The Spiritual Is Political

There is a pervasive misconception that spiritual people are somehow above everyday life, that we’re not supposed to be concerned with mundane things. Which is, clearly, bullshit. We’re still people, we still buy groceries, and eat food, and pay bills. We still live in a world impacted by laws, and economic hardship. To imagine that the spiritual is totally disconnected from the everyday is baffling.

Gone to Meddling…

I know a rabbi who knows she’s pushed some big important buttons in her sermon when she gets feedback afterwards that she’s “meddling” or “too political.” As a clergy person in my own tradition I often get the exact same feedback. But what most people find surprising is that it is exactly my spiritual practice that has led to my current political and ethical views.

The Practices that Change Us

If your spirituality has not changed you then it is ineffective and needs to be changed. Spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, and study are meant to change and shape us into the best versions of ourselves. Different religious traditions use different language for this but the result is similar. The goal is to become the sort of people that God/Divine/Mystery intends us to be.

I began to grow into a more compassionate, open, and loving individual when I took on a daily meditation and prayer practice. And that’s not unusual. In fact as part of that practice I read the sacred stories and teachings from my religious tradition more deeply than ever before.

I discovered a compassion for the poor and marginalized that ran deeply through the heart of God and the spiritual leaders of my faith. I found myself running again and again up against what I’d always been taught and finding it didn’t line up at all with the actual practices of my spiritual tradition.

the spiritual is political

Uncomfortable Truth

If you are part of a tradition that uses the library of Jewish and/or Christian scriptures usually called the Bible (a rotten word since this collection is a library, not a book) then your scriptures are concerned chiefly with the treatment of the poor, the sick, the stranger, the prisoner, and the powerless. Everything else is secondary.

Really dig into the whole of the library and you’ll find that fulfilling religious obligations (as a Jew or Christian) but not taking care of the “least of these” means you’ve wasted your religious efforts.

The bottom line is this: scripture is political. Whether we are Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, or Buddhist (and many more) our sacred teachings have expectations of the way we order our corporate lives together. As a Christian priest I am most familiar with my own tradition’s teachings. So those are what I will use in this article.

But rest assured, whatever your tradition it isn’t likely to be much different.

Spiritual rubber meets the real world road

Jesus talks about money all the time. He advocates for the out right giving of money to the poor, sick, and in need. You’ll need quite a few fingers and toes to count the number of times Jesus champions the rights of the poor and the worker. Would you be surprised to find out that Jesus never once comments on sex, however? Not once. The spiritual is political.

In fact the two times someone tries to trap him into nay saying traditional Jewish teachings on marriage and sex Jesus basically slaps their wrist for treating women like property. In other words: once again he sides with those without power.

Eye Opening

My own spiritual transformation began in college as so many do. But not because I left the church. Quite the opposite. I got curious, and there was a huge library at my disposal for the first time. That first year I got myself lost among the stacks and stacks of books and discovered a whole wing given over to religious writing from a dizzying variety of traditions. I checked out stacks of books to read, and took any class I could find on the topic.

The more I read the more surprised I was at what I found. I took a class from a former Jesuit priest and monk, which opened my eyes to religious logic and rhetoric. I took a class in which we explored the English Bible as a literary collection and found knew life breathed in to texts I’d long thought run dry.

The more I read the more excited I got, and the more disturbed.

the spiritual is political

Shifting Perspective

By the time I was a successful young engineer in my mid 20s I had changed my views on just about everything. My poor confused parents watched as their nice conservative daughter became (it seemed to them) a radical. But really what I’d become was awakened. I found myself among communities that I had been taught were evil, sinful and corrupt. But really were just two moms juggling soccer schedules, aging parents, and the church potluck.

But most of all, they were disciples. I saw in their lives the teachings I was reading in sacred scripture reflected clearly and brightly. I like to say that God gave me a church full of lesbians to love all the fear out of me. And it isn’t far from the truth.

The Root Of All Evil

You see the root of all evil isn’t money, it’s fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of the different, fear of scarcity, danger, and uncertainty. Fear of the other. But the scriptures I read revealed the other/stranger to be a messenger of God, or at least a fellow worker for peace. The prayer I engaged in each day (morning and evening prayer) kept me looking up and out, beyond my own life to that of the world.

