5 Heroic Activists Who Demonstrated That the Spiritual Is Political

In the United States, we tend to frame spirituality as a solitary pursuit, but the history of social justice and environmental movements—both at home and elsewhere—calls us to think differently. Some of the most formidable and effective activists have also been dedicated spiritual practitioners. They lived a kind of heroic wholeness in which their personal and political missions harmonized in an activist spirituality. While none were perfect personally or politically, and though we might disagree with them in philosophy or tactics, they all showed what can happen when a transcendent goodness inspires political actions that enact our highest consciousness and virtues.

As we face the twin spiritual and political crises of our era, we can draw lessons and hope from their legacies. As many of us are coming to realize, these figures understood that personal spirituality can reach its zenith only when it acts within a community for the greater good, and that activist communities are empowered by personal spirituality. Our fate is bound up with others—both materially and spiritually. Here are five activists whose lives demonstrated that the spiritual is political.

1. Martin Luther King Jr.

As a towering example of spirituality in action, Martin Luther King Jr. found a message of liberation in Christianity and sustenance in the church. Perhaps more than any American or worldwide icon, he aligned his spiritual convictions with his activism in a way that showed what could be accomplished when the two acted in harmony.

King was a Baptist minister and a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a group of religious leaders who risked their lives for civil rights. Death threats, beatings, and bombings were common, as were assassination plots. Although King was a Christian, his activism and spirituality were ecumenical, and he roused people of all faiths (and of no faith) to join the cause for social justice.

In 1963, he and other activists orchestrated the Birmingham Campaign to take on segregation and economic injustice in Birmingham, Alabama. The campaign remains a model of how nonviolent, yet disruptive, tactics can be deployed against oppression. The infamous Eugene “Bull” Connors, head of the police department, turned dogs and high-powered water jets against protesters, including children. While sitting in jail, King penned the famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he expressed frustration with white moderates. “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice …”

It was in the same year that he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, an oratory that still stirs us more than 50 years later. In 1965, in defiance of a judge’s order, he led marchers to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. After a short prayer session, he turned back the marchers, and the full march was carried out a little over two weeks later. It concluded at the state capitol, where King delivered the “How Long, Not Long” speech in which he predicted that justice for African Americans was coming because “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Seeing the connection between class, imperialism, and racism, King publicly condemned the Vietnam War, and in 1968 launched the Poor People’s Campaign, which called for an “economic Bill of Rights.”

In his book, Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis V. Baldwin writes that King espoused “the combination of prayer, intelligence, and sustained activism” to break what he termed the “‘evil triumvirate,’ namely racism, poverty and war … ”

On numerous occasions, King is quoted as saying, “As a minister, I take prayer too seriously to use it as an excuse for avoiding work and responsibility.”

2. Dorothy Day

When Pope Francis addressed Congress in 2015, he included Dorothy Day, alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Merton, and Abraham Lincoln in his list of “great Americans.” A founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Day’s commitment to the poor went far beyond charity. She espoused “distributism,” a Catholic economic theory that called for decentralized ownership of the means of production.

In 1917, Day was arrested for picketing the White House in a demand for women’s suffrage. She was sentenced to a month in jail and served 15 days, the majority of which was during a hunger strike.

In 1933, she was a founder of the Catholic Worker newspaper, the main organ of a movement that articulated powerful arguments for equality, justice, and an end to exploitation. She remained an editor until 1980.

A pacifist, Day parted with the Church in its support of Franco’s fascist government in Spain, and was one of the founders of the Committee of Catholics to Fight Anti-Semitism. Jailed numerous times for acts of civil disobedience, the final occasion was in 1973, when she stood with striking farmworkers at the age of 75. Day is reported to have said, “If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God.”

3. Daniel Berrigan

When Jesuit priest and peace activist Daniel Berrigan died at 94 in 2016, he left behind a legacy of activism that stretched back to the Vietnam War and included the distinction of being the first priest to ever make the FBI’s Most Wanted List for a daring act of civil disobedience. Berrigan burst onto the public scene in 1968 as a member of the Catonsville Nine. Along with a group of eight other activists including his brother, Philip Berrigan, he entered the draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland, and removed 378 draft files while the staff looked on in shock. Once in the parking lot, he and the others poured homemade napalm over the records and set them ablaze. After a court sentenced Berrigan to three years in prison for this action, he went underground and eluded capture for four months. This landed him on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. When he was finally apprehended in 1970, he reported to Danbury Prison and served two years.

Growing up in Illinois, I was one of the thousands of young activists who were electrified and inspired by the Berrigan brothers’ example of Christian “bearing witness” during their months underground. I read interviews with him and his brother as they declared their refusal to cooperate with the war machine, and I participated in demonstrations demanding his freedom.

A decade later Daniel, Philip, and six others executed another spectacular civil disobedience action when they entered the General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, where they attacked nuclear missile nose cones with hammers. They took inspiration from the words of Isaiah 2:4: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Berrigan never desisted from activism. He linked arms with AIDS patients, civil rights fighters, and peace activists. In 2011, he spoke at the Zuccotti Park Occupy encampment in Manhattan.

In a 2008 interview with The Nation marking the 40th anniversary of Catonsville, Berrigan said: “The short fuse of the American left is typical of the highs and lows of American emotional life. It is very rare to sustain a movement in recognizable form without a spiritual base.”

4. Mahatma Gandhi

When Mahatma Gandhi set out to do the impossible—expel the British from India and restore home rule—he was fortified with a deep and eclectic spirituality. While he practiced Hinduism, he drew inspiration from everything from Jainism to the work of Tolstoy and the writings of Thoreau.

Gandhi first cultivated his philosophy of Satyagraha, which created the political and spiritual infrastructure for the practice of nonviolent resistance, in South Africa, where he relocated in 1893 to take a job as an attorney. There he led several campaigns on behalf of the Indian minority. It was while agitating against the Asiatic Registration Law or “Black Act” in 1907 that he first implemented the principles of Satyagraha. All Indians were required by law to carry identification documents at all times, and get fingerprinted. Gandhi organized the kind of popular civil disobedience that he would later bring home to India. Masses of Indians refused to be fingerprinted, went on strike, and deliberately traveled without documents. Gandhi was sentenced to a two-year