What is contemplative activism?
Contemplative activism is an approach to promoting social change in a way that channels our best, loving selves, instead of our angry, resentful selves. This approach draws influence from the techniques of mindfulness meditation and Christian contemplative prayer. As Andrew Harvey has put it, engaging in contemplative activism is about “marrying the infinite love of God with the activist’s passion for justice.”
“The prophetic voice and the spirit of inner prayer are not to alternative ways of Christian witness: they are inseparable in a healthy Christian life, and history shows that where they are not held together, both decay.”
“The most urgent need for the Christian Church is for the recovery of the unity between contemplative vision and political struggle, the mystical and the prophetic, between the inner and outer worlds.”
“Contemplative prayer is, at its best, a state of seeing, a deepening of vision, so that the will of God is more clearly seen, and the signs of the times more accurately discerned. It is this clarity of vision which makes Christian contemplation a truly subversive activity.”Kenneth Leech
Why contemplative activism?
Seeking to promote justice and compassion in the world is often met with a paradox. Citizenship, whether in political, religious, or social communities, carries with it a moral obligation to participate and to try to improve the conditions under which people live and interact in the community. On the other hand, Christian identity and ethics emphasize the importance of love, kindness, and especially forgiveness and mercy, to those who you consider to be your ‘enemy’ or those who oppress you.
This often can seems a paradox because participation and activism in a community implies that you perceive a need for improvement somewhere. There is a wrong that needs to be righted, an inequality or injustice to be rectified, or a disagreement that needs to be settled. Someone somewhere is wrong and making the world worse in some way and your job is to correct the wrong and remedy the situation as best you can. How can this be done, except through confrontation, contention, and conflict of some kind, which is often motivated by, or results in, anger to one degree or another? But, does not Christianity teach us instead to love and forgive, and that contention and anger are contrary to the teachings of Jesus?
How might a personal ethic of social engagement and activism be combined with Christian ideals, motives, and methods? Of course many people have thinking about this same question for a long, long time. Many of these schools of thought fall under the labels of “sacred activism” or “contemplative activism.” There is a long tradition of thought on how to best seek for justice and change in the world in a way that channels our best, loving selves, instead of our angry, resentful selves.
The principles of contemplative activism
Key principles of contemplative activism include:
- Justice and compassion are foundational characteristics of God’s kingdom and essential goals of common human life. These are worth advocating and we are called to do so. “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9) but “true peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice” (Martin Luther King, Jr.).
- Meditation and contemplation are effective tools for helping you more effectively engage in social activism. This is because:
- A clear, calm mind free of anxiety, anger, and fear help you discern more clearly the needs of the world and God’s priorities.
- If we are feeling anger or resentment our thinking is almost certainly distorted to one extent or another.
- It will help you stay mentally healthy and balanced while engaging in emotionally costly activism.
- It enables you to discover your authentic self, free from fear, so as to most effectively understand how and where you can engage in the world.
- It helps you keep the perspective that it’s not about you and to keep a humble view of your own abilities and limitations.
- It helps you more effectively remain calm, non-defensive, and discern the truth in the criticism of your motives and actions that will invariably come.
- Lead with love in whatever you do, either in the motives, methods, or goals of your activism.
- Try to assume the best in others and remember the dignity and divinity of all human souls, especially those who disagree with you and who you are ‘opposing’ in your activism. They are fellow children of God, human beings, and worthy of dignity and respect.
- Of course, even well-intentioned people sometimes hurt others unintentionally. Good intentions do not always absolve someone of the responsibility to try to repair an injury caused by an unintentional action. At such times it is especially important to try to channel grace and goodwill, as well as humility to admit wrong and resolve to do better.
- Figure out what your talents are (“discern your vocation”), and then do your best to use those talents to pursue your vocation as you feel called to do. There are many ways that contemplative activists can seek for peace, freedom, compassion, and justice in the world, and we are not all called to the same vocation in doing so.
- It’s likely that people will not be happy with you for your activism. You will likely disappoint, sadden, or even anger some people, especially those you love. It is nearly impossible to “thread the needle” of challenging the status quo and making everyone happy. The reality is that it’s part of the cost. Have courage. As Brené Brown says: “you’ll always walk with a limp,” but true liberation comes to the extent to which you can free yourself from caring what other people think about you.
