How Do Contemplatives Make a Difference?

Consider these teachings from Jesus, all taken from just one Gospel (Matthew)1See verses 5:44, 7:12, 19:21, 22:39 and 25:40.:

  • “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.”
  • “Sell your possessions, and give (the money) to the poor, and follow me.”
  • “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.”
  • “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
  • “Love your enemies.”

Couple this with a strong theme running throughout the Jewish and Christian scriptures that God is a God of justice and righteousness, and it is apparent that part of any meaningful spiritual life — at least for Christians — is a commitment to making the world a better place by caring for those in need and by working for peace and justice.

Indeed, while I am not crazy about labels like “conservative” and “progressive,” one of the easiest markers that distinguishes so-called “conservative” Christians from “progressive” Christians is typically whether they emphasize salvation or justice as the heart of their faith. Speaking very broadly and generally of course, conservative Christians seem to place greater emphasis on answering the question “What must I do to be saved?” while progressive questions tend to focus on the idea that serving others is the best way to serve God.

But my blog is not a blog about conservative Christians or progressive Christians — my focus is on contemplative spirituality (Christian and otherwise). Over the years I have tended to shy away from politics and controversial issues, because of my conviction that contemplation is for everyone, not just people who identify as conservative or liberal, traditional or progressive. We are all called into prayer, into silence and stillness into the kind of interior transformation that comes about from a contemplative spiritual practice.

But a question that has begun to take more and more of my attention: when we embrace the contemplative path, what difference does it make? How do our lives change, how do we respond to the kinds of ethical and moral challenges that Jesus presents to us, in the verses quoted above as well as elsewhere in his teaching?

Mandate and Methods

One of the challenges for anyone who takes the teachings of Jesus (and the overall western spiritual tradition) seriously is this: while Jesus seems to be very clear on his mandate: care for the poor and those in need, love others even including your adversaries, etc. — he does not give us much in way of details about how, exactly, we are meant to do this. Take for example the challenge to “sell your possessions and give to the poor” — are we expected to sell all our possessions, and give away all the money, in effect rendering ourselves (and our families) economically vulnerable? Does “giving to the poor” mean simply distributing the money, or would it be better to invest in programs that care for the poor on an ongoing basis? What about the old saying “give someone a fish and you feed them for a day; teach them to fish and you feed them for a lifetime”? Is it better to be giving out fish, or fishing rods?

A Brazilian archbishop, Hélder Câmara, is famous for saying “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” If Jesus were here today, would he say that Christians are only obligated to feed and care for the poor in a direct way (like operating a soup kitchen), or would he see this obligation as also a commitment to fight the forces in society that tend to keep some people privileged while others remain impoverished generation after generation?

Important questions with no easy answers — and back to the “conservative versus liberal” dichotomy: different Christians (individuals and groups) answer these questions in sometimes radically different ways.

Contemplative spirituality calls us to discernment. What is God’s will for me (and for everyone)? How do I respond to God’s call? What choices and commitments am I being called to make? These questions extend beyond the scope of personal spirituality, and invite us into these larger, moral, ethical, and even political issues that shape how we live our lives and how we interact with others — in our neighborhoods, our communities, and the world at large.

More than Just Money

Jesus speaks directly about caring for those who are poor, hungry, homeless, or imprisoned, so naturally questions about economic justice and injustice will be part of every Christian’s discernment. But it seems to me that this larger question of “How am I called to make a difference?” extends beyond just strictly economic issues. As I’ve prayed and pondered this question, I’ve come to see that there are seven categories of controversial or contested issues, that we as Christians need to be praying about — and responding to.

Here are those seven key issues. I’m going to talk about them from a contemplative perspective rather than simply a Christian perspective, since this blog is read by contemplatives of all spiritual and religious traditions. Obviously, for Christians, these issues matter to us because we seek to respond to them as we believe Christ would have us respond. If you are not a Christian, I invite you to ponder these same issues in the light of your own religious or spiritual commitments.

  • Violence. How do we as contemplatives respond to the violence in our world at large — and in our neighborhoods? What is the best way to end gun violence? How do we support families to eliminate domestic violence? How do we create positive alternatives to gangs? How do we punish criminals, and should we eliminate the death penalty?
  • Ecology. How do we respond to climate change? What can we do to reverse the trends of global warming, species extinction, and overpopulation? What policies are necessary to fight famine and the spread of pandemics like covid-19? How do we plan for a future that relies on renewable energy sources rather than fossil fuels or nuclear power? How do we protect natural resources for our grandchildren and their grandchildren?
  • Gender. Many faith communities (like the Catholic Church) continue to deny leadership roles to women; can that change? What is a contemplative response to transgender persons, or those who in a variety of ways reject social norms regarding gender identity and expression? How do we ensure that women and transgender persons are safe and have the ability to live their lives to their fullest potential?
  • Sexuality. Does contemplative spirituality equip us to accept and even celebrate sexual diversity? Can contemplative communities affirm same-sex marriages and support their families? And affirm those with same-sex partners in positions of leadership and ordained ministry? How can contemplatives lead the way in fighting a religious culture that often responds to queer persons with hostility rather than acceptance or compassion?
  • Reproduction. Few issues divide society more strongly than the question of abortion. What is a truly contemplative understanding of abortion, contraception, and reproductive rights? How do reproductive issues relate to other social and economic issues (supporting single parent households, reducing poverty, etc.)? How can we reduce the incredible suspicion and hostility that the two “sides” have for each other, in the interest of coming together to work for the common good?
  • Privilege. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, public health, rich/poor — many issues seem to point to a common problem: that society gives some people privilege at the expense of others. How do we dismantle systems of privilege? What is the best path forward to end racism in America and around the world? How can contemplative practice equip us to work together to end unjust systems of privilege and oppression?
  • Globalism. What is the responsibility of our country in relation to other nations? How can we foster a world where terrorism and war eventually cease to exist? What is the best approach to responding to refugees and immigrants? How do we fight human trafficking? How should Christians interact with those whose faith is different from ours?

I’m sure there are many issues that may not fit neatly into this schema (for example, addiction and the problems associated with organized crime and drug cartels). And I’m sorry I’m asking more questions than providing answers — but I believe asking important questions is the necessary first step in making a difference. Perhaps in the future, I need to begin exploring these issues more deeply, even at the risk of alienating some readers who disagree with me. But my hope is not just to take sides on the hot issues, but rather to prayerfully explore how contemplative practice can shape a truly spiritual (for Christians, a truly Christ-like) response to the issues that keep us divided and trapped in a culture of suspicion and aggression/hostility.

Our Voice Matters

“Blessed are the peacemakers” — another statement of Christ’s. I believe that’s a mandate for contemplatives. By ourselves, we contemplatives may not be able to figure out the key to dismantling racism, or eliminating poverty, or creating a world where it’s safe to be divergent in terms of sexuality or gender. But society as a whole needs a contemplative perspective, a contemplative voice, if we have any hope of tackling these huge issues. So it’s important that those of us who have been called to a contemplative practice take the next step: and bring our contemplative perspective to the contentious and divisive issues of our time. All in the interest of following the teachings of Christ — or the other great spiritual teachers of our common human family.

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