amos not concerned with politics when he said:

“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Was Jesus of Nazareth not concerned with social change and transformation as he sat with prostitutes and lepers, keeping the company of the outcast and the downtrodden?

Was Muhammad of Arabia not concerned with the political as he overthrew the Arab tribal bonds and instead insisted that human beings stood radically equal, as the teeth in a comb?

Was Rabbi Heschel not concerned with politics when he said that he was praying with his feet in marching for civil rights, when he said that church and synagogue were forbidden as long as African Americans were treated as they were, and when he said that he could not read his prayer book when every time he opened it he saw images of the children of Vietnam burning in napalm?

Was Brother Martin not political when he said that our concern was to save the very soul of America by standing out against racism, materialism, and militarism?

Was Thomas Merton not political when he said:

“The world is full of great criminals with enormous power, and they are in a death struggle with each other.”

His deep attachment to the life of spirit, even silence, did not prevent him from getting involved in issues of justice and injustice, or speaking out against racism and war.

Some years ago, I wrote a book on Muslim mystics (Sufis). I was drawn, at that time, to the study of mystics because I was burned out on politics, and wanted to lose myself in the ethereal, eternal, sweet, and love-filled world the mystics. All of that was there, of course, and more. But my beloved mystics kept acting socially and politically. Because they loved God, they loved God’s creation. Because they cared about the mystery of the human being, they cared about the whole of the human being.

Many of them positioned themselves as champions of the weak and the marginalized, and acted in a way that today we would call “speaking truth to power.” In their profoundly hierarchical society — and let us admit that ours today is still profoundly hierarchical, still a profound discrepancy between the super-haves and have almost-nothings — these mystics kept on reminding the rulers that it was God who was the ultimate King. (Had they been aware to subvert gender hierarchy equally thoroughly, perhaps they might have spoken of God as the Ultimate King and Queen.)
After all, what is politics all about? Look it up in a dictionary: it is derived from the Latin (in turn, from the Greek) politikos, from politēs, “citizen,” from polis, “city.” Ultimately, politics is about the art of being a citizen, about the organization and administration of the polis, the city where we live. It is about the polis, and today, about the police: police brutality and the policing of our peoples.
The combination of religion and politics is rife with potential abuse. It can easily be co-opted by rulers, kings and queens, dictators, and presidents to lend themselves an aura of sacrosanct authority. And it can strip ordinary preachers from the power to speak for the weak, and amplify the voice of those who have a voice, but whose voice is temporarily silenced and marginalized.
Furthermore, no government — whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or Buddhist — can implement a religion without also interpreting it. And when government gets in the task of interpreting and implementing religion, we are perhaps already in deep trouble.
Maybe this is the best that can be said regarding spiritual and mystical leaders. As Martin King reminded us, we are not to be thermometers but thermostats. It’s not to simply measure where we stand with respect to the weak and marginalized, but to set in motion a movement to help get us right with God and right with society.
It is as Reverend Barber said:

“We must shock this nation with the power of love.
We must shock this nation with the power of mercy.
We must shock this nation and fight for justice for all.
We can’t give up on the heart of our democracy.
Not now, not ever.”

Spiritual leaders and followers have a complicated task in being involved in politics. Yes, we know that God calls us to do justice, and to love mercy, and, as Micah tells us, to walk humbly with our God. Yes, that walking humbly with God calls us to always, always be on guard against thinking that we have a monopoly on truth and a trademark after righteousness.
But there does come a time when it’s not about liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, blue state or red state, but about right and wrong. Each time we stare at a hungry child, a fleeing refugee, a weeping mother, an agonizing father, we know where that line is. There comes a time when we must decide that we will not be compassionate by proxy, but will take direct action to alleviate the suffering of one another, and our own selves. It is a messy walk, this walk of the spirit in the polis. But walk humbly we must, so long as it is to do justice and love and mercy beginning with the “least of God’s children.”
Many religious and civic institutions (including On Being itself) have guidelines that eschew taking a political stance in favor of one candidate or another. The ultimate concern of those who care about the spirit, about the mystery of being human, is not with a single presidential election, but with building the beloved community. The goal of politics is nothing less than building the beloved community through a dirty, messy, and imperfect process.

A prayer at the rally for Philando Castile outside the governor’s residence in St. Paul. (Lorie Shaull / Flickr / Some Rights Reserved)

That attempt to demarcate the involvement of civic and political institutions in electoral politics becomes all the more complicated, all the more murky, and yet, perhaps ironically, all the more urgent, when we have candidates who raise the demonization of African Americans, Muslims, Hispanics, poor people, and the physically challenged to a level unseen in generations. Where should religious leaders stand in such a time?

Never apologize for our ideals and passion. And let us never invest all of our hopes and aspirations in one candidate, one campaign, or even one party. Every campaign is a practical, compromised step towards getting closer to the beloved community. And, yes, that does mean working with, though not working for, imperfect, flawed candidates and campaigns.
The spirit mingles. And it calls us.
Yes, the process is messy and fraught with potential pitfalls and dangers. But let us keep seeking the spirit in the very midst of the messiness of our societies.
Lift every voice and sing, starting with the voices that are at the moment too weak to sing out, voices that are silenced or suppressed. It is this cacophony of voices that makes up the symphony of spirit birds singing the songs of God.

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