- Remember, ultimately, that you may very well not “succeed” in your efforts to change the world. As Thomas Merton said, “Do not depend on the hope of results … You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all. … All the good that you will do will come … from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love.”
What are some practical examples of contemplative activism?
If there were ever a communications medium that seemed custom designed to bring out our worst selves, it might be social media. Online interactions often incentivize and reward snarkiness, sarcasm, meanness and “call-outs” of various kinds. While not impossible, social media does make it difficult to be polite, slow, deliberate, and thoughtful. To apply contemplative activism on social media, we might:
- Make daily contemplative meditation a part of our regular practice, helping our brains develop the habit of calmness and lowering our defense mechanisms.
- Recognize that our immediate urge to like, retweet, favorite, endorse, denounce, etc. something we see on social media is generated by our lizard brains that are seeking a dopamine hit. When this happens, our rational thinking becomes distorted temporarily. Maybe pause five, ten, or twenty seconds before acting, waiting for the dopamine response to pass and letting your prefrontal cortex and executive functioning come back online.
- Think: “what would I say if my audience was here with me in person?” Is it the same as what you are planning to say online? Brené Brown has argued that “it’s hard to hate people up close.”
- Ask ourselves: “how can I lead with love/respect/kindness” in choosing how I respond to what I see on social media?
- Ask ourselves: is it possible to promote a “call-in” culture as an alternative to a “call-out” culture on social media? Can this be done by assuming the best in people rather than the worst?
- Ask ourselves: is our goal to increase our followers and win the praise of like-minded thinkers on our social media platforms, or is our goal to advance the cause we are promoting? These can often be mutually exclusive. The more that it’s about us, the less room God has to work through us.
There is no shortage of research on how politics has become more polarized and tribalized with each passing day, it seems. When politics becomes a tribal team sport, our in-group/out-group social psychology kicks in, incentivizing us to demonize our political opponents and delegitimize their views. To apply contemplative activism in our political efforts, we might:
- Make daily contemplative meditation a part of our regular practice, helping our brains develop the habit of calmness and lowering our defense mechanisms.
- Recognize times when we feel anger. Anger has its place, of course, but it also can make it very, very difficult for us to think clearly and for God to speak to us. As a general rule of thumb, we might think: “if I’m angry, then whatever perspective I have right now is likely distorted” and meditate for a while or a few days as we think about appropriate and effective ways to respond and engage.
- Spend time listening to “the other side” and try our best to understand their perspectives. Christianity teaches us that all people are children of God, that we should focus more time on our own shortcomings than on calling them out in others, and to extend love and mercy especially to those we consider to be “traitors” to our communities or identities. Sit down with people we disagree with, face to face, and try to love them as best we can.
- In our activism actions, try to “lead with love” and kindness, framing arguments as best as we can to respect the dignity of our fellow citizens as much as we can. Try to avoid demonizing them or their motives.
- Resist the urge to “step back” from political efforts. Research has shown that people who engage more frequently in “cross-cutting” conversations with people they disagree with are more likely to disengage from political participation because they are better at appreciating the nuance and complexity of issues which tends to make participation less urgent. Avoid giving in to that temptation. Out political communities need more people who respond with nuance, complexity, and kindness rather than black and white absolutism. Speak up and show up (especially to vote!).
This is not a universal philosophy that all people are morally obligated to adopt and enact at all times and in all circumstances. Anger is not in every case inappropriate nor does it in every situation distort our thinking.
That said, there is much to be said about the contemplative approach to activism that, if adopted more widely, would do much to ameliorate the resentment and anger that we so frequently encounter in the world. With a few tweaks, the contemplative approach to activism is compatible with a secular humanist philosophy as well.
