Engaged Spirituality

As spiritual people, are we obliged to protest against injustice? CJ Stone examines the case for the spiritual sphere making a political stand. From Kindred Spirit magazine.

The voice of honest indignation is the voice of God."

— William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1793.
Russell Brand in the New Statesman
Russell Brand in the New Statesman

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Russell Brand’s interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight was one of the most watched YouTube clips in the UK last year.

It’s not surprising. Brand is always entertaining, and to see him go head to head with one of the UK’s heavyweight political pundits had something of the air of an intellectual sparring match about it.

Indeed it was billed that way. The BBC’s own YouTube channel calls the interview “Paxman vs. Brand”.

So it was the old guard vs. the new, political commentary vs. anarchic comedy, seriousness vs. facetiousness, democracy vs. revolution, politics vs. spirituality.

I’ve heard a number of opinions about the interview. People are polarised about it. A lot of people don’t like Brand. They think of him as a foppish, over-sexed attention-seeker, only really interested in what goes on in his underpants and his wallet. Why did he do the interview, they ask? Because it was good for his bank-balance..

On the other hand, no one can deny that he raised a lot of issues, and that the kind of views he was airing went global as a consequence.

Brand is a significant figure. He has a major public profile. He could use it to support all sorts of things, instead of which he is talking about the underclass, about the environment, about exploitation and world poverty, while name-checking the Occupy movement along the way.

What makes Brand fairly unique, at least in the mainstream media, is that he attaches the idea of spirituality to these issues. As he says in the New Statesman, in the article which was the stimulus to him being invited onto Newsnight:

  • For me the solution has to be primarily spiritual and secondarily political. This, too, is difficult terrain when the natural tribal leaders of the left are atheists, when Marxism is inveterately Godless… By spiritual I mean the acknowledgement that our connection to one another and the planet must be prioritised.

As the article goes on he refers to paganism, Yogananda, Celtic spirituality and the Nordic tradition, while talking about consciousness. And he has this to say about socialism:

  • Socialism’s historical connection with spiritual principles is deep. Sharing is a spiritual principle, respecting our land is a spiritual principle. May the First, May Day, is a pagan holiday where we acknowledge our essential relationship with our land.

These are not the kind of thoughts you would normally expect to hear aired in that venerable old magazine of the left, the New Statesman.

The issue of Kindred Spirit magazine from which this story was taken
The issue of Kindred Spirit magazine from which this story was taken

Talking about revolution

Equally you would not expect to read words such as “the underclass”, “exploitation”, “Marxism”, or “socialism” in a magazine like Kindred Spirit. “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”, as Rudyard Kipling put it.

What has politics got to do with paganism? What has spirituality got to do with the world economy?

Well everything. At least according to this old political pagan it has. Doesn’t spirituality imply egalitarianism? What’s the point of meditation if it doesn’t inform you in your relationship with the rest of the planet? And while I am, and remain, a committed trade unionist, fighting for economic justice in the workplace, does that mean that I can’t be seen at Stonehenge at the summer solstice doing sunrise rituals with the Druids?

Of course not.

Heraclitus tells us that All Things Are One. For me all of these elements are part of the same reality, as indistinguishable from each other as individual drops are from the ocean as a whole. To be caught up in the “fierce urgency of now”, as Martin Luther King put it in his most famous speech, is to be engaged in the process of change, both inner and outer. We change the inner world while engaging with the outer world. We engage with the outer world while bringing our inner perspectives to bear. We allow our spirituality to inform our politics and our politics to influence our spirituality and we learn from both at the same time.

The New Statesman July 1994
The New Statesman July 1994

As it happens, Russell Brand and I have a few things in common. We have both written for the New Statesman: me in July 1994 when I wrote the cover piece for the magazine, called “Party Politics: let’s have a revolution for fun.” I too raised the idea of an Engaged Spirituality, of a spiritual revolution. This was in the heyday of the Criminal Justice Act protests which were taking place throughout the UK that year, and which culminated in riots outside Hyde Park. We were also both at the March for Social Justice in support of the Liverpool Dockers in April 1997, in which Reclaim the Streets managed to force a massive sound system into Trafalgar Square, and ravers danced to the sound of heavy techno beats on the steps of the National Gallery, before the riot police turned up and bashed a few heads in to spoil everyone’s fun.

