Easter Reflection: Spirituality and Social Change

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 19, Easter 2001

by Jim Consedine

The Empty Tomb is the greatest sign of hope humanity has ever had. The power of the Risen Christ to transform our lives and our world is the great message of Easter. Too many, however, have lost contact with this source.

Mainstream western culture has generally lost its rootedness in a spiritual dimension and the values that encompass that. The result has been massive social alienation and a growing dysfunction. Throw into that social milieu an ideology founded on self advancement, individualism, competition and the acquisition of material goods and money as its litmus test of success, and you have the potpourri that constitutes modern society.

The question is – when are we going to recognise this spiritual bankruptcy, and place it alongside unemployment, institutionalised racism and poverty as being a principal cause of crime and alienation and a primary need to be addressed? Our society worships technological advance, the acquisition of power and wealth, and fiercely protects its class structure of ‘them’ and ‘us’? This is spiritually barren territory. Why aren’t Christians saying more often that a solid foundation for building a fair and just society requires the pursuing of the common good, not elite interests. Why aren’t we proposing practical structures which incorporate these essential elements and values? For too long we have had to put up with an ideology which would have us compete at every level creating a waste land of losers and a shrinking elite of powerful winners.

The biggest issue we face theses days is the relentless march towards corporate globalisation. Imposing the will of the most powerful corporate and governmental interests is what globalisation is about. Built as it is on a materialist philosophy, it makes a god of profit. It also sacrifices all four characteristics that produce the common good – solidarity, subsidiarity, protection of human rights and the poor. It represents the new golden calf, the new idolatry. To enforce its ways with violence compounds its sinfulness. Yet that in essence is what this system now does. For example, this is what initiated the war on Iraq and has kept the sanctions in place. Iraq threatened access to oil. Iraq had to be tamed.

We have failed to name these sins for what they are – a power of evil present and pervasive. And in need of redemption.

The official teaching of the Church recognises the existence of finite, created powers of a personal kind, both good and evil. In reflecting on this, Karl Rahner says that very teaching little has been developed since the time of St Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics. It seems to be an important and somewhat neglected area of theology.

I have spent a lot of time reflecting and studying what happened in Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia in the 1990s. I’ve been wondering what type of spirit was behind apartheid, and drove the Nazi machine? What was it unleashed in Rwanda? Why were so many mindless atrocities committed by educated and seemingly reasonable people? Why did so many, even many good religious people, go bad and rape, torture, pillage and murder their country’s best citizens? Was it a power unleashed? If so, does that power last forever? Is it redeemable?

I have a developing belief that a power of evil exists that is larger than the individual component parts of these systems. I have come to understand that each social unit has a spirit of either good or evil within and unless the presence of such a spirit is addressed then positive social change will be thwarted. In essence, each social grouping has its own spirit, distinct from its component parts. Many call this the culture of the institution or the movement.

I have watched good people enter the police, parliament, the military, various government institutions, the prison service, some corporations, even some religious institutions, and encounter a spirit, a culture, that is negative and life-destroying. They have found themselves under a type of negative power that is corrupting and eventually all-pervasive, one that has left its corrosive mark clearly on them. And they have changed – for the worse. Similarly I have seen many enter positive and fair-minded organisations who movements and have been enhanced and grown through the process of involvement with them. Further, I have seen good people combine to turn the negative spirit of an institution or a movement around to something positive.

It seems these spiritual powers are redeemable. They have a beginning and an end. They need not last forever. But they have to be tackled with all the power, skills, prayer, commitment and courage one can muster. For example, in South Africa, in a thousand and one different ways, people united to confront both the powers behind and the social structures of apartheid. For millions it was a spiritual journey as much as a social and political one. On another continent, Martin Luther King spearheaded a social revolution against racial prejudice that was built on an understanding that racism wasn’t just a social manifestation of discrimination but had an evil power underpinning it.

Many now understand the evil power that exists behind the prison-industrial complex in the US which has ballooned to five times its size in just 20 years, despite falling crime rates. Greedy people are making huge money from it. Thousands are finding employment in it. There are enormous vested interests involved in expanding it. Some socially conscious New Zealanders including prison chaplains recognise the power that keeps our own prison system growing, when crime rates in most areas have been declining for nearly 10 years.

The same applies to the military-industrial complex in the US. The United States has no obvious enemies yet now spends three times the budget on defence that it did at the height of the Cold War. None understand this power better than the Ploughshares movement in its efforts to confront the evil of nuclear weapons. In their approach, they clearly recognise and confront the power behind the missiles through prayer, fasting, symbolic action and non-violent resistance.