More resources and recommendations for further reading
- Toward an Ethics of Activism: A Community Investigation of Humility, Grace and Compassion in Movements for Justice, edited by Frances Lee
- The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism, by Andrew Harvey
- A Women’s Guide to Sacred Activism: How Do We Move Forward?, by Marilyn Rosenbrock Nyborg
- The New Monasticism: A Manifesto for Contemplative Living, by Rory McEntee and Adam Bucko
- Pilgrimage of a Soul: Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life, by Phileena Heuertz
- Occupy Spirituality: A Radical Vision for a New Generation, by Adam Bucko and Matthew Fox
- Prayer and Prophecy: The Essential Kenneth Leech, edited by David Bunch and Angus Ritchie
- Braving the Wilderness, by Brené Brown
- Contemplative Activism, by Jessica Dreistadt
- Radical Spirituality and Sacred Activism podcast, hosted by Adam Bucko
- To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Tommie Shelby and Brandon M. Terry
- Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism
Selected quotes from relevant theorists and practitioners:
WHAT IS CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM AND WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
- Sacred activism is about “marrying the infinite love of God with the activist’s passion for justice.” (Andrew Harvey interview)
- Action must begin in the heart. We should cultivate non-violent hearts and minds before being able to effectively carry out non-violent activism in the world. (Beverly Lanzetta interview)
- The benefit of contemplative activism is that it helps YOU have the perspective to know what you can and cannot do, so that you can be more effective in what you DO engage in. (source)
- “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.” (Holly Roach)
- “Our desire for justice for ourselves and for others often complicates the issue, builds up factions and quarrels. Worldly justice and unworldly justice are quite different things. The supernatural approach when understood is to turn the other cheek, to give up what one has, willingly, gladly, with no spirit of martyrdom, to rejoice in being the least, to be unrecognized, the slighted.”
- “[I must work] for people to change themselves, so that they can change the social order. In order to have a Christian social order, we must first have Christians. Father Lallemant talks about how dangerous active work is without a long preparation of prayer.” (Dorothy Day, page 65-66)
- Through meditation you learn that it’s *not about you* – the world will go on even if you don’t do your activism. This makes you more humble as you approach it. (source)
- “What is the relation of [contemplation] to action? Simply this. He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity, and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas. There is nothing more tragic in the modern world than the misuse of power and action.” —Thomas Merton, (source)
- “As a mother of two teenagers desperate for social change, I want to model action, but I want to make it contemplative activism. By contemplative activism I mean I want to pause and think before I act and be mindful about the way I react so that I am acting out of thoughtfulness rather than a response to being angry at the world.” (Julie Kling)
- You have to be free of desire for vengeance and retribution, only once that’s done can you “pray with a pure heart” – needed to discern how to work for justice. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pgs 280-281)
- “A tranquil spirit is important. Saint Teresa says that God cannot rest in an unquiet heart.” (Dorothy Day, page 75)
- “I need some time alone for prayer and reading so that I can attain some proper perspective and peace of spirit to deal with myself and others. I need to overcome a sense of my own importance, my own failure, and an impatience at others that goes with it.” (Dorothy Day, page 79)
- “As long as there is any resentment, bitterness, lack of love in my own heart I am powerless. God must help me.” (Dorothy Day, page 80)
- “The prophetic voice and the spirit of inner prayer are not to alternative ways of Christian witness: they are inseparable in a healthy Christian life, and history shows that where they are not held together, both decay.” (Kenneth Leech, page 119)
- “The experience of reflection and prayer may lead to a clarifying awareness, and enriching of vision, and intensifying of sensitivity to the anguish of the world and of people. In so doing, it may well increase, rather than reduce, conflict by pushing many people, through their heightened spiritual awareness, into open criticism of, and hostility to, the anti-spiritual forces in our country.” (Kenneth Leech, page 196)
- “Thus it was that Thomas Merton, through his solitude, became more aware of the forces that were shaping and distorting American life. Through his solitude he became more prophetic, more open to the world’s need.” (Kenneth Leech, page 220)
- “The most urgent need for the Christian Church is for the recovery of the unity between contemplative vision and political struggle, the mystical and the prophetic, between the inner and outer worlds.” (Kenneth Leech, page 228)
