Talking to Keith Hebden about Spiritual Activism and Social Change

Re-Enchanting the Activist

Author, Anglican cleric and prominent activist Keith Hebden talks to us about his new book, Re-Enchanting the Activist, and his motivations for getting involved in faith-based, community activism.

What motivated you to write Re-Enchanting the Activist?

My own experience of being a burned out and disillusioned activist was a real motivator for me in writing this book. Many years ago I lost sight of the ‘Why’ of activism because I was so excited by ‘how’.  At the same time a load of stuff happened in my personal life, some of which I describe in the book, that put my well being under pressure. It was at this point that I discovered some great spiritual writers who integrated politics and mysticism beautifully. People like Dorothee Soelle and Simone Weil. It was the beginning of a whole new adventure.

When did you first realise that you wanted to be a part of community activism?

I’ve been a church-goer pretty much all my life and that’s been a huge source of social action for me, even as a child. I’ve always been political and I’ve always been both religious and spiritual but how those things integrate changes over time. But you could say it was the Indian church that first taught me that politics and religion were one and the same. I owe much to the Dalit Christians – those that others have called ‘untouchable’.

While compiling the first-hand accounts that make up the book, did you come across any viewpoints that particularly surprised you? Or any that you disagreed with?

I have found the emerging gender politics a real challenge to my understanding. I’ve always found it frustrating the way people insist that ‘boys’ are like this and ‘girls’ are like that. But the idea that gender is a fluid concept and that people can relate to it in more ways that just ‘male and female’ still blows my mind. The implications are huge.

The book explores the relationship between spirituality and political activism. Why do you think modern activists will benefit from being open to spirituality?

I think most activists are open to spirituality but are sceptical about religion. I argue that religion is simply a commitment to a particular spiritual journey alongside particular people. Spirituality only really has meaning in community and so the type of spirituality I call for might be new to many activists for whom religion is normally beyond the pale.

You made the headlines in 2014 for your 40 day hunger strike in solidarity with people that rely on Britain’s foodbanks. What did you learn from that experience?

We were careful to describe it as a fast rather than a hunger strike, partly because it was explicitly a religious act but also because we had a particular cut-off point of 40 days rather than an open-ended action. I learned a lot about my own limitations and need for other people; there’s no way I could have fasted for 40 days without the care of others: I don’t have the temperament for this kind of endurance! Most importantly I learned to reflect on the huge difference between fasting and real hunger. Hungry people are often in debt, unable to pay utility bills, humiliated and made lonely by the experience. They often don’t know when or if the experience will end. My experience was affirming, powerful, and time-limited. They couldn’t be more different and yet through one I was able to stand alongside those who were suffering with the other.

You’ve been cautioned on a number of occasions for your involvement in direct activism. Have you ever done anything that you later regretted?

There aren’t many actions that I have done that I would not do differently. You only learn by experimenting. For example, when I was arrested in Gloucester Cathedral for protesting an anti-Palestinian group I went to the press before telling my Church leaders. This meant the bishop got calls from the press without being prepared. I learnt quickly that if you want support of sympathetic powerful people then, when possible, you need to keep them in the loop. Of course, activists also need to be agile and often covert so all lessons learnt are held lightly too!

Your religion is Christianity – would the book speak to activists of other faiths?

I am confident that my book will speak to activists of any faith, despite most of the resources being either Christian or Buddhist. My last book was aimed at Christians and yet many atheist friends said they found it helpful and exciting and wanted to share it with their peers. This book is deliberately expansive enough to mean that it can be a resource for anyone who is an activist and considers spirituality to be important. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be challenging.

What would you say to people who claim that religion has no place in politics?

You won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve had this thrown at me many times. I used to argue with people who said that religion has no place in politics, but now I don’t bother. In Europe we have a long history of the privatisation and domestication of religion that correlates with the rise of the state’s monopoly on territory and violence. But religion is supposed to be public and dangerous – in the best sense of both words. Usually when people tell religious figures to butt out of politics it’s more that they don’t like how they intervene rather than the fact of it.

You mention in the book that many people would describe themselves as ‘spiritual rather than religious.’ Why do you think that is?

Religion has got a bad press and in many ways that is well deserved. People want to be free individuals with their own spiritual agency. That’s all well and good but individualism is hardly counter-cultural and it is not going to change the world. We need a common life and that means reinventing religion – not as rugged individuals but as interdependent spiritual seekers.

What would you like readers to take away from the book?

A desire to find other people, in the places they live and work, with whom to conspire for a better world. We need to change the world as it is into the world as it should be and we can only do that together. We need to be more than just steam valves for an unjust system, we must also be whistle-blowers on the steam valves and a spanner in the works.

Follow Keith on Twitter.

For more information on his new book, click here.

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