Speech delivered to the Coady Institute in Antigonish, Canada on October 5, 2011.
I am delighted to be with you today to deliver this Gatto Chair lecture on “The New Frontiers of Development and Social Change: Religion, Spirituality, Love and Social Justice,” and to talk with you about such important matters.
Having worked in the field of international development for the last 35 years, I have a sense, deep down, that these things are all connected, and that understanding and strengthening these connections provides some sort of key to increasing our effectiveness as agents of transformation wherever we live and work. Perhaps you feel this too; perhaps, like me, you have also become disillusioned with conventional efforts to support others in their struggles against poverty and prejudice and powerlessness that often seem more a hindrance than a help, and rarely get to the root of the problems we face.
But exactly how they fit together is an enormously-challenging question, perhaps a question for which there are no answers in the normal sense of something that is fixed and final, but only a continuing journey of discovery from which we can distill some useful lessons and some common patterns to help us along the way. I freely admit that I struggle with these uncertainties every day, and so I’m not here to give you the answers, to unlock the mysteries of life and the universe, or to provide you with a readymade template to guide your efforts in the future.
But I am convinced that the struggle is worthwhile. I’m convinced that the future of the world, and our own future in remaking it, lies through the fusion of personal change with social transformation in ways that are deeply-embedded in religion and spiritual experience, and ultimately in love for each-other. I realize that these are difficult things to talk about in public, but I’m convinced that marrying a rich inner life dedicated to the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion with the practice of new forms of politics, economics and social activism is both necessary and achievable in our lifetimes, a marriage that I think would revolutionize both the theory and the reality of development and social change.
So I’m going to ask you to come with me as I journey through some complicated territory over the next 45 minutes, moving from religion to spirituality to love to social justice. And as a mental model to help along the way think of those Russian dolls that are nested one inside the other, each of them contained by and containing the essence of the next, but all of them different in size and weight and the detail of their decoration. That’s a simple way of interpreting the connections I’m going to talk about and it may help to keep us focused as we move through such a demanding set of issues.
Because I’m working at the moment on what today’s social activists can learn from their forbears in the 1960s, and because I think it has much to say about the challenges we’re exploring, I will be using quite a few examples and quotations from the US Civil Rights movement, which is not to suggest of course that there are no other interesting examples. And to start off I want to take you back to Montgomery Alabama on a winter’s night in December 1955, shortly after an event that made history in ways that I’m sure you all know about already. That was the Montgomery bus boycott that was sparked by the courage of Rosa Parks in refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus.
But what you may not know is that shortly after the boycott began a 26-year old Martin Luther King preached a sermon at Holt Street Baptist Church during which he spoke for the first time about the relationship between love and social justice, framing a conversation that has continued ever since. Interestingly, King had almost no time to prepare his remarks because the protest meeting he was attending was impromptu – just a minute or two in the car ride over to the church – so we have to assume that what he said that night was spontaneous, from the heart as much as from the head, perhaps even inspired by a force that was not in his control.
“And I want to tell you this evening”, he announced after highlighting some passages on love and spirit in the face of oppression from the scriptures, “that it is not enough for us to talk about love. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which would work against love. Standing beside love is always justice.” “King’s oratory had just made him forever a public person” his biographer tells us, though the church was stunned into silence, never having heard this formulation before. But oratory aside, what did King mean when he talked about justice as “love in calculation?” Is it true that justice always stands with love? And why are these statements – so easy to the ear but so demanding in their implications – so significant for the dialogue we are sharing with each-other this afternoon?
Well to answer these questions let’s begin with the role of religion, in which the civil rights struggle was embedded at every stage through the infrastructure of black churches, the theology of the gospels, and the symbolic message of the Old Testament prophets who were (quote) “remorseless in their unveiling of oppression and persecution” as Rabbi Abraham Heschel once put it. “The patter of their feet as they walked through Jim Crow barriers in the great stride towards freedom” said King in another of his speeches, “is the thunder of Joshua. And the world rocks beneath their tread. My people, my people listen, the battle is in our hands.” You can imagine something very similar being preached by another voice in another land two thousand years ago or more.
Religious institutions bring many assets to social change. They offer physical space and leadership, volunteers, equipment and material resources, and they can mobilize large numbers of people around important social issues. They provide forums for debating and articulating the moral basis of civic responsibility. They can help to fill gaps in the social safety net when government responses are inadequate, and on occasion they create innovative programs that serve as models for social reform.
