From the Dean: The Spirituality of Protest

May 26, 2016

For the past year, there has been an escalation of civil unrest and protests in the United States. The protests have manifested themselves in many ways, some of it—like marches, sit-ins, and demonstrations aimed at coopting public gatherings to promote a cause—reminiscent of the 1960s. Most of these protests are also employing new 21st century social media technologies, which can organize, publicize and disrupt the status quo with unprecedented speed. This was demonstrated so well in 2011 by the Arab Spring, the democratic uprisings that arose independently and spread across the Arab world.

When it comes to protest activity for social change, it should be no surprise that universities are frequent locations. A curriculum asking students to wrestle with the most complex issues of the human condition, and helping them develop skills for thinking critically and acting justly, are nurturing social awareness and civic agency, and is predisposing young people for involvement in social protest movements.

Just like previous eras, some of the current protest movements are accurate in their critiques of institutional structures and culture, well-conceived in goal setting, well-orchestrated in implementation, disciplined in promoting new kinds of dialogue across differences and negotiating compromise or concessions in public or institutional policies. Others have none of those things, and create more harm than good. Protests and civil unrest can foment important cultural and institutional change; they can also become manipulative and self-destructive, and ironically can make real change far more difficult. Regardless of the merits of any given protest, however, the multi-layered transformations of American and global societies, makes it inevitable that civil unrest will continue and escalate. Consequently, it is important for us to understand the forces driving these displays of civil disobedience and resistance, which can result in positive change, or just as easily devolve into entrenchment and obfuscation on the one side, and chaos and anarchy on the other.

The news media is not much help in trying to penetrate the real causal factors for these movements. In general, media outlets have a narrow focus on the world’s “movements for change,” dealing almost entirely with the frustration, anger, disruptive nature of protest activities, and the drama of accusations, demands and counter-demands. Too much analysis is also devoted to process, such as the public relations strategies employed by different camps to “control the narrative.” The result is a skin deep analysis of emotional reactions and tactics, and it misses the most important reality of these social actions that seek institutional and culture change: the definable elements of spirituality underpinning the efforts.

There are at least three “spiritual” forces in human consciousness that are central to the social protests we are seeing today (although in our more secular era many people do not frame them as having anything to do with spirituality). In my mind, these forces are the real story behind these movements, and the more we can understand how these deep sources of motivation drive people to civil unrest, the more we can develop these spiritual capacities with a sense of wise and discerning action, the more likely we can channel protest movements into truly constructive changes in institutions and society. These three forces are: the power of human social imagination, the drive for connectivity, and the need to live in and with hope.

Every legitimate protest act to change a community, an institution, or a society has its origin in the inspiration provided by the human power of imagination—the mental and emotional capacity to “see” and “feel” a different kind of reality. Whether it is an honest recognition of the uneven playing field in race relations, more equitable salary structures, better access to housing for the homeless or poor, or changes in an institution’s operation or leadership, the social imagination of an alternate reality provides the ignition for social protest. Those leading and involved in social protest movements are inspired to act because they imagine a world that is structured in a different way and expects people to play by a different set of rules.

Many universities are exceptionally fertile ground for igniting this imagination, especially those emphasizing a so-called “liberal” education, because such a curriculum is designed to awaken the imagination. Perhaps the institutions that have the most potential for stimulating social imagination are the religiously-affiliated ones, because they have a larger horizon on which the imagination can grow—one that is able to transcend the limitations of existing human thinking. Early Jesuit schools, formed during the imaginative Italian Renaissance and the influence of Ignatius of Loyola’s imagination-dependent Spiritual Exercises, built an entire spirituality and educational pedagogy on the dynamism of this human ability to dream of things that do not yet exist.

Another key spiritual force underneath today’s social protests is the hunger for connectivity. From the time Marshal McLuhan coined the term, “the global village” in the early 1960s, and the Apollo 17 crew took the first clear, color photo of the earth from outer space in 1972, humans have been trying to assimilate a new realization – despite all the differences among the nearly 200 nations in the world, the competing histories and practices of the world’s religions, and the many more segmentations of worldview, communication patterns, and values along cultural, ethnic and racial lines within those nations and religions, we also inhabit one interdependent, fragile planet. We are inextricably bound to each other in ways that are beyond our awareness.

The famous Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, had a “global village” kind of experience that more and more of us are having in our shrinking world. In his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton tells of a profound experience that reconfigured his entire inner world. One day he was standing on a corner in the shopping district in Louisville, Ky, and was suddenly overwhelmed. “I realized,” Merton wrote:

that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness.”

