Throughout history, civil resistance movements in North America have included preachers, healers, spiritual leaders, and creative artists who have helped to rouse the public out of complacency while providing nourishment, inspiration, and consolation to those on the frontlines of the struggle. They have served as living proof that another world is possible even while reckoning with the realities of the world here and now.
Many of today’s movements are no different, serving as both home and laboratory to a new, and newly rediscovered, generation of leaders and practitioners. Despite devastating economic inequalities and the stubborn staying power of white supremacy, corporate greed, and militarism, these individuals are helping make movements more sustainable, impactful, and caring spaces. Through their largely unrecognized and often undervalued work, they are shaping the contours of civil resistance strategy itself, as well as how strategies are brought to life.
Here are three of the many ways that spiritual and healing practitioners are advancing movements in North America today:
1. Creating new and reimagined roles to support the stability and sustained unity of nonviolent movements
High sacrifice, high risk actions are vital components of civil resistance, creating the kind of drama that can increase public attention, sympathy, and support. Too often, however, sacrifice becomes less a movement technology and more one of its central features, placing unrealistic demands on participants, triggering stress and trauma, and causing irreparable harm to individuals in leadership. For the movement as a whole, this can strain group unity and discipline, and lead to internal conflict more often.
Recognizing that nonviolent movements cannot afford to allow untenable, unhealthy environments if they are going to win real justice—“the kind that heals,” to paraphrase Dr. Ruby Sales—spiritual and faith leaders are creating and reimagining roles that provide activists with emotional and spiritual support. One example is the emerging field of Movement Chaplaincy.
Movement chaplains, according to the Daring Compassion project, are “spiritual activists” who, like prison or hospital chaplains, offer “spiritual connection, accompaniment, grounding, prayer, and encouragement” to nonviolent activists who seek it, and even provide or coordinate non-medical support for nonviolent direct actions, essential for sustaining stability and unity in high-intensity moments. In the United States, many activists who are challenging the status quo, especially around race or gender identity, have often been rejected from traditional faith or religious institutions–but the need remains for the unconditional love, support and care that those institutions may have once provided. Movement Chaplains offer a refuge that can keep them from leaving or being harmed by their own social movements.
2. Drawing on ancestral practices and rituals as tools for transformational resistance
Francisca Porchas Coronado is the former organizing director at Puente Human Rights Organization, where she helped lead historic civil resistance efforts in Arizona, from the fight against Sheriff Joe Arpaio to the campaign against anti-immigrant bill SB1070. But in recent years, Francisca has shifted her attention to the mental health of activists in her community as an essential component of building social movements. She is working with other Latinx and indigena teachers and healers to reclaim and share ancestral traditions and lineages that have often been erased by colonialization. Francisca works with local and national healing justice circles to compile ancestral resistance practices in “zines,” and co-produces a podcast centered on Latinx healing and mental health.
The flourishing of projects like these across the United States—including Harriet’s Apothecary, Soul Fire Farm, and Ayni Institute—reflects a widespread yearning for movement spaces to attend to the heart, body, and mind as a central component of the organizing experience. In a society which disposes of people, life, and land so callously, this is where civil resistance—or transformative resistance, as ICNC coins it—begins. Rediscovering practices that were erased or denied for so many centuries actively undermines the colonial project of displacement and disappearance. It offers an opportunity for many people not only connect with their personal histories, but to connect with thousands of others involved in the same process of discovery as acts of struggle, pride, and resistance. In the reclaiming of ancestral practices—medicine, songs, connections to land—communities are drawing on the legacies and resistance techniques that sustained their ancestors for centuries before.
3. Spiritual practice that fosters compassionate participation in civil resistance and diverse movement ecosystems
“The Great Turning,” a term coined by Buddhist teacher and ecological activist Joanna Macy, describes the massive movement to save life on Earth. Partially based on the Sarvodaya communities of Sri Lanka, “The Great Turning” has three dimensions: holding actions (direct actions taken to stop ecological destruction), building structures (creating new economic and social alternatives, such as co-ops, community farms, and education programs), and shifting consciousness (“the personal and spiritual development that enhances our capacity and desire to act for our world” and “gives fuel to our courage and determination”).
Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF), “a constellation of spiritual-political practitioners” across the United States, used Macy’s model among others to create the alliterative “Block, Build, Be.” This program trains and engages hundreds of nonviolent activists each year to resist harm and injustice (“block”), cultivate healthier relationships, communities, and structures (“build”), and dive deeper into contemplative practices for inner resilience and liberation (“be”). In doing so, they are growing a community as dedicated and skilled in compassionate action as they are in civil disobedience tactics, and adding a powerful and necessary ingredient to treat the toxicity of our movements, challenging outsized egos and supporting healthy conflict. At the same time, they are successfully agitating and organizing spiritual communities to move out of the relative safety of “Being” and use their personal practice to fuel more risk-taking “Blocking” actions.
Block Build Be is providing civil resistance movements and their participants with balance and clarity. As one BPF member wrote in 2017
- Too much BLOCK and we find ourselves chronically exhausted, egoically over-invested in our own heroism [and] the addiction of resistance;
- Too much BUILD and we find ourselves in the land of naive dreams…;
- Too much BE is the place of privileged detachment, where ‘All Lives Matter’…”
The spiritual leaders and healing practitioners offering rituals, new support roles, and new pathways of connection for activists are integral to the success of civil resistance in the United States today. Through their care, strategic and sustainable movements that attend both to the individual and the group are becoming more possible. Through their example, activists are seeing how spiritual investigation and practice can temper ego and reduce the tendency towards heroism or martyrdom. By illuminating shared ancestral lines, they are creating openings for collaboration rather than competition.
Perhaps it is time to add a new fifth category to Bill Moyer’s Four Categories of Activism: the Carer, maybe, or the Healer. It is a category for those who pay attention to the unique needs of the many individuals who together drive civil resistance strategies and make movements possible, often at great emotional or physical personal risk; a way to describe those who do the listening and provide the quiet, slow spaces of refuge in the midst of the whirlwind.
Carinne Luck is an organizer, trainer, and strategist living in Brooklyn, New York, USA. She is a co-founder of civil resistance groups If Not Now and By The People, a project to impeach Donald Trump, and a member of the Momentum community. She currently co-leads the Rooted in Resilience Mapping Project with Faith Matters Network.