- “Contemplative prayer is, at its best, a state of seeing, a deepening of vision, so that the will of God is more clearly seen, and the signs of the times more accurately discerned. It is this clarity of vision which makes Christian contemplation a truly subversive activity.” (Kenneth Leech, page 232)
- “It is so easy to get into rules and organization and so to narrow the freedom of the Spirit … Social action should flow from our contemplation. It should not be a sideline or something inherently different, but should be integrated in our prayer and meditation… unless meditation is fed by concern with people’s problems it loses its depth.” (Father Bede, quoted in The New Monasticism, page xx)
- “A spirituality that is only private and self-absorbed, one devoid of an authentic political and social consciousness, does little to halt the suicidal juggernaut of history. On the other hand, an activism that is not purified by profound spiritual and psychological self-awareness and rooted in divine truth, wisdom, and compassion will only perpetuate the problem it is trying to solve, however righteous its intentions.” (Andrew Harvey, quoted in The New Monasticism, page 110)
- “It is only becoming as selfless in your motives and as surrendered in your being as possible that you can hope to follow divine guidance and so begin to know what the will of the Divine expects, wants, and demands of you. If your being is full of your own plans and your mind and heart noisy and turbulent with your own projects and desires, the mysterious and sometimes strange and paradoxical instructions of God cannot illumine you to bring your sacred work to fruition. Divine guidance is always available, but only the surrendered receive it in its clear, pure form.” (Andrew Harvey, quoted in The New Monasticism, page 170)
- “For the Sacred Activist, the problem of anger represents one of the deepest spiritual challenges. On the one hand, as everyone has experienced, anger can blind your judgment and lead you into folly, hatred, and a furious and brutal self-righteousness that immediately repels those you hope to persuade or inspire. On the other, when alchemized by deep spiritual insight in the container of spiritual practice, anger can provide the fuel for working in the world with the laser-like energy of fierce compassion and wisdom. … If our outrage masters us, we may become irrational, violent, and destructive in our turn, inwardly ravaged by rage at, and hatred of our opponents that will not only dehumanize us but also cripple our effectiveness.” (Andrew Harvey, page 181)
- “Getting mad is what prophets do … anger has its place. … But it takes discipline, such as the discipline the civil rights movement instilled in its nonviolent practices. It takes spirituality.” (Bucko and Fox, page xxv)
SOCIAL JUSTICE IS AN ESSENTIAL ELEMENT OF COMMON LIFE
- One facet of God is that God’s heart is broken with the injustice and suffering in the world. God is indeed about love and happiness, but when we share in the sorrow over injustice, we share in God’s sorrow. (Chris Saade interview)
- “We hope to hear the voice of an impartial justice since the cause of love cannot be separated from justice. There can be no true peace or love that is based on injustice or violence or intrigue.” (Oscar Romero, page 8)
- “A church that does not provoke crisis, a gospel that does not disturb, a word of God that does not rankle, a word of God that does not touch the concrete sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed — what kind of gospel is that? … Those preachers who avoid every thorny subject so as not to bother anyone or cause conflict and difficulty shed no light on the reality in which they live.” (Oscar Romero, page 55)
- “We must not love our lives so much that we avoid taking risks in life that history calls for. Those who seek to shun danger will lose their lives, whereas those who for love of Christ dedicate themselves to the service of others will live. … We know that every effort to improve society, especially when justice and sin are so widespread, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God requires of us.” (Oscar Romero, page 129)
- “It is certainly never pious to close our eyes in situations where they have to see sad, horrible things, especially since God gave us our eyes to see our neighbors in their need.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pgs 230-231)
- “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., in a 1955 response to an accusation that he was “disturbing the peace” by his activism during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, as quoted in Let the Trumpet Sound : A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr (1982) by Stephen B. Oates)
- “Mysticism and revolution are two aspects of the same attempt to bring about radical change. Mystics cannot prevent themselves from becoming social critics, since in self-reflection they will discover the roots of a sick society.” (Henri Nouwen, pages 23-24)
