8 Ways to be Spiritual AND Radical

1963_march_on_washingtonI’ve spent most of my adult life in bridging the gap between radical activists and anarchists on the one hand and the more socially conservative world of religion on the other. I’ve met inspiring people in both worlds and learned not assume which will contain the real world-changers. Many radicals are deeply spiritual and many religious people can do radical things. Is it possible to be both spiritual and radical? I think so.

From activist and Anglican priest, Keith Hebden.

  1. Discover who you are

Spend time exploring your own story with others and in private. Think about what the key moments have been in your life that have helped shape your values and your sense of identity. Hold each one up to scrutiny too. Marshall Ganz, who worked as an organiser among agricultural workers in the USA talks about having a story of ‘Self’, ‘Us’, and ‘Now’. If we can communicate with others, from the heart, the experiences that make us care about social justice, then we can better connect with theirs. Once we’ve found that connection we can act together. Marshall was deeply shaped by his experience as a Jewish emigre and second generation holocaust survivor. He learned the value of challenging racism and applied this in his work on labour movements amongst migrant farm workers.

  1. Discover who you are not

Just as we tell stories about ourselves, so do other people.  Everything you think you know about yourself is provisional at best. When I was only 18, I remember hearing a visiting speaker to my college say these profound words, “you are not who you think you are; you are not who other people think you are; you are who you think other people think you are.” Understanding our sense of self as spiritual, atomic, biological and social and that all these things are fluid helps us to allow ourselves to change and be changed by others, and not to expect other people to fit into the pigeon holes we like to put them in.

  1. Find Joy in your actions

Saul Alinsky, a pioneer of Community Organising in post-depression Chicago wrote that “An action that drags on becomes a drag.” We need to be agile in our social movement and always willing to find new and creative ways to respond to the bleak or circus-like messages of our oppressors. People come together for festivals and celebrations; if you want to bring people together find something worth celebrating: a win, a shared resource that can bring about change, something that brings you joy.

  1. Use the experiences of your own people

As an Anglican priest I am part of a community that has a rich tradition of ritual. We use ash for repentance and lamentation, we sing songs, we process and much more besides. When I wanted to mobilise church-goers on debt justice I tried getting them to hand out petitions and join a workshop but these things were way outside the experience of many. When I suggested a Prayer Walk for Debt Justice we mobilised seven churches in just three days. We used ash to mark ourselves as a sign of our complicity with an unjust world and ashed the doors of the payday lenders in our town centre: many people signed a petition and got directly in touch with the executive mayor as a result. Most importantly, we shared a meaningful public action that brought prayer and politics back together.

  1. Breathe

We can easily become overwhelmed with the world as it is and misunderstand or exaggerate our own roles in it. None of us are superheroes but, as Gandhi put it, we can “Be the change that we want to see in the world”. Learning how to be is the heart of what Dorothee Sölle calls a “mysticism of resistance”. Spend time each day in quiet contemplation, stillness, or mindful prayer. Take as a gift those fleeting moments when you will experience your unity with all things visible and invisible. These moments of mystical encounter will be your most important resource when you come under pressure.

  1. Kick off your shoes

It’s nobody’s fault. Somehow we lost our connection with rest of reality. We separated ourselves from nature and spirit. We put on our shoes and laid out the concrete and bunkered down. I’ve met people who have tried to go completely feral and it’s nearly killed them; we are domestic creatures now, for good and ill. But kick off your shoes every now and then. Some people make a permanent practice of it and go their whole lives barefoot; some people do so from necessity. Whatever way you do it, find ways to genuinely experience both the beauty and the horror of nature who is neither your friend nor your enemy but is as animated as you or I and with whom we belong. Throw caution to the wind and go a little wild.

  1. Make friends with death

Death is our constant companion. This truth is better experienced in some cultures than in others. In the western world human death is often professionalised, sanitised, and deftly dispatched of. Bits of our own bodies die in any given moment; whether vegan or omnivore, every human has a diet that relies on the deaths of others. Our body is a whole community of cells, bacteria, and viruses whose lives and deaths keep us in motion. Your own death is both a statistical certain and an illusion. By learning to live with our own death, and meditate on death, we learn to live lightly to our own place in the world and take the risks that are needed for social change.

  1. Become re-enchanted with religion

‘Religion’ can be seen as a dirty word. Leading a retreat with environmentalists in 2016 I was gently challenged by a woman who had had her fill of religion and said she wanted nothing to do with it. She was a Quaker and a member of a local Quaker Meeting! At the heart of the word ‘Religion’ is ‘Ligio’ which is where we get ‘ligament’ from too. Without ligaments to bind our bones together we wouldn’t be able to move as a body. In its broadest sense, religion is the binding together of people, in a voluntary association, to use spiritual tools for social change. To be spiritual but not religious is to play into the individualism that capitalism relies on. To commit ourselves to particularity and community – with all the compromise that this entails – is true radicalism.

Dare to be radical: dare to be religious.

To buy a copy of Re-Enchanting the Activist, click here.

Follow Keith on Twitter here.

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