Part Three of my talk on Spirituality and Politics addresses the issue of renewing our spirituality for justice. It has expanded a bit, so the concluding part will be in a Part Four posting.
Renewing our spirituality for justice
Although spirituality has immediate religious overtones, I prefer to understand it first at a very elementary level, as energy. A crisis of spirituality manifests itself as a crisis of political energy.
In the immediate aftermath of EDSA, many left activists couldn’t identify with what they judged as disproportionate claims about what EDSA represents. Feeling “left out,” they were both resentful and disconsolate, yielding to inner doubts and outer recriminations. After a while, they regrouped their energies to reposition themselves politically, and relaunched the call for revolution. But the inner and outer struggles persisted.
On the opposite end were anti-martial law activists who were full participants in the heady celebration of EDSA, and soon after shifted their energies to pursuing “normal” lives and commitments. In their view, martial law was an exceptional situation that called for exceptional response, that basically ended with EDSA.
In between these two poles, other activist energies underwent repeated renewal because of disappointments with a succession of elite coalitions and unresolved divisions among the radical opposition. They tried their best to avoid yielding to weariness and cynicism, and persisted in political engagements, not out of sheer doggedness and inertia, but with a new clarity of purpose and a fresh flow of energy and hope.
In a political context, the question of spirituality is a question of solidarity: Whom do we include in our “imagined community” ( a phrase coined by Benedict Anderson for another context ) of fellow activists and kindred spirits, and whom do we exclude from it?
Renewing our spirituality is therefore both very personal and also communal. Our journey within, to recognize our inner core energy and recharge it, is not a solitary task. We always have companions, even if we do not consciously acknowledge them. Our most crucial conversations are not only with ourselves. They always involve significant others.
In this search for personal and communal spirituality, I find the categories of Sikolohiyang Pilipino useful: Loob and Kapwa, our inner being and our various relationships, make up who we are – our Pagkatao. Our kapwa include our kamag-anak, kabiyak, kaibigan, kasama, kakosa, kababayan. Even those whom we choose to consider as our kaaway.
During the Grassroots Leadership Course of the Education for Life Foundation, one exercise we ask participants to do is to draw a flower – with as many petals as relationships and communities they consider meaningful to themselves. The process usually induces quiet and thoughtful reflection, followed by insightful conversations among fellow participants during the gallery viewing of their personal “flower.”
Another set of concepts from Sikolohiyang Pilipino help us understand and map the changing levels of our relationships with our different kapwa. The two main categories are ibang tao and di na ibang tao. Our relationship with those who are ibang tao begins at the level of pakikitungo and peaks at pakikisama. We cross over to di na ibang tao when we achieve pakikipagpalagayang-loob which permits us to go deeper into pakikisangkot, up to the level of pakikiisa.
I particularly like the gender undertones in Dr. Ver Enriquez’ critique of claims that pakikisama or SIR (smooth interpersonal relations) is the central Filipino value, and his counterposing of pakikiisa or SIS (shared inner spirit).
For political activists, the felt need for spiritual renewal usually leads to expanding vocabularies and new channels of energy. But we can also be tempted to shrink our circle of concern to a much smaller zone of comfort, and the face-to-face interpersonal relationships of what Germans call Gemeinschaft. But if our spirituality is to relate to politics, we need to get engaged at the level of Gesselschaft whose structures and dynamics may be impersonal but have impact on the personal and the interpersonal.
This is not an easy task. Philippine politics post-EDSA can often remind us of the definition of politics in the Devil’s Dictionary: “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”
Consequently, it is tempting to denounce politics as irredeemably “dirty,” and “withdraw to the desert.” Or cite the spirit of the biblical text we used for radical choices during the martial law years: “Go up to the hills from where salvation comes.” Others may choose to go, not to the guerrilla countryside, but to the “country outside” to find their own way of serving their families, communities, and country.
Taking a cue from our South African comrades, politics is better seen as an “arena of struggle.” It is a crucible for testing and distilling a spirituality for struggle. It challenges us to find ways to combine the “power of principle” and the “principle of power,” an insight I retain from FFF’s Jeremias Montemayor, one of my first mentors.
Since 1992, I have also used Stephen Covey’s three circles as a framework for political engagement. He says that except for those who are very selfish, people tend to have a much bigger “circle of concern” compared to their “circle of influence.” This is especially true of activists, who take on more and more causes even if their energies and capacities remain at the same level.