But how these resources are deployed – for what purposes and in whose interests – are, of course, open questions. In the civil rights movement other churches – white churches of various denominations until American Episcopal and catholic priests joined the movement alongside Jewish leaders like Rabbi Heschel – worked to block civil rights in many passive and aggressive ways, and that gets us to the nub of the question in relation to religion’s historic ambiguity on questions of justice and equality. Religious examples of moral courage abound, but they are counterbalanced by an equal number of examples of discrimination on the grounds of race or gender, a persistent homophobia, and the unholy alliances that have been manufactured between religious groups and authoritarian states in contexts as diverse as the orthodox church in parts of the Balkans, catholic complicity in the Rwandan genocide, and the rise of Hindu nationalism in India.
Whether organized religion comes down on the right or wrong side of this equation overall – whether on balance it has done more harm than good in other words – depends on your personal point of view, but there is enough evidence on the ‘charge sheet’ so to speak to fuel the suspicion that religion is incapable of serving as a force for genuine transformation. And that’s because religion is a thoroughly-human creation even if its origins are divinely inspired, attached to defined sub-sets of humankind and agendas that are privileged, truths that are revealed to some but not to others, and possessing the power to interpret words and meanings through the medium of temporal authority.
Social conservatism is rarely more dangerous than when it cloaks itself in religious garb that cannot adequately be challenged by rationalist arguments for social justice because it assumes an other worldly authority. Or as my father likes to joke as a retired but thoroughly subversive Christian minister, interfaith dialogue on social justice is the place where everyone gets along for a while with their imaginary friends before going back to their own separate and exclusive pulpits once the tea and biscuits have been stored away. And coming from the Church of England let me tell you we know a thing or two about the religious significance of tea and biscuits, in fact that’s about as spiritual as it gets in the congregations I grew up in.
More seriously I think it is incontrovertible that the established religions have often been used as a backdrop for the exercise of power in conventional ways rather than its transformation into an instrument of liberation. So whatever the pluses and minuses of what religion has to offer it clearly isn’t the decisive factor in converting human energy and imagination into a successful struggle for equality and justice. As many scholars have argued, in its healthy forms religion does stand against bigotry, intolerance, and the demonization of other groups of people, but in its unhealthy forms it utilizes restrictive bonds and boundaries in order to create strong forms of internal community at the expense of pursuing the common good. Therefore, healthy religion must always answer to a higher power if it is to perform its social role by appealing to values that serve all of humanity and not simply the interests of the few.
And that conclusion takes us onto the next stage of our journey in highlighting the crucial social importance of spirituality. Spirituality differs from religion in that it is less constrained, less beholden to a set of rules and traditions and more closely aligned with the internal landscape of human experience, so we can feel generally spiritual even though we are usually specifically religious. Frequently, spiritual experience is sought and embraced as a way of enlivening one’s relationship to reality, of confronting the layers of separation – from one’s ancestors, from the earth, and from our true human nature – that result from the conditioning imposed by entrenched patterns of behavior in families, societies and cultures. Regular engagement in spiritual life holds the promise of wearing away the disconnection and suffering that results from separation of these kinds.
That’s why spirituality is often described as an experience of connectedness, a feeling of oneness where the separation between human beings dissolves, like “a wave in love with the sea” as an Indian saint once described it, a feeling that we are part of something that is infinitely larger than our selves. Over time, new habits of understanding and contentment take root, and the spontaneous and loving nature of the Self shines through. But fundamentally, spirituality is also about freedom, the freedom to act in new ways once liberated from the constraints of inherited patterns of thought and action. It is these qualities that make spirituality such a compelling resource for the transformation of society.
Does this sound flaky or irrelevant? It’s certainly true that the progressive political tradition has been suspicious of calls to spirituality and personal transformation as little more than new age palliatives that facilitate the soft domination of those who have less power and voice, a turning away from the world in order to focus on the inner landscape of change. But throughout history social reformers and social movements have invoked spirituality as a central resource in their struggles. The movement for Indian liberation under Mahatma Gandhi, for example, has been described as a time when ordinary people did not just act differently, but a time when they were different in a much deeper sense, and the same feelings appear in many oral histories of the civil rights movement: in the remarkable calmness that Martin Luther King exhibited when repeatedly attacked, in the “strangely clear energy” as one observer described it of Hollis Watkins in Mississippi when he was beaten for registering black voters, in the behavior of Bob Moses, an activist who (quote) was “seemingly oblivious to the blows that reigned down on his head and body while wearing the “most serene expression I’ve ever seen,” and of the remarkable lightness of being of hundreds of men, women and children as young as 12 who sang and smiled as they marched off to jail.