The famous Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Ophan Pamuk describes a similar experience on the part of the main character in the haunting novel, Snow. Ka, a Turkish poet who immigrates to Germany and is left with a lonely, isolated life. He then returns to Turkey and the remote city of Kars to investigate the suicides of young Islamic girls. Ka, an atheist, has an awakening of faith in something, though he can only capture abstract glimpses of it in the poetry that seems to flow out of him from some mysterious place of inspiration. Ka summarizes his experience as “everything on earth is interconnected and I too am inextricably linked to this deep and beautiful world.” At this moment in history, we spend way too much time talking about how divided we are, along what lines and for what purposes. As Parag Khanna describes in his profound book, Connecttography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization, there are profound levels of human connectivity occurring on the global stage all around us, and the common ground under us is slowly and subtly shifting our sense of “me,” “us,” and “them.” Unfortunately, as Khanna notes, we are too fixated on what our human connectivity looked like in the past to appreciate how it is flourishing in the present.

Many protest movements are compulsed by feelings of separateness and those protesting intuit that this separateness is alien to our true nature as humans. From a spiritual perspective civil disobedience is an expression of rebelling against this separateness, although unfortunately (and ironically) too often the tactics used in the protest create more, not less division.

The third spiritual force operational in these social movements is perhaps the trickiest and most powerful and unpredictable of all—hope. Trusting that we can become a change agent in the world relies on hope. Emily Dickinson may be the poet with the most to say about hope. In her poem, Hope, she tried to describe this virtue as:

“… the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune – without the words,
And never stops at all.”

In another poem, “Hope is a strange invention,” she has this to say:

“A Patent of the Heart –
In unremitting action
Yet never wearing out –
Of this electric Adjunct
Not anything is known
But its unique momentum
Embellish all we own --

Hope is a form of energy that is far greater in its transformative potential than oil, gas or nuclear energy, embellishing everything it touches. Yet, as Dickinson observes, most of us know little about it. The Christian religious tradition considers hope one of the theological virtues—whatever it is, wherever it resides, it has been our long-standing belief that God is somehow present in its operation.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to participate in a curious event held in Washington DC that epitomized the human desire and need for imagination, connection and hope. The International Festival for Language and Culture, an event sponsored by the Turkic American Alliance brought together 126 students from 27 nations for more than a week to prepare for their evening performance before 3,000 people that consisted of the young people singing and dancing in traditional costumes. On first blush, the event seemed like an international, adolescent version of American Idol or Dancing with the Stars. But, the design and impact of the event was actually far more powerful and influential. Something much deeper was going on. It opened a space for the cultivation of social imagination, connectivity, and hope.

By the time the last colorful garment stopped twirling, the final note diminished in the auditorium and the flood lights dimmed, the young people had sung and danced and performed themselves into a different view of themselves, each other and the world. I found myself wondering who in the crowd of young people might become the next Malala Yousafzai, Paul Farmer, Nelson Mandela, or Aung San Su Ki, channeling the experiences of an imaginative vision, a deeper connectivity with others, and the perseverance that comes with hope to shift the foundation of an entire culture or society. (Photo courtesy of

The young people involved in the international festival reminded me of those who once gathered around the fires of their ancestors, to remember older truths and to connect in their bodies with more ancient wisdom, a wisdom making them one with each other, with previous generations, with the earth, and more importantly, one with a sense of a higher collective meaning, purpose, and possibility. Like experiences of the religious past, this event empowered these young people to imagine (and perhaps for the attendees to imagine, once again) the potential that humans have to paint a very different picture than the troubled world we see in our newspapers, our cable news stations, and the Internet.

For those of us in education and religious leadership, I found myself wondering just how well we nurture imagination, connectivity and hope in our own heart and in those who look to us for guidance and companionship? These are powerful forces that can make us into change agents in the world, and without them we can easily become bitter people disenchanted with the imperfection of life. Friedrich von Schiller may have a word for us in his poem entitled, Hope:

We speak with the lip, and we dream in the soul,
Of some better and fairer day;
And our days, the meanwhile, to that golden goal
Are gliding and sliding away.
Now the world becomes old, now again it is young,
But “The ‘better’s’ forever the word on the tongue.”

Most social protests are driven by a desire for “the better,” even if they go wrong along the way. In these times of unrest, perhaps those of us motivated by faith and spirituality can draw from the storehouse of our traditions to fire the social imagination, connectivity and hope in our own heart and mind and among those with whom we associate.

~Mark Markuly, PhD