Spiritual Transformation & Non-Violent Feminist Practice, pt. 2
Reflecting on spirituality vs. ethics, I was fascinated to realize I’d made one of the mistakes the author notes: considering non-violence as equivalent to passive resistance — as nothing more than yet another tactical tool to be used in accomplishing social justice. Instead, Fernandes refers extensively to Gandhi, noting his belief that non-violence is a passion, a way of life — while passive resistance is merely “a weapon for the weak” (60). I was startled again to read that Gandhi feels so strongly about this that he actually recommends force in self-defense for those who are not yet strong enough to practice non-violence! (131; ftn. 24)
A striking element of this passionate practice of non-violence is the refusal of the social scripts of retributive justice. The reasoning behind this radical position is that behaviors performed upon the Other are nothing more than an intensifying mirror of the performer’s internal landscape. Violence and harm to others are the results of self-loathing just as much as loving compassion is the result of personal caring and humility; the former is oppositional, while the latter has the potential for radical transformation. What I find most personally shocking, however, is my realization of the sweeping extent of the normalization of violence in our everyday lives. Examples are slandering an acquaintance in gossip, or the sometimes brutal jockeying for position in the workplace — all the small injustices we don’t even recognize any more as cruelty, even while we pat ourselves on the back for donating to the most recent cause du jour. As the author perceptively notes, this leads to a:
strong potential for the corruption of the transformative power of social activism when a false dichotomy between public activism and private everyday behavior is assumed. It is … easier to condemn public physical violence that others engage in than to conduct a self-examination of one’s own practices, both at the individual and the collective levels. (56)
Fernandes goes on to explain the slow, immense power of consciously-chosen, spiritualized, redemptive suffering, and notes that the usual politics of demands for rights are based in hierarchical, scarcity-based thinking. More effective is recognition of the need for compassionate sharing: demand rights, yes — but also give them back to others as well. Such behavior negates the perception of “divisiveness” between activists, such as when marginalized feminists challenge more privileged women to share.
Fernandes further explores how this new and spiritualized form of ethical action will affect the power dynamics of the creation of knowledge. She offers a de-colonization process based in the spiritual/ethical practice of witnessing, while simultaneously recognizing that this will be more transformative for the witness than for the witnessed. This witnessing can be a daily — if unrecognized — process which does not always demand immediate action: “from a spiritualized perspective, transformation occurs through the practice itself rather than in the visible or material outcome of the practice” (119-120). I speak from personal experience when I say it is sometimes hard to only witness, rather than interfering in unwanted but ignorantly well-intentioned ways:
Witnessing the suffering of others can open the soul to the rigors of spiritual principles such as compassion, love and justice; rigors that are far more demanding in terms of spiritual responsibility … What can make this act of witnessing transformative … is neither conventional political or social acts of intervention … but instead, a spiritualization of the suffering being witnessed. (92)
This experience is a critical — and humbling — shift of power dynamics away from exploitative spectacle. The socially transformative recognition of this deep ethical responsibility re-casts the witness as surrendering the implicit power and control gained from studying others, for the “frightening possibility that those of us who claim to be the knowers are in fact the ones being taught,” since “witnessing as a basis for gaining spiritual knowledge … humble[s] the witness in ways that are currently unimaginable in traditional academic institutions” (93). We are no longer the knower; the one who appropriates information, refashioning it into their conceptualization of valid knowledge. As Fernandes points out, despite capitalist dogma, information is neither property nor an element of economic scarcity, and framing it so will invariably do violence to those involved, and reproduce current damaging structures of power.
One of the author’s most intriguing postulations is her explication of secularism as colonizing religion — rather than the more often assumed belief that religion invades the secular. As Fernandes points out, however, it is the assumption of a disguising cloak of religiosity for the appropriation of secular power which twists and distorts the core spiritual truths of religions. This understanding demonstrates why spiritualized social transformation is neither politicized religion nor a political struggle against secularism: it offers no state power to its constituents, nor does it lend itself well to fundamentalist extremism:
To secularize spirituality is to harness divine beliefs, faiths, truths and the deepest sources of wisdom in order to pursue secular, material ends … To spiritualize the material realm … is to engage in the non-violent practices that transform individual, community and national attachments away from vested interests in bounded forms of power and control. (107)
More potentially embarrassing (at least for myself) is Fernandes’ assertion that a spirituality which does not confront the United States’ political, military, cultural and economic hegemony across the globe “becomes a mask for the power and privilege” (111) which we accrue simply by being citizens of one of the most socially dominating and colonizing countries on the earth. For example, immersing oneself in a “foreign” religion without taking any spiritual responsibility for injustices and inequalities perpetrated against its indigenous practitioners is to reduce spirituality to an extracted and commercialized commodity used for personal comfort. It is instead more appropriate to challenge the structures of power which create the exploitative inequalities which currently allow the thoughtless to appropriate and steal indigenous beliefs while holding abusive (even if well-meaning) power over them.
I have a short checklist to help myself which I’ve replicated here; perhaps it will be of use to you also. Spirituality:
- allows one to dis-identify: who am I aside from family, nationality, race, sex, class, gender, religion, sexuality, etc.?
- is a never-ending personal quest (though how does inclusiveness accrue? Can it?)
- is NOT organized religion, but…
- holds “deeply egalitarian visions of truth and justice” (14), like the mystical core teachings of most of the “organized” religions
- doesn’t have to have/may usually not have instant results
- is not colonized by secular forces for personal/political gain
- involves the hard work of self-transformation, and…
- when faced with the magnitude of social change needed, allows hope instead of defensive cynicism.
I’m still chewing over the expanding ramifications of this book, so I don’t have anything clever to close with. Therefore I’ll simply close with one of Fernandes’ more thought-provokingly perplexing quotes: “utopia exists at the moment when suffering is transformed into love” (120).