As I look back over my writings here and elsewhere over the past few years, I note that many whom I call spiritual mentors and heroes were men and women not afraid to speak up in protest when political actions stood in opposition to their Christian principles or simply their notions of morality.
On the day after national protests on behalf of immigrants, I am certain that persons such as Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Daniel Berrigan, Dorothy Day, and Pete Seeger would have been at airports yesterday on behalf of those detained by presidential edict. I know that today Thomas Merton would be penning a letter of protest.
Some who call themselves Christian have criticized those who speak out, claiming there is no place in Christianity for politics. Yet the founder of Christianity was a rebel who spoke out and who constantly challenged not just religious officials but politicians as He reminded time and again us to love our neighbor, telling us, among other things, “I was a stranger and you invited me into your home.”
I fear that in some ways Christianity has failed. I was accused once of being a “Cafeteria Catholic”, picking and choosing what I believe. So be it. I choose to think about what I believe, not accept it without question. In any case, many Christians nowadays pick and chose what they quote from the Bible. Some offer an arbitrary definition of what it means to be “pro-life”. Others justify war and violence.
I’m hardly a Biblical scholar but it seems clear to me that we are called to love our neighbor without exception! This means I am called to love not only the nice people but also my enemy. Jesus Christ didn’t seem to make any exceptions to the commandment to love.
It isn’t easy being a Christian. It never was meant to be. I’ll close then with a scene from the classic movie On the Waterfront. In this scene, we see a Catholic priest stand up to gangsters who ran the union for dock workers. This character was based on a real priest (one who in fact was criticized for his political involvement!) His words, as portrayed by Karl Malden, speak to us today during this time when, as Christians, we are called not to be silent.
Reflection: What if any role does protest play in your spiritual journey?
Protest/activism are an inherent part of my spiritual journey. In fact, I have come to the place in that journey where if it is only about me and my transformation, my becoming a better person, my having a more fulfilling life, my having peace of mind, my, my, my without struggling to bring justice to all living beings and Earth, then I am simply living a hypocritical, narcissistic lifestyle. If Jesus taught us anything, it is that Christians MUST be the voice of people who have no voice, and we must struggle for justice everywhere. I have been profoundly influenced by my dear colleague and friend, Andrew Harvey, spiritual teacher, Rumi scholar, and activist who founded the Institute For Sacred Activism which marries activism and spirituality. (www.andrewharvey.net) For me, Jesus was a revolutionary on many levels. He protested daily by breaking Jewish law (or rather fulfilling the spirit of it), by the way he dressed, spoke, and who he hung out with. If trashing the temple wasn’t protest, I don’t know what was. Who are the great heroes and heroines of protest? People with intense spiritual paths: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Theresa, St. Francis and his companion Clare, Dalai Lama, present day Sister Simone Campbell, Sister Joan Chiddister, the countless men and women religious who work day and night on the US/Mexican border to assist the poor and those ravaged by cartel violence. For me, protest is a moral imperative. Currently, I am not feeling disturbed by the nationwide protests against injustice, but rather I am feeling energized by them. They attest to the conscience, love, and commitment to peace and justice that millions of people worldwide are committed to. Our nation was born out of protest and may be reborn as a result of the commitment of people with a conscience to stand up and speak out for justice—whether they are religions or non-religious protestors.
Very powerful words by the priest and what a man of courage. I believe that we are allowed to choose our beliefs in the “cafeteria” of Catholicism. That is precisely why we were given a mind. The key point is that we are not choosing only those beliefs that are convenient and easy for us. If we could all embrace the principle of loving our enemies, everything else would take care of itself. That one is hard to do, particularly if our enemies are very cruel. I am not sure, though, if Christianity is a failure. In order to know that for certain, we would need a “control” group of a world not exposed to Christianity. It seems that would have been a sad world indeed.