The Pathology of Liberal* Spirituality

The Pathology of Liberal* Spirituality

One pathology of political liberalism is to equate calmness with maturity and anger with immaturity. Many who have been enculturated as middle class liberals (particularly the white ones) may shed tears for injustice, but don’t get too riled up about injustice. And so, when they come into contact with an angry poor person, or angry person of color, it is easy for them to think: “Well, I certainly care about injustice, but I don’t get worked up about it…these folks are behaving like children!”

This tendency gets spiritualized as such folks go to nice liberal churches where the homilist never raises their voice as they calmly read their written reflections. And when they prioritize silent spiritual practices and read (or perhaps misread) authors like Richard Rohr or other writers that encourage a sort of anti-dualism. They conclude that calling anything “evil” is just some sort of immature form of spirituality.

At a certain point, out of a paternal or maternal compassion, they go forth to help the angry oppressed mature spiritually, as they did. They quote MLK and Gandhi and Jesus (or at least the nicer bits) to remind everyone of the better angels in our nature. They lift up nonviolence as a virtue whenever voices cry too loudly for justice.

Deep down inside, they know that if we can come together in civility and vulnerability, we can figure this out. But first these angry folks have to let go in the spirit of reconciliation.

This reminds me of an old tweet from Zellie Imani reminding us that calls for nonviolence from the privileged to the oppressed are fraught:

Context matters. Pacifism and nonviolence ONLY make sense when they are developed among folks who would otherwise see violence as the reasonable course of action. A prescriptive nonviolence that comes from comfortable oppressors is worse than worthless. It usually reinforces the status quo.

A spirituality centered on silence and detachment can be powerful. But, again, these practices only really make sense within the context of solidarity. When we are pathologically disengaged or prone to political apathy, contemplative practice becomes problematic. If we habitually avoid the oppressed and become, therefore, inattentive to those who suffer, our practices will become a spritualized buffer.

Please understand. I’m not rejecting nonviolence and contemplation. I am a mystic, a contemplative, and a pacifist. In my life and work, I advocate a contemplative posture in the quest for spiritual and political liberation.

Nevertheless, many of us learn contemplation and nonviolence in a way that wittingly enshrines a sort of disengaged white middle class consciousness.

Unfortunately, so many advocates of contemplation and nonviolence fail to recognize this problem. Instead, they seem to operate from the assumption that, merely by doing contemplation, people will simply wake from their slumber to the pulsating world of reality and become aware of the nature of oppression.

But this is impossible without real compassionate solidarity with those who suffer. The key words here are “compassionate” which (at root) means to “suffer with” and “solidarity” which basically means “to be bound together.”

Without suffering with the oppressed, and being bound together in the struggle for liberation, contemplative spirituality and nonviolent politics are dead.


*”Liberal” is a contested term. For more of what I have in mind, read my recent post Liberal/Leftist/Progressive/Radical: What do they mean?

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5 thoughts on “The Pathology of Liberal* Spirituality

  1. As a Contemplative and Mystic myself (words used by my spiritual directors through the years to describe me) I was confused by your beginning statements. Had you affirmed your call to mysticism at the beginning of the article instead of revealing that bit about yourself at the end, I may have read the piece with more vigor. My first impression as I read it had me thinking; “Where did this guy learn anything from? Even Thomas Merton wrote about the importance of action with contemplation.” In defense of the Liberal Congregations and Churches you write about who methodically read pleasant sounding reflections, outside of the service is where they become the hands and feet of Christ. I am a Deacon in Jesus’s Church and can support the claim of what the ‘true’ mystic and contemplative does in their time outside of the walls of the building. You can rest assured they are doing what they are called to do.

  2. What is a “true” mystic? I’m steeped in the literature of contemplation. And while many contemplatives make the connection to action, too often it fails to be a well articulated connection. Of the dozens of contemplative organizations I’ve visited, only one has been explicit about the role of political action. The rest simply assume that you’ll figure out how to do action on your own.

    I know that liberal churches aren’t monolithic. Nevertheless, I’ve visited hundreds of churches, pastored for over 15 years, and been involved in activism for much of that time. There is a common breakdown between contemplation and action, particularly among white middle class Christians.

  3. I really appreciated this challenge, as a white middle class lefty Christian (UK labels!). It reminds me of some teaching I heard years ago from Noel Moules, who set up Anvil Trust which I’m involved with. He quoted Gandhi as saying that anyone who doesn’t feel they could kill another human being has no place in the peace movement – I.e. we have to experience/ feel anger and the potential to violence in order to be truly non-violent. If we don’t get that we’re probably in a position of privilege and need to move into a place of humble solidarity.

  4. Thank you for this thought provoking piece. The big obstacle for me in accepting anger as maturity is the scarcity of NT examples. There are plenty of places where where people use strong rhetoric against opponents, but few where they are fueled by rage. In contrast, James warns against the dangers of the tongue. Galatians 5 includes rage in the acts of the flesh. The sermon on the mount & Romans 12 would seem to lead one to calm responses to injustice. Not passive, but calm.

  5. I don’t think the goal is to fetishize anger or assume that anger is always mature. But to stifle the anger of the oppressed is extremely problematic. It is clear that Jesus got angry at least once or twice.

    We need to look underneath the anger and find out why it is there. And then find the best way to process the anger. Some approaches to nonviolence and contemplation, if embraced by white middle class people, will lead to a repression of inner struggle and a suppression of the struggle of others.

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