Spiritual activism is a form of activism that is grounded on spiritual philosophies and practices. Spirituality and activism may seem contradictory at first glance as spirituality is considered an inward practice whereas activism is aimed at the outer, material world. However, spirituality can extend individual boundaries and become an interpersonal motivation for justice. Spiritualism and activism are fundamentally linked and we can use spiritual principles in our pursuit for equality.
Activism is a hot topic these days. As awareness about systematic injustice increases, more and more individuals utilise their identity as an activist. However, activism for most people is rooted in a place of fear and anger. Speeches of social activists are mostly constructed in a similar fashion as the language of war. Common phrases such as “fighting against, employing tactical strategies, neutralising the opposition” are suggestive of a deeply rooted anger towards social injustice of any form. According to Sheridan 2012, conventional social activism has two major downfalls:
Firstly, polarisation becomes inevitable. Activists are passionately devoted to their causes and their efforts to establish and protect justice often becomes an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ fight. Opening conversations, listening to each other and finding a way forward together often becomes close to impossible. However, the true goal of the activist is not beating the other or defeating the enemy. There is a higher purpose that can get overshadowed by hatred along the way. After one side takes the advantage to implement their ideology, the resentment between the sides can continue for many years and it can block any real transformation. Thus activism needs to secure mutual understanding instead of crippling it.
Secondly, traditional activism is fueled by anger that is righteously located in the perpetrators and the system. However, choosing anger as your main motivation can cause burnout. Various reasons can contribute to the burnout of an activist. Some of these reasons include: exhausting the body, mind and the spirit by neglecting self-care; losing hope and feeling despair; and experiencing first-hand or secondary trauma from enduring injustice.
Thus anger and fear-based activism is not sustainable for the individual or society. A new form of activism has been established in recent years as a response, called spiritual activism also known as sacred activism or engaged spirituality. The biggest premise and modality of this approach is that the fuel of activism is spirituality and love instead of anger and hatred. Spirituality is a self-cultivating, peace-based and unfailing source of motivation that covers what anger lacks. Spirituality gives you a purpose to plant your passions in and cultivate them daily. It helps you find your voice and gives you a purpose to spread your wisdom. The practice of spiritual activism on the other hand, can help you find the means to work in the name of love in a sustainable way. Spiritual activism is “compassionate, positive, kind, fierce, and transformative” and it comes from the heart.
Seven principles of spiritual activism have been identified in the literature to guide activists in their pursuit: Spiritual motivation for justice work; Recognition of interdependence; The means matter; Acceptance of not-knowing; Openness to suffering; Outer change requires inner work; and Commitment to spiritual practices.
1- Spiritual motivation for justice work: Firstly, spiritual motivation has to manifest itself in the pursuit of justice. All the efforts for activism must be rooted in ‘love, awareness and compassion’ instead of ‘anger, fear or reaction’. Of course, it is only fair to have some negative feelings, but the main focus and source of motivation has to be building instead of destroying. This approach entails having some love and compassion for the people on the opposite side as well. Demonising the opponent only leads to more defensiveness and arrogance. To find a resolution to the problem every gate that may lead to an open and honest dialog has to be open.
2- Recognition of interdependence: Spiritual activism promotes interconnectedness which refers to the awareness that every component of the universe, inanimate or animate, is linked. Interconnectedness is the profound reality however digging that deep can be difficult in the age of technology. While technology brings us together in multiple ways by completely transforming our understanding of distance, it cultivates a deep disconnection between cause and effect. For example, there is a deep discontinuity of information between the producer, the merchant and the consumer. We don’t really know how animals are treated in farms; the work conditions of farmers; or how the products are distributed to the markets. This disconnection leads to a loss of accountability from the individual. When we are aware of the webs connecting us on a daily basis, compassion and responsibility cultivate in us. Our actions have bigger impacts than we can observe therefore we need to be more mindful.
