Spiritual Activism and Liberation Spirituality: Pathways To Collective Liberation

by Margaret Wheatley May 12, 2006

by Claudia Horwitz and Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey, 2006

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There is a new culture of activism taking form in the world–a new paradigm for how we work, how we define success, how we integrate the fullness of who we are and what we know into the struggle for justice. Activists are being asked to examine our current historical moment with real intimacy, with fresh eyes, fire, and compassion. Many of the once-groundbreaking methods we know and use have now begun to rot. Many of our tactics are now more than simply ineffective- they are dangerous.

For agents of change, and all those who we work with, the detriment is twofold. We are killing ourselves and we are not winning. A life of constant conflict and isolation from the mainstream can be exhausting and demoralizing. Many of our work habits are unhealthy and unsustainable over the long haul. The structures of power have become largely resistant to our tactics. Given the intensity of our current historical circumstance it would be easy for us to rely on what we know, to fall back upon our conditioning and our historical tendencies, in our efforts to create change under pressure. Many lessons of the past carry wisdom; others are products and proponents of dysfunctional systems and ways of being in the world. A new paradigm requires a complex relationship with history; we must remember and learn from the past, but we cannot romanticize it.

Neither do we presume that the answer lies only in the new, the innovative, and the experimental. We carry the hearts and minds of the ancient ones of many traditions, across time and continents, while also connecting to the resources that surround us.  Our intention is to survive and flourish in the landscape that we find ourselves living in. A new philosophy and practice of social change is emerging, one that grows out of an ethic of sustainability, spirituality, and a broader understanding of freedom. We are weaving old threads together in new forms and new ways of being.

spiritual activism and liberation spirituality

At its best, this new paradigm, which some of us are calling “spiritual activism” or “liberation spirituality” is revolutionary.  It provides us with deepened competencies and tools to go forward in this tangle of conditions history has prepared for us and to assume the roles we’re being asked to play.  While the field growing up around this new paradigm is varied and vast, we are beginning to see each other and understand what we share:

  • a deep commitment to spiritual life and practice;
  • a framework of applied liberation;
  • an orientation towards movement-building; and
  • a desire for fundamental change in the world based on equity and justice.

We are moving toward a doing that grows more deliberately out of being; an understanding that freedom from external systems of oppression is dynamically related to liberation from our internal mechanisms of suffering.  It provides us with a way to release the construct of “us versus them” and live into the web of relationship that links all. Instead of being limited by the reactions of fight or flight, we encounter a path that finds fullness in presence. The humility of not-knowing allows truth to appear where fear once trapped us. We recognize the pervasive beauty of paradox, the dynamic tension between two simultaneous truths that seem contradictory. We enlarge our capacity to hold contradictions and to be informed by them.  And our movements for change are transformed as a result.

swimming in the dominant culture

The culture of activism in the United State is like a fish swimming in murky waters. It lives and breathes in the dominant culture and it is greatly impacted by its nature. Even as we are attempting to change this culture, we easily overlook how it has impacted us and how we recreate it. As we begin to understand and reckon with these attributes, we start to unravel their influence. Like anything, the more we invite and allow ourselves to notice and name what is, the more space, opportunity and permission conditions have to change.

The Healing Century

by Margaret Wheatley January 16, 1998

by Robert Theobald, 1998
Introduction by Bob Stilger, 2008

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Robert Theobald and I met in the late sixties. He was a noted social commentator. I was a brash young college student. He became one of my closest friends and colleagues for the next thirty years. In 1997, Robert was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and came to live in Spokane with my family to complete his life and work. Shortly after having his esophagus removed at the end of 1997, he wrote “The Healing Century” as a speech for the Ontario Arts Council. Ten years later, his analysis of where we need to be paying attention is still uncannily accurate.

For the next two years, until he died at the end of 1999, Robert and I worked under the banner of Resilient Communities. We believed that beneath the fervor about Y2K there were actually critical questions being asked about how to make our communities and our lives resilient enough to navigate the rapids of change. Similar questions about community resilience are at the core of Berkana’s current work.

While the commentary Robert offered ten years ago in The Healing Century remains largely accurate, what Robert could not have foretold was all that has happened over these years. People, all over the world, engaged in making communities and lives that work are finding each other. Ten years ago, World Café was a way to host conversation known only to a handful of people. The Art of Hosting wasn’t even a glimmer in anyone’s eyes. Pioneers of Change was a seed ready to be grown. Shambhala Authentic Leadership Institute was a dream long held by a small group of people. The Leadership Learning Centers that Berkana currently works with around the world were in many different stages of formation and certainly not yet in relationship with each other.

I think Robert would see this all with a twinkle in his eye and with hope for the future.

The Healing Century

Despite the widespread frustrations of our time, I believe that we can and must live with hope. We are capable of making a profound positive shift in our thinking over the next few years. The heart of this shift would be for us to conceptualize the 21st century as the healing century just as the 20th will certainly be defined in the future as the economic and technological century. Only a change toward a more caring and compassionate culture at all levels from the personal to the ecological can avoid massive breakdowns.

I am all too well aware, however, that the message of hope I intend to send will only be welcome to those who are aware that the current directions of the global culture are unacceptable and unsustainable. If you still believe that our current commitment to maximum economic growth and international competitiveness, based on ever-increasing technological competence, will solve our problems then my message will seem pessimistic and, indeed, highly negative.

We currently face a series of unavoidable crises which are already visible to those who care to look beyond the dominant headlines. These crises are due to our past successes rather than our failures. We have achieved what we wanted to. We have so far failed to recognize that it is now time to move on and to seize the new opportunities which are currently available to us. We urgently need to rework our concepts of success.

I shall start with the economic, social, environmental, moral and spiritual crises of our time. I shall show that there must be profound shifts if we are to avoid the breakdowns that threaten our future.