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Yes, Protests are a Spiritual Practice

Spiritual practices are creative and transformative, they are dynamic and rejuvenating. While there are many spiritual practices that individuals and communities can engage in, one such act that I think is often misunderstood and least practiced is protest.[1] Protests are often viewed as detrimental, anti-order, irrational and diabolic at worst. And it is because of these perceptions to equate protests with spirituality seems naïve. While many may not adhere to this idea of protest as a spiritual practice, one cannot deny the fact that through acts of protests come transformation, of the self as well as the community, which is not just social or political but deeply spiritual as well.

Spirituality is often viewed as something exclusive and separate from the world. Focusing on the private it ignores the public aspects of life. This, to me, is a shallow understanding of spirituality. Ursula King defines spirituality “[…] as a process of transformation and growth, an organic and dynamic part of human development, of both individual and society.”[2] This suggests that spirituality involves developing sensitivity to the self, others, and creation as a whole. Spirituality then goes beyond personal piety.

I see protest as an outer expression of an inner revolution, driven by compassion, anger, despair and hope. It springs from the coalescence of life and spirituality. In the act of protest there is a recognition that spirituality is more than just a personal experience of catharsis. Since protests are community-oriented spirituality then becomes a collective experience. And if we come to understand spirituality as a holistic and dynamic force in life and its affairs, protests, seeking transformation and reversal, become a spiritual experience altogether.

Ken Butigan in his book, “Pilgrimage through a Burning World,” invites us to look at protests as “pilgrimages.”[3] Butigan, speaking of this metaphor, says that pilgrimage involves leaving the habitual center, “home,” and moving to sites that need and effect change. The home then becomes the periphery and the social domains become the focal point. Likewise, protests calls for an engagement at domains that lie beyond the boundaries of secluded habitat. I wish to list down three features of protests that might enable us to perceive its spiritual connotation.

  1. Consciousness – Protests, first of all, emerge from a sense of consciousness of the self and of the community. A consciousness that is aware of the privilege or the lack of it, aware of the unequal dimensions of power, works towards undoing that privilege or gaining that privilege for the benefit of the wider community. The consciousness that guides protesters is one that helps realize that certain forces are inhuman and unjust to the self and community and therefore change is imperative. Consciousness – social, political, economic, moral, identity, and sexual – translates into attitude, ideology and praxis (protest).
  2. Interconnectedness – First, out of the consciousness that arises, persons taking part in the protest develop an interconnectedness amongst each other. The collective need for change stirs up solidarity for each other’s pain and struggle. Interconnectedness effects power – transgressive power that disembowels unjust power hierarchies. Interconnectedness in protests weaves together a spiritual experience of transformation. Secondly, as Buddhist author and activist, Lama Rod Owens asserts, protests are spiritual as they engage the body, speech and mind. Therefore, there is also an (spiritual) interconnectedness within a person’s being that gets transpired to the community.[4] 
  3. Empowerment – Here, empowerment involves the rejection of domination, exploitation and discrimination in all forms. Though individuals can be empowered it is the collective empowerment of a community that leads to transformation. Speaking with regard to Black women, Patricia Hill Collins states, “A critical mass of individuals with a changed consciousness can in turn foster […] collective empowerment.”[5] The spiritual exercise of collective empowerment in protests is made possible by a critical-consciousness.

We have enough and more examples of spirituality expressing itself in protests and activisms. The recent “Pride Walk” in Bangalore, India where the LGBTQI+ community took to the streets in celebration of their sexuality and protest against injustices done to them is a “spiritual” celebration of their identity. The “Iron Lady,” Irom Chanu Sharmila, a civil rights activist fasted for sixteen years in protest against the Indian Government in order to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), the most powerful and inhuman act imposed in the Northeast Indian states. Her act of spirituality was to fight for the rights and freedom of her people. The ongoing Narmada Bachao Andolan, a social movement in India against the building of dams across the river Narmada, is rooted in the people’s survival for existence. The 2017 Women’s March, protests against the “institutional murder” of Anitha, a Dalit, and recent protests over the arrest of Palestinian Ahed Tamini are more than enough to assert that protests and resistant activisms cannot be understood as not having a spiritual dimension to it.

The significance of protests and advocacy in shaping the life of a faith community is immense as it paves way for creating sacred spaces for expression, engagement and transformation. For a faith community to be true to its calling it must fight for and struggle with those at the margins. If protests are spiritual practices the faith community that pledges its allegiance to Christ needs to engage in these acts of resistance. Protests are not only sites of resistive engagements but also sources of fellowship with the divine – whose righteousness and justice, in the acts of resistive protests, permeates all aspects of life. This yearning for justice causes communities to resist forces that demean, deny and destroy life, and work to restore, reshape and reinforce life in all its fullness. Protests need not be based on religious dogmas; they only need to be based on life and death struggles of people. It isn’t in merely staging up one but in being able to engage, resist and work for change that truly captures the spirit(uality) of protests. Failure to engage in this spiritual practice would make the faith community irrelevant, cynic and unfaithful to its calling. It would stunt the practical efficacy of its spirituality. If protests are transgressive so is its spirituality. This makes protests a transgressive spiritual practice.

 

Guest Blogger: Yajenlemla

[1] By protests I refer to resistive movements by communities against dehumanizing forces and power structures. The argument advocating protest as a spiritual practice implies two things: firstly, protests initiated by non-religious activists and agencies do have spiritual connotations to it and secondly, faith communities, in this case the Christian community, needs to engage in social activism by viewing it as a spiritual act. When I speak of protests, I refer to non-violent protests that includes marches and walks.

[2] Ursula King, Women and Spirituality. Voices of Protest and Promise (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1993), 5.

[3] Ken Butigan, Pilgrimage through a Burning World. Spiritual Practice and Nonviolent Protest of the Nevada Test Site (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003), 167-168.

[4] Lama Rod Owens, “Protest is my Spiritual Practice,” under https://www.lionsroar.com/protest-is-my-spiritual-practice/ (accessed December 18, 2017).

[5] Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought. Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. Second edition (London: Routledge, 2000), 117.

[Image by Bruce Emmerling from Pixabay]

2 thoughts on “Yes, Protests are a Spiritual Practice”

  1. “Protests are not only sites of resistive engagements but also sources of fellowship with the divine – whose righteousness and justice, in the acts of resistive protests, permeates all aspects of life.” – Thank you for the meaningful write up Yagen..

    Like

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