You see, these things aren’t new. Reclaim the Streets were part of a whole movement which stirred road-protests, alternative living, trespass, rave, psychedelic experimentation, environmentalism, spirituality, anti-capitalism, anarchism, art, paganism and socialism into one crazy wedding cake mix in the 90s and which culminated in the closure of the World Trade Organisation ministerial conference in Seattle in November 1999. This was a world-wide movement and Russell Brand, Occupy and Anonymous are its heirs.

But it didn’t start there either. Reclaim the Streets used to publicly acknowledge their debt to the Situationists who had played such an important role in the creative unrest in Paris in May 1968. The Situationists, in their turn, gave a nod to what was happening across the Atlantic, where anti-Vietnam war sentiment had combined with psychedelic drugs and encounter groups to create a brand new political and spiritual movement, the hippies. Alan Ginsburg took part in anti-Vietnam war protests while chanting “Om”, Timothy Leary talked of turning on, tuning in and dropping out, and Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters travelled across the United States in a day-glo bus called “Furthur” preaching chaos to the masses, taking LSD and doing the I-Ching along the way.

In Britain we had psychedelic rock and all night parties at the Roundhouse, squatting in Camden town, free concerts in Hyde park, Oz magazine, Phun city and the Windsor and Stonehenge free festivals.

All over the world things were stirring, just as they are now.

The World Turned Upside Down

In 1649
To St. George’s Hill,
A ragged band they called the Diggers
Came to show the people’s will
They defied the landlords
They defied the laws
They were the dispossessed reclaiming what was theirs

We come in peace they said
To dig and sow
We come to work the lands in common
And to make the waste ground grow
This earth divided
We will make whole
So it will be
A common treasury for all

The sin of property
We do disdain
No man has any right to buy and sell
The earth for private gain
By theft and murder
They took the land
Now everywhere the walls
Spring up at their command

They make the laws
To chain us well
The clergy dazzle us with heaven
Or they damn us into hell
We will not worship
The God they serve
The God of greed who feed the rich
While poor folk starve

We work we eat together
We need no swords
We will not bow to the masters
Or pay rent to the lords
Still we are free
Though we are poor
You Diggers all stand up for glory
Stand up now

From the men of property
The orders came
They sent the hired men and troopers
To wipe out the Diggers’ claim
Tear down their cottages
Destroy their corn
They were dispersed
But still the vision lingers on

You poor take courage
You rich take care
This earth was made a common treasury
For everyone to share
All things in common
All people one
We come in peace
The orders came to cut them down

The spirituality of politics

The hippies were spiritual and political at the same time. They were practicing meditation, seeking enlightenment, protesting against war, consulting oracles, writing slogans, dodging the draft, squatting empty properties, organising free festivals, travelling to India and smoking chillums like Indian Sadhus. Like Russell Brand, they understood the resonance between the politics of spirituality and the spirituality of politics. How can we focus exclusively on our personal salvation when our friends are being blown to bits in Vietnam? And by what right can we claim to be changing the world if we aren’t also willing to make changes within ourselves?

They were also deeply aware of their historical roots. One of the groups operating in San Francisco during the hey-day of the hippie era were called the Diggers. They took their name from the group of the same name who had operated in England during the period after the end of the Civil War. The original Diggers (also known as True Levellers) were agrarian communists who took over common land on St George’s Hill in Surrey in 1649, and attempted to farm it, sharing the produce between them. They also created Digger colonies in other parts of the country. They were evicted using physical violence. Their leading figure was a man by the name of Gerard Winstanley.

