Spirituality Goes Hand in Hand With Social Change

If we are looking for a silver lining in America’s current political climate, it’s an increased call for social awareness and action. People are organizing like never before, and we are looking for answers to make powerful, effective change. Change in our society, change in ourselves and change in the world.

The times are certainly desperate, with military and political agitation rising across the world and an environmental crisis like nothing humanity has ever faced.

On top of this, the world’s institutions have proved themselves to be ill-equipped to respond to the knowledge and insight of our brightest scientific minds and analysts, and thus ill-equipped to handle these crises.

Now more than ever, our spiritual practice will be needed to fortify ourselves and keep us engaged in active participation for transformation and positive change. Not only change and transformation for ourselves, but for our ability to change and affect the world.

Spirituality goes hand in hand with Social Activism; from Moses to Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King and the roots of the New Age, spiritual enlightenment has always led to an examination of social norms and the need for greater equality and change.

Dwelling on this truth and watching its effects within has brought forth two key areas of focus for me the last few weeks.

One has been a meditation on the social change brought by great spiritual leaders throughout time and the inspiration that these leaders can generate in our own lives.

The other has been an examination of my own beliefs and the discovery that some of them undermined my sense of responsibility and ties to Social Activism.

(You can check this out in Six Messages that Get in the Way of Social Change.)

Shadow work is never fun, and examining our blind spots can be quite vexing, but the more I looked into these assumptions and how they can play out in our ability to connect, commune with and transform our communities, the more I want to share these meditations with you and see if these beliefs might be holding you back as well.

It was the observation of these subtle inner messages and the study of these spiritual leaders that has truly reinforced in me the understanding that to be self-realized, enlightened or awakened is to step into a new mantle of social responsibility.

As Buddha teaches, all things are co-arising, interconnected, and that places the responsibility of self-realization into every facet of our lives from our personal exploration to community involvement, society, and politics.

If we look at the revelation of the Buddha himself upon receiving enlightenment, he was approached by the gods and asked to teach his message to mankind. Fully understanding mankind, however, he despaired of us ever learning and changing.

Still, the gods begged him to start the wheel of dharma and begin the process of man’s enlightenment.

Dharma is our duty to society and the world.

When Buddha reached enlightenment he was challenged to uphold the Dharma and accept the responsibility of enlightenment, to spread enlightenment to the world.

It’s not popular in today's society to talk about responsibility when it comes to spirituality. Many of us have left or stayed clear of religious institutions that have overly enforced spiritual responsibility because we have found the values of these institutions and what they ask us to be responsible for to be repressive of ourselves and others.

However, as we study the work of some of the world’s spiritual masters, we will find that spirituality goes hand in hand with social responsibility. In fact, spirituality seems to demand social action.

That is why I am starting this blog here.

Most of the posts in the Spirit Blog will be a look at teachings from the world’s many spiritual traditions. Teachings that empower us in our own exploration of self, spirit, and unity. Because empowered we are capable of so much more.

It’s like Uncle Ben says, though, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

This is what I really want to work for. Not only the healing and empowerment of our own lives but the ripple effect that it makes in the world when we take our inner work and use our newfound strength and integrity to affect the world around us.

For a lot of people, the idea of social responsibility isn’t news. (Still, feel free to read along for the pleasant head nods.)

Social Change, Service and Activism are mainstays in many religions, traditions and of course amongst many secular individuals and groups.

There are church funded shelters, spiritually driven recovery groups, lunches served daily at Sikh and Hindu temples across the nation and civil rights movements forged by Muslims and Christian ministers alike.

This isn’t anything new. Each of these religions are simply following the lead of their founders, spiritual leaders who, through the ages, have increased social awareness and called for greater levels of equality and morality.

What is new, however, is the in-between state people like me have found ourselves in.

If you’re anything like me, you may have spent some time outside of these established traditions. And as such, the idea of dedicated Social Service, Justice and Activism may have fallen off somewhere in the attempt to escape institutions, oppression, thou shalts, shoulds and dont’s.

That is why writing this is making me rather uncomfortable. I’ve been trained in the alternative spiritual practices to stay away from “should” statements.

“Should” is a dirty word to a lot of people. We’re taught that it doesn’t really matter what people believe as long as they’re not hurting anyone. That everyone is on their own path and they make their own choices. There should be no shoulds.

And yet, there's still a fiery prophet somewhere inside, rising up from my conservative Christian background, shouting that we need to change. We need to wake up; we need to be a light unto the world.

I can’t say this archetypal prophet is wrong. More so than ever we need to be changing the course that humanity is taking. That includes our own personal lives and those of our communities, organizations, and nations.

Because this time, rather than threats of the wrath of a god, there are very measurable consequences for our individual and societal behavior from the quality of our health to environmental devastation.

So in order to appease the fiery prophet as well as the apologist inside, I want to piece this meditation out.

First, some examples of spiritual teachers throughout time and how their messages affected social change and action.

