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The Soul of Activism: A Spirituality for Social Change

The Soul of Activism: A Spirituality for Social Change

by Shmuly Yanklowitz


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In The Soul of Activism, author and activist Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, gives a unique re-examination of the power of interfaith spirituality to fuel the fires of progressive activism. 'Religion' in the public sphere has been claimed by far-right ideologues while progressives, turned off by the hypocrisy of the religious influence on contemporary policy, have lost out on the experience of religious community. As a result, progressives are losing control of political discourse because they neither grasp nor trust the universal and invigorating language and practice of religion when expressed productively for social justice. Progressive activists must find these missing spiritual tools, cultivate compassion, and lead affirmative change in their communities.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781789040609
Publisher: Changemakers Books
Publication date: 11/04/2019
Pages: 128
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is an author and activist. He is the President and Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash collaborative adult education program, Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Orthodox Social Justice Movement, and Founder & CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute. His work has published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic and the Huffington Post, as well as many secular and religious publications. Rabbi Shumly is the author of several books on Jewish spirituality, social justice and ethics. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.

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Inner Life

Working on Our Inner World to Strengthen Our Outer World

I often use the metaphor of skydiving, and action sports in general, to illustrate the work of spiritual activism. There is an adrenaline rush and a flood of endorphins are released when we are on our game, when the justice we seek becomes tangible, when a cruel piece of legislation gets overturned or a policy endeavor we sought becomes law; those wins are some of the best feelings in the world.

Often, the motivation for everyday people to engage in adventure sports is not so much an actual love for the activities as the unmatched power the sport has to awaken an individual to the present. At the moment of peak thrill, one is not worried about the stress of work, or the need to pay bills, or the existential trials of a mundane schedule. Indeed, no one worries about paying their taxes when falling out of a plane at a high velocity, nor is one considering their morning meeting when one false step could lead to a plunge over a mountain cliff.

These moments, no matter how thrilling, are distractions from the serious work of cultivating the best of ourselves for the benefit of others. It may seem like a contradiction, but taking the time to ensure that we are at our peak for the outside world means fostering the best of our inner world. Certainly, to take on the responsibility of spiritual activism necessitates a healthy inner life. It may sound harsh, but we stain our souls with cursory delights, especially when our precious time is diverted from supporting the vulnerable.

A strong inner life gives us the resolve to withstand the difficulties of our individual missions. But getting in touch with our inner lives is more than finding meaning; that is too simple. Instead, the strength of one's inner life allows us to develop conviction, courage, and resolve. The tension within ourselves leads to cathartic action. No less than Dr Martin Luther King Jr articulated this point wonderfully. Shortly before his assassination, Dr King conveyed the following message about listening to that cacophony of voices that resides in our souls and following the strongest among them. Using his mastery of the rhetorical form, he said:

On some positions, Cowardice asks the question 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question 'Is it politic?' And Vanity comes along and asks the question 'Is it popular?' But Conscience asks the question 'Is it right?' And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.

Resolving latent issues within ourselves allows us to resolve issues outside of ourselves. The conflicts between people cannot be separated from the conflicts within people. Many go through life immersed in conflicts and think it's primarily because of other people. Each of us has a detractor whose singular goal is to discourage and make us feel as if our voice doesn't count. When we allow that part of us that pushes us forward even when the path is arduous, that is the connection to the power of our inner life. We grow out of this rut whenever we look at our inner conflicts, conquer them, and go out into the world with clarity and perspicacity.

Our inner life is not all positive and light-filled. We must also face our own inner darkness, not just our wounds but also our own internalized oppression and our own hate and prejudices. Where do we hold racism, sexism, xenophobia? Where from within do these come? And how might we dismantle these forces? How might we challenge our own power, privilege, and ego, which hold us back from exuding love and compassion?