- “A certain amount of goods is necessary for a man to lead a good life, and we have to make that kind of society where it is easier for men to be good.” (Dorothy Day, page 108)
- “Christ does not call his benefactors loving or charitable. He calls them just. The Gospel makes no distinction between the love of our neighbor and justice. … We have invented this distinction between justice and charity. … Only the absolute identification of justice and love makes the coexistence possible of compassion and gratitude on one hand, and on the other, of respect for the dignity of affliction in the afflicted — a respect felt by the sufferer himself and the others.” (Simone Weil, pages 16-17)
- “The relationship between the pursuit of justice and the knowledge of God is basic to Old Testament theology. To know God is to seek justice and to correct oppression. The Law and the Prophets are largely taken up with the issues of justice in society. Worship without a concern for justice is denounced as evil and unacceptable.” (Kenneth Leech, page 32)
RECOGNIZE THE DIVINE IN EACH PERSON, ESPECIALLY THOSE YOU ARE “OPPOSING”
- A key principle is to remember the imagio dei, every person is a reflection of the image of God and deserves love and respect for that. Even those who are the ones you are “fighting” against, the ones who are oppressing others. Every person is a demand on us to find the divine within them. (Rev. Felicia Helen Parazaider interview)
- 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. (Holly Roach)
- “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.” (Holly Roach)
- “In the midst of political conflict it is so easy to simply see our adversaries as “the enemy.” We want to defeat them, decisively. But this is the path that leads to violence and (on a national level) to war. Conflict is inevitable and it is necessary to fight for what is right. But if we strip our opponents of their humanity, we are no better than they are (and perhaps even worse). The Buddha taught that only love can overcome hate; Christ was equally blunt: “Love your enemies.” A mystical approach to politics always looks for creative solutions where the dignity and humanity of all involved parties must be safeguarded.” (Carl McColman)
- “[To those] who are responsible for so many injustices and so much violence, those who have caused weeping in so many homes, those who are stained in with the blood of so many murders, those whose hands are tarnished with torture, those who have hardened their consciences and feel no pain at seeing beneath their boots so many people humiliated, suffering, perhaps near death. To all of them I say, ‘Your crimes do not matter. They are ugly and horrible. You have violated the highest dignity of the human person. But God calls you and forgives you. It is perhaps here that those who see themselves as workers hired at the first hour feel disgusted and ask, ‘How is it that I’m going to be in heaven with those criminals?’ Sisters and brothers, in heaven there are no criminals. The greatest criminals, once they have repented of their sins, are now children of God.” (Oscar Romero, page 43)
- “Blessed are the poor in of heart, those whose hearts feel the need for God, those who find the joy of life in the cross and sacrifice, those who have learned the true secret of peace in the crucified one. This secret consists of loving God to the extreme of letting oneself be killed for him and of loving one’s neighbor the the point of being crucified for them.” (Oscar Romero, page 112)
- “I am convinced that prayer and austerity, prayer and self-sacrifice, prayer and fasting, prayer and vigils, and prayer and marches are the indispensable means … and love. All these means are useless unless animated by love. ‘Love your enemies.’ That is the hardest saying of all. Please, Father in heaven who made me, take away my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh to love my enemy. It is a terrible thought — ‘we love God as much as the one we love least.’” (Dorothy Day, page 36)
- “If we could only learn that the only important thing is love, and that we will be judged on love — to keep on loving, and showing that love, and expressing that love, over and over, whether we feel it or not, seventy times seven, to mothers-in-law, to husbands, to children — and to be oblivious of insult, or hurt, or injury — not to see them, not to hear them. It is a hard, hard doctrine.” (Dorothy Day, page 85)
- When people do you injustice and you’re angry and want revenge, you’re called to love them first. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pgs 260-261)
- Should we keep silent to injustice? NO! But: 1) no revenge as a motive, remember your own guilt, 2) remember that God still loves you even when you hurt others, 3) remember that God died for ALL, including those who do injustice. Only then move forward and work for justice. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pgs 286-287)
- “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” (Michael Curry)
- “I believe in “yes and” methods of justice work; yes, a historical system of oppression operates in our society that results in mass inequity and harm, and, we all have the capacity to recognize the humanity in each other and forge genuine connections.” (Frances Lee)
