A Primer For Activism

Issue 294
January/February 2016
A Food Renaissance

Reviews

A Primer For Activism
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Cover: Cover image: Tessa Traeger www.tessatraeger.com

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Adam Weymouth finds a textbook updated and essential. Spiritual Activism: Leadership as Service by Alastair McIntosh & Matt Carmichael. Green Books, 2015. ISBN: 9780857843005

Several years ago I studied Alastair McIntosh’s Spiritual Activism module when it was part of the Human Ecology Masters at Strathclyde University. The textbook that Alastair developed for that course forms the basis of this new book, the material updated and embellished by Matt Carmichael of Schumacher North.

It is a book squarely aimed at activists, defined by the authors as those who act to bring about change in the ways that relationships are structured, “to seek to use our lives to give life”. The merit of bringing spirituality to this work, they say, is multifaceted. A spiritual life is one with an ever-deepening knowledge of the self, enabling the activist to come to a better understanding of where the core values that drive their campaigning derive from. It also helps ensure that the individual acts from a place of integrity, not fudging facts or simplifying issues, but maintaining a deep commitment to an underlying truth. Admitting other modes of knowing, such as poetry and prayer, encourages a deeper exploration of “the further reaches of reality”. And lastly, spirituality is a safety net for burnout, a place of retreat when the work gets too much. As Alastair was told when he was growing up, “You don’t find many atheists on a life raft.”

The authors write as academics, foremost, and they are keen to avoiding being seen as drifting too far towards the woolly. This attitude does them credit, and sets this book apart. By its nature one cannot make a watertight, empirical case for spirituality, but the second chapter, ‘Spirituality Justified’, attempts to build a solid case for the limits of rationality and the need for spirituality on intellectual grounds.

The philosophy that they argue for is perennial. On a typical page the sources veer from Scottish folklore to the Bhagavad Gita to the lyrics of Led Zeppelin. It is hard to imagine how the committed sceptic would be convinced, but such is the problem with which all prophets have wrestled. The book presupposes an openness to its ideas, but seeks to deepen and flesh out the curiosity of activists who are questioning whether there might be more to their calling.

Later chapters attempt to bring the theory into practice. They explore the spiritual underpinnings of nonviolence with a focus on Pussy Riot’s performance in Moscow Cathedral, breathing fresh life into arguments that have been reworked many times. They suggest how activist groups could better function with an awareness of their psychodynamics, drawing specifically on Jung, and they discuss how to create more powerful resistance with an understanding of how actions can impact upon the psyche. This is bold stuff, unashamedly so. It is a call for activism divested from cynicism, drawing its power from truth and not from spin. “The non-genuine person cannot believe that the genuine exists,” they quote the folklorist Hamish Henderson as saying. These writers are nothing if not genuine.

Originally this textbook underpinned the course, a course that also encompassed debate in class, essays, field trips, and other texts. Read from cover to cover without that external framework, it can seem at times a bit of a freewheeling romp, barrelling along from Jungian psychology to a dissection of cults to the Quaker practice of discernment with scarcely a pause for breath. There is little time for alternative viewpoints – the critiques of nonviolence, for example, are written off in a single paragraph – and some will find that frustrating. But thought of as a primer, a starting point for discussion and introspection, backed up by the extensive further reading suggested at the end of the book, there is a wealth of material and knowledge here.

Adam Weymouth is an environmental journalist. www.adamweymouth.com, Twitter: @adamweymouth

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