It’s become a truism, a cliché, to point out something truly remarkable: Human civilization is in the midst of an existential crisis. The ecology of the living Earth — long pushed beyond its sustainable capacities — has issued a near-future-stamped “change-or-face-eviction” notice to humankind. Meanwhile, many other human systems — social, political and cultural — are simultaneously in crisis. Economic inequality is becoming ever more grotesque. And culture wars over injustice, racism, homophobia and sexism are rapidly intensifying. These are the political crises we collectively recognize.
But we rarely publicly acknowledge that we’re also in the midst of an existential spiritual crisis. By that I do not mean that fewer of us believe in God or attend church than we did 50 years ago. I use the word “spiritual” here to refer to our sources of higher inspiration — meaning, value, compassion, care, generosity, goodness, truth and beauty — often linked to experiences of higher states and structures of consciousness. Feelings of alienation, loneliness and meaninglessness pervade many lives. Forty years into the neoliberal experiment, we see not only increasing material impoverishment, but also a profound and rising spiritual hunger. Many are finding meaning in a new spiritual renaissance. But for others, spirituality is a coping strategy. Our two crises — spiritual and political — are deeply interlinked.
Spiritual awakening can be fulfilled only in relationship, in being of benefit to the whole, especially in times when crises are acute. Spirituality naturally expresses itself in active engagement with others, in actual work to restore systemic health and wholeness. In the US, individualism is baked not only into our politics, but into our spirituality as well — and particularly within alternative paths. In the 1970s, when thousands of mostly white, mostly middle-class young adults created what would eventually be called the “New Age,” they embarked on a spirituality whose goal was a change in personal consciousness. This quest was solitary — or, at most, played out within self-contained spiritual communities. Many of these practitioners found ways to make a middle-class living, postponing social transformation while they pursued personal growth. Recognizing that we faced problems that couldn’t be solved with the kind of consciousness that created them, they signed an IOU and focused on changing personal consciousness. It may be no coincidence that this happened while many of the social justice movements of the 1960s were stymied amidst right-wing mobilization.
My own life was in some ways paradigmatic of this social trajectory. I grew up in a multiracial, leftist cooperative outside Chicago and came of age in the 1960s. As a teenager, I was active in the antiwar movement, and led campus demonstrations at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. But then I recognized that the revolution had to begin with me — I had to transform my own consciousness. Almost 50 years later, I’m clear that both are true — the inner and outer work are both necessary — but they now must integrate. Our spirituality must become political, and our politics must be grounded in spiritual practice and awakening.
Spirituality that is untethered to creative work for the benefit of others and a just, sustainable and healthy society tends to be self-absorbed. Conversely, politics that isn’t grounded in higher inspiration and actual self-transcending practice lacks the “electric” energy that authentic spiritual inspiration can bring, and often leads to burnout and cynicism.
The stakes are high: As climate change threatens our very future, and economic inequality stokes dangerous social polarization, we are literally in a battle for our lives — one that can only be won in “sage mode” rather than “warrior mode.” We now need to show up at our wisest and best. And that only happens when the political and the spiritual are integrated.
When veteran antiwar protester, social justice activist and former FBI most-wanted man Father Daniel Berrigan was interviewed by The Nation in 2008, he said: “The short fuse of the American left is typical of the highs and lows of American emotional life. It is very rare to sustain a movement in recognizable form without a spiritual base.” Like it or not, politics needs spirituality, and spirituality needs politics.
Of course, we have powerful historical examples of activists whose spiritual calling was inseparable from their political struggle. The African American church has long been an incubator of social justice movements, and figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Daniel Berrigan, Dorothy Day, Joanna Macy and others have shown what it means to live lives in which the spiritual and political are braided together and interdependent.
We live amidst a crisis of fragmentation. But, like an immune response, wholeness resurges in the face of fragmentation. It takes the form of countless acts and creative projects that elevate our consciousness, relationships, communities and systems, and reknit our torn social fabric. It can be thought of as a kind of heroic wholeness. As a longtime spiritual teacher, I am seeing a rapidly growing hunger for this kind of wholeness. Increasingly, the diverse spiritual ecosystem in which I’ve participated for over four decades is now recognizing the limits of an inward-focused spirituality; or, as I like to put it, there’s a debt incurred when people opt completely out of politics to focus on the inner work — and the bill is now coming due.
Many organizations now reflect this new integrated consciousness and have as their mission both personal and political transformation. Some are appearing at the leading edge of evolutionary thinking. They include Sister Giant, founded by Marianne Williamson; the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives, which was co-founded by Rabbi Michael Lerner, Sister Joan Chittister and Cornel West; and Andrew Harvey’s Institute for Sacred Activism. These groups are rousing people from all faiths to change the world and to align their spirituality with their worldly work.
Countless congregations and sanghas (communities) have begun to mobilize. The “religious left” is becoming a force in American politics, and figures like Rev. angel Kyodo williams, a Zen priest and activist, are finding strong resonance with their message that the inner and outer work require each other.
As the Trump presidency becomes a daily reminder of how vulgar materialism, greed and a lack of reverence for human life and the natural world can be weaponized in the service of a dangerous and heartless agenda, a renewed call for politics with both spiritual and intellectual integrity resonates far and wide, and the work has begun throughout the country.
Churches, such as the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Phoenix, Arizona, and the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, have boldly defied Trump’s racist crackdown on immigrants and offered sanctuary to undocumented workers. They are not alone. Churches from North Carolina to Missouri to Texas are opening their doors to impoverished families at risk of deportation and standing firm against the scapegoating of immigrants. According to a January 2018 report produced by the Church World Service, the Sanctuary Movement has exploded in the wake of Trump’s victory: “Immediately after the 2016 election, faith communities rapidly joined the Sanctuary Movement. Knowing that President Trump had run his campaign on policies of exclusion and punishment, the numbers drastically spiked from 400 to 800 congregations during several months.”
Meanwhile, the Poor People’s Campaign, an organization that harkens back to Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement of the same name, is providing both a moral mandate and political analysis for making change. The group has drafted a resolute set of progressive demands, taken a leading role in organizing civil disobedience, and built a library of activist art. They have also created powerful alliances with the Fight for $15 campaign and Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of the country’s most tenacious unions.
In an inspiring show of resistance, the Poor People’s Campaign will engage in 40 days of direct action beginning today, Mother’s Day, and concluding on June 23. Working with diverse political coalitions from more than 40 states, they will take to the streets to challenge systemic racism and poverty. This bold action is motivated by “The Souls of Poor Folk,” a damning audit of poverty in the US in the 50 years after King launched the first Poor People’s Campaign.
We are in an era of crises that makes whole-system change necessary. Meanwhile, we yearn for nothing short of total personal and political transformation. Paradoxically, in times of extreme stress, the possibility of this kind of radical change is greatest. Buddhists have used a precious jewel — the “wish-fulfilling gem” — to symbolize this kind of transformation. Such a diamond cannot be formed except under titanic pressure. Sudden, dramatic evolutionary progress often takes place under conditions of extreme tension when dire conditions require rapid and dramatic adaptation. When new conditions disrupt ecological balance, other crucial environmental factors change, which force new faculties and behaviors to emerge.
The twin crises of our time call us to a new politics and spirituality, neither of which can arise in isolation. The true heroes of the age ahead will not be individuals, but communities of practice whose cooperative work will simultaneously mend, uplift and evolve our hearts, our relationships and our world.