Towards a Spirituality of Activism

Just JesusBy Tommy Airey

God, help me to refuse ever to accept evil; by your Spirit empower me to work for change precisely where and how you call me; and free me from thinking I have to do everything.
Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers (1992)

On the day we met Bill Wylie-Kellermann back in the summer of ’13, we naively asked him how many times he’d been arrested for acts of civil disobedience: “I stopped counting at 50,” he muttered matter-of-factly. Between sermons and sacraments, Pastor Bill is committed to hitting the streets, participating in what he calls “liturgical direct action.”

It was this kind of passion, depth and intensity that led us to discern a move to Detroit. Our discipleship demanded that we change our context.  We yearned to be around others with decades of experience in Movement. As my wife Lindsay, a licensed marriage & family therapist, recently reminded me:

You can only go as far outwardly as you’ve gone inwardly. And vice-versa. I could have done all the inner work I wanted in Orange County (CA), but until I moved to Detroit, I didn’t have the outer resources to go deeper. And if I didn’t do the inner work before I came, the outer would have made me run away.

We are only a year into this experiment in radical discipleship and, sure enough, we are observing that experienced long-distance runners for justice in this beat down watershed are asking questions about where to find spiritual resources that move them beyond survival and sustainability to find deeper healing and empowerment for the Journey. We radical disciples desperately need massive amounts of solitude, Sabbath, therapy, yoga & meditation, spiritual direction, singing, dancing, banqueting, pastoral nurture, fun and camaraderie (Lindsay would add karaoke).

Back in the early 70’s, one of Pastor Bill’s teachers and mentors at Union Theological Seminary was Walter Wink, best known for his critically acclaimed trilogy on the “principalities and powers” language of the New Testament. Wink was thoroughly committed to nonviolence as a way of life. He traveled with other Union Theological Seminary students to visit the imprisoned Martin Luther King in Alabama in the 50s and later returned at King’s urging for the Selma march in ’65.

His later work to abdicate apartheid in South Africa in the 80s was profoundly informed by & influenced his interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. Wink was compelled that these teachings of Jesus were strategies for oppressed people to seize the moral initiative in the socio-political struggles of every era.

At the core of Wink’s scholarship, teaching and political activism, though, were spiritual practices that deepened his intimacy and understanding of both himself and God. He was thoroughly committed to rigorous personal inventory, Scripture study and prayer.

Wink’s Texas upbringing cultivated an obsession with perfection, straining to garner the approval of his father, who once sentenced him to a night in an outdoor “brig” when he was only nine-years-old. Early in adulthood, Wink methodically came to grips with his own repressed feelings and foibles by keeping a “feelings journal” to identify and document the pain welling up deep inside him. He carried it with him everywhere he went for 8 years, resurrecting his emotions with pen to paper every time he felt the urge to bury them.

The decades that Wink poured into interpreting “the principalities and powers” of the New Testament focused on both the outer, physical manifestation and the inner spirituality of the institutions that order our world: from families to corporations to governments to faith communities. People often talk about a “darkness” they can tangibly feel when they experience a corporate culture or family ethos.

Wink embraced a biblical portrait of God mirrored in the life and teachings of Jesus, who yearned for all of us to become more human:

We are not required to become divine: flawless, perfect, without blemish. We are invited simply to become human, which means growing through our sins and mistakes, learning by trial and error, being redeemed over and over from sin and compulsive behavior, becoming ourselves, scars and all. Is it not the case that the deepest reaches of our humanity are born of our wounds, even through our sins?

Wink had a robust integral worldview. No matter how much we try, God simply will not be confined to sacred books or buildings or the biographies of religious experts, but is everywhere and within everything.

Thus, prayer for Wink was not a matter of calling upon a Supreme God, a Governor of the Universe sitting majestically on a throne high in the heavens. Instead, it is both a visualization of & an invitation to how we might respond to the Transcendent in and all around us:

Because we are already related, and we are one body in God, God’s healing power is already there and here. Our prayer is simply a matter of opening the situation to God.

These spiritual disciplines buttressed Wink’s passionate commitment to a nonviolence that was holistic, more than just an effective strategy utilized to win the fight against violence & injustice. There was something deeper, more personal happening:

Even if nonviolent action does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor, it does affect those committed to it.

For all of us struggling for church renewal and fundamental social change, Wink’s spiritual trifecta of journaling, Scripture & prayer is a compelling model to help us down the Path. Sure, time is running out, but unless we take the time to feed our own souls, we will burn out or blow up even before buzzer sounds.

*All quotes from Walter Wink are from his posthumous autobiography Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human (2014).

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