Spirituality and Social Transformation – Responding to Occupy Spirituality

Adam Bucko, who, along with Matthew Fox, is author of Occupy Spirituality, asserts: “All social movements, across generations, need spirituality.  A solid spirituality is one that enables people to energize their moral imagination, to make their motives conscious, and to use and deepen their talents to give birth to a new tomorrow.”  These are good and challenging words for social activists, who often separate action and contemplation and spirituality and social change in two distinct and often conflicting worlds.  Bucko and Fox suggest an alternative vision of spirituality and social change.  Our spiritual practices come to fruition in acts of compassion; our social action finds perspective in spiritual experience.  The word needs to become flesh, but fleshly actions need moment by moment as well as long-haul spiritual inspiration.

Sadly, the critique “so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good” applies to certain types of spiritual formation.  Their spiritual practices take us away from the world of bodies, institutions, and species.  They immerse us in a pool of quiet, for whom the cares of the world are a distraction.  On the other hand, many types of social action are so horizontal that they lead to polarization, burnout, and action for the sake of action, without counting the cost.  They objectify our opponents and often promote the same bad behaviors that we criticize in the oppressors.

Perhaps, Howard Thurman’s distinction between the “God of religion” and the “God of life,” invoked by Bucko and Fox in Occupy Spirituality  can be a helpful guide.  The God of religion separates, alienates, and imprisons.  It assumes only one way to human fulfillment and one way to social justice.  It is unwilling, in its inflexibility, to compromise over practice, worship, scripture, or social activism.  It separates the world into saved and unsaved, us and them, friend and enemy.  Our opponents are perceived as objects to be defeated theologically or politically in the God of religion’s world of polarities.

The God of life is fluid and dynamic.  God’s integrity is found in inclusiveness and hospitality.  The God of life challenges the status quo, but cares for those still tied to tradition.  It sees holiness in those for whom we advocate, but also treats our “opposition” with respect even in the midst of challenge.  It reduces “opposition” to “contrast,” recognizing realities beyond the cultural and religious divides of right and left, capitalist and socialist, and red and blue.  Solid theology and spirituality are grounded, ironically, in a fluid approach to life, a constant willingness to be a new creation, to explore new ways of being human and solving problems, grounded in our relationship with a faithful God whose mercies are, nevertheless, new every morning.

A fluid (Bucko – solid) spirituality is profoundly incarnational.  It recognizes our limitations and inability to fully fathom God and God’s revelations, characteristic of the apophatic way of spirituality.  It also affirms God in all things and all things in God as it explores the divine spark in all things, reflective of the kataphatic way of spirituality.  We pray, sometimes meditatively retreating to the quiet center; we also pray with our eyes open, expanding our awareness of God’s presence in the least of these as well as those deemed important by society.  Looking beyond external experience, a fluid spirituality sees hints of divinity where we least expect it – in the yearnings of corporate executives for a better life, in moments of generosity among those whose philosophy is typically materialistic, in institutions that reach out to their communities, providing grants and endowments.  This doesn’t take us – or institutional profiteers – off the hook but it helps us see our common humanity.  As non-violent activists recognize, we need to see Christ in the “other” (the wealthy as well as the poor) to effect lasting peace in the world.

Perception is both a choice and a practice.  We can choose to live in God’s world, seeing Christ in everyone, or we can choose to live in a world filled with enemies.  Seeing Christ in the other didn’t keep Martin Luther King from confronting “Bull” Connor in Montgomery, Alabama.  Living by the principle of “Namaste,” the divine in me meets the divine in you, didn’t keep Gandhi from championing Indian independence.  He wanted the British to leave as friends not as enemies.

Choosing to see the Christ in the other also involves practices.  While there are many practices of spiritual hospitality, let me suggest a few spiritual practices for social activists:

  • Breath prayer – When you begin to feel anxious or alienated, pause to breathe deeply as you open to your quiet center.  Feel the common breath you share with all creation.
  • Praying with Your Eyes Open – In conflict situations, pause to look at the other with the eyes of Christ.  See their holiness and let that condition your response.  Look deeply into the eyes of others, looking for your common humanity and the Christ within you.
  • Visualize Others Connected with You in God’s Light – Breathe deeply, experiencing God’s light filling you and then surrounding you in a circle of light.  You are safe in God’s light.  Imagine that light surrounding and permeating those with whom you are currently in conflict.

We can be contemplative activists and mystics on a mission.  Matthew Fox and Adam Bucko give us a road map for joining spirituality and action to change the world.

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About Bruce Epperly

Rev. Bruce Epperly, Ph.D., serves as Pastor at South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA. Prior to coming to Cape Cod in 2013, he served on the faculties and often in administrative and chaplaincy roles at Georgetown University, Claremont School of Theology, Wesley Theological Seminary, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. Bruce is currently a professor in spirituality, ministry, and theology in the doctoral program at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D.C. He has served as pastor or interim pastor of congregations in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. He is the author or co-author of over 35 books in the areas of theology, spirituality, ministerial excellence and spiritual formation, scripture, and healing and wholeness, including Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God; Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job; From Here to Eternity: Preparing for the Next Adventure; and A Center in the Cyclone: Clergy Self-care in the 21st Century.