The Spiritual Dimension of Social Action
When faced with a disaster, people focus on its immediate, outward aspects. If a house is on fire, the first job is to put it out. Only later does anyone try to determine the cause or plan to prevent it from happening again. We do this with small things and big things alike. This is the absolutely right priority. But it becomes a problem if we get so stuck on the outward symptoms that we miss what is actually a deep-seated, spiritual disease.
There are traditional religious responses, of course; a call for prayer comes to mind. But if that is all we do, it is wholly inadequate. For me, praying is a way to open myself to opportunities for transformation. With regard to the environment, my prayers have helped me to be tender to and reconciled with God’s creation. This has resulted in changing my personal behavior. But to believe prayer would result in divine intervention in the physical world feels like a dangerous, delusional fantasy. I don’t believe there is a bearded old man sitting on a cloud who can stretch out his arm and cleanse the heavens and the earth of excess carbon.
What is the harm in focusing on the immediate crisis and leaving spiritual questions to later? Our history may provide a valuable lesson in the cost.
In 1860, the Abolition Movement—prominently featuring many Quakers—was on the verge of complete success. Within a decade, every slave within the borders of the United States was legally free and by law in possession of civil rights equal to those of any other citizen. By 1865, the cost had been horrific: as many as 750,000 soldiers in addition to many thousands of other people had died. In addition to the huge direct military expenditures, uncounted dollars’ worth of property was destroyed, and millions of lives had been profoundly disrupted. But slavery was illegal, so abolition societies dwindled to obscurity as their former members moved on to other concerns.
The existence of slavery had been seen as a political problem and a military/political solution had been applied. But slavery was only a symptom of a more deeply seated and wide-ranging spiritual disease characterized by greed, racism, and estrangement. It caused spiritual blindness, alienation, and an inability to see others as the beloved children of God. It was a deep wound in many American souls. This spiritual lesion led to a sense of unjustly lost entitlement; it expressed itself in oppression and in a fear of being oppressed. Outlawing slavery had addressed only the obvious external symptom (and not very well, as there are more slaves in the world today than at any previous time). More importantly, since its underlying causes remained, the disease continued to fester.
New manifestations continued to appear. Formerly enslaved people and their descendants were subject to 100 years of Jim Crow laws and living with constant fear of terrorist oppression. The failure to recognize and heal the spiritual wound necessitated a Civil Rights Movement in the middle of the twentieth century. Gains were made, but again, it was the legal aspects that were addressed; the underlying spiritual infection remained, and today we still face the ongoing racist symptoms.
The abolitionists did not fail. The political and legal events of the 1860s are real and significant; they accomplished their objectives. The Civil Rights Movement also achieved great things, but these were solutions only to the outward manifestations of their times. Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, court decisions, and federal legislation by their nature neglected the spiritual dimensions of the problem, so it festered and blistered up again and again. Only a spiritual healing will end this repeated morphing and manifestation in new, malignant forms.
Global warming likewise grows out of spiritually alienated roots. If we treat it as merely a political problem, a lifestyle issue, or an engineering challenge, we will follow the same path as our abolitionist ancestors, and can expect (at best) the same degree of success. We may be able to squelch the world’s current fever, but unless we heal humanity’s spiritual wound, the illness will break out again in some other way.
How do we effectively attend to the spiritual dimension of global warming? I don’t have a plan, but I can offer some guiding principles.
As a religious body, prayer is obvious. This can be personal (as mentioned above, I pray that hearts will be softened and wills transformed), but our prayer should also be public and corporate. Any time Friends engage in a public work of social action, a period of silent prayer is appropriate. Those are opportunities to invoke the help of the Holy Spirit in the work of reconciling humanity with the rest of creation. That might touch others spiritually, but it doesn’t seem sufficient.
Choosing different words to describe ourselves and the rest of physical reality might also be helpful. When we speak of “human beings” and “the environment,” our language reveals our estrangement. I try to use “creation” and “creatures” to remind myself that this is all the generation of a Creator. Even if you do not believe in a Divine Initiator, the practice of saying the words “human creatures” reminds us that we are on an equal footing with all other created things: both animate and inanimate.
More than anything else, we need to examine our mindset in undertaking these important efforts. It is well established that fear is an excellent short-term motivator, but its effects wear off (and are even counter-productive) in the long run, and yet much of the rhetoric used to motivate activities to reduce and reverse global warming is grounded in fear. We need to remember the words of John Woolman explaining his travel to a Native American village in the middle of a war: “Love was the first Motion.” Can we say the same? Is our social action rooted in love? Does it make evident our love even for those who oppose what we advocate? When we feel their anger, do we reach out to them in love as fellow creatures?
Any program for social action that addresses the spiritual dimension of the issues we address should display the fruits of the Spirit. Our work must arise from faithfulness and be rooted in peace, forbearance, self-control, and kindness. It should display love and gentleness, and produce joy both in the workers and in the hearers of its message.
Set out in faithfulness; carry on with joy.