Do you come here for your own spiritual growth, or do you come here to find your place in a world that is crying out for some healing love? Do you feel that life is hard and it’s enough to just survive, let alone thrive and help others to thrive? Do you want to make a difference in the world, but feel overwhelmed by the size of the problems and don’t know where to begin? Maybe these alternatives aren’t mutually exclusive. Sometimes service is the best path to spiritual growth. Sometimes the best way to get unstuck from survival mode is to step out and serve others, and enjoy the personal liberation that comes from action.
Sometimes the best way to free yourself from overwhelming feelings is to take action in one area of your life, and let momentum carry you forward in many areas of life.
There is a great scene in the 1970s Woody Allen film, Play It Again Sam. Woody Allen is desperate to hook up with a woman. So he walks up to a woman in a museum who is looking forlornly at a Jackson Pollock painting.
Woody Allen: That’s quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn’t it?
Women in Museum: Yes it is.
Woody Allen: What does it say to you?
Woman in Museum: It restates the negativeness of the universe, the hideous lonely emptiness of existence, nothingness, the predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity, like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void, with nothing but waste, horror, and degradation, forming a useless bleak straightjacket in a black absurd cosmos.
Woody Allen: What are you doing Saturday night?
Woman in Museum: Committing suicide.
Woody Allen: What about Friday night?
Woman in Museum: [she turns, frowns at him and leaves in silence]
You’ve got to admire Allen’s character’s plucky determination. It didn’t work mind you, but you have to appreciate his courage. Now think about activism from the same perspective. If you see the world as a hopeless and meaningless mess, what are you doing about it on Saturday? If you found out the world was going to end on Saturday, what would you do about it on Friday? Flirt with darkness and despair. Ask meaninglessness out on a date with your deepest compassion. Engage it meaningfully and you will make the world a kinder and more decent place. If it says no, find another place and time to engage suffering.
What is spiritual activism? On the one hand, it’s a very simple question. When you dig a little deeper, it becomes more complex. Let’s begin with the simplest definition. Spiritual activism seeks to lessen the suffering in the world. It’s spiritual in the sense that when one person is suffering, we are all suffering, because we are related. Listen to this awesome example of compassion in action.
Vedran Smailovic was a cellist in the Sarajevo Symphony. He lived through the hell of the Sarajevo Siege that lasted from 1992 to 1996. Like hundreds of thousands of other residents he suffered the bitter cold, the food and water shortages, the deadly bombings and sniper fire in the streets. Smailovic decided to use his art to ease the suffering of the people. He played his cello for free at many funerals during the siege. He once played while sitting amidst the rubble of the historic National Library. His heart broke for all the suffering, but instead of giving in to despair, he chose to do what he could to ease the suffering. One day in 1992, twenty-two people were killed by Serbian mortar fire while standing in line outside a bakery. For the next twenty-two days, one day for each victim, Smailovic brought his chair and cello to that same deserted street at 4:00 p.m, the exact time of the attack. With Serbian shells crashing around him, he played in full tuxedo to honor each person who had died. That is a wonderful example of spiritual activism. He did what he could, using the skills he had, to ease the suffering of his brothers and sisters in mourning.
His compassionate actions became the inspiration for folk songs, classical compositions, a novel and a children’s book called Echoes from the Square. What do his actions inspire in you? What gift, what song, what time, what talent, what action are you giving to our suffering world? The people in the world who are suffering and dying aren’t just people. They are your kin. Their suffering is your suffering,
God and Morality
One of the questions I am often asked is about morality in a progressive context. Some people think that God is the foundation of a moral absolute. The argument often runs something like this. If there is no God, then there can be no moral absolutes. To say that something is absolutely right or wrong implies that there is some standard that is beyond human authority, and beyond cultural consensus. All human and cultural standards are flawed and self interested. God, on the other hand, provides the basis for a fundamental standard of morality. How do humans know about God’s absolute standard of morality? The Bible reveals God’s words and thoughts. Or so the argument goes.