Then, an exploration of what thoughts, beliefs, and modern day dogmas get in the way of promoting social action amongst spiritual practitioners. What happens to these beliefs when we observe them under the light of Social Service and Justice?

Let’s start with the spiritual traditions and look at them chronologically because without a doubt there has been an evolution of spiritual and ethical thought, causing each new spiritual revelation and teaching to open the doors of equality and social change just a bit more than those that came before. (With the exception of dark ages of course, but those come from distant followers rather than teachers.)

As far as teachers go we’ll start with Moses, but for a moment let’s take a look at the spiritual traditions that came before the well-known teachers.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead has many prayers to the gods and descriptions of the afterlife. In these works, it expressed that Ma’at, the weigher of souls, seeks righteous people, people who give to the poor, who feed the hungry and help the needy.

The idea of Ma’at, however, was much more than a god of judgment. She was the very being of Truth and as such the Order that sustained the universe. Without Ma’at and without keeping with her principals it was believed that the world would descend into chaos and self-destruction.

It was the work of an Egyptian to appease the gods by caring for their fellow humans. Not simply so as to receive a better afterlife, but out of devotion to the principle of Truth and Harmony, the very foundation of existence.

"I have given bread to the hungry and clothed the naked and I was a husband to the widow and father to the orphan.” (1)

Similar concepts interpenetrate Hinduism, Daoism and the traditions of the Norse, Greek, and Roman.

In Hinduism, the universal concept is expressed through Rta, universal order, and it is maintained by Dharma.

In Daoism, it is the following of the Dao that maintains universal harmony and balance. The Romans had their virtues and the Greeks had Themis.

While these societies most certainly exhibited levels of oppression we wouldn’t ever want to see today, there were also some rather generous cultural norms that went for most ancient societies.

Nearly every tradition made it clear that you don’t harm people who come to you while traveling or in need, instead, you give them what you can. This is also a foundational piece to Islam and early Judaism and Christianity.

Here in Portland, Oregon, I can probably get away with knocking on someone’s door and asking for water, but unless I signed up on Couchsurfing.com and arranged a stay with someone I couldn’t just knock on a door and expect food and shelter.

Worse, in many places in the United States I’d risk getting shot or at the very least verbally attacked for being crazy. And now, in today’s political world, refugees are being turned away, sent back to their war-torn lands.

Yet in a more violent time, people practicing older traditions would take strangers into their homes, feed them and give them shelter.

It was the strength and power of the ancient spiritual traditions that allowed them to put down their swords and set aside their differences and their fears in order to embrace a stranger and give to them the aid they needed.

It wasn’t always rational, it didn’t always make sense, but it was the right thing to do. This is what a good spiritual tradition does, shows us the right way to conduct ourselves in our lives, in our heads, and in the world.

Like every civilization, there was definitely room for improvement, which is where Moses comes along for Egypt.

He got tired of the slavery practices there and led a rebellion to free his people.

We know Moses most for the books of the Torah, a collection most likely composed of at least two written traditions by several authors.

The guy had a rather difficult job, mediating between a virtue-driven god and humans. I don’t have the time or the calling to go over how Moses and the Israelites established their kingdom, nor to really dive into the war and genocide it was founded on.

War is common. It writhes and twists around nearly every spiritual tradition from the Buddhist Ashoka in India to the Crusades, Shinto Samurais, Daoist Emperors and the Christian colonists of America.

What I am more concerned with here is the political and social movement that was created by Moses.

An established social order that routinely freed slaves, forgave debts, redistributed land and wealth, protected the rights of foreigners and created a legally binding covenant for the care of widows and orphans, an environmentally mindful tending of the lands, and even protection for accused murderers.

While Pantheists, Polytheists, and Henotheists may not be the biggest fan of the Monotheism that started to develop in Judaism, it did go hand in hand with a social transformation.

Most of the world’s spiritual traditions had been immersed in their ethnic culture and in a set geographic location. The tallest local mountain was often the home of the gods, the rivers were mythical locations, gods or artifacts from the time “before,” wells, caves or lakes were entrances into the Otherworld.

The religion was geo- and ethnic-centric. Most of the time the languages in these cultures recognized the person of the culture as human or civilized and all others as “Other,” barbarians or something lesser, maybe even monstrous.

Moses’s search for a promised land created a society that had gone beyond that geographic centrism, allowing spirituality to be practiced anywhere. Further, the idea of an all-powerful God of gods allowed for a society that engaged with others as equal creations.

Surely Israel played themselves up as the chosen tribe of God, but their ontological category was the same as anyone else’s. They were human and they were creations. Maybe Abraham was God’s buddy, but he was the same sort of creature as Lot, Adam or Cain in the end.

This wasn’t the case for most other traditions at the time. Often the possessors of the local faith traced mythical lineages back to the gods themselves and had harsher backstories for other races and people.

This is the root of many of the Greek heroes. Today we look back and think the gods were simply promiscuous. But at the time the stories were a way to claim a lineage back to a patron god and theologically differentiate a city state not only from its Greek neighbors but the “barbarians” beyond.