Much of what others see in activism is external. This is by design: the imagery of activism is purposefully vibrant to ensure the point gets across in a persuasive manner. What may get lost in the tumult of this work, however, are the time and space to focus on ensuring that we are pursuing our causes in a way most relevant to our hearts and souls. If all we're seeking is the opportunity to show up at a rally, or write a petition, or participate in civil disobedience without pondering the meaning of our action, then much of what we hope to accomplish becomes empty and mechanical.

To persevere through the obstacles of finding peace within us is to see the challenges as part of this work, as well — to be so committed to growth in our inner lives that even negative situations are viewed positively as opportunities for inner growth. This is to say that even the pain, suffering, and frustrations can be helpful to us, even when it is some aspect of ourselves that we're tirelessly fighting. Thus, the most important first step to healing our world is to tend to our spiritual lives and our deepest inner spaces. When we are morally focused and spiritually healthy, we transcend ourselves for the other in their most desperate moment of need.

Exercise 1: Spend five minutes each day writing down your thoughts and exploring the origins of those thoughts. Explore anxieties, fears, hopes, and dreams. Don't look to resolve them. Just identify them and explore the depths of their origins.

Exercise 2: Learn your triggers. What external stimuli trigger sadness, joy, anxiety, and other emotions for you? Explore where these emotions are emerging from and why those stimuli trigger them.



Discovering Self-Worth

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any.

— Alice Walker

When engaging in activism work, Marshall Ganz, senior lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, suggests that including the story of self, the story of us, and the story of now is essential to success. Likewise, at the heart of spiritual activism is self-appreciation.

What does this mean in practice? As someone who has spent time organizing and hitting the streets for social justice campaigns, I've seen how the nature of the work affects activists in different ways. More often than not, I see others wrestle with their utility. I understand their mindset: It is easy to feel like a tiny particle amidst a void. Before the most powerful, we feel weak. Before the most accomplished, we feel insignificant. Before the well-connected, we feel bereft of meaningful connection. Should we fall into the pit of this mentality, it would be easy to become stuck in a cycle of despair and cynicism.

Yet, in the realm of activism, we don't need to feel badly about our own desires and motives. Appreciating the uniqueness of everyone involved and working to overcome frailties should be part of the culture. We need not be discouraged by our weaknesses and scars. We also dare not pretend we are perfected beings or gurus. Rather, we can hold all of the complexity of who we are. At the same time, we must give more weight to our inner goodness and allow that to drive us. I might suggest that self-deprecation or self-appreciation among activists is likely gendered, race-based, and class-varied. White, upper-middle class men are often among the most confident or even arrogant. Women of color, transgender people, and others with the least social power can be among the most reluctant, least self-assured, but most willing to start with inner work.

Consider my story: When I was growing up, I absorbed value from external measures of accomplishments more than from internal measures of success. In much that I sought to achieve, I looked for validation. In response, I sought spiritual practices where I could value my own inner light and my own spiritual relationship with the Divine. While I didn't learn to dismiss external validation, it was mitigated by a new spiritual attunement as I worked to cultivate a humble presence alongside a courageous presence.

The key was learning the right balance of self-criticism and self-worth. In doing so, I worked to maintain a consciousness of my privilege and an appreciation for myself and what I could uniquely offer. As an emerging adult, I was completely oblivious of the power and privilege that I carried because of who I am and what I look like: a white, straight, upper-middle class man. I was unaware of how much space I took up in a room and how my presence affected others. Rather, I felt that because of my background, and what I looked like, I wouldn't be considered anything more than a dilettante. I felt like I had less authenticity as an activist because, bracketing anti-Semitism, I had not experienced direct and personal oppression related to class, skin color, sexual/gender identity. However, my membership as part of socially powerful groups conveyed unspoken privilege and/ or authority, nonetheless.