“Stunned, I walked out into the night. Life was beautiful” a journalist remarked after attending his first demonstration in 1964, “it was perfect. These people were me and I was them” echoing the English mystic Julian of Norwich centuries before when she famously declared that “all things shall be well, and all things shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” – the spiritual experience of perfection in the midst of an imperfect and often brutal world. And this is what spiritual experience can provide in the struggle for social change. Activists often talk of their feelings of hope and expansion, of a freedom from fear and the ability to access reservoirs of courage, of a fundamental unity and an unshakeable connection to a cause and the sacrifices it requires, of great inner strength that can support a lifetime of hard work and struggle, and the ability to confront differences honestly and openly and move through them non-violently to the other side. In the process, the management and resolution of our own inner conflicts, which is implicit in spiritual growth, becomes an integral part of the methodology of social struggle. “Fear is the cheapest room in the house” wrote the poet-mystic Hafiz, “and I would like to see you living in better quarters.”
So a spiritual life, a spiritual discipline, helps us to identify and confront what another Persian poet called the “thieves of the heart” – that was Rumi of course – the greed, ego, anger and insecurity that can erode the success of even the best-intentioned efforts to become involved in social change. Great inner strength is required to confront the structures of power in the world unselfishly, without demonizing one’s enemies, alienating potential allies, or holding on too tightly to a particular vision of ends and means that can eventually become a prison. Only by operating from a space where we are joined together in some deeper sense are we likely to find common ground in facing up to the problems that confront us.
But spirituality can become too detached, too thin and inwardly-directed to engage successfully with social problems unless it is rooted in something even more powerful that pushes it further in this direction, and that realization led King and other social-spiritual leaders before and after him to talk openly about the value of love in turning spiritual experience outwards to address the conditions of real people in real places, even if they are people we don’t agree with, or even, as in the civil rights movement, if they are people who are guilty of racism and other forms of gross oppression – a teaching about love, of course, that is as old as the world’s religions.
Just to be clear I’m not talking about romantic love, or love in the infantile sense of being made happy, I’m talking about universal or unconditional love. “The essence of love,” says the “Institute for the Study of Unlimited Love” at Case Western University, “is to affectively affirm as well as unselfishly delight in the well being of others, and to engage in acts of care and service on their behalf, without exception, in an enduring and constant way.” In this sense, love is radical equality-consciousness, a force that breaks down all distance and hierarchy. This is a love that respects the necessary self-empowerment of others, eschewing paternalism and romanticism for relationships of truth and authenticity, even where they move through phases of conflict and disagreement, as all real relationships do. This is a love that encourages us to live up to our social obligations as well our individual moral values, connect our interior life worlds to public spaces, encourage collective judgments and create open networks of self-reflective and critical communication.
Because unconditional love must by definition consider the equal and general welfare of the whole, those who follow this path must also confront any factor that stands in the way of realizing the rights and dignity of every human being – whether rooted in personal prejudice and selfishness, or locked into the systems and structures of power that characterize all contemporary societies. This love is active, not passive, explicitly seeking solutions to anything that stands in the way of its fulfillment, a deep and abiding commitment to the liberation of all.
“Those who marched for civil rights reduced power to human scale” as one historian of the time concluded, and they reconstructed power relations from the bottom up through a radically-different rationality of human action based on love and its practical expression through non-violence, equal rights, and a refusal to demonize the enemy. Jane Stembridge, one of the first white organizers to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee put it like this: “finally, it all boils down to human relationship. It is the question of whether I shall go on living in isolation or whether there shall be a ‘we.’ The student movement is not a cause, it is a collision between this one person and that one person. It is ‘I am going to stand beside you.’ Love alone is radical.”
When you think about it nearly all of our most powerful personal moments of transformation revolve around experiences of love given and received, at least that’s how it has been for me during those moments when love for a particular individual opens a doorway into something much more expansive, but walking through that doorway by taking love into the public sphere is quite terrifying, for good reason given the extreme skepticism and hostility that one generally encounters there. King described this process as translating love into justice structures, a magnificent phrase that encapsulates the challenge of spreading this radically-different rationality throughout the worlds of politics and economics and even international relations. When love enters the world of human institutions in this way it becomes potentially transformative in a much broader sense, so this is not a weak-willed approach to power or dispossession as some critics have seen it, but a source of immense strength in confronting these forces from a radically-different position, a position of love rather than self-defeating hatred. That, it seems to me, is one of the most important lessons of successful social movements.