- “God is love. Love casts out fear. Even the most ardent revolutionist, seeking to change the world, to overturn the tables of the money changers, is trying to make a world where it is easier for people to love, to stand in that relationship to each other.” (Dorothy Day, page 105)
- “We are all one. We are one flesh in the Mystical Body, as man and woman are said to be one flesh in marriage. With such a love one would see all things new; we would begin to see people as they really are, as God sees them.” (Dorothy Day, page 115)
- “No matter how good the goal is — fighting poverty, protecting the environment, even defending people’s fundamental human rights — if approached in the wrong way it can become idolatry. We have to worry not only about the temptation to do bad things, but also the temptation to do good things for bad reasons or in bad ways. A bad way is one that is not in line with the will of God and the dignity of human persons as creatures made in the divine image and likeness.” (Robert George, page 34)
BE HUMBLE AND REALIZE THAT YOU’LL MESS UP
- “You cannot possibly change another person’s mind,” Liu said, “if you’re not willing to have your own mind changed. You may be able to rack up debater’s points. But you won’t change their mind if they sense you aren’t willing to have your mind changed. It’s a matter of mindset but also ‘heart-set.’” (Conor Friedersdorf)
- “The person who denounces must be willing to be denounced. From the beginning I’ve said that I gladly accept criticisms when they are constructive and try to make me better than the poor soul I am. Most especially, I ask forgiveness from all those for whom my message has been misunderstood or poorly communicated.” (Oscar Romero, page 51)
- Tells a story of Jesus getting some political news, and Jesus rejects the binary of picking a side (pg 232), when we are outraged over news, we should remember that “no human being is ever right in the end” (233), so don’t be self-righteous. Instead, self-examine first and see if you’re also guilty of any of the same. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pgs 232-233)
- “We are told to put on Christ and we think of him in his private life, his life of work, his public life, his teaching and his suffering life. But we do not think enough of his life as a little child, as a baby. His helplessness, his powerlessness. We have to be content to be in that state too. Not to be able to do anything, to accomplish anything.” (Dorothy Day, page 73)
HOW TO TAKE ACTION EFFECTIVELY
- “A second element is about emotion. If someone comes at you in an angry way, you have to adjust how you’re going to come back at them. And you have a choice about whether you’re going to mirror and double down or if you’re “to be the one to say, I’m gonna be the grown-up here and I’m going to deescalate—being emotionally intelligent about the patterns that we fall into.” (Conor Friedersdorf)
- “If you have a political calling, then blessed be God! Cultivate it well, and be careful not to lose that vocation. Don’t replace that social and political sensitivity with hatred, vengeance, and earthly violence.” (Oscar Romero, page 71)
- Don’t dehumanize and don’t let yourself be dehumanized. Every person has dignity and worth as a human being and divine being. (Brené Brown)
- It’s not unreasonable to listen to people who disagree with you or whose ideas drive you crazy. But you’re not obligated to entertain people or groups that dehumanize. This includes people that delegitimize you or demonize you. (Brené Brown)
- Anger and hate are not productive emotions. Focus on individuals, not groups, because it’s harder to hate individuals. (Brené Brown)
- Make the effort to show up and be present for moments of collective joy and pain that transcend group boundaries. (Brené Brown)
- “Strong back, soft front, wild heart.” (Brené Brown)
- Interview with Arthur Brooks:
- Anger and contempt are two different things. People can disagree with anger and the relationship usually is fine. But disagreeing with contempt leads to divorce in couples (research from the Gottman institute).
- Contempt is saying the other person isn’t worthy enough to respond to or engage with. It’s eyerolling at their perspectives. It’s invalidating their views or personhood.
- When it comes to arguments:
- Civility is not the end-goal of social interaction. It’s a means to an end. The end is engaging in democratic discourse such that people can advocate for their views, accepting the legitimacy of those you disagree with, trying to persuade each other, and accepting the outcome of whoever wins with the expectation of getting to disagree again later.
- Being angry about something is okay. But saying “this person is terrible/stupid, and not worth my time to respond to” is contempt.
- When we talk about stuff on social media, do we point it out with a snarky comment so as to elicit a laugh from those on “our team” or to get a reaction? BETTER: directly respond to the person’s comment with your own argument and model a non-contempt based type of reaction.