Nonetheless, self-appreciation in activist work requires seeing how small actions matter in the bigger picture. Becoming aware of one's unique place in the world is not an exercise in self-deception. Rather, meaningful activism involves readjusting perspectives to view the significance of each moment, each campaign, and each triumph. Part of this process is understanding how even the most modest among us can effect great social change by believing in the best of ourselves. The sincerest and most effective social justice activists are humbly focused on the vulnerable, rather than on themselves, so it is all the more important to challenge oneself toward self-appreciation. Self-appreciation is so badly needed because activists typically focus on others, neglecting the value, and care, of themselves.

To be humble leaders, we should always understate rather than overstate our successes. We should also seek to give public credit to others rather than to ourselves. But by doing so, we are then left being the only ones who know what we have really contributed. That knowledge of our efforts, often held privately, should fuel a deep sense of inner dignity, courage, and self-appreciation.

On a deeper level, appreciating that we all have something to offer means giving weight to our inner dignity and self-worth. To overcome any deficit in realizing our worth, however, requires that we risk being vulnerable as we share our light with others. This is difficult. Indeed, as University of Houston professor Brené Brown writes: 'We can't let ourselves be seen if we're terrified by what people might think. Often "not being good at vulnerability" means that we're damn good at shame.' Of course, realizing that we should follow the light does not entail ignoring the sides of ourselves that linger in the shadows. Everyone has moments consumed by inner darkness, and that is perfectly acceptable. But understanding that our résumé is not based on our essence, but rather on our spiritual consciousness, allows activists to succeed. That self-respect also enables us to step back from the work to engage in self-care, of which so many activists are deprived.

It is from this spiritual consciousness that we gain the tangible inspiration for radical changemaking. But if the spiritual sparks reside within us, why should we hesitate to go out and reshape the world in the first place? When we activists are focused on our inner spiritual power and have our finger on the pulse of our inner holy sparks, we create the mechanisms for radical, positive change. We rise above pettiness — in our desired agenda for strategic outcomes — and reach toward the endless horizons, our vision for our communities. We soar above the cynicism that says the status quo is inevitable and that we are powerless.

We cannot simply accept that any of us are bound by the circumstances of our lives; these definitions only slow us down. There must be a focus — a spiritual engine — that sparks the way by which we activists seek to reshape the world. A deep sense of self-respect, an appreciation of our unique gifts, an awareness of our story, and a consciousness of our inner light and infinite dignity should be included in every action we undertake. Doing so will not only bring more joy to our work but will also make us more effective in our pursuits. And when we embrace the dignity of our inner selves, we no longer have to be affected by the perceptions of others. We see that their perceptions are more about their views of themselves; they should not hinder our growth. The standard should be that we are so focused on our inner light that we don't even notice that negative energy coming at us.

While we always should strive to gain clarity about our reality, understanding our individual potential allows us to strive harder for the dreams we want realized for our communities. Whenever we begin a campaign for justice, we should truly see ourselves, what we are capable of, and likewise, what we are incapable of. Such mental preparation clears the head and allows the heart to seek positivity from allies and colleagues. We should help others see themselves. But part of this, of course, is realizing the beauty of our inner lights.

To be sure, this is not only a lofty ideal but a pragmatic one. One should ensure, for example, that activists are paid adequately for their work. Unless one is a founder willing to sacrifice while launching a new organization, an employee giving their heart and soul to further a cause needs to be able to live off their pay from work. It is crucial that our non-profits reach sustainability and honor all involved in that process.

Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams, Sensei, writes:

Radical dharma is insurgence rooted in love, and all that love of self and others implies. It takes self-liberation to its necessary end by moving beyond personal transformation to transcend dominant social norms and deliver us into collective freedom.

We must take care of ourselves and be transformed. This is a key step in working for universal justice.

Exercise 1: Meditate on your inner light. Hold in your spiritual consciousness that your inner light is identical and interwoven with God's infinite, eternal light. Remind yourself that this beautiful radiant light is the essence of yourself.