So to continue along our journey, it isn’t unconditional love in the abstract that is the moving force in transformation but love’s conscious articulation with injustice, with the systems and structures that underpin poverty, racism and other forms of oppression. Think for a moment about your own experiences of activism here in Canada or in the other countries where you work, when at some point you begin to ask why more support and resources are not available from the corridors of power and what forces are really responsible for the problems you are confronting. Social change does require the irreplaceable face-to-face interpersonal works of love, but it also requires the courage to confront larger, systemic unfairness. Love that does not descend into the struggle for justice, into the very midst of power, is incomplete, if not irrelevant. That’s the only answer to Stokeley Carmichael’s famous assertion that “this country don’t run on love brother, it runs on power, and we ain’t got none.”
It’s interesting to note that King was targeted for attention, and eventually killed, when the civil rights struggle expanded to include issues of economic justice, peace and war, suggesting that if legal protections against racial discrimination were threatening to the established order then the broader re-organization of American foreign policy and the economy according to principles of love, equality and non-violence was yet more dangerous and subversive.
But can public policies motivated by love and justice really “deliver the goods” in social, economic and political terms? Can they generate enough jobs and an economic surplus large enough to satisfy human needs at lower cost to producers and consumers in globally-integrated markets, to the environment, and to the underlying values that hold societies together? Can they facilitate political decision-making that is fair and effective in mediating competing claims and interests without falling prey to the “dictatorship of the majority” or the perils of special interest politics? Can they address problems of discrimination and exclusion in society, which often require enforcement and coercion by state authorities and not just voluntary citizen action? And can they resolve global conflicts more effectively and peacefully than at present, even in the most difficult of circumstances?
The simple answer to these questions is we don’t know, and we won’t know until we try to make these connections on a much larger scale. I don’t think it is reasonable to expect such a radical philosophy to generate ready-made answers to the intractable problems of economic and social life. Where they emerge, such answers are more likely to take shape as experiments, evolving organically in different ways in different contexts, and are unlikely to be codified according to the conventional logics of Left or Right, progressive or conservative. Love and justice provide a different set of motivations from which alternatives can grow, not a new grand plan to be imposed from above.
However, what one might call “baby steps”, low-level attempts to integrate love and justice into the workings of politics and the marketplace are already at work in countries at different levels of economic development. The corporate social responsibility movement for example, at least in its more serious manifestations, can be read as an attempt to alter the incentive structures of modern capitalism so that they reward progress towards human rights and environmental conservation. Social entrepreneurs and micro-credit providers are spreading their innovations across the world in an attempt to alter the balance of costs and benefits in the production and distribution of economic wealth.
New indicators of development and national progress are gaining ground as alternatives to GDP, which measures everything except what’s valuable and worthwhile as Robert Kennedy once remarked, and experiments in peer production (like Wikipedia and open source software), community benefit agreements (which force big box stores like Walmart to make a more positive local impact), and a new generation of cooperatives for which Nova Scotia provided much of the early inspiration, are all growing across the world. Importantly, these experiments offer the prospect of a different kind of economics that is less driven by self-interest and private profit, and pays more attention to human needs and human values, to the centrality of sufficiency and not just to efficiency measured in narrow financial terms, a community economics if you like that the Coady Institute is already pioneering in the global development debate.
In politics, new forms of participatory democracy are taking hold at the local level which give those on the margins more voice in decision-making and render governance less prone to bias from special interests. Deliberative opinion polls and other problem-solving processes help to bring people together across the lines of difference so that controversial issues like education and health-care reform don’t get gridlocked in sectarian divides. Participatory budgeting enables citizens to get involved in debates surrounding the allocation of government resources and push more money towards the needs of the disenfranchised, and experiments in accountability are bringing the state much closer to its constituents.
These are experiments that John Gaventa and his colleagues at the Institute of Development Studies have done so much to understand and spread, and they point towards a different form of politics that does not try to bury or distance its opponents but looks for opportunities to welcome and engage with those who have a different view, and to struggle with them towards some form of imperfect, continually-evolving consensus. Instead of seeing politics as a simple grab for power, a game of revolving chairs between narrow political interests, we can begin to organize the political world in ways that encourage people to be true to their deepest beliefs while living non-violently with their differences.
If these experiments fall short of King’s “love that does justice” then at least they move us closer to a politics and economics of equality and respect, qualities that may lead to deeper changes as they continue to unfold over time. Because let’s face it, personal sacrifice is going to be essential in a future that is dominated by the demands of managing climate change, scarcity and reduced personal consumption. A better, fairer world is no longer one that simply provides equality in material conditions or political influence, but one that also challenges materialism and growth, individualism and mindless competition, and that is brave enough to re-imagine development not as a process of mimicking western society with all its inequalities and social failures, but as a process of creating something different and hopefully more successful altogether.