3- The means matter: In spiritual activism, the means and ends need to be aligned. The strategies, tactics and methods used are as important as the outcome and all these processes should reflect what spiritualism stands for. We are accountable for the path we have chosen to pursue our cause. Principles of compassion, peace, love and awareness need to manifest themselves in the actions we have chosen to take. A sacred goal needs to be achieved with integrity and noble actions rather than forceful, disreputable ones.
4- Acceptance of not-knowing: Spiritual activists accept their standing in a state of “not knowing”. A spiritual person is on a quest to find truth which means that they have to accept the paradoxical, ambiguous, complex and contradictory nature of the truth and avoid any dogma including their own. The truth is never simple nor black and white and our truth is not always ‘the universal truth’. With this perspective, you are opening yourself to the possibility of seeing a wider picture and different aspects of reality. It is important to be open to seeing the truth of the opponent and actively questioning your own position at every turn.
5- Openness to suffering: A spiritual activist needs to accept that there is no escape from suffering as they will encounter various forms of pain along the way. Systematic inequality, injustice, oppression and violence produce suffering which can linger on for generations to come. Efforts to consciously avoid suffering can close your heart to compassion and love. Pain and grief enhance your ability to feel empathy and help you to take more responsibility for your actions. Once you witness suffering, you feel an endless need to look for ways of minimising it within yourself and others. This experience can transform you into a more mature and motivated spiritual activist. Of course, there has to be a balance between bearing suffering and protecting yourself. Witnessing unbearable pain and suffering can traumatise activists and disrupt their functioning and inner peace. It is important to consider your health while responding to the suffering of others, as the purpose is to minimise suffering, not causing more within yourself.
6- Outer change requires inner work: A societal level transformation is dependent upon cumulative changes happening at the individual level. As Gandhi said: “You must be the change you want to see in the world”. Systematic injustice is only a mirror of the fears, delusions, judgements and hatred in your own heart. Activism starts with a revolution within the individual. Regular inner work is part of a spiritual activist’s duties. Without working on fully internalising everything you stand for, start a transformation in society for justice, equality, acknowledgement and sharing. Working on increasing consciousness helps you to get a better understanding of social and environmental issues. A person who constantly works to be better and educate themselves puts a lot of thought on the consequences of their actions and the part they play in the greater scheme of things. They tend to act responsibly and avoid groupthink. Individuals and society change for the better simultaneously. A balance has to be found between turning inward for self-healing and turning outward to heal society.
7- Commitment to spiritual practices: This one highlights the importance of practicing spirituality in daily life. A spiritual activist needs to regularly engage in spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, reading spiritual texts and chanting. Practices like journaling, gardening, spending time with loved ones, and creative expression can nurture the spiritual side of the individual as well. Engagement in spiritual practices helps a person recharge their energy and avoid exhaustion. Another benefit is that spiritualism cultivates love and compassion for others which inhibits demonising the opponents. Spiritual practices can also be integrated into social work and activism efforts.
Overall, spiritual activists work for love, justice and sustainability and use noble means for their noble causes. They save compassion for everyone and acknowledge that each individual embodies divinity and sacredness. This new sustainable model for activism will get more recognition as time goes by as it yields the potential to spread kindness and wisdom to the world. Even for people who don’t engage in spirituality, there is a lot to learn from the outlook and methodology of spiritual activists.
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Keating, A. (2008). “I’m a citizen of the universe”: Gloria Anzaldúa’s Spiritual Activism as Catalyst for Social Change. Feminist studies, 34(1/2), 53-69.
Spiritual activism. The Network of Spiritual Progressives. (n.d.) Retrieved September 20, 2021, from https://spiritualprogressives.org/philosophy/spiritual-activism/.
Sheridan, M.J. (2012). Spiritual activism: Grounding ourselves in the spirit. Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Social Work: Social Thought, 31(1-2), 193-208.
Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, January 20). Spiritual activism. Wikipedia. Retrieved September 20, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiritual_activism.