Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Active, The Contemplative, and Social Justice

Ever since Ben Gleck (for speaking his name just gives him more power) declared that being concerned for the well-being of the poor, the widow, and the orphan makes you a Stalinist, progressive Christians have been a raging hornet's nest of fury. Well, that's not quite right. It's been more like an open, inclusive, and relational hornet's nest of respectfully stated disagreement. Not nearly as satisfying, but that's how we roll.

That finally waning kerfuffle did stir in me an old tension. It's the way to find balance between spirituality and social justice, between contemplation and action, between the "love of neighbor" that manifests itself in efforts for systemic justice and the "love of God" that expresses itself in prayer, worship, and meditation.

Honestly, progressive Christians haven't really proven themselves to be the best at finding the knob on the "spirituality" door. As a laddie who was raised in a very social-justicey church, there was a great deal of emphasis on social equity and the rights of the disenfranchised. There was...well...rather less effort put into developing a sense of God's presence. More significantly, there wasn't an intentional development of the connection between the two, establishing the connection between those two aspects of the central ethic of our faith.

I was reminded a bit of how much faith and action can be divided while reading through the writings of an unknown 13th century English mystic. I'd been intending to read "The Cloud of Unknowing" for a while, but finally got around to it after a friend mailed me a copy (thanks, Jonathan!). Though I'm glomming on to large portions of the book, I'm not sure I quite embrace the occasionally binary approach to Christian faith that the author proposes. For all of his wit and insight, he tends to split the faithful into the "contemplatives," who sit like Mary at the foot of Christ, and the "actives," who fret about in the kitchen like Martha and kvetch about their slacker sister.

I just can't quite buy into that whole binary approach. Contemplation is not just for "contemplatives." Action is not just for "actives." We have, as human creatures, an admixture of gifts and needs. Though some of us may trend one way or 'tother, most of us require both time to ponder and time to get our hands dirty.

Giving care and seeking justice for the oppressed flows forth from contemplation, and contemplation is where we are called to go when the quest for justice seems too overwhelming for us to handle. In that balance, I think, is where we most effectively serve the Kingdom.