Moses raised the category of persons everywhere to the same kind of human being with the same beginning, Adam and Eve.

He then built a society that represented this to the best of his ability and created a divine covenant not only between the people and God but a social contract between the people.

It was for this “ideal” society that Moses instigated a rebellion, led the Hebrew people through a desert, trained and educated them for forty years and passed on his dream to his disciples before he died.

He lived for a vision he would never see fulfilled, and yet it was the basis for a covenant, legally concerned with the care of others and the environment.

In a similar vein, the work of Buddha cast off much of the repression of the caste systems in India. The belief of non-Atman, often translated as “non-self” here in the States, is most often seen in its modern light as the denial of personal ego.

However, in the time of Buddha, it was absolutely revolutionary.

Buddha was part of a succession of different spiritual leaders who revolted from the strict caste systems of India.

We’re probably all familiar with Yoga, but we might not be familiar with its revolutionary roots. The practice stems from the Upanishads and an attempt by persons outside of the Brahmanic path to discover their own systems of worship and means to Moksha.

Tired of the caste system and the exclusivity of the Brahmanic class in terms of spiritual knowledge, power, and salvationary authority, systems such as Yoga, Guru traditions and the Upanishads themselves opened the door for people in all castes to begin their own spiritual exploration.

This didn’t come easily, though. Often practitioners had to leave society behind and practice in the jungles or mountains because of persecution.

People were attacked and abused, and many of the stories of these early gurus or other spiritual leaders such as Buddha or the Jain’s Mahavira contain tales of their persecution.

While Buddha took root in these earlier spiritual revolutions, his statement of non-Atman went further than anything before him.

It completely undermined the entirety of Indian society with just a word: Anatta, non-self. Indian society at the time was based on one’s caste system and that caste system was based on the belief that one is born into the caste-appropriate for their karma.

The belief led back to the Atman, something often compared to the western belief of a soul.

India’s greatest spiritual minds have debated for centuries about what exactly the Atman means, so I’m not going to try and define it here and now.

What is important for our discussion is the fact that the Atman was believed to collect karma and this karma resulted in a person’s life position or caste.

By declaring Anatta, non-Atman, Buddha also declared non-caste and non-exclusion and promoted a new state of equality unknown to India at the time.

To don, the saffron robes of the Buddhists meant leaving behind your position in a hierarchical society. This often meant your friends, your family, even your work, and trade. All of this was exchanged for a new sangha, a family in exile, a family of equality.

Similarly, Yeshua (Jesus) asked us to focus on our relation to God as children rather than our nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, wealth or education.

Living in a complex political society in the throes of revolution, Yeshua stood up at a time when the Sadducees and Pharisees were attempting to enforce their own forms of social and spiritual conservatism on a population politically dominated by Rome and culturally revolutionizing in the opposing directions of Zionism and Hellenization.

For all of his parables Yeshua kept his message simple: Take care of the poor, the widows, the orphans, the disabled and needy, do not judge your neighbors, go forth peacefully, and don’t bother getting rich or powerful, it does you no good.

He taught ethics that opposed the Hellenic notions of hedonism, asking us to be watchful not only of our actions but our minds and intentions.

He consistently challenged the notion of worldly power, which was the drive of the Roman conqueror and the religious conservatism found amongst the Sadducees and Pharisees, who oppressed their own people.

In fact, his harshest words and statements were consistently saved for these socially repressive factions, as well as the rich and powerful who took advantage of others.

He spent his time with the social outcasts, much like the Buddha, who spent his time with his disciples, people who exiled themselves as outcasts simply by joining his movement.

Both took on the causes of the poor, the expression of a higher consciousness that tends to the suffering and nurturing of people rather than the acquisition of wealth and power and both made room for women and cultural outsiders in their movements.

Buddha and Yeshua taught a middle way between hedonism, conservatism, and power, teaching a human-centered doctrine with practical ethics, a strong focus on mindfulness and human compassion.

Both teachers took their messages to their graves after teaching for as long as they could, in the case of Yeshua the message he gave of spiritual and social transformation ended in his execution due to its perceived threat to the established society.

It was his life and work that would inspire future leaders such as Martin Luther King, Gandhi and a host of other transformational workers who changed the world around them.

Every time a message of enlightenment is delivered, the kind that has been shown through the ages to ring with enough truth to survive, it causes a new state of awareness and activism.

This is what we must channel in our everyday lives as we work to change the world.

And it is for this reason we must examine the underpinnings of our own minds, much as Moses, Buddha, and Jesus did, finding the beliefs that get in our way, handicapping us from doing the most we can.


What do you think? Are there beliefs you have that may be holding you back from participating in social activism and justice? I found I had some and you can check them out Here.

I'd also love to hear examples of other religious leaders you admire who also created social change. I can't cover them all in the blog, but I know there are many more out there.

  1. James P. Allen (2000). Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. p. 116. ISBN 978-0-521-77483-3.