Resistance and Contemplation

 The precondition for an ecological reform of modern industrial society is a spiritual and cultural conversion, which has its roots in a new religious experience of the reality of God and nature. The church must become the temple for the whole creation.    Jurgen Moltmann

 I spoke earlier about the need to ground our “no” of resistance in the “yes” of faith. It is essential to recognize the true context and foundation of our lives amidst God’s good creation, and to develop an ongoing sense of the sacred in everyday life. We return now to where this book began—to the earth, our home and our primary source of revelation. As we practice active democracy that furthers globalization from below, we must not forget who we are: children of Spirit, but also children of the earth, dependent on God for life and breath and all things and interdependent with the whole community of life. Thomas Berry reminds us of the extraordinary gifts offered to us through the creation, and of our responsibility to care for the earth, our home:

“The natural world tells us: I will feed you, I will clothe you, I will shelter you, I will heal you. Only do not so devour me or use me that you destroy my capacity to mediate the divine and the human. For I offer you a communion with the divine. I offer you gifts that you can exchange with each other. I offer you flowers whereby you may express your reverence for the divine and your love for each other. In the vastness of the sea, in the snow-covered mountains, in the rivers flowing through the valleys, in the serenity of the landscape, and in the foreboding of the great storms that sweep over the land, in all these experiences I offer you inspiration for your music, for your art, your dance.”

In addition to being grounded in the earth, we must also become aware of how we relate to the dominant institutions of which we are a part. We see how ruling institutions foster a sense of powerlessness, distort the truth, dampen the Spirit, nullify conscience, and impair moral agency. These inner effects of the Powers prevent people from rising up in clear and concerted resistance to these harmful systems and demanding change.

Recognizing the reality of social sin and institutional evil does not relieve conscience or excuse us from personal responsibility, but it does add another dimension to our understanding of the human condition. Just as we are dependent on God for life and breath and all things and interdependent with the rest of creation, we are also embedded in institutions and systems that affect us and that we affect through our passive acceptance, active participation, or actions of resistance and transformation. We are called to resist being taken over by the forces of a culture that would have us believe that comfort, pleasure, and looking good are the most important things in life. We are called to refuse to worship our culture’s dominant gods of money and domination, to resist the lure of materialistic values that keep so many enthralled, and instead to value human life and the natural world. By so doing, we plant seeds of hope and honor the Creator.

Prayer is crucial in this process. Prayer is an act of humility, a way to acknowledge our utter dependence on God and our gratitude for the new life we have received in Christ. In prayer, we open ourselves to the clarity, guidance, and empowerment that only the Holy Spirit can bring. Prayers of intercession and petition have immeasurable effects on our lives and on lives around us. Prayer “with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other,” as Karl Barth recommended, helps us develop the ability to discern God’s activity in current events. Contemplative prayer and meditation can help us stay grounded in the present moment and give us a sense of freedom from time. Prayer can also enable us to discern the inner effects of the Powers. Regular ongoing prayer can help us resist collective thinking and to understand our own inner dynamics, so that we can know which of our impulses are based on anger or fear, and which are Spirit-led, guiding us in the direction of God’s call and empowering us to move toward creative transformation. As Barth said, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”

If we neglect to nurture our relationship with God through prayer, we lose ourselves in outward activity and forfeit what peace, freedom, and clarity we have attained. The inner journey and the outer journey together constitute the spiritual life. Prayer is essential. So is action. In Resistance and Contemplation: The Way of Liberation, James Douglass writes of the inner and outer journeys as two sides of a mountain, as two parts of a whole way of life:

“Contemplation is an encounter on the dark side of the mountain, in the soul. Contemplation, the struggle to experience reality as it is, in the life-giving water of the One, is the acceptance of the upward wind of the Spirit and the disciplined loss of my self-control. I struggle for the power of the powerless, where I would lose my self, where only the Spirit moves. . . .

Resistance, on the bright slope, is the struggle to stand against a murderous collective self and to express communally the living unity of all . . . in the One. Resistance is active opposition to the death forces discernible in every modern state. The confrontation of resistance therefore takes place on the bright side of the mountain, in the sunlight of public or collective consciousness, where people struggle with the powers of war, racism, exploitation.”

“Contemplative prayer and other spiritual practices equip us for resistance against social, political, and economic “death forces” in the outer world. Such practices repudiate the values of domination, violence, and greed. In our contemporary context, they are counter-cultural. Douglass sees contemplation itself as a form of resistance: “The Spirit is received through a painful resistance to, and renunciation of, the claims of the self on the climb into greater darkness. Contemplation receives by resisting. At its center contemplation is receptivity to the wind of the Spirit, but it is conditioned by my active resistance to the fears and claims of the self: claims of comfort, security, self-control.”

Walter Wink, too, speaks of the spiritual journey in terms of resistance. He points to the myth or archetype of “The Human Being” as exemplified by Jesus, which “defines as human, not prowess in battle or beauty of body or achievement of high office, but that which is left when the desire for these has been crucified” and which “offers us the secret of our individuality.” Yet in spite of the promise of a deeper relationship with God and a more fulfilled humanity, we often find ourselves seduced by the lesser gods of comfort, familiarity, cultural accommodation, and ease, which we must resist: “The Human Being cracks open the shell of something new. But human beings are terrified by the sound of that scratching deep inside. The sound reminds them of their deprived humanity, which they know instinctively cannot be recovered without painful inner resistance and a massive reaction from the Powers . . .”

As we move into new ways of being, in faithfulness to God and in resistance to both the inner and outer effects of the Powers, we find that the struggle becomes at once more costly, more satisfying, and more real. For in the words of Wink, “to take on those who have power over our lives inevitably will require that one ‘suffer and be treated with contempt’ and be ‘rejected by this generation.’” At the same time, resistance motivated by the Spirit enables us to face the great suffering of our time, repent for our part in it, move toward transformation, and find hope.

Faith-led resistance both begins and ends in prayer. In Richard Foster’s book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, he writes: “The true prophetic message always calls us to a spiritual defiance of the world as it now is. Our prayer, to the extent that it is fully authentic, undermines the status quo. It is a spiritual underground resistance movement. We are subversives in a world of injustice, oppression, and violence.”

Another form of “spiritual defiance of the world as it now is” is the practice of simplicity. Foster speaks of the necessity of cultivating this traditional spiritual discipline in another book, Freedom of Simplicity.  Living simply is a basic form of spiritual resistance to commercial pressures to over-consume.

It is not easy to make careful and conscientious choices in the areas of food, clothing, recreation, housing, child rearing, and transportation. Everyone’s life circumstances are different, and lifestyle decisions are deeply personal. Each person must decide how to live and what actions to take. Those of us who are immersed in the dominant culture may experience extreme pressures, both inner and outer, as we seek to extricate ourselves from cultural domination by the institutional Powers and to practice new ways of living into the future that we want to see. But there will also be rewards. Through the practice of simplicity, we exercise our moral agency and develop our integrity, both of which are necessary if we are to rise to the challenge of taking action in the larger world. As Hendrik Berkhof put it in his classic work, Christ and the Powers, “We can only preach the manifold wisdom of God to Mammon if our life displays that we are joyfully freed from its clutches.”