Contemplative Activism: An outflow of the broken heart
by Holly Roach Knight
I have been an activist longer than I have been a Christian. I always get a laugh when I say that I broke up with Jesus in high school. But like any break up, it was painful and losing my faith was no party. Fast forward 20 years of activism and I found myself having a “dark night of the soul” and grieving my mother after her passing. During that time a friend gave me a book by Rob Bell and I encountered another kind of Christianity, one I felt I could be a part of again. I called my sister in tears and said, “Jen, I think I can call myself a Christian again.” She replied, “Honey, you have always been a Christian, you just let other people define that for you.” It was as if no wiser words had ever been said. And that marked the beginning of my quest to find healthy expressions of Christianity in the world that I could join in on.
So, I spent the next year tracking the Emergent Church Conversation. If you aren’t familiar with it, the Emergent Church includes such authors as Rob Bell, Shane Claiborne, Doug Pagitt, Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle and Tony Jones. It’s a post-modern church movement that allowed space for doubt and the deconstruction of faith. But a movement can only deconstruct so long before it tears itself apart, so eventually it’s light and influence waned. Many of us have since found the contemplative lens and theory of spiral dynamics, but some among us deconstructed themselves right out of their own faith and became secular humanists and atheists. For me, the Emergent Church version of Christianity led to me to being able to integrate my faith and my activism.
So when I encountered Living School, I had lost and rekindled my Christian faith, and had integrated my activism and faith intellectually. I had even started a Bible study and two of the folks from this group moved into my house. We were having a bit of a beloved community experience, but it was the practices and contemplative framework that the Living School gave me that actually integrated my faith and activism.
I admittedly come to this work on the action end of the spectrum. Most often contemplative teachings come from the lens of the inner experience. But Rohr taught in our most recent Living School module on Prophecy and Justice, that contemplatives don’t always start from the inner experience, but often come to the practice seeking healing from having been in struggles against oppression in the world. He said that many people who, “enter into the pain of society, have to go to God to find rest for the soul.” I am one of those souls who came to the contemplative practice weary and needing renewal in order to keep working for justice.
So, I come to the practice through action in the external world. Namely, when my action is not reflecting, nor in alignment with my faith, engaging in contemplative practice enables me to manage my inner state which then results in my increased ability to choose better action. My inner experience also heals and renews me and readies me to continue on in my work with justice movements.
I’d like to share a few ways that the contemplative has changed my activism and made me a better activist.
1. Waking up to the Body
Just five years ago, if we were somehow able to round up all the oppressors (the target of your justice campaign) and those complicit in systemics of violence and put them all on an island, drop a nuclear bomb on that island, I would have been fine with that. And I would have thought the world a better place because it. Not anymore.
The contemplative has given me a feeling for the oppressor where I was once numb to their humanity. My mentor, Rev Alexia Salvatierra, teaches about how leprosy, a disease referenced often by Jesus in the Bible, is an affliction where the person is unable to feel pain in parts of their body or acknowledge the wounds festering there. She says that as the body of Christ, we have leprosy if we don’t feel the pain present in the human experience that we are not directly affected by. So, by this definition, I had leprosy and was unwilling to face the pain of the oppressors in the world.
2. Dove and Serpent Power
My mentor, Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, teaches about dove and serpent power (from Matthew 10:16) in her book “Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World.” She teaches that dove power is seeing the divine in the oppressor and inviting them to operate from that place. To invoke dove power in an opponent in social justice work is to invite them to make decisions from their own divinely connected self. You have to see the opponent as their divinely connected self and then hold them to it.
When it comes to opposing systems of oppression we have to look for the people upholding those systems, see their divinely connected self, call upon them to divest from the system upholding oppression and love them through the transition.
So, this work becomes about being in relationship with oppressors so that perhaps, through being in relationship with a transformative movement, God can transform their hearts. Where I once sought to cut out the oppressor, I now seek to love and transform them. By being able to sit with accept my own pain, through contemplative practice, I have an increased ability to sit with and accept oppression. This ability to sit in acceptance has given me a vantage point where I can see the humanity in the perpetrator of acts of violence and oppression.
Rev. Salvatierra also teaches about harnessing the power of the serpent. She teaches that to engage serpent power is to accept the shadow side of human nature, to anticipate and to plan for it. So, while the work is to hold the divinity of the oppressor, to get there, you have to first accept the serpent nature of the oppressor (and let’s not forget the serpent nature of ourselves). But serpent power is always coupled with dove power – where we simultaneously acknowledge and accept the shadow in the other (serpent power) while calling forth the divine self (dove power) of the oppressor, ultimately seeking to transform them and their actions.
