I recently began my graduate studies in Women, Gender, Spirituality, and Social Justice at the California Institute of Integral Studies. This program is a combination of ethnic studies, gender studies, queer studies, women’s studies, and religious studies.
As someone who has always been fascinated by religion (not necessarily as a participant), entering the realm of spiritual studies was new to me. Upon learning about this masters program and hearing about its strong emphasis on Spirituality I began to question how spirituality and social justice intersected. Most of the social justice movements I was familiar with were generally secular and are very much based on the rejection of religious institutions. I agreed with those who believed there is not room for religion in social justice, because religion has been such an invasive, oppressive, and dangerous force in the development of our current culture.
As I began preparing for my classes and engaging in the readings, one thing became very clear: spirituality and religion are not the same thing, not at all. Before entering this program, I believed the two were interchangeable. I was wrong.
One of my first readings, Transforming Feminist Practice by Leela Fernandes (PDF below) made it clear that spirituality is, at its most fundamental and basic level, the understanding that we are all interconnected - to each other, to Earth, to our ancestors, to those who have yet to be born - to all life existing in this universe. While we don’t have to agree on what that connecting force is, can we at least acknowledge that it is there?
Fernandes, a Women’s Studies professor in higher education, explains that in every class, every semester, there comes a point when she and her students are discussing global structure, hierarchies of race, class, caste, and gender, and that her students, even the most progressive activist students, “these often deeply committed, passionate, bright young individuals who are or should be at the peak of idealism and hope for change, cannot find within themselves the means to simply imagine a world without hierarchy, exclusion or injustice” (Fernandes).
Popular American culture operates under a white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, capitalist structure that often uses religion to support its presence as an essential Truth. Fernandes writes that, “God, divinity, and the sacred have become associated with violence and oppression. This history, in which numerous wars have been fought and forms of social oppression justified ‘in the name of God,’ has led to the secularized versions of many social justice movements which struggle against various forms of inequality and oppression.” While spirituality is at the root of religion, in so many cases it has been hijacked to create and justify systems that perpetuate and sustain oppression.
In regards to one of the most popular and globalized religions, Christianity, Fernandes asks, “How does an imperialistic Christian belief in divine retribution with its advocacy of the use of violence against the evils of the ‘Uncivilized’ world reconcile itself with Christ’s message of radical egalitarian love and one’s enemies? Such spiritual teachings point to a sacred, radical vision of social justice which is fundamentally opposed to any hierarchical, patriarchal or violent representations of religious teachings.” She claims that in order for us to achieve true justice, we must reclaim the spiritual, and proclaim the understanding that we are all interconnected. Without this, justice can only be served on the backs of others, as we currently exist in a hierarchical system. For example, patriarchy operates by situating men at the top of the hierarchy while placing everyone who isn’t male, below. Leaving those who aren’t male with less rights, opportunities, and privileges than those who are male. Until we abolish the hierarchy, any rights gained will be rights taken away from others, or acquired through the oppression of others. (*Cough cough the emergence of "white feminists" gaining rights, but actively oppressing women of color and lower class women). We have to shut it down! Destroy the hierarchy and operate from an even playing field. Operating in this mindset will allow us to break down the belief that these hierarchies are essential to our existence and will allow us to experience deeper compassion and understanding for all life.
It is essential for us to practice spiritual activism “that works to transform all structures of hierarchy and exclusion and is based on a spiritualized understanding of ourselves both as individuals and as part of a larger interconnected world” (Fernandes). We need to create movements that call for an awakening to honor the self, the body, the communities, the Earth, our ancestors, and all that is connected. True justice begins with personal transformation and this is not an easy feat. As an activist and someone surrounded by activists, I have experienced firsthand how this work can be frustrating, defeating, and downright energy-draining. Activist burnout is real. I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent with a deep burning anger fueling my heart. While I do believe anger is a valid and important catalyst for change, anger also has the power to leave us immobile and unable to act in the clearest ways.
We have been taught to believe that we can never escape these structures, that they’ve always been in tact and will always remain that way, but that is a flat out lie.
I do not claim that being spiritually connected to your work is the right or only way to approach social justice and social transformation, but it has proven to be a mobilizing and constructive framework for my activism that has offered a way for me to bridge the gap between theory and practice.
I will leave you with this:
“It is now more than ever that we need to forge new paths for a spiritual revolution - paths that will finally decolonize spiritually from the religious hierarchies that claim and manipulate it for their own interest and that will produce transformative movements that are no longer forced to mirror the very structures of power they seek to change” (Fernandes).
We’ve got this. With love. Always.