To avoid sinking into a sense of “learned helplessness,” his advice is to work on expanding our circle of influence to keep pace with the expansion of our circle of concern. We need to reach out to other energies working on similar causes, learn new skills, link with different networks.
But as we seek to expand our circle of influence to address our expanding circle of concern, we need to be clear about the third, inner circle – our “center of focus.” This is the lens through which we look at our various concerns and engagements.
This center of focus is the deeper common ground for renewing our spirituality. For myself and many activists of my generation, this continues to be the struggle for social justice. In theological terms, this is a continuing call to have a “preferential option for the poor.”
For the last part of my talk, let me share some methods and practices for renewing our spirituality for justice.
Discerning the Spirit
When I was introduced to the language of spirituality in the seminary, it was linked to the regular practice of an “examination of conscience” and the motives that drive us. I think it was the Jesuits who developed this further into a discipline called “discernment of spirits.” In addition to regular prayers and meditation, we had monthly recollections and annual retreats. I read related books on developing an “inner life.”
Those experiences led me to associate spirituality with meaning and motives – making sense of life and what I do, and being aware of what drives me to do what I do.
Renewing our spirituality for justice can benefit from similar practices. Activists need to integrate regular periods for reflection, individually and in groups, into their schedule, instead of being forced into it by setbacks, sickness, or waiting until they burn-out.
On the issue of discernment, there is an interesting convergence of the religious and the secular left tradition on a common focus – the purification of motives. Both traditions ask us to examine our motives, to eliminate those that are base or selfish. We are asked to aim at nobler and selfless motives. In the Christian tradition, the highest motive should be A.M.D.G. – Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, the greater glory of God. In the Maoist tradition, the highest motive is STP – Serve the People unselfishly and wholeheartedly.
I have worked with the practices of both traditions, and even found a bridge between A.M.D.G. and STP in St. Irenaeus of Lyon’s aphorism: “The greatest glory of God are human beings fully alive.”
And yet, after more than 40 years of activism, I have questions about both perspectives and practices. The goal of purifying motives remains valid. But it needs to be balanced by another, complementary framework.
We humans are complex beings, and we are driven consciously and subconsciously in ways that neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and evolutionary psychology have only begun to unravel. My experience with a one-sided emphasis on purifying our motives is that it is fraught with perils – either frustration at honest acknowledgment of failure, or illusions of premature claims to have achieved purification.
To complement this lifelong pursuit of purification, I have arrived at a three-part process for renewing our spirituality: Recognize. Organize. Re-organize.
Recognize. We are driven by many motives, We discover and also create meaning in our work, for our work. Not all of these are as pure or noble as we would want, but they are real, and drive us to act. That’s why they are called motives. It is best to recognize that we have multiple (not mixed) motives.
Organize. It is not enough to acknowledge that we have many motives. We must find ways to organize them into some synergy. A key element in organizing multiple motives is identifying what we may call our “lead motive.”
Re-organize. The synergy of our many motives and the choice of our lead motive are not fixed for a lifetime. We undergo changes over time. The world and the contexts of our engagement change over time. Hence from time to time, we need to review our motives and possibly re-organize them.
With benefit of hindsight, I think that during my early years of activism, through the martial law years and after, my lead motive in the struggle for justice was “righteous anger against injustice.” This may have been grounded in the biblical prophetic tradition, combined with a middle class intellectual’s resentment against oppressive elite, and a compassion for the poor that was transformed into anger. (During my first detention, my jailer confiscated a poster I designed, because of its text – “There is greater love in anger than in pity.”)
Anger against injustice continues, and even flares up on occasions. But since the late 80s, it has ceased to lead my other motives. Gradually, another lead motive has emerged – “discovering and developing the full potential of the grassroots.”
The struggle for justice is the center of focus to which my lead motives and the constellation of many motives drive me. But now, instead of being driven to directly denounce unjust power as my primary mode of activism, I prefer to invest my time and energy in helping the grassroots develop their potential: Their critical-creative consciousness through popular education, their collective energy through community organization, and above all their leadership, so that they can confront unjust power, assert their rights, and bring about greater justice in their lives, communities, and in the country.
This shift in emphasis is alluded to in the title of one of my talks: “From Theology of Struggle to Education for Life.” Will there be need for another re-organization in the near future? It’s hard to tell, but I do not discount it.