e-mail us


Creating new ways of being political


Vladimir Lenin was once quoted saying that if he had just 10 of St. Francis of Assisi in his Bolshevik retinue, he could have taken over and transformed the world. Shrewd political manipulator that he was, he recognized the unstoppable power of one who prays, has few needs and talks to birds.

Most folks imagine spirituality and politics in bed together -- and shudder. Horrors! Here come the self-righteous with that otherworldly glaze over their eyes punching salvation tickets in the name of a white bread Jesus. Or, worse, here come the blissed-out New-Agers with their past-lives and hotlines to Atlantean beings with too many vowels in their names, visualizing world peace. Or, maybe we see leftist ideologues, little red books in hand, forcing all and sundry out of the cities to rake potatoes, shooting the eyeglass-wearers in the back of the head for good measure.

Let’s face it, both spirituality and politics come with loads of controversial baggage and are two of the three things one is not supposed to talk about at dinner parties. We are wary of their alliance for good reasons.

Yet we look at the appalling disarray around us on the political scene. We prepare to vote again for whichever candidate seems the lesser of two evils, after long campaigns that seem like exercises in make-believe and phony imagery. Deeply uneasy in the increasingly lonely voting booth, we get little light or heat from our mainstream media or church.

Sam Smith, author of The Great American Political Repair Manual: How to Rebuild Our Country So the Politics Aren’t Broken and the Politicians Aren’t Fixed, puts it this way. “About the most important job of a democracy, next to serving its people, is to make sure it stays a democracy. Governments that rely on the consent of the governed -- rather than, say, on tanks and prisons -- particularly require constant tending.” Smith points out that we could easily become the first people in history to lose democracy and its constitutional freedoms simply because we have forgotten what they are about. Caring for democracy is important, yes. Could it be that it’s also a spiritual path -- and a truly American one?

It was the monk Thomas Merton, a man of prayer and few needs, who first pointed out to so many of us that one could lead a contemplative, politically engaged life. Merton’s enduring appeal owes, I believe, to the convergence in him of three strong rivers: 1) his willingness to engage in the divisive issues of his day; 2) his rich, complex, imaginative inner life revealed in his writings (it was this very richness that led him outward); and 3) his passion about and commitment to spiritual traditions as a way to heal both self and the world.

If he were with us (he’d be 85 now), he’d probably still be the passionately engaged contemplative who wrote this in the 1960s: “The long-term goals of the human race (to establish a society based on love, mutual respect and solidarity) have become the short-term survival requirements for the planet and the human race.” Merton knew that we need the kin-dom of God now more than ever.

Instead, what we have is the shortsighted politics of muscle, greed and cynicism and growing numbers fleeing the political process. We’ve had it with a government out of touch and incapable of solving problems creatively, with having to choose between candidates both of whom seem, at worst, totally bought off by corporate campaign contributors and, at best, lacking the mettle to steer us forward to meet the awesome challenges ahead. Money not only talks, it’s the only way to become a candidate, thereby attracting exactly the wrong people. Increasingly, it’s oligarchy v. democracy, the rule of the wealthy against the rule of the people.

But this sorry state of affairs could not happen without widespread apathy and disconnection on our end. To end it, we will need further efforts like campaign finance reform, legislated limits on corporate power, together with alternative parties that force the dominant parties to face issues rather than hurl barbs at one another. We will surely need to reinvent those middle-level connections between the electorate and our leaders, a function once served by trade unions, civic organizations, even churches. We have lost the old framework for political life and need to fashion a whole new one, making democracy a daily reality and exercise for us all. This won’t come from the top down but somehow from the bottom up. Even with the amazing new instruments of the information age at our disposal, it won’t be easy. Opposition to moneyed interests, for example, must be tough yet understanding at the same time, requiring activists, naysayers and prayful people who are both wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

It was Merton who introduced the concept of guilty bystanders, useful in a country like ours that is always deeply conflicted about the role religion or spirituality should play in democratic life. Merton liked to challenge his readers, urging that the contemplative life is a process of “discovering the Holy Spirit always in new, unexpected places.” He was convinced that political decisions are key events in the spiritual life, that taking sides in crucial, prophetic issues that are the moral touchstones of our day are the activities wherein prayerful living bears full and effective fruit. In his day, these moral knots were found in the civil rights struggle, in the Vietnam War and in the nuclear arms race. Now they live, arguably, in the globalization of our economies, in corporate mergers and layoffs, in moneyed control of politics, in racial, class and gender issues, in the need for a consistent regard for life from conception to the grave and for economic democracy.

Tall order to remedy these? Indeed, but our spiritual traditions have much to offer. Without a sense of hope and creative possibility, without ways to continually renew ourselves, to sustain courage and resolve, we cannot speak truth to power, discern, create new ways of being political, or hang in there for the long haul. Recognizing and fostering intimacy with the sacred dimension in every aspect of our life, we can counter that voice that says no better world is possible. “It is in deep solitude and silence [Merton again], that I find the gentleness with which to love my brothers and sisters.”

John Rensenbrink is a political scientist and was a candidate for the U.S. Senate from Maine in 1996. He writes: “There is a silence, a very palpable silence, which you feel before you know it’s there. It yawns across the great valley of our politics, from left to right, from up to down. The silence concerns the actual state of our politics and the imperative need for someone, or somebodies, to seek its transformation in a serious and responsible way.” The silence is puzzling for a country that prides itself on its credentials as one of the world’s leading democracies, born in revolution and nourished on constitutional history. Indeed the silence is deafening.

Rich Heffern is the former editor of Praying magazine and a frequent contributor to NCR. His e-mail address is Tinseltigr@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, October 20, 2000