Winstanley’s legacy echoes to this day. There can’t be many people who haven’t heard the famous song about the Diggers (see right) written by Leon Rosselson in 1975 and taken into the charts by Billy Bragg during the Miner’s strike in 1984. The Diggers also played a part in the anti-capitalist movement of the 1990s, when a group calling themselves The Land Is Ours – which included the Guardian columnist George Monbiot – attempted to reoccupy St George’s Hill on the 350th anniversary of the original occupation. Later, one of the prominent banners of the Guerrilla Gardening protest in Parliament Square on May Day 2000 (when the statue of Winston Churchill was famously given a turf Mohican) had these words blazoned across it in multicoloured letters: “The Earth Is A Common Treasury For All”. The quote is from Winstanley, from The True Levellers Standard Advanced (1649):

  • The Work we are going about is this, To dig up Georges-Hill and the waste Ground thereabouts, and to Sow Corn, and to eat our bread together by the sweat of our brows. And the First Reason is this, That we may work in righteousness, and lay the Foundation of making the Earth a Common Treasury for All, both Rich and Poor, That every one that is born in the land, may be fed by the Earth his Mother that brought him forth, according to the Reason that rules in the Creation.

Winstanley represents a specific strand in the tradition of nonconformist Christianity which goes back to the protestant movement of the late Middle Ages. The word “protestant” means “protester”. The protestants were radical dissenters against the authority of the Catholic Church. Their first proponent was the German religious reformer Martin Luther, after whom Martin Luther King was named. Later the movement turned to full-scale revolution as the whole of Europe was torn apart, as more and more people threw off the yoke of a centralised Christianity and searched within themselves for a simpler and more authentic form of the religion. This was helped by the fact that the Bible had been translated from Latin into various native tongues, and had been widely promulgated by the invention of the printing press.

Quakerism

The English translation of the Bible (the King James version) had been published within Winstanley’s lifetime and it was from a passage in the Acts of the Apostles - chapter two, verses 44 and 45 – that he took his message:

  • All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

It is out of this tradition that many nonconformist religious and political movements arose: from the Levellers and the True Levellers of the English Civil War, to the Quakers, to the Jacobins, to Tom Paine, to William Blake, and beyond: to the revolutionary ideas which came to the fore in the Trade Union and Co-operative movements of 19th century.

Winstanley was buried as a Quaker, and it is through Quakerism that we can trace the development of the movement to the present day. Their proper name is the Religious Society of Friends, or just Friends, as they call themselves. They reject the formalised priesthood of other religions, preferring a “priesthood of all believers”. This includes women, who were and are prominent amongst its members. They believe in a direct, unmediated relationship with the divine – which they refer to as the Inner Light - and Quaker worship is often characterised by periods of silence broken by the inspired utterances of individual members of the congregation.

Quakers have always been at the forefront of this religious/political crossover. In the 17th century they addressed everyone, including those who considered themselves socially superior, with the familiar pronoun “thou”. This was considered a revolutionary act as it was customary to address people of a higher status with the formal, and more respectful, “you”. As someone said:

  • Unless they were suppressed, such as now introduce ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ will (if they can) expel ‘mine’ and ‘thine’, dissolving all property into confusion.

It may be that it is the revolutionary implications of the Quakers’ use of the word “thou” which has impelled modern English speakers to drop it altogether and to adopt the formal pronoun in its place. In the 17th century the use of the word “thou” in certain circumstances was tantamount to calling for the overthrow of society.

Quakers also refused to doff their caps or bow to their superiors, seeing everyone as equal before God.

Quakers have been conscientious objectors, opposed to all forms of violence and refusing to serve in the armed forces. It was through correspondence with American Quakers that Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist, came to adopt his ideas about passive resistance, which directly influenced Gandhi. Gandhi, in his turn, influenced Martin Luther King and the generations that have followed.

Quakers took part in the Aldermaston marches of the early 60s. They got arrested in protests against the Vietnam War. It was the Birmingham Quaker, Paul Milling, who, along with Dr Margaret Jones of Bristol, spent the evening of the 13th March 2003 inside RAF Fairford air force base disabling support vehicles for the B52 bombers about to engage in Operation Shock and Awe, the bombing of Iraq.

Wherever there are anti-war protests, peace camps or campaigns against the arms trade, you are bound to find Quakers in their midst.

In the 19th century it was Quakers who lead the movement for the abolition of slavery in the United States and who helped to organize the Underground Railroad, an informal network of abolitionists and former slaves who smuggled people out of captivity in the South to freedom in the North.

Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world."