In this process, personal and social transformation reinforce each-other: we have to develop both the personal qualities required to practice politics and economics in new ways, and the institutions that can reward and nurture the qualities we see as most important for a healthy, collective future. So if we want people to care for and co-operate with each-other, we have to give them opportunities to practice these things in their daily lives, in the places where they work and learn and make decisions, and it was these mutually-reinforcing cycles of personal and social change that King was beginning to explore when he was killed. It’s also what a new generation of spiritual activists are experimenting with today, so before closing I want to give you a few very brief examples.
Creating an atmosphere of love and acceptance isn’t the first thing that comes to mind in debates surrounding immigration, yet according to Diana Mendoza, lead organizer of the New Sanctuary Movement in California, it’s the key to changing attitudes on all sides of the fence and turning old antagonisms into new and healthier relationships. Mendoza’s work – a project of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice or CLUE — helps immigrant families threatened by deportation to find sanctuary in local churches, where they are joined by people from different faith traditions, local political leaders, journalists and civil-society activists to bear witness to their predicament and find common ground together.
By performing welcome rituals and refusing to demonize anyone as the ‘enemy’, the New Sanctuary Movement is trying to transform the atmosphere surrounding contentious issues and create opportunities for new solutions and new alliances to put them into practice. Their motto is Mahatma Gandhi’s famous call to ‘be the change we want to see in the world,’ dissolving the separation between their policy objectives and their own personal behavior in ways that make them even more effective. These are hard-headed activists tackling some of the toughest issues in society, but they tackle them with none of the fear and insecurity that have sometimes been associated with activism in the past, and that’s the secret of their success. “We are hard on issues but soft on people” as two staff members from another organization called ForestEthics put it, Tzepora Berman and Merran Smith.
Together, they forged a coalition between government, business, indigenous groups and civil society activists that was strong enough to save the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, parties whose strongly-held agendas once seemed hopelessly incompatible. “We found ourselves getting caught up in the same old battle, getting angry and getting nowhere” Berman concluded, “Then, Merran passed me a note – ‘breathe’ it said – so we suggested that we needed to take a break, come back, and revise the agenda. When we returned, the atmosphere was remarkably different – and we realized that it was because we had brought an entirely new energy into the equation.”
Groups like these use contemplative practices like meditation and collective visioning to edge towards the rich inner life of spirituality and unconditional love that earlier generations of activists also nurtured in their own ways. With steady perseverance, these practices can literally put us into a different state, “creating together a living experience of a new paradigm of social justice out of which work can flow.” The evidence shows that these techniques can increase generosity of feeling without blinding people to their differences, strengthen and sustain connectivity and community, foster environments which are more affirming, and improve our capacity to air and resolve conflicts and learn together in ways that increase the group’s alignment with their values. By cultivating the qualities required for selfless service in the face of indifference and hostility, love becomes both a personally- and a politically-subversive activity.
To conclude, I started my journey this afternoon with religion, which provides many resources for social change but is too attached to the particularities of history, culture and theology to serve as an engine of transformation. Spiritual experience is important because it can unite us at a much deeper level of shared transcendent authority, but it is too detached from the daily realities of politics and power to serve as an adequate guide. That’s where love comes in, since love is always directed at particular individuals and their concrete situation in the world, but love must be unbounded and integrated with justice-seeking in order to be socially effective. That’s what I think King was telling his congregation in Alabama in 1955 when the civil rights movement was born, that “justice is love in calculation” and that love and justice must always stand together.
It is important to note that these relationships are reciprocal. Justice without love is dry and dangerously vulnerable to co-optation. Love is difficult to cultivate outside of a spiritual experience that loosens the restraints we normally feel towards others we barely know. And spirituality is often most powerfully experienced within a particular religious tradition where we feel more comfortable with familiar rituals and scriptures. So this is not just a journey from religion to the love that does justice, it’s also a journey in the opposite direction, a journey back home again if you will.
Teillard de Chardin the French mystic and philosopher once prophesied that “the day will come when, after harnessing the winds, the tides and gravitation, we shall harness for god the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.” It’s a tremendously exciting possibility isn’t it, and one that Gandhi, King and many others have lived and died to bring to fruition. But we don’t have to die for the cause or even be particularly heroic in our efforts. We just need to remember, as Jane Stembridge put it in the quotation I mentioned earlier, that “love alone is truly radical,” and that the love that does justice is a path that all of us can follow, every moment of every day. So I wish you the best in your own journeys of discovery as you explore this exciting landscape of personal and social transformation. Thank you for listening so attentively and for so long. I look forward to your questions and the conversation we’re now about to have.