My belief is that unless the presence of the spiritual side to an organisation is acknowledged and recognised, positive social change will be short-lived.

In order to pursue social equity and the common good people have to really care about one another. They have to want to see justice practised and everybody get a fair deal. To make and sustain such a choice is a function of the spirit. Everything we do in relation to one another be it good or bad is a function of the spirit.

But when there is no recognition in the dominant culture of the need to sustain, nurture and develop such spiritual dimensions to our lives, is it any wonder that a crippling of the spirit takes place? Where in the public arena does this discussion ever take place? When was the last time we saw television seriously explore the spiritual dimension of life and people? We never do. Why are we so shy of acknowledging spiritual matters when 90 percent of the world’s peoples have religious traditions involving meditation, prayer, contemplation, quiet times, retreats and reflection. Dare I say that the dominant culture in New Zealand belongs to the 10 percent that doesn’t? And we wonder why we get screwed up!

How do we change our approach? Among other things, we need to revisit the best of the spiritual and religious traditions that have bound societies together for centuries and look again at the essentials. Of course it will mean that different people and groupings will continue to see things in slightly different ways.

All cultures haven’t yet lost their spiritual dimension and many, including the diaspora Celts and Polynesians, to name two, are looking again at some of the deep-rooted dimensions of their spiritual traditions so that their better aspects can be integrated into a more meaningful life in this 21st century. Everything our grandparents taught us wasn’t necessarily old hat!

This is where Maori and other Polynesian cultures have a real gift to offer the wider community. They have so much to teach the rest of us. The recognition of the integration of spirituality and life which is, for example, found in Maori kaupapa programmes is a good model for the dominant culture. Note also the content of most hui. A hui is set in a spiritual setting linking all of creation to the tupuna and current events and lives. The land is acknowledged, the air and sky, the river, the dead, the living. All are linked to those present. Karakia is said for the meeting and grace is said before meals to acknowledge the food is a gift from the Creator. In all things, spiritual elements are acknowledged as integral to the struggles, debates and celebrations of everyday life.

This doesn’t mean that non-Maori have to or even should see Maori karakia and religious practices as being required for them. What it does mean is that all different cultures need to develop models whereby the spiritual dimension of life is integrated into the programme. We need to acknowledge that something bigger than ourselves – the Spirit of Life, Io, God, the Cosmic Christ – exists without and within and needs to be recognised if sustainable positive social change is to occur. I often talk about being guided by the angels or the Holy Spirit when something extraordinary has happened. To many such a statement simply confirms my eccentricity. But it makes sense to me.

Many now know a little about restorative justice practices. One of the aims of this creative focus is to help change people’s hearts, to bring about genuine apology, a desire to make reparation where possible and bring about healing. In essence this is a spiritual process. Some may not see it like that. But then some don’t see that a meal properly shared can also be sacred. In the restorative conference, when appropriate, we encourage karakia, or a quiet time of reflection, or a meditative reading, to get participants focused and respectful of what is about to happen. In such a setting, real change can occur.

My point is that just as a garden needs watering, so our spirits need nurturing with positive life affirming food. In order to do that we need to recognise that this is necessary. We also need to recognise that just as there are many ways to water a garden, so there are many forms of spirituality that can be followed. Clearly a disciplined sustained approach is best.

What I believe makes for a holistic spirituality is the recognition that we are all interdependent, that we need to see the divine spark in one another and respect that, and that we need to specifically protect the most vulnerable, the poorest and the most powerless. These people are often initially unable to do it for themselves.

And let’s not be shy about it. I acknowledge humbly that I stand in the embrace of the ultimate source of life, the Risen Christ. I know many understand that truth differently. So be it. I never eat a meal without acknowledging its source. I never go into a prison or difficult situation without asking God’s guidance. I never make a speech or write a paper without seeking a blessing for it. I recognise I am only a seed planter, one who scatters seed to the four winds and prays some of it finds fertile land. That’s when the Spirit comes to the party and gets the growth going – or decides not to. These simple approaches are basic to good living and a holistic nurturing spirituality.

In so doing, I stand on the shoulders of my tupuna, my ancestors, who brought me to where I am today through their lives, their struggles, their love and their faith. As New Zealander Alan MacDiarmid said in Stockholm last year while receiving his Nobel Prize for chemistry ‘in becoming who we are, we stand on the shoulders of giants’.

Making lasting social change demands such spiritual awareness. It helps keep us humble, committed, focused and conscious of one another. It helps keep us refreshed and energised for the long haul. Without it we face early burn out. With it we can go on forever.

Jim Consedine’s chickens are currently moulting and displaying negative signs of institutional behaviour. Free ranging at the moment, they are expected to come home to roost.

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