— Harriet Tubman - Abolitionist
Harriet Tubman circa 1885
Harriet Tubman circa 1885

Harriet Tubman

One of these was Harriet Tubman, herself born a slave, who escaped to freedom in 1849. At one point her owner (how obscene that phrase sounds) had beaten her so severely with a heavy weight that it had cracked her skull. After this she would often go into seizures, during which she had powerful visionary and dream experiences which she ascribed to revelations from God. It was these experiences which informed her activities as an abolitionist. Not content with merely escaping to freedom, she made many forays back into the South to help others to escape. Had she been caught it would have meant, not just severe punishment, but a return to slavery too.

This is how she described the moment when she gained her freedom:

  • When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.

Perhaps it is at this point that we can see most clearly the continuous feedback loop between the inner and the outer worlds: between the world of politics and the world of the spirit. As Harriet Tubman stepped over the line from institutional slavery into political freedom, a spiritual line was crossed. Her soul became free. It was this inner freedom which allowed her to go on risking her personal safety in order to bring others to freedom. This also shows the imperative of true spirituality: the requirement to help others. This is the same imperative which lies at the heart of the social movements we have been discussing here.

Of course the Quakers weren’t the only people to have taken this step, from the inner light of divine inspiration to the outward struggle for social justice. Not every activist has been a Quaker, and not every Quaker has been an activist. The Quaker movement as a whole has had many incarnations down the years, sometimes more radical, sometimes more quietist, and there are many strands which lie outside the bounds, not only of Quakerism, or of Protestantism, but outside Christianity too.

Thich Nhat Hanh in Paris in 2006.
Thich Nhat Hanh in Paris in 2006.

Mahatma Gandhi is one obvious example. Another, lesser known, figure is the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, who was prominent in protests against the Vietnam War. It was Thich Nhat Hanh who influenced Martin Luther King to make his famous pronouncement against the war in April 1967. Thich Nhat Hanh called his practice “Engaged Buddhism”. And despite the fact that we can trace the origins of the movement in Europe to a rebellion against the authority of the Catholic Church, in the last decades of the last century prominent Catholics were central to massive political mobilisations throughout Latin America. That movement is known as Liberation Theology.

In fact the imperative to take part in protest is not confined to any particular religion or to any particular practice. Take the road protest movement of the 90s. That started when a bunch of young idealists, discontented with modern living, attempted to camp out on the land on Twyford Down near Winchester. In this they were following Winstanley, whether they knew it or not. But they soon found their rural idyll rudely interrupted when diggers of another sort roared into their space, with the construction of the M3 motorway extension, and they began throwing themselves in front of the machinery in order to protest against the development. This tactic became known as “digger-diving”. Were these people pagans to begin with? That’s hard to say. What is certain that many of them became pagans in the end, and that pagans joined them in their struggle, and that the whole road protest movement had a distinctly pagan air about it.

I remember one protest at Twyford Down in July 1994. By this time the road protesters had been joined by all sorts of folks protesting against the provisions of the Criminal Justice Bill, then going through parliament, which was attempting to outlaw a range of activities, from road protests, to raves, to hunt saboteurs, to squatting empty properties. Consequently there were a number of political and environmental groups present. There was one emotional speech, by Benny Rothman, veteran of the 1932 Kinder Scout mass trespass. Kinder Scout was an area of outstanding beauty, in the Peak District in Derbyshire, which had been appropriated by the Landed Gentry during the Enclosures. Working people had been trespassing on it since the 1890s, but it was the mass trespass of 1932 which forced the issue and focussed the Government's mind on the importance of the countryside for the well-being of the people.

Rothman was a Communist but it was another speech which showed the ecumenical nature of this movement. It was from a practising witch, and rather than making a speech, she cast a spell. She reminded us of the flocks of sheep which had grazed the land when it had been held in common, and which, she told us, had shaped the landscape over the centuries. And then she brought out balls of wool, which she threw into the crowd so that they unravelled on the way. She asked us to pass the threads between us, in order to bind ourselves into a unified force.

Some of the more traditional activists looked askance at such peculiar innovations in political speech making, but to me it all looked like good fun. I was also very impressed by some of the wilder women who had bared their breasts like warriors and daubed themselves with paint.