- “Each of us is a stone in a mosaic that reveals the face of God. While all are called, each is called in specificity.” (The New Monasticism, page 96)
- “[Deep nonviolence] does not mean that one cannot and should not be firm … but that one is always holding others in one’s heart, always praying for that which is best for all. Particularly … on the more activist path, it becomes essential to refrain from demonizing ‘the enemy.’ The practice of deep nonviolence brings clarity, sensitivity, and wisdom to these difficult arenas. On the other hand, it also calls us into action girded with a moral power that in the end surpasses all that of all violence.” (The New Monasticism, page 177)
- “You seldom ‘win.’ They control the information, the press, the power, even the definition of ‘winning’ if you allow them. … Often it is better to start new ‘institutions’ than to waste one’s limited time and energy trying to convince dead ones. Jesus said, ‘Let the dead bury their dead.’ You need to be able to smell death. And to smell where new life is also.” (The New Monasticism, page 106)
IT IS NOT COSTLESS: IT OFTEN HURTS
- “Human approval is one of our most treasured idols, and the offering we must lay at its hungry feet is keeping others comfortable.” (Brené Brown, Kindle location 1797)
- “You’ll always walk with a limp.” (Brené Brown, Kindle location 1815)
- “[Contemplative critics] constantly invite their fellow human beings to ask real, often painful and upsetting questions. … Contemplative critics take away the illusory mask of the manipulative world and have the courage to show what the true situation is. They know that they may be considered to be foolish, mad, a danger to society and a threat to the human race. But they are not afraid to die, since their vision makes them transcend the difference between life and death and makes them free to do what has to be done here and now, notwithstanding the risks involved.” (Henri Nouwen, page 50)
- “Jesus was a revolutionary who did not become an extremist, since he did not offer an ideology, but himself. He was also a mystic, who did not use his intimate relationship with God to avoid the social evils of his time, but shocked his milieu to the point of being executed as a rebel.” (Henri Nouwen, page 25)
- Yuval Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, pages 185-188:
- “Religion gives a complete description of the world, and offers us a well-defined contract with predetermined goals. … The very clarity of this deal allows society to define common norms and values that regulate human behavior.”
- “Spiritual journeys are nothing like that. They usually take people in mysterious ways towards unknown destinations. The question usually begins with some big question, such as who am I? What is the meaning of life? What is good? Whereas most people just accept the ready-made answers provided by the powers that be, spiritual seekers are not so easily satisfied. …”
- “For religions, spirituality is a dangerous threat. Religions typically strive to rein in the spiritual quests of followers, and many religious systems have been challenged not by laypeople preoccupied with food, sex and power, but rather by spiritual truth-seekers who expected more than platitudes. …”
- “From a historical perspective, the spiritual journey is always tragic, for it is a lonely path fit only for individuals rather than for entire societies. Human cooperation requires firm answers rather than just questions, and those who fume against stultified religious structures often end up forging new structures in their place.”
- “Saying yes to one’s vocation may mean struggling financially; it may mean making decisions that family and friends might not fully understand, or even reject. ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ It may mean choosing roads that are counterintuitive to the mind, so conditioned by the culture we live in. Doing this can be a direct challenge to the way most people live. They will sense it, even if only unconsciously. They will work against you, bless their souls. People will be threatened because deep down everyone who is not living an authentic life, deep down knows it. … The response is to attack the source, denigrate the source, dismiss it, invalidate it.” (The New Monasticism, page 107)
“ALL WILL BE WELL”
- “It is not a barren wasteland. It is not unprotected territory. It is not void of human flourishing. The wilderness is where all the creatives and prophets and system-buckers and risk-takers have always lived, and it is stunningly vibrant. The walk out there is hard, but the authenticity out there is life.” (Brené Brown, Kindle location 1807)
- “We can beg for an increase in love in our hearts that will vitalize and transform all our individual actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.” (Dorothy Day, page 74)
- “Do what comes to hand. Whatsoever the hand finds to do, do it with all thy might. After all, God is with us. It shows too much conceit to trust to ourselves, to be discouraged at what we ourselves can accomplish. It is lacking in faith in God to be discouraged. After all, we are going to proceed with his help. We offer him what we are going to do. If he wishes it to prosper, it will.” (Dorothy Day, page 14)
- “After all, we can only do what lies in our power and leave all the rest to God, and he will attend to it. You do not know yourself what you are doing, how far-reaching your influence is.” (Dorothy Day, page 77)
- “Do not depend on the hope of results … You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all. … All the good that you will do will come … from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself.” (Thomas Merton, quoted in The New Monasticism, pages 105-106)
- “You know, brethren, that a very large ship is benefited very much by a very small helm in the time of a storm, by being kept workways with the wind and the waves. Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed.” (Joseph Smith, Jr.)
This page has been adapted from an earlier post with the same content at RationalFaiths.com, originally published December 29, 2018.