Spiritual Activism: Random Thoughts
After two days to think about the Spiritual Activism conference I attended at U.C. Berkeley July 19-23, I am more inclined than ever to write about public affairs, especially from a spirit perspective. This group wants to start a network of spiritual progressives (NSP) who coordinate and organize to establish common values and develop creative spirit-centered philosophies and public policies. In short, to write a platform with which to challenge civic leaders.
The conference and the movement are interfaith. There were Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish and Hindu leaders there to speak and guide workgroups. The goal is to develop a grass roots network of small groups and through them to promote progressive faith statements about the timely public issues. War, poverty, education, health care, reproductive rights, human rights, our greed and materialism economy, environmental concerns, science and spirit and women's issues were the topics of work groups attended by conferees.
Non-violence workshops were held the last day by both Buddhist and Christian peace and non-violence groups. Numerous speakers challenged the 1200 in attendance to bring spirituality back into progressive politics, as it once grounded the abolition, women's and civil rights movements. While the religiously justified policies of the Bush administration call for war and the slashing of social programs, these people of faith believe that neither reflects the heart of compassion and community caring central to all major religions.
At the same time, we individuals were all too human. Faced with 1200 people when they were expecting 400, conference organizers felt a bit overwhelmed--delighted, but unable to change things at the last minute in response to the flood of registrations. The work groups would have been more effective if smaller, as would have been the case with 400 people. As it was, the groups I attended had 70-80 people and were not fitted to the task of hammering out a first draft plank of a platform statement.
The women's issues workshop that met the first day revamped itself into a work group, concluding rightly that the issue is important enough to deserve its own work group. Reportedly, many in the group were very angry about this oversight in planning and angry that women hadn't been more involved in the planning. According to women in attendance, their anger spilled over into day two also. It became clear that the three work sessions set aside for the task was not enough, especially when this group had both emotional and substantive issues to address before they could get to the business at hand.
One surprise for me was the diversity among these people of common cause who gathered. The first day I attended the Sexuality work group of 75 people. We broke into groups of five, and even in such a small sampling, our views were radically different. One member believed that recreational sex (for consenting adults) was okay and that monogamy shouldn't be an unbending moral standard. Another one believed that, no matter how accepting his group was of individual gay people and couples, "divine law" would prohibit supporting anything like gay marriage.
Being a gay person, I asked this man questions to make sure I understood what he was saying. He said that a lesbian couple who attended his group were loved and accepted. Even so, gay marriage would never be supported by his religious group "in our lifetimes," he said.
Some folks there supported zero population growth, meaning that we should set a maximum number of people allowed and enforce it. Others supported such a strong policy of "separation of church and state" that they didn't see any place for the mention of spiritual values at all. And I met a leader from a humanist organization who said, "I'm not spiritual, but I do believe in moral values."
In addition to this colorful diversity, most of these people were assertive leaders in their own social and political circles, so you get an idea of the energy circulating at the event. At times it felt like being on a runaway stagecoach in the old Westerns: very exciting from the outside, but terrifying from the inside.
Nevertheless, because all good things are a miracle, the success of this movement, too, will be miraculous. Finding core spiritual values among the cacophony of diverse voices won't be easy. But worthwhile projects never are.
God help us.