Spirituality Goes Hand in Hand With Social Change.
A look at Moses, Jesus, and Buddha as social activists. +Socially conscious pagan traditions.
If we are looking for a silver lining in the world’s current political climate, it’s an increased call for social awareness and action.
People are organizing like never before and we are looking for answers to make powerful, effective change. Change in our society, change in ourselves, change in the world.
The times are certainly desperate, with military and political agitation rising across the world and an environmental crisis like nothing humanity has ever faced.
On top of this, the world’s institutions have proved themselves to be ill-equipped to respond to the knowledge and insight of our brightest scientific minds and thus ill-equipped to handle these crisis.
Beneath this tension of where the world needs to go and where it is is another crisis of meaning.
The concepts that our parents and the generations before put their trust in, the government, elected officials, the optimism of “science,” the “purity” of organized religion, the glamor of Hollywood, the promise of white picket fences are now crumbling beneath reality.
People are searching for a new sense of meaning which has led to a scattering of subcultures and a collective wrestling with nihilism.
Many still find their meaning in spiritual traditions or a spiritual pursuit but amongst all the sects, self-help books, and workshops there is often a lack of focus on our responsibility to create social change.
Spirituality, social change, and responsibility.
Spirituality goes hand in hand with social activism; from Moses to Buddha, Jesus, MLK and the roots of the New Age, spiritual enlightenment has always led to an examination of social norms and the need for greater equality and change.
The problem is that many of our reactions to the spiritual traditions of the past have to led to a reaction against “shoulds” or a sense of responsibility.
Shadow work is never fun and examining our blind spots can be vexing but at the end of the day if we are making the most of our spiritual practice we have to look at what gets in its way.
A study of the world’s most famous spiritual teachers illustrates that to be self-realized, enlightened or awakened is to step into a new mantle of social responsibility.
As Buddha teaches, all things are co-arising, interconnected, and that places the responsibility of self-realization into every facet of our lives from our personal exploration to community involvement, society, and politics.
The problem with the anti-should philosophy.
Upon receiving enlightenment, the story goes that Buddha was approached by the gods and asked to teach his message to mankind.
Fully understanding mankind, Buddha despaired of us ever learning and changing and tried to turn down the gods.
They had to beg him to start the wheel of dharma and begin the process of man’s enlightenment.
It’s not popular in today’s society to talk about responsibility when it comes to spirituality. Many of us have left or stayed clear of religious institutions that have overly enforced spiritual rules.
Often we found the values of these institutions and their list of shoulds to be repressive to ourselves and others.
I understand this. I tried to drive my car off the cliff when younger because of conflicts between who I am and what my Church said I should be.
If we look at history’s most recognized spiritual teachers every one of them struggled against the society’s concept of “what we should be.”
From Buddha’s renunciation of caste and atman to Christ’s challenging of the Sadducees and Pharisees while drinking with tax collectors and prostitutes.
The social responsibility of spirituality isn’t to the traditions that came before, it is to doing what is right in the world today.
For a lot of people, the idea of social responsibility isn’t news. (Feel free to read along for the head nods though.)
Social change, service, and activism are mainstays in many religions, traditions, and of course secular individuals and groups.
There are church funded shelters, spiritually driven recovery groups, meals served daily at Sikh and Hindu temples across the world and civil rights movements forged by Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Buddhists.
Each of these religions are following the lead of their founders, spiritual leaders who, through the ages, have increased social awareness and called for greater levels of equality and morality.
What is new(ish), are the people caught between. People like me, who practice a nontraditional form of spirituality and are piecing together what that looks like.
In today’s world, there are millions in this space between organized religion and athiesm. For some of us the call to social service and action may have fallen off somewhere in the attempt to escape institutions, oppression, thou shalts, shoulds, and dont’s.
That is why writing this is making me uncomfortable. I’ve been trained in the alternative spiritual practices to stay away from “should” statements.
“Should” has become a dirty word.
Instead, we’re taught that it doesn’t matter what people believe as long as they’re not hurting anyone. That everyone is on their own path and they make their own choices. There should be no shoulds.
And yet, there’s still a fiery prophet somewhere inside, rising up from my Christian background, shouting that we need to change. We need to wake up; we need to be a light unto the world.
I can’t say this archetypal prophet is wrong. More so than ever we need to be changing the course that humanity is taking. That includes our own personal lives and those of our communities, organizations, and nations.
In ages past, change came with the threats of a wrathful god but today there are measurable consequences for our individual and societal behavior from the quality of our health to environmental disaster.
The ancient traditions and right living.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead has many prayers to the gods and descriptions of the afterlife. In these works, it is said that Ma’at, the weigher of souls, seeks righteous people, people who give to the poor, who feed the hungry and help the needy.