Morality in a progressive context doesn’t claim a divine authority, but at the same time an evolving understanding of God guides progressive morality. How’s that for a loaded sentence? Let me unpack it, beginning with an explanation of why progressives don’t claim divine authority.
For many of us, the divine imperative doesn’t work neatly any more. The divine imperative is best summarized by the car bumper sticker that says “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” There are a number of problems with this idea. It’s impossible for anyone to say for sure what God says or thinks. People who say they know God’s thoughts are usually just trying to get a little divine backing for their own views. It adds a certain weight to an argument to claim God is on your side.
Take for example the ancient Hebrew people. The tongue in cheek story suggests that Moses dragged his feet down the mountain to let the people know about God’s commandments, and said to them hesitantly, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I got him down to ten. The bad news is that adultery is still in.” While I’m no advocate of adultery, the joke does point to the human factor in transmitting laws and morality from one culture to another. Take for example the number of commandments. Comedian Mel Brooks satirized the number of commandments. Just as Moses was juggling three large tablets, he began to say to the people, “I have 15 commandments….” Then he dropped one of the tablets and amended his speech, “I have 10 commandments……….”
In all seriousness, there is much debate about both the number and intent of the commandments. They seem to be culturally bound, implying that women are property, and that even slaves need a day off. The most glaring problem with the Ten Commandments is what to do when one commandment compromises another commandment. Many Europeans had to come to terms with this dilemma during the Holocaust. Should they hide their Jewish neighbors, thereby breaking the ninth commandment not to bear false witness, or be implicated in the murder of Jews, thereby breaking the sixth commandment?
While there is much that is positive in the Ten Commandments about living with integrity, they are clearly devised by humans and have little moral imperative for today.
So if there is no divine mandate for morality, does God have a role in morality at all? Most certainly. The prophetic tradition in the Bible offers quite a different approach to morality. The prophets were more interested in compassion for the most vulnerable in society than keeping the letter of the law or strictly observing ritual. They were especially critical of people who believe “correctly” but don’t live their values.
Maybe this is best illustrated by a story about Islamic pilgrimage. Muslims are expected to make pilgrimage at least once in their life time.
Abd Mubarak was on his pilgrimage to Mecca when one night he dreamed that he was in heaven and heard two angels having a conversation.
“How many pilgrims came to the holy city this year?” one of them asked.
”Six hundred thousand”, answered the other.
”And how many of them had their pilgrimage accepted?”
”None of them. However, in Baghdad there is a shoemaker called Ali Mufiq who did not make the pilgrimage, but did have his pilgrimage accepted, and his acceptance benefited the 600,000 pilgrims”.
When he woke up, Abd Mubarak went to Mufiq’s shoe shop and told him his dream.
”At great cost and much sacrifice, I finally managed to get 350 coins together”, the shoemaker said in tears. “But then, when I was ready to go to Mecca I discovered that my neighbors were hungry, so I distributed the money among them and gave up my pilgrimage”.
The prophets would approve of this action. They said that it was more important to treat people right than to be right. Compassion comes before correctness. In a progressive context, God is present in suffering, and in those who are suffering. So to turn your back on the suffering is to turn your back on God. From an evolutionary perspective, we include more and more people and species in our consciousness over time which means that God is present in those far away from us who suffer and even in the suffering earth.
What is the role of God in progressive morality? Not so much external standard, as internal motivation. God is not watching to judge how you perform. God is the compassion you feel, the neighbor you love and the evolutionary pull to love more and more people and things.
Matthew 25 and Spiritual Activism
Matthew chapter 25 tells the parable of the sheep and the goats, and being kind to people as if you are being kind to Jesus. It’s an interesting story. It’s set up like a double blind study of human compassion. The usual interpretation of this parable is that the sheep did the right thing because they were kind. So they went to heaven. The goats did the wrong thing because they ignored suffering so they went to hell. Let me suggest an alternate interpretation. Neither the sheep nor the goats did the best thing. The sheep just performed the lesser of two evils. It’s better to do something than nothing. It’s even better to know why you are doing good, and to whom you are doing good.