Exercise 2: The next time you are feeling low about your impact or your role in social change work, take a walk and reflect on your inner goodness and how your unique goodness is not reflected anywhere else in the world but inside of you. Remind yourself of the unique role that you (and only you!) can play.



Taking Care of One Another

Ever feel like time is moving too fast? When his two children were born, my wise uncle set up two fish bowls and put 216 marbles in each fish bowl to symbolize the 216 months they would have with him at home before they would move out. Each month he would take one marble out to remind himself how limited this time would be. As each child was about to move out of the house, there was but one marble left in each fish bowl, but he couldn't bring himself to remove them. So, the last marble remains in each fish bowl. How can we create more strategies in our own lives to appreciate how short life is and to cherish our most precious moments with those we love?

What connects us most deeply is that which fills our heart with love and that which breaks our hearts with sorrow. It is in this vulnerable soulful place that we can build true relationships. Of course, this is most important with those we love, but it must transcend that realm as well. The late Buddhist monk Maha Ghosananda makes the best case for bringing love into our oppositional and resistance work:

I do not question that loving one's oppressors — Cambodians loving the Khmer Rouge — may be the most difficult attitude to achieve. But it is a law of the universe that retaliation, hatred, and revenge only continue the cycle and never stop it. Reconciliation does not mean that we surrender rights and conditions, but rather that we use love in all of our negotiations. It means that we see ourselves in the opponent — for what is the opponent but a being in ignorance, and we ourselves are also ignorant of many things. Therefore, only loving kindness and right mindfulness can free us.

Theologian William J. Everett defined a sinner as 'a soul enclosed in the prison of the self.' One is trapped within self-absorption. Before love can be other-reaching, it must be self-transcending. It must break us out beyond the narrow confines of the self. Karen Armstrong, in her memoir The Spiral Staircase, writes:

Compassion has been advocated by all the great faiths because it has been the safest and surest means of attaining enlightenment. It dethrones the ego from the center of our lives and puts others there, breaking down the carapace that holds us back from the experience of the sacred.

Consider how Cesar Chavez thought about compassion for all and its connection with a commitment to nonviolence:

Kindness and compassion toward all living things is a mark of a civilized society. Conversely, cruelty, whether it is directed against human beings or against animals, is not the exclusive province of any one culture or community of people. Racism, economic deprival, dog fighting and cock fighting, bull fighting and rodeos are cut from the same fabric: violence. Only when we have become nonviolent toward all life will we have learned to live well ourselves.


Excerpted from "The Soul of Activism"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Shmuly Yanklowitz.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Gratitude, 1,
Introduction, 2,
I. Self, 9,
1. Inner Life: Working on Our Inner World to Strengthen Our Outer World, 11,
2. Self-Appreciation: Discovering Self-Worth, 14,
3. Love: Taking Care of One Another, 19,
4. Being: From Acting to Emanating, 23,
II. Others, 27,
5. Dignity: Seeing the Light in Everyone and Everything, 29,
6. The Holiness of Process: Engaging the Sanctity of the Process, Not Just Pursuing the Win, 33,
7. Interconnectedness: Celebrating Diversity, Unity, and the Spiritual Web of Interconnectedness, 46,
8. Seeing Beneath the Surface: Making the Invisible Visible, 53,
III. Truth, 57,
9. Paradox: The Power of Pluralism, Skepticism, and Doubt, 57,
10. Learning: Living with Awe and Wonder, 67,
11. Theology: Marching Toward Liberation, 71,
12. Death: Preparing for Death in Order to Embrace Life, 76,
IV. Spirituality, 81,
13. Energy: Bringing Sacred Energy, 83,
14. Spiritual Practice: Embracing Dynamic Approaches to Fuel Ourselves Spiritually, 86,
15. Hope: Keeping Our Eye on the Prize, 90,
16. Joy: The Self-Sustaining Nourishment of Living with Joy, 96,
Conclusion, 101,
Endnotes, 106,

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