3. The Inner Witness
Numerous contemplative traditions speak to the ability of the (contemplative) practice to strengthen the presence of the “inner witness.” By developing the inner witness, one has the ability to monitor the thoughts, feelings, sensations, and impulses of the inner experience and the subsequent ability to choose how to respond, without being ruled by the egoic self.
This inner witness has helped me to become aware of my motivations. One dilemma is discerning the difference between a kairos moment and a need of the ego. A kairos moment is a moment of God’s truth being expressed through human consciousness. Perhaps you know this moment. This is the moment when we can’t not [note to editor: italicize or bold] speak up, because to fail to do so would be to limit the power of truth coming through us. In the Christian tradition, this is the prophetic voice, which sees the world as it is in relationship to how it could be (the kingdom of God), and the call to action to transform it.
The inner witness has the ability to discern between the voice of ego, the need for acknowledgement, acceptance, or to assert power or dominance, and the voice of the kairos moment.
4. The Ability to Wait and Discern
A major change to my activism is the contemplative posture that allows me to wait. When a pathway is blocked I learned to allow spirit, time and circumstances to change, rather than busting through obstacles, which often mirrors the violence and oppression that we seek to heal. Rev Dr William Barber, founder and architect of the Moral Monday/Forward Together Movement in North Carolina, says that to do this work we need to, “…leave a screw loose,” to leave room for the Holy Spirit to move in and among us in our work for justice. Waiting is one way that I leave room for spirit to move in and inform my activism.
5. The Willingness to be Wrong
Social change is full of difference. Different kinds of people, cultures, communities, tactics, theories of change, strategies and methods. The left is always getting hammered for the exent of in-fighting and intolerance to difference exhibited in different leftists movements. This pervasive challenge on the left is largely due to the ego’s dislike and perceived threat when faced with great plurality.
So the contemplative practice is such a wonderful tool for limiting our identification with ego and our ability to notice the impulses of the ego while not giving voice to it. With the ego in check I can exhibit a willingness to be wrong. I can say what I think, but I can also get out of the way and try a new way because being wrong is no longer the worst thing that can happen. With this posture the world becomes a laboratory and every act is an experiment or pehaps an adventure. We learn something each time and being wrong is often part of that experience. But without the investment of ego, being wrong is simply another lesson and opportunity for growth. This is an area I can see contemplative activism being an agent of resolution and peace in our justice movements.
6. Non-Attachment to the Outcome
Activists are highly attatched people and I come to contemplative practice deeply attached to creating outcomes. I wish to see black lives matter in the world. I wish to see corporations and Wall Street be held accountable for their contributions to economic inequality. I am very attached to people making a fair, living wage so when people work full time, they can feed their families and live a good life. I want to see young black men in hoodies, full of possibility of what they can achieve in life, rather than fearing for that very life. I am full of attachment!!
The emotions of attachment fuel the false self and, so, while our hearts may be aching, it’s critical to release the addictive thinking of attachment to outcome. Implicit in attachment is the bias that we know what is right and how to get there. So while our prayers and actions may all be lined up to enact a particular change in the world, we need to “leave a screw loose” and leave room for the Spirit to work. And perhaps the outcome will be greater than we planned. When we live a surrendered life to the will of God, we do what we can as we are called and leave the rest to him.
We are all called to rise in this place and time in history, as people of faith and love and contemplative hearts. We are called to be voices for the oppressed and speak love and grace into the hearts of oppressors. We have the unique tools and skills, which allow us to fight our own egos as much as we fight for justice in the world – with grace and mercy for all God’s creations, both those that generate and those that destroy.
We are a world hurting and wounded seeking transformation. The contemplative tradition and contemplative practice can speak into that hurting in the world with a new-ancient lens–one that can strengthen activist movements, love those that wound while adamantly seeking to change them, and craft a contemplative activism that is desperately needed.
This is a New-Wave of innocence, or as Father Richard calls it a “regained innocence.” It is a reclaimed innocence. We choose to find the loving and cleansed heart of a child with the knowing and unknowing of having come out of the hurts of the world seeking wisdom and transformation,
Let us reclaim our innocence. Let us rise together. Let us embody Contemplative Activism for a world desperately crying for it’s presence. We can hold the tension of the Serpent and the Dove in equal measure–we can see the shadow side and false self in ourselves and others and hold it with open hands and open hearts.
Holly Roach Knight is one of the leaders at Transform. She is currently a graduate student working to get two MA degrees in contemplative education at Naropa and social justice community organizing at Prescott College.