The other day I stumbled upon a conversation where people were critiquing a well-known spiritual writer. The basic point being made was about his linking of spiritual practice with social justice. The problem that these people saw was that this writer tries to substitute contemplative practice for activism. I myself don't read this person's work in this way, but that's not the point.
The point I want to raise, rather, is that underlying several comments in this discussion was something I’ve found common to certain progressive Christian spaces, which is that prayer has its place, as does social justice, but mixing the two will somehow dilute or neglect the latter.
For believers, this attitude results in a pursuit of causes (which, let’s be clear, are important, needed, critical, and urgent regardless of faith or non-faith) where those who profess that their faith is what drives them to participate are unable to articulate how or why.
A favorite analogy of mine is that of shooting an arrow and then painting a bullseye around it. We know where we want to end up as Christians involved with important issues, but we don’t know how it is that our spirituality as an influence gets us there. And it is often implied, if not outright stated, that we can worry about the theological stuff later; that we can engage in the work of prayerful discernment later.
As a result, the void where that articulation goes is filled with DNC taking points, or angry hyperbole, or defining ourselves solely by what we are against. The ability to describe how our interior life or the communal interpretation of a faith community has led us here goes unaddressed.
In Prayer in Motion, I tell the story of taking a group of confirmands to a food pantry to pack boxes to be delivered to families before Thanksgiving. Before we actually begin our work, however, we paused to partake in the sacrament of communion to remind ourselves of why we'd gathered that night. The God who feeds us also calls us to feed others.
We could have packed those boxes without such a reminder, but it was important for the organizers to first ground us in a faith practice that tells the story of where our ministry of service begins.
Again, the pursuit of social justice is important regardless of faith persuasion, and there are many examples of people reaching across such lines to accomplish such things. But if progressive Christians choose to cite their faith as a cause for activism, then it becomes important to do the work that allows them to say how.
How has your prayer life led you to pursue justice, to feed the hungry, to advocate for the excluded? How does Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection inspire you? How could a regular spiritual practice or act of worship or time of study deepen your pursuit of this work?
One more time: the work of activism and justice and service is important regardless.
And for progressive Christians, our grounding and our source for that work--as well as renewal and hope--is Jesus, the church, the Holy Spirit, scripture, and the observation of prayer in one form or another.
Spiritual practice and social justice are meant to be partners, not adversaries. The former informs and grounds the latter. The latter feeds back into the former. And both contribute to a holistic faith life.