By Charles Redfern
Perhaps all Christians need a local-yokel Nobel-prize winning Theravada Buddhist to chase them back to their Jesus freak roots – especially when she’s neither yokel nor local. Take me. I’ve been reading and re-reading a paragraph from Aung San Suu Kyi’s Freedom From Fear: “A revolution which aims merely at changing official policies and institutions with a view to an improvement in material conditions has little chance of genuine success. Without a revolution of the spirit, the forces which produced the iniquities of the old order would continue to be operative, posing a constant threat to the process of reform and regeneration.”
Snap! A psychological-spiritual window shade flies up and rap-rap-rap-rap-raps. Light floods the room. We see the truth of our intuitions: Our supposedly sophisticated political discussion barely scratches the surface. We’re hollering about the ice berg’s tip, the ocean’s surface, the thin crust on the lava sea. I see the reason for my own frustration: I’ve been a reluctant political commentator, chased into the fray because a shrill fringe has led many in my branch of Christianity astray. I must engage. But politics can coo words like “relevant” and “practical” and seduce us from the truly significant: “Luxuriate in oblique spiritual banter later; be realistic now.” The “realistic now” never ends and the time for “luxury” never arrives – and a sneaking suspicion loiters: Political reform without spiritual renewal is like taking aspirin for cancer. The pain relief doesn’t cure the metastasizing disease.
America’s incivility betrays a deep spiritual malady, with no faction immune. I saw symptoms galore when I visited several churches a year ago: Political views not anchored in the Bible were lifted as “prophetic words.” There was slander and subtle racism (would anyone level unfounded accusations of Muslim terrorism at a white president?). Snip-snip. Much of the Bible lay on the cutting room floor. I was repulsed. I found myself wandering among so-called “progressive Christians.” It was refreshing at first, but soon those tell-tale symptoms paraded in a different guise: all pro-lifers hate women; advocates of traditional sexual morality are bigoted and homophobic (my homosexual friends, thank God, understand the difference between disagreement and disrespect); and any talk of Heaven or the “afterlife” meets a blank stare. We don’t discuss that. We’re “relevant” now.
Snip-snip. Much of the Bible lay on the cutting room floor.
Do the math. Our earthly life spans some 75 years, and then … the decades … the centuries … the millennia … Shock of shocks and surprise-surprise: Eternity is important, especially since no late night commercial blares “great news” of an infinity pill chasing away that pesky grave.
The “irrelevant” is relevant after all.
The heart of the matter
Spirituality addresses our nature and the forces shaping the political context. Ignoring it in the name of practicality is like neglecting our heart because we can’t feel its pump. The New Testament underscores the practical significance of spirituality when it describes how the Kingdom of Heaven breaks into the present. We, as Christ’s ambassadors, supposedly live the life and talk the talk of Heaven right now. We’re meant to be backward time travelers, tokens of Christ’s future reign. Our temporal relevance depends on us marinating in eternity, which means C.S. Lewis articulated profound common sense in Mere Christianity: “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”
It’s obvious: A heavenly lifestyle transcends political labeling. To sample one clash of world views: almost all current political parties – from the capitalist to the communist – view the individual as an economic unit and a means to an end. We serve the economy. Individuals are expendable. The operative phrases involve power, control, influence, wealth, and self-interest. Leadership almost inevitably entails some form of domination. Heaven’s prism views the human being as God’s image. The economy serves humanity. The operative phrases entail love, service, and the sanctity of life. Jesus, the ultimate Christian leader, washed the feet of his disciples (John 13:1-17) and said: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 21:25-28).
The solution to our “practical” dilemmas lies in the supposedly “impractical.”
The contemplative activist
My thoughts return to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese activist par excellence. She meditated for hours a day during her years of house arrest. The image of her sitting silently, surrounded by guards and barbed wire and hemmed by Hellish dictators, speaks volumes to the followers of Christ: Every Christian activist must be a contemplative and every contemplative must pray with an activist’s heart (contemplative prayer is a discipline whereby individuals lose themselves in God). Activists who forget contemplation are orphaned; they’re uprooted trees whose green leaves belie their demise. Contemplatives craving life-long retreat forget the Kingdom’s nature: Jesus plunges into the world. Heaven advances, refusing to be ignored: the poor will hear the good news; the captives will be released, the blind will see; the oppressed will be set free; and the peacemakers will be blessed (see Luke 4:18 and Matthew 5:1-11). Lifelong escape from the world paddles against the heavenly tide. Thomas Merton said it well: “Contemplation in the age of Auschwitz and Dachau, Solovky and Karaganda is something darker and more fearsome than contemplation in the age of the Church Fathers. For that very reason, the urge to seek a path of spiritual light can be a subtle temptation to sin. It certainly is sin if it means frank rejection of the burden of our age, an escape into unreality and spiritual illusion, so as not to share the misery of other men.”
I’m not a Theravada Buddhist. Its narrative speaks of a quest for enlightenment and self-awareness; the Bible speaks of God’s in-breaking Kingdom. But I can savor insights whatever their source and accept their challenge: Last year’s blogs were mostly surface probes of issues and symptoms – and symptoms must be explored to discover the underlying disease. I can’t avoid them. But I hereby resolve to dig deeper in 2011 even as I promise to continue to explore social ethics and public theology. I’ll look below the iceberg tips and earthen crusts, always seeking that revolution of the spirit from which real change flows. I’m weary of that old order skulking in back alleys and shadows, ready to mug us.
And I’ll be thankful for the local-yokel Nobel Peace Prize laureate who chased me back to my Jesus freak roots – especially since she’s neither yokel nor yokel.