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Scott’s Column: A Life of Action

Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
June 9 2020

“The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall.  They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed.  What does our religion say to them?”

Howard Thurman raised that question in his seminal book Jesus and the Disinherited. 

As I continue to write this series of columns on the spiritual traditions of the church that might connect with our current situation during the pandemic, this week I am drawn to how spirituality expresses itself in action for a better world.

“Contemplation in the streets” is a term I first encountered in Letters from the Desert by Carlo Carretto.  Carretto was an Italian activist who went into the Sahara Desert in the 1950’s where he joined the Little Brothers of Jesus.  After his time in the desert, engaging in contemplation and spiritual discipline, he returned to a life of service.

Carretto wrote, “But the desert is not the final stopping place.  It is a stage on the journey.  Because, as I told you, our vocation is contemplation in the streets.”  He went on to explain that this idea “invites everybody to a life of action which, couched in contemplation, is a witness and presence among others.”

The last four weeks, I’ve written about various spiritual practices and some of the wisdom about them contained within our tradition.  The focus was on practices that fit the isolation that we’ve been in.  But there are also important voices within our tradition who remind us that spiritual transformation is not solely for our own benefit.  Our spiritual growth should be on behalf of something greater than ourselves.  These thinkers I highlight today emphasize how our own spiritual work should result in action on behalf of a better world.

How did Howard Thurman answer the question he posed?  He wrote, “The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed.”  In particular, Christianity announces that the “hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited”—fear, hypocrisy, and hatred—“have no dominion over them.”

His short book teaches how to overcome these hounds.  Key in his ideas are the developing of personal integrity and loving one another.  We can arrive at freedom from these hounds of hell after “painstaking discipline, made possible only by personal triumph.”  What he bears witness to are spiritual practices, a mysticism tied to justice.

For Thurman, spiritual enlightenment and social justice work go together.  If we are to be effective activists for a more just and peaceful world, then Thurman’s wisdom is that we first have to have done that work for ourselves.

Thurman learned from Ghandi that our lives “must be a living sermon.”  He was renowned for teaching, “Don’t ask what the world needs.  Ask what makes you come alive and go do it.  Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Of course in our current moment many of you are not yet able to take to the streets on behalf of a better world.  But what can you do?  I want you to at least have an aim—all of this time and opportunity you are giving to spiritual growth with practices like attention, prayer, contemplation, and gardening, can have the goal and purpose of preparing you for a life of greater action on behalf of God’s world.

Let’s all use this time to come alive, so that together, through this tragedy and its dark night of the soul, we might move closer to God’s dream for humankind.