I’m quite underwhelmed by myself and my response to the overwhelming issues facing the world, my country, my province/state/territory, my city, my neighbourhood, my community, my house, my family, my self. I’m overwhelmed sometimes just by the enormity of the problems and the energy required to care for victims of our day and age. And when you relate to all kinds of people you are put in touch with all kinds of problems. In these times, you are criticised often by the activists for being too reclusive or resigning to yourself too much. But then you are criticised by the contemplatives for being too activist and reaching out. When reaching out you’re criticised by those who work to address the systemic roots to the problem so that it never happens again. When you join in that work you’re criticised by those who simply care for the victims and manage the problem but don’t work towards eradication.
What I’ve learned is that a true life of contemplation leads to a true life of activism. And a true life of activism fuels a true life of contemplation. Is it not when a person truly contemplates the state of the world, the state of the environment, the poverty & equity crisis (the occupy movement), the annihilation precipice and security crisis, and the prosperity crisis that one is moved to action? They seemed to go hand-in-hand. In fact, this is what we find in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
I recently finished “Strength to Love” by MLK which included one essay about his contemplative translation into action. According to MLK, he first read all the theological liberalism he could and he thoroughly enjoyed it. But then he felt it was too overly optimistic about human nature and didn’t see how we could be darkened by wrongdoing or sin. He didn’t enjoy neo-orthodoxy (what was called neo-orthodoxy back then in the 50’s) because it was too pessimistic about human nature, stressing too much a hidden, wholly other, unknown God with a narrow, uncritical Biblicism.
Later, looking for some synthesis of the two, he began to read existential philosophers. He read Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Jaspers, Heidegger, and Sartre. What amazes me is that some of these men are famous “atheists,” and also read by one of my favorite contemporary activist, story-telling philosophers, Peter Rollins. After MLK did serious study of the 20th-century thinker Paul Tillich, he became convinced that regardless of its fashionableness, existentialism had grasped some important truths about the human condition including the concept of “finite freedom” and the various anxieties and conflicts man must navigate in life and our structure of existence. These anxieties threaten meaninglessness.
After starting in systematic theology and philosophy, MLK was more and more interested in social ethics. After experiencing segregation on the back of the bus or the segregated car on a train behind a curtain, the problem of racial injustice deeply concerned him. He saw it as morally unjustifiable and rationally inexplicable. He saw how the system exploited both blacks and poor whites (there are systems today that still do this).
As he continued to ponder these things, he entered theological seminary beginning a quest to find a method that would eliminate social evil. A huge influence upon him is a book by Walter Rauschenbusch whose great grandson is a colleague of mine. The book is called “Christianity and the Social Crisis.” This book is the book that gave rise to the social gospel movement or the involvement of Christians in a more systemic and organized way in social issues in the States. The anti-child labor movement and the worker rights movement are examples of two movements that came out of it. Through Rauschenbusch, MLK learned or became more convinced of the fact that the gospel deals with the whole man and not just his spiritual well-being. Any religion that professes a concern for a man’s spirit but doesn’t care about the slums that damn him, the economic conditions that cripple him, and the social conditions that harm him is an emasculated religion.
He then went on to study seriously social and ethical theories from philosophy. He saw love (turn-the-other-cheek and love-your-enemy) as a valid philosophy for individual contact but holding no power for group interactions. It wasn’t until MLK read the works of Gandhi that he saw the power of nonviolent love in group interactions. MLK became fascinated with the Gandhian concept of satyagraha [truth/love (satya) graha (force)]. He thought the Christian concept of love working through the Gandhian concept of non-violence could work to bring about change.
But it wasn’t until he was involved in the bus boycott of 1954 in Montgomery, Alabama that he had a situation in which nonviolent resistance could be applicable. Up till then he had only given nonviolent resistance intellectual assent. After being voted the spokesperson of the group and living through the days of the boycott, this idea to which he agreed became a committed way of life for him. Many of the intellectual issues which had not been cleared up for him were cleared up through the sphere of practical action. (At that time he saw love as practical for group relations, but still didn’t realize it could be used for international relations until later.)
Do you see how the contemplation and action wove together in his life? Moreover do you see how the contemplation of those he studied affected him? I often talk about the 4 M’s, but it’s quite important here because without Gandhi there really is no MLK. But without Jesus there is no Gandhi because Gandhi read the words of Jesus and studied his action. Gandhi was another contemplative. And Jesus, whom Gandhi studied, was another contemplative. But from the one called the Messiah to the one called the Mahatma to the one calk MLK, we move to another, a 4th contemplative, Mandela. From South Africa, Mandela studied the example and words of MLK in the States and appropriated such nonviolent resistance and love to help shape a new South Africa birthed from the struggling labour during apartheid.
I don’t know one major leader who doesn’t read, study, contemplate. Even more, the contemplative practice is more than just thinking and reading but truly sitting with a concept and thought, wrestling with what is good for people, and meditating upon these thoughts in silence, stillness, time away from others, time away from the daily grind.
It really isn’t either/or. It’s both.