Spiritual activism, by Alastair McIntosh and Matt Carmichael

Spiritual-Activism-front-coverWhat can spirituality contribute to activism? That’s the central question of Spiritual Activism, the new book by Alastair McIntosh and Matt Carmichael. It’s a question that will immediately resonate with some and alienate others, but the deeper you get into the book, the more obvious it becomes that this isn’t a niche concern.

“To be an activist is, at its most elementary, to be active, to be alive, to seek to use our lives to give life” say the authors by way of definition. “Our calling is to be movers and shakers, the social salt and pepper that troubles the ‘Roman peace’ of those who seek a quiet life untroubled by injustice.” That is not an easy road, and there are a number of reasons why activism needs a spiritual footing. It can “inform and refine” our activism by clarifying our values. It calls us to compassion and to truth. It gives us a deeper understanding of power, of where it lies and who wields it. It gives us the resources to hope when things are difficult, and even to find joy in suffering.

But what do we mean by this term spirituality? It’s a word that raises suspicions among atheists, and to the conventionally religious too. It can sound wishy-washy and non-commital, a descriptor used by those who want to have their honeycake and eat it. But as the roots of the word imply, ‘religion’ is “the spiritual which has been ‘tied back down’ and integrated into social structures.” Spirituality is broader and more free-ranging, and that is not to disparage religion: “at its best, religion is a human-made trellis upon which the wild vine of raw spiritual life, the spirit-driven life of the soul, can be invited to grow.”

The authors don’t wish to engage in comparative religion, but see spirituality as a counter to modernism. This centuries-long philosophical shift towards rational thinking has left us with a mechanistic view of the universe. Because it is concerned with what is concrete and measurable, modernism has left us ill-equipped to talk about vital but intangible things. It has no notion of the sacred, which is ultimately the only way to talk about “things that cannot be taken apart and put back together again, and therefore cannot be valued in material terms: healthy forests, snow leopards, clean rivers, starry nights, daughters and brother and lovers and friends.”

If you’ve read any of Alastair McIntosh’s previous books (Soil and Soul, or Hell and High Water) you’ll know what to expect – a wide-ranging set of influences that interweaves psychology, folklore, theology and personal experience. Spiritual Activism continues in that vein, with fellow activist and writer Matt Carmichael. One typical paragraph mentions the seven deadly sins of Catholic tradition, notes that Islam adds an eighth (despair, interestingly), rolls them into the Buddhist understanding of dissatisfaction and ends with a quote from the Psalms.

This is all enriching and sometimes entertaining, but the point here is to inform activism and help us change the world. So there are chapters on the psychology of campaigning, and how groups work together. Protest groups are full of angry and sometime dysfunctional people, often facing unlikely odds and the prospect of frequent failure. Honesty, humility, and forgiveness will be important, and a hope that goes deeper that shallow optimism. In exploring the spiritual notion of ‘leadership as service’, the book finds an alternative to both the hierarchical leadership models of the world, and the idealism of ‘leaderless’ movements.

There is a great chapter on nonviolence, which includes a range of examples. Gandhi and the Quakers are present, and so is Pussy Riot. The movement led by Gaffar Khan against the Raj shows how Islamic non-violent resistance is not just possible but has precedent. The Orthodox Church in Bulgaria preventing the deportation of thousands of Jews during the Second World War is an inspiring story that I hadn’t heard before. The material on the spiral of violence and confronting illegitimate power is not new, but all activists ought to familiarise themselves with it.

The section on calling rings true as well, and the idea of the prophetic. That’s not the predicting of future events, but the often unwelcome function of trying to draw attention to the long term consequences of a way of life, and how we might live better. As a Christian of the disorganised variety, I’ve occasionally described my own writing that way, somewhat hesitantly. As McIntosh and Carmichael write, when we find ourselves in that sort of role, “it can be helpful to know that there is a body of knowledge and experience out there that offers assistance with discerning and testing such a vocation.”

Indeed, and there’s something profound about being to place today’s social and environmental justice campaigns into an ancient tradition that has until very recently been viewed as a spiritual one. A growing number of activists recognise that already, and we don’t need to be shy about thinking and talking about that for what it is.

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