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Politics and Spirituality — Allies, Not Enemies.

To many of us, whether we are primarily concerned with politics or with spirituality, the two are fundamentally opposed. Political people will point to the oppressive role of organised religion, while those who are spiritual will talk of the violence and hatred so often associated with politics.

Certainly organised religion and the churches have often been reactionary forces in the world, upholding the status quo in all its forms. But spirituality is not the same as religion—by the time religions have become organised they tend to have lost their spirit.

Those who take a materialist view of the world often think that this demands that they must reject any notion of spirit. We have all been poisoned by the Helleno‑Christian view of the separation of matter and spirit, with spirit being regarded as by far the more important (this is not a Judaic view, by the way — it springs from Platonic philosophy). But it is quite possible to have a materialist view of spirit. Mao‑Tse Tung (who at one point said "A man without a good political philosophy is like a man without a soul" — which is hardly a rejection of the concept of soul) expressed this very clearly. He said "The step from perceptual knowledge of objective matter to subjective consciousness is the first stage in the process of cognition. The second stage leads from consciousness back to matter, from ideas back to existence, in which the knowledge gained in the first stage is applied in social practice … While we recognise that the material determines the mental, and social being determines social consciousness we also — and indeed must — recognise the reaction of mental on material things, of social consciousness on social being." And the famous quote from Marx on "the opiate of the people" is usually given without the following sentences, which change its meaning considerably. I think that those Marxists and others who deny the existence of spirit have been influenced by a very crude form of materialism, which is not a necessary part of the theory.

It is clear that our social and political actions are not based solely on our material interests (still less on our short‑term material interests). Our visions of the world as it could be, our ideas and feelings about justice and community, the links between one person and another, all go beyond material interests, and even beyond our individual consciousness, into a realm which is an important part of what spirituality is about. The difficulty for those of us who are political is that while the human desire for community is spiritual, the expression of this desire can take many forms, and some of these forms chosen by other people we would reject, and even fight against.

Again, forms of Eastern spirituality are popular at present, and they have often reached us in a distorted form, so that if we reject these expressions we may fail to realise that it is the distortions and not the reality that require rejection. Too many people claim that if someone is suffering then it is their karma and there is no need for anyone else to do anything about it. This is a silly attitude; we cannot know someone else's karma — it could well be their karma to have suffered but to have that suffering relieved with the help of others (and failing to respond to another's suffering will in itself have karmic consequences). Political work is part of the way of action, which is one of the accepted Eastern spiritual paths.

There are those who believe that a spiritual change is all that is needed. Of course, if we all acted totally with love for others then nothing else would be needed. But if we achieve spiritual enlightenment by retreating to a mountain‑top, then what effect would we have. Arguably, our spiritual change would in itself change the world and so others would act differently. But there would still be the need for some people to act to change their own behaviour and to act as a guide to others.

One criticism that spiritual people have of politics is that it is founded on hate, and so cannot produce a positive change in the world. This is a warning worth listening to. But this should not be taken as an excuse for smothering conflict, dissension, and disagreement. Anger and a rage for justice spring more from love than from hate. It was, after all, Che Guevara who said "The true revolutionary must be guided by feelings of love" — a remark which is often dismissed, but remains profound. A holy man I met in Nepal commented to me that "A true politician is a devotee of Vishnu the Preserver."

Feminist and Goddess‑centred spirituality can provide the alliance between politics and spirituality, which is so much needed. This is shown in the life and work of Starhawk and of Joanna Macy, among others. My dear friend Asphodel's own work is rooted in this connection. Her reclamation of ancient goddesses, their rituals and representations, are both scholarly and popular. But her aim has never been to look to the past as an escape from the present. Instead, she feels that knowledge of the past can empower women to change their present oppression, and to call men to take part in such changes.

Such spirituality has the insight that we are not our bodies, but neither are we spirit. We are created as embodied spirit, and our place in creation is essentially both body and spirit working in harmony, not one dominating the other. And so we must act on both levels at once (even though our actions may be mostly on one of the two), and not reject the level that does not appeal to us so much. Politics without spirituality is dead, while spirituality without politics has never been alive.

Changing Men 23, Fall/Winter 1991
© Daniel Cohen

(Changing Men was a periodical produced by Feminist Men's Publications in the 1980s and early 1990s. It was associated with the US-based NOMAS, the National Organization for Men Against Sexism. NOMAS is still active, and has a Web site at http://www.nomas.org/sys-tmpl/door).

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