The meditation into which I sank slowly but surely opened my heart like a many petaled flower. My work of growth is not done. I still fear a great many things. I still love imperfectly. As fear retreats, compassion takes its place. And compassion calls us to action.

One of the most formative experiences in my spiritual life was distinctly uncomfortable. I found myself in the midst of a divide as divisive as any in our current political climate. In the midst of the ugliness my opponents became enemies. A wise spiritual mentor insisted I pray for them, which I did (grudgingly). The result of those prayers was not that they realized I was right, saw the light, and I won.

I was given the spiritual gift of compassion, instead. I experienced in the depths of my meditation the fear, loss and confusion my so called enemies felt. While we never did come to agreement I could no longer ever call those other human beings enemies. The spiritual is political.

Heaven Is Built of Compassion

If fear is the root of all evil the root of all good is compassion. It is compassion that allows us to see the humanity in those who are different from us, and to be moved by their suffering. It is compassion that makes us our brother’s keepers (to quote Genesis), as we were always meant to be.

The spiritual is political because the spiritual has to do with compassion, and compassion requires action. It’s no good praying for someone if you do not also act to relieve their suffering.

I cannot read the Hebrew Prophets condemnation of corrupt governments, and societies that grind the poor into the dirt on Sunday morning; and on Tuesday vote in ways that will harm the poor. Even if that means voting against my own “self interest.” It will almost certainly cost me something to improve the lives of those with less power, privilege, or wealth than myself; but my spiritual practice and religious convictions require exactly that.

This is what it means to say that the spiritual is political.

As I experience the Love that binds the whole universe together, that gives it’s gift of awareness to each human being I cannot remain indifferent to their suffering.

the spiritual is political

Now We’re All Meddling

It is easy for so-called religious leaders to build their power and influence by preying on their followers’ fear. If you watch a televangelist whip up his followers against whoever is hated by God this week (note: it is never them or their followers) and you’ll see fear at work. It’s sensational, and satisfying, and it fulfills our deeply seated animal need for survival.

But if we are to become spiritually mature we must move past such things. We must grow up out of fear. That does not mean that we will eventually all be the same, or that we will ever all agree. But mature spiritual practice allows us to respect and care for one another in the midst of our diversity and disagreement.

A group where everyone thinks and acts alike has a name: a cult. Politics is something else, politics (from the Greek polis meaning a city or community) is the act of diverse people coming together to make decisions for the whole community. As spiritual people if we are to participate in our communities we must bring our whole selves, and that means our religious and spiritual practices cannot be removed from our public life.

The spiritual is political because the spiritual is also holistic, it seeks the transformation of the whole person including their relationships and responsibilities. 

Meditating for Our Lives

The issues faced by our communities are come complicated and fraught than ever before. And our politics have become deeply divide and divisive, to the point that it seems we cannot even talk to each other. Those of us who are spiritual beings cannot simple go with the flow. We come from traditions that insist on the oneness of humanity, though we are diverse in how we get to that place or what we call it.

We are Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and Pagans. But all our traditions teach that human beings, simply because they are human, are worthy and filled with dignity. And that truth matters when it comes to our public life. It matters when we debate who deserves access to health care, safe housing, self determination.

Meditate, march, vote

For spiritual people there is a direct connection between what we do on our meditation cushions, prayer mats, altars, and our public lives. If we are to live authentically, which is holistically, then our prayers and our meditation must inform not only our interior lives but the things we do in our communities. If in our spiritually we discover the oneness of humanity that so many spiritual teachers teach then how can we fail to dedicate our lives to championing our fellow humans?

This is our challenge: to take our spiritual truths into the politic sphere. My religious tradition insists that I speak for the marginalized, that I welcome to stranger, that I care for the oppressed, that I insist that our public life should strive for justice and peace, and respect dignity of every human being (that’s literally a vow made in my tradition at our initiation into the faith).

How does your spiritual practice inform your political life? What does your practice demand of you as a spiritual being?

spiritual is political

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1 thought on “The Spiritual Is Political”

  1. I love this counter to the narrative that spiritual people need to hide away from “real-life” in monasteries or meditating in caves. The world needs these people, as well as the people who take their spirituality out into the world. Thank you for this.

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