The idea of Ma’at, however, was much more than a god of judgment. She was the very being of Truth and as such the Order that sustained the universe. Without Ma’at and without keeping with her principals it was believed that the world would descend into chaos and self-destruction.
It was the work of an Egyptian to appease the gods by caring for their fellow humans. Not simply so as to receive a better afterlife but out of devotion to the principle of Truth and Harmony, the very foundation of existence.
“I have given bread to the hungry and clothed the naked and I was a husband to the widow and father to the orphan.” (1)
This goes beyond an obsession with the afterlife and recognizes a responsibility to be ethical here and now.
Similar concepts interweave in Hinduism, Daoism and the traditions of the Greek and Roman.
In Hinduism, the universal concept is expressed through Rta, universal order, and it is maintained by Dharma.
In Daoism, it is the following of the Dao that maintains universal harmony and balance. The Romans had their virtues and the Greeks had Themis.
While these societies exhibited levels of oppression we wouldn’t want to see today, there were also generous cultural norms that far exceed our experiences of our neighbors in the modern world.
Nearly every tradition made it clear that you don’t harm people who come to you while traveling or in need, instead, you give them what you can. This is also fundamental to Islam and early Judaism and Christianity.
Back in Portland, Oregon, I can probably get away with knocking on someone’s door and asking for water but unless I signed up on Couchsurfing.com and arranged a stay with someone I couldn’t just knock on a door and expect food and shelter.
Worse, in many places in the United States, I’d risk getting shot or at the very least screamed at.
In today’s world, refugees are being turned away, sent back to their war-torn lands while in a more violent time, people practicing older traditions would take strangers into their homes, feed them, and give them shelter.
It was the strength and power of the ancient traditions that allowed them to put down their swords and set aside their differences and fears in order to embrace a stranger and give to them the aid they need.
It wasn’t always rational, it didn’t always make sense, but it was the right thing to do. This is what a good tradition does, shows us the right way to conduct ourselves in our lives, in our heads, and in the world.
Like every civilization, Egypt had plenty of room for improvement, which is where Moses comes in.
The story goes he, or God, got tired of the slavery practices in Egypt and led the Hebrew to freedom. (Destroying the Egyptian empire while he was at it.)
We know Moses most for the books of the Torah, a collection likely composed of two written traditions and several authors.
The guy had a difficult job, mediating between an impulsive god and a traumatized human populace.
I don’t have the time or the calling to go over how Moses and the Israelites established their kingdom, nor to really dive into the war and genocide it was founded on.
It is important to keep these things in mind and not simply sweep them under the rug.
War is common in religious traditions. It writhes and twists around most spiritual traditions from the Crusades to Shinto Samurais, Daoist Emperors, and the Christian colonists of the world.
We need to be able to see the shadow side as well as the good in our traditions.
What this article is about is looking at the shadow side of our personal traditions and how it may get in the way of a greater service to the world.
What Moses created alongside the war and genocide was a new system of laws. A new social order.
An order that routinely freed slaves, forgave debts, redistributed land and wealth, protected the rights of foreigners and created a legally binding covenant for the care of widows and orphans, an environmentally mindful tending of the lands, and even protection for accused murderers.
While pantheists, polytheists, and henotheists may not be the biggest fan of the monotheism that started to develop in Judaism, it did go hand in hand with a social transformation.
Most of the world’s spiritual traditions had been immersed in their ethnic culture and in a set geographic location. The tallest local mountain was the home of the gods, the rivers were mythical locations, wells, caves or lakes were entrances into the Otherworld.
The religions were geo- and ethnic-centric. Most of the time the languages in these cultures recognized the person of the culture as human and civilized and all others as “Other,” barbarians or something lesser, maybe even monstrous.
Moses’s search for a promised land created a society that went beyond that geographic centrism, allowing the spiritual tradition to be practiced anywhere. Further, the idea of an all-powerful God of gods allowed for a society that engaged with others as equal creations.
Israel definitely played themselves up as the chosen tribe of God but their ontological category was the same as anyone else’s. They were human and they were creations. Maybe Abraham was God’s buddy but he was the same sort of creature as Lot, Adam, Eve, or Sarah.
This wasn’t the case for most other traditions. Often the followers of the local faith traced mythical lineages back to the gods themselves and had harsher backstories for other races and people.
This is the root of many of the Greek heroes. Today we look back and think the gods were simply promiscuous but at the time the stories were a way to claim a divine lineage and theologically differentiate a city state not only from its Greek neighbors but the “barbarians” beyond.
Moses raised the category of persons everywhere to the same kind of human with the same beginning, Adam and Eve.
He then built a society that represented this to the best of his human vision while creating a divine covenant not only between the people and God but a social contract between the people.
