The signs of the time can be troubling. Poverty and exploitation, wars and terrorism, global warming and over-consumption plague our planet. Though there are marks of beauty, creativity, justice and peace, we have a long way to go before our world is fully redeemed. Being a part of an international community committed to serving Jesus among the most vulnerable of the world’s poor gives me an uncommon, intimate understanding of the ways in which our personal lives can impact another—either for good or for harm. Contemplative activism must root us in offering the good.
As I write, nations proliferate nuclear weapons and economic sanctions endanger the well-being of innocent people. The threat of terrorism lingers and nation states make war against one another for all manner of reasons—including for power, control, security, survival, and autonomy. Wars are even made in the name of God. Leaders of different perspectives, wield their power to determine the impact of their nation-state conflicts, but the personal impact of war on these leaders does not compare to that of their innocent citizens—the children, women and men—who suffer the devastating affects of armed conflict. Atrocities like mutilation, rape, illness, and economic instability abound. Some of my young friends in Sierra Leone are such victims. They are making the long and arduous journey of transformation from the hell they experienced after being inscripted into rebel forces during the notorious blood diamond battles. Children of war and war brides are some of the most vulnerable victims of armed conflict.
Global warming, over-consumption of non-renewable natural resources and the exploitive way we produce and eat food can be linked to our disregard for the created world and our human family who share the space in which we live. Scientists and spiritual teachers illuminate how greed, inequality and disrespect for the other are connected to the abuse of our ecosystem. For us in the affluent West, the impact is felt most widely in the need to “tighten our belt” a little bit, purchase fewer lattés than we use to, and exchange our SUVs for more fuel-efficient vehicles. But for my friends in South and South East Asia, the impact is much more dire. The most vulnerable always suffer the most. And they are the ones God has always shown particular interest for—even indicating in the Scriptures that the essence of our faith will be measured against how we treat people who are poor.
It seems domination and exploitation is commonplace almost everywhere we turn— nation to nation, person to person, and in relationship to the earth. Christians too are often implicated in the violence. How can we offer a different kind of presence in the world and really make a redemptive impact?
Contemplative activism as a spiritual posture is essential.
Contemplation is the space and presence-of-being that allows the illusions that wreak havoc on the world to be dismantled and nurtures the growth and development of our true self. Action without contemplation can be a dangerous road—leaving us blind to the pitfalls of our false self motivations—yes, even in mission.
Consider the good-hearted, sincere Christian missionaries to Native Americans who left a legacy of exploitation behind. By supporting and participating in the reservation boarding school system of the United States during the period 1870 to 1928 they contributed to a systematic attempt at ethnic cleansing under the guise of “manifest destiny.” The atrocities echo in the lives of dispossessed nations of people still trying to recover eighty years later.
What will history write about us?
Contemplative activism makes way for:
• Freedom for everyone instead of power and control of the few
• Cooperation instead of selfish grasps for security and survival
• Divine Love instead of lustful cravings of ego
Contemplative practices reinforce a posture of regular abandonment and surrender to God—in
our exterior as well as interior life. Surrendering to the immanent presence of God around and
within us allows for greater transformation on a personal, communal and global scale.
Action without contemplation is not an obedient life and appears rather absurd when we honestly examine it. Henri Nouwen’s teaching encourages us to turn from an absurd way of living to an obedient life. He helpfully instructed that the English word absurd comes from the Latin word surdus, meaning deaf. An absurd life is a deaf life—one in which we cannot hear the Voice in silence. The many activities that we are involved in—as noble as they are—and the cacophony of sounds around us often drown out the Voice of the One who calls us the Beloved. We must adopt contemplative disciplines that help us tune into the Voice of God.
Without contemplation, the liberation and fecund life that Jesus taught is out of reach, and his admonition that we would do even great things than he seems impossible.
Contemplation leads to just and compassionate action, and action born from the heart of God leads to contemplation. Even Thomas Merton who committed to long periods of hermitage—steeped in solitude, silence and stillness—became a very active voice for justice in the face of the social evils of his time.
A commitment to contemplation leads to radical action. In the words of Mother Teresa,
The true inner life makes the active life burn forth and consume everything. It makes us find Jesus in the dark holes of the slums, in the most pitiful miseries of the poor, in the God-Man naked on the cross, mournful, despised by all, the man of suffering, crushed like a worm by scourging and crucifixion.
Contemplative activism makes us supple in the hands of God. By way of Christ’s ongoing, transformative work in us, we are able to love and serve more freely, purely and unconditionally—like Jesus.
Rather than divide the active life from the contemplative life—as if it’s reasonable to choose to live one way or another—an authentic and relevant life brings union to the active and contemplative dimensions of our spirituality.
Consider the wheel as a symbol for life. Contemplation will be found in the center axis, and the active life will extend out in the spokes. All the while the wheel turns and progresses forward. Without the center axis, the spokes would lose their anchor and be unable to support the forward motion of the wheel. Without the spokes, the center axis would be deemed extraneous. When we are least connected to our contemplative center, our life is most tense and chaotic and more likely to breed violence and exploitation. When we are anchored in contemplative spirituality, the active, exterior expression of our life is more peaceful, purposeful and effective.
In a reality that is plagued by human exploitation, armed conflict and destruction of our ecosphere, we owe it to the world and to God to nurture contemplative activism. Thankfully, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus opens a way for us to live with redemptive impact. Contemplative activism as a spiritual posture for Christian mission is essential to purifying our presence in the world.