What a lot of this has in common is trespass as a means of protest. Trespass is not, and never has been, a criminal offence in British Law, an acknowledgement, perhaps, that ownership of land is subject to dispute. How did the aristocracy come to own the land in the first place? By invading it. By stealing it. By taking it by force, which is tantamount to rape.

Druids protest at Stonehenge
Druids protest at Stonehenge

Our rights

As pagans we understand the importance of the land for our spiritual well-being. Where else do we conduct our rituals, but under the sky, in the presence of the Earth? And if our right of access to the land is removed from us by legal trickery, or by outright violence, how can we reclaim our rights, but by non-violent direct action in the form of legitimate trespass, something that is allowed in English Law?

Squatting works on the same principle, as did the free festivals of the 70s, the raves of the 80s and the road-protests of the 90s. The Occupy movement continues the practice to this day.

What all of these groups have in common, from the first to the last, is love. Love is the fuel that fires the engine that leads to the protest that can change the world.

The point is that we have had a form of reality imposed on us. As Winstanley put it:

  • In the beginning of time God made the earth. Not one word was spoken at the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another, but selfish imaginations did set up one man to teach and rule over another.

As a consequence we have environmental destruction, we have poverty, we have hunger, we have homelessness, we have unemployment, we have war. We have one branch of the human family so obscenely wealthy that it couldn’t spend its money in a million lifetimes, while in some parts of the world children are brought up on rubbish dumps, having to scrabble in the slime and the filth for their food. We have unmanned drones hovering above tribal areas in Pakistan and Yemen murdering civilians in a war that was never declared. Our rain forests are being razed and tribes being evicted to grow genetically modified crops to supplement the petrochemical industry. Our democracies are being undermined and replaced with casino economies in the service of the super rich. Our every move is watched, our every thought is recorded, our very souls are compromised.

I know that a lot of people who read Kindred Spirit believe in the power of affirmation to bring positive results to their private worlds. So why not then, all of us, get together and make affirmations for justice for the world as a whole? We could all do it on the same street at the same time, while marching in the same direction. Oh yes, we already do this. It’s called a demonstration.

Perhaps we can make the next demonstration we attend a demonstration of love.

© 2014 CJStone

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Comments 6 comments

Imogen French profile image

Imogen French 2 years ago from Southwest England

Fantastic article, CJ Stone. I must be the only one on the planet who hasn't watched the Russell Brand interview, but really appreciate the ideas you have put forward here and love the idea of spiritual engagement - Love and compassion should be the basis for all our actions.


CJStone profile image

CJStone 2 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

Imogen, the Russell Brand interview is up there with the article if you want to watch it. I think he makes some interesting points, and he certainly is passionate. Glad you enjoyed the article. I'm still wating for it to be approved.


B. Leekley profile image

B. Leekley 2 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

Thanks for this superb article. Up, useful, interesting, and shared with followers and on social networking sites. The minister at the Unitarian Universalist church I attend led a workshop recently on engaged spirituality. That is an important part of life for UUs. I can't both proclaim love of neighbor and abide racially biased laws and law enforcement; both proclaim the earth is God's gift and our blue boat home (as songwriter Peter Mayer calls it) and ignore behaviors damaging our environment; both long for peace and goodwill on earth and not organize opposition to those who want wars for power and profit.


CJStone profile image

CJStone 2 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

Thanks for your comments B. Leekley. Your church sounds interesting and I agree with everything you say. I particularly liked the phrase "our blue boat home". It's an evocative thought, this small blue boat floating in the hostile ocean that is the Universe. We will never find another home.


Steve Hicklin 2 years ago

Beautiful writing Chris.

With my political beliefs, love of people, its animals and the earth combined with my everlasting pagan path your writings once again have awakened me.

Engaged spirituality..certainly me.

Lets have more Chris.

All hail to the spiritual revolution!

Steve in Suffolk

All hail to the spiritual


CJStone profile image

CJStone 2 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

Thanks for your comment Steve. Glad you like the story, and I agree with you 100% that the term "engaged spitrituality" applies to you. May your path be ever changing.

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