It was for this “ideal” society that Moses instigated a rebellion, led the Hebrew people through a desert, trained and educated them for forty years, and passed on his dream to his disciples before he died.
He lived for a vision he would never see fulfilled and yet it was the basis for a covenant, legally concerned with the care of others, and the environment.
In a similar vein, the work of Buddha cast off the repression of the caste systems in India. The belief of non-Atman, often translated as “non-self,” is most often seen in its modern light as the denial of personal ego.
In the time of Buddha, it was revolutionary.
Buddha was part of a succession of spiritual leaders who revolted from the strict caste systems of India.
We’re all familiar with yoga but we might not be familiar with its revolutionary roots. The practice stems from the Upanishads and an attempt by persons outside of the Brahmanic path to discover their own systems of worship and means to Moksha.
Tired of the caste system and the exclusivity of the Brahmanic class in terms of spiritual knowledge, power, and salvationary authority, systems such as yoga, guru traditions, and the Upanishads opened the door for people in all castes to begin their own spiritual exploration.
This didn’t come easy. Often, practitioners had to leave society behind and practice in the jungles or mountains because of persecution.
People were attacked and abused and many of the stories of these early gurus or other spiritual leaders such as Buddha or the Jain’s Mahavira contain tales of their persecution.
While Buddha took root in these earlier spiritual revolutions, his statement of non-Atman went further than anything before him.
It undermined the entirety of Indian society with just a word: Anatta, non-self. Indian society was based on one’s caste system and that caste system was based on the belief that one is born into the castes appropriate for their karma.
The belief led back to the Atman, something often compared to the western belief of a soul.
India’s greatest spiritual minds have debated for centuries what exactly Atman means. I’m not going to try and define it here.
What is important for our discussion is the fact that the Atman was believed to collect karma and this karma resulted in a person’s life position or caste.
By declaring Anatta, non-Atman, Buddha declared non-caste and non-exclusion and promoted a new state of equality unknown to India at the time.
To don the saffron robes of the Buddhists meant leaving behind your position in a hierarchical society. This often meant your friends, your family, even your work and trade. All of this was exchanged for a new sangha, a family in exile, a family of equality.
Much like the Buddha, Yeshua (Jesus) asked us to focus on our relation to God as our Father rather than our nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, wealth or education.
Living in a complex political society in the throes of revolution, Yeshua stood up against conservative religious figures at a time when they were trying to enforce their own social and spiritual conservatism on a population politically dominated by Rome and culturally torn between the polarized worlds of Zionism and Hellenization.
For all of his parables Yeshua kept his message simple: take care of the poor, the widows, the orphans, the disabled and needy, do not judge your neighbors, go forth peacefully, and don’t bother getting rich or powerful, it does you no good.
He taught ethics that opposed the Hellenic notions of hedonism, asking us to be watchful not only of our actions but our minds and intentions.
He consistently challenged the notion of worldly power, which was the drive of the Roman conqueror, and he stood against the religious conservatives who oppressed their own people.
In fact, his harshest words and statements were consistently saved for these socially repressive factions, as well as the rich and powerful who took advantage of others.
He spent his time with the social outcasts, much like the Buddha, who spent his time with his disciples, people who exiled themselves as outcasts simply by joining his movement.
Both took on the causes of the poor, the expression of a higher consciousness that tends to the suffering and nurturing of people rather than the acquisition of wealth and power and both made room for women and cultural outsiders in their movements.
Buddha and Yeshua taught a middle way between hedonism, conservatism, and power, teaching a human-centered doctrine with practical ethics, a strong focus on mindfulness and human compassion.
Both teachers took their messages to their graves after teaching for as long as they could, in the case of Yeshua the message he gave of spiritual and social transformation ended in his execution due to its perceived threat to the established society.
It was his life and work that would inspire future leaders such as Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and a host of other social activists who changed the world around them.
Spirituality demands that we reexamine our society.
Every time a message of enlightenment is delivered, the kind that has been shown through the ages to ring with enough truth to survive, it causes a new state of social awareness and activism.
This is what we must channel in our everyday lives as we work to change the world.
And it is, for this reason, we must examine the underpinnings of our own minds, much as Moses, Buddha, and Yeshua did, finding the beliefs that get in our way from doing the most we can.
What do you think?
Are there beliefs you have that may be holding you back from participating in creating healthy social change?
What are they? Do they align with the larger beliefs you have of the world? Do they align with the spiritual teachers you admire?
P.S. Can we just take a moment to check out that painting above? I did a google search for “Jesus feeding the multitude” and I don’t know if it’s a real lack of historic paintings or a lack of google images but I didn’t get many options.
The above painting is pretty ridiculous due to the absurd notion Jesus was feeding people dressed in riches. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions of what this painting and a google search say about our religious traditions.
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- James P. Allen (2000). Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. p. 116.