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Spirituality Of A Social Activist

Spirituality Of A Social Activist

While facilitating a two-day meeting of the sisters and priests involved in Social Apostolate in the diocese of Gorakhpur I had the opportunity to reflect with them on various challenges related to social apostolate in the context of India today. What should be the spiritual foundation of a priest or sister involved in social apostolate? The collective search by the whole group led to clarity on different dimensions of the spirituality of a social activist. 

God has called a follower of Jesus to be a social activist in order to continue the mission of Jesus by contributing to the building of the Kingdom of God or Reign of God. Reign of God is a situation in which God is accepted as the father or mother and all human beings as brothers and sisters with equal dignity, rights and opportunities. Reign of God can be established in the context in which a social activist is involved. It requires transformation at the individual and community level. The transformation requires empowering the disadvantaged groups and sensitizing the rich and the powerful to respect the poor and to do justice to them.

The twofold dimension of the transformation expected in the society is amply reflected in the Gospels. The very purpose of most of the healing of Jesus was to make the victims of disease to integrate into the society by restoring their human dignity. Diseases and physical deformities were considered in the Jewish society as the consequence of a person’s sins or the sins committed by his or her forefathers. And all those who were suffering from dreaded diseases and serious physical or mental deformities were excluded from the society. Jesus empowered such people by restoring their human dignity. The ultimate goal of any social intervention is restoring the dignity of the human persons and liberating them from the humiliation of being excluded along with freeing them from self-centredness. As a result, a person’s self-image is improved; self-confidence is enhanced; he or she becomes self reliant and is able to defend his/her rights and dignity.

Jesus had established excellent relationship with the rich and the powerful of the society also. Once he was invited by a rich man, Simon the Pharisee, for a meal and Jesus obliged. Jesus made such occasions to interact with the rich and the powerful in the society in order to educate them. Mary Magdalene, a known prostitute of the locality, came to Jesus and made a public apology as an expression of her personal transformation. Jesus made use of that occasion for educating the guests the need for forgiveness. (Luke 7:36-50) Instead of condemning the persons who have drifted away from the right path due to various circumstances, they are to be motivated to undergo change.

Another very captivating incident is Jesus visiting the house of Zacchaeus. Jesus’ readiness to accept and honour Zacchaeus, a tax collector, with his presence made a drastic transformation in him. Zacchaeus said, “Look, Lord! here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” (Luke 19:8) A social activist, who is a disciple of Jesus, has to engage with the rich and the powerful in the society and bring about change in them so that they become sensitive and do justice to the less privileged as Zacchaeus did. 

If a social activist is to bring about the two fold transformation in the society i.e. empowerment of the powerless and sensitization of the powerful he/she is to be empowered first. Empowerment requires first and foremost a new understanding of the self, different from the one that has been indoctrinated i.e. human being is a sinner. According to the book of Genesis, human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. Human beings participate in the freedom and creativity of God. Human beings are p partners in the ongoing creative work of God with immense possibilities. In fact God dwells in every human being. That is why the advaita philosophy holds the view “ Aham Brahmasmi” (I am Brahman) . Hence the vocation of a human being is to maximize the divine within him/her. Sin happens because human beings are not aware of their greatness. Basically human beings are sons and daughters of God and not sinners.

Each human being is sent into the world to do something unique which no one else can do. Copying is an insult to God. Hence in the transformation of the society, each person has to make a unique contribution which others cannot.

Another change needed is regarding the understanding of God. According to the teachings of Jesus, God is a loving father or mother. Unconditional forgiveness and compassion are the two characteristics of God, whom Jesus has presented to his disciples. God of Jesus is different from the demanding, angry and punishing God of the Old Testament. God is like a good shepherd who goes in search of the lost sheep and not the one who demands penance and expiation from his sons and daughters. 

The third attitudinal change needed to become a Christian social activist is related to the perception of the world. A social activist has to understand that the world is a place where good and evil coexist and it needs transformation. Along with fighting against the evil forces in the society a social activist has to encourage and foster the goodness that is found in abundance.  Often the evil forces predominate because goodness is not encouraged and promoted.  

One of the significant tasks of a social activist is peace building in tune with one of the beatitudes. “Blessed are the peace makers; for they shall be called the children of God” (Mathew 5:9). Religious fundamentalism has emerged as one of the greatest threats to peace in different parts of the world. In the context of India the surge of Hindu fundamentalism in the form of Hindutva is the greatest challenge social activists have to face today. Resurgence of Hindu fundamentalism has led to the growth of fundamentalist groups in Islam and Christianity in India. Fundamentalists of all hues have a tendency to impose their views and practises on the rest of the population and to be prejudiced against the people of other faiths.  Naturally they become arrogant, aggressive and sometimes violent. Promotion of pluralism: acceptance, appreciation and celebration of differences, especially in terms of religion and culture are the panacea to Hindutva. Inter-religious prayer for peace, learning about the essence of different faiths and collaborative actions by the followers of different faiths to solve human problems are some of the means for fostering peace and harmony. 

Seeing God in human beings and serving that God is the very foundation of the spirituality of a Christian social activist. Jesus has powerfully explained the spirituality expected from his followers through the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), parable of the Last Judgement (Mathew 25:31-46) and the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). A social activist has to respond to the issues that adversely affect the lives of human beings and anything that violates human dignity and human rights.  Standing with the women and children who are abused, being in solidarity with the Dalits who are discriminated and oppressed, supporting the struggles of the Tribals for protecting the very basis of their existence: water, forest and land, and joining movements against corruption are the expressions of his/her spirituality. These actions in themselves are spiritual because they involve suffering and sacrifice and are altruistic in nature.

A social activist, because of his actions for protecting the rights of the people, especially of the marginalized and the underprivileged, could be accused of sedition by the state and the non-state actors. Sometimes the people for whom he/she struggles may not stand with him/her because of the fear of backlash from the powerful. Hence a social activist needs courage and strength to withstand the opposition, harassment and even persecution. For a Christian social activist God is the ultimate source of power and Jesus is the role model for drawing strength, courage and inspiration through contemplation. Jesus drew strength from God through contemplation when he had to undergo suffering and death as a consequence of his prophetic actions.

A Christian social activist may or may not practice the rituals and routine prayers prescribed by his/her sect. The rituals and prayers often vary from one sect to another. What are common to all Christian sects are the values and principles taught by Jesus, especially in the Sermon on the Mount. Unfortunately large majority of Christians have failed to practice the values and follow the rituals and routine prayers prescribed by the religious leaders. The authentic Christian social activists give priority to the practice of the values of Jesus rather than following the rituals and religious practices blindly. Their spirituality compels them to take the side of the persons, who are the victims of sexual abuse, exploitation, corruption, discrimination, displacement etc. In this process they may be branded as antinational, anti-religious and anti-Church. This is the price authentic Christian activists have to pay.


(Published on 10th December 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 50)