This takes spiritual activism to a new level of self awareness. Even though the sheep acted with great compassion, neither group had enough self awareness to truly see the people in need. It seems that while the goats were completely mindless, the sheep were offering handouts with their eyes shut rather than getting to the heart of radical activism by seeing the essential humanity and potential of others. This parable offers an interesting insight into spiritual activism. Do you know why you are doing what you are doing?
Imagine the scenario with a group of activists marching on the street with various placards. “No more bail outs for Wall Street,” says one. “Stop the War,” demands another. “Down with corporations,” shouts a third. And finally the guy at the end proclaims, “I hate my father”! Say what! The point is that we so easily project our own unresolved issues onto social structures; large corporations, government or whatever becomes the symbol for the over bearing parent figure.
Spiritual activism is mindful and self aware. You grow to understand why you feel passionate about issues, and who it is you are trying to help. See yourself in the corporation, and recognize that your mindless consumption is just as much to blame for social ills as large business. See yourself in the government and recognize your part in the election process. See yourself in the Middle East wars and recognize that every time you fill your gas tank up, you participate in the muddle of oil related conflicts.
According to today’s New York Times (March 7,2010), both the current and previous US administrations have awarded more than $15 billion to companies that defied American sanction laws by investing in Iran’s vast oil and gas reserves. Whether its national foreign policies or personal acts of consumption, we tend to be mindlessly duplicitous. The beginning of spiritual activism is mindfulness.
Jewish theologian Zalman Schachter offers a wonderful spiritual practice that gets to the heart of both the parable in Matthew 25 and mindful activism.
Once a year, he convenes an imaginary dinner party in his mind and invites everyone with whom he has had a run-in during the past year, everyone who has been cruel to him or his family.
In the course of this mental banquet, he goes around the table and explains to his guests that he has invited them to thank them for the various gifts they have given him during the past year. They have taught him to understand others a little better.
He has learned to adjust his expectations as most people are doing the best they can in their circumstances. He also thanks his guests at the imaginary banquet for helping him understand himself a little better.
Because of each of them, he has looked deep into his own soul and traveled back to his childhood in an effort to understand what there was in him that made him react so strongly to their actions. In the process, he has learned a lot about others and a lot about himself. For all these gifts he is grateful.
Maybe this is why there is such a strong emphasis in religious traditions on loving your enemies. It’s not because they are any more deserving of your love. They may be enemies for good reason. It’s because there is more light involved in helping your enemy; more self awareness, less ego, and greater compassion. Is it possible that God is present, even in your enemy or in the corporation? Who would you invite to your imaginary dinner party, and why? If you can’t invite all your enemies, invite some of them. If you cant love and accept them fully, love and accept them part of the way. Create a pattern of forgiveness in your life and create the habit of healing.
You Can Make a Difference
No matter how large the problems of the world appear to be, you can make a difference. Come back to the story of the Cellist of Sarajevo. The piece that he chose to play each day for 22 days during the Siege of Sarajevo in 1992 was Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor. It’s a powerful piece of music with a powerful story. It was put together from manuscripts that were found amidst the ruins of Dresden after the Second World War. This music had itself survived the firebombing and destruction of WW2. Miraculously it had risen out of the rubble and ruins of one city and echoed in the despair of another. It offered the sound of hope and fresh starts, and its message was brought by one man who was doing what he knew how to do best.
You too can bring a message of hope and fresh starts to a world that often seems to be trying to find meaning under the rubble of its own despair. You don’t have to solve all the problems of the world. Just love the world, do it mindfully and do it in your own unique way, and that will make all the difference. Together we are even more powerful. Together we will love the world, in an ever widening circle of kindness, until the day when love conquers all hatred and no one and no thing is excluded from love’s tender embrace. Namaste.
For Further Reflection-
What are the big issues you care about, and why?
Do you think there is morality without a divine standard?
In what ways are you growing in mindful activism?
What are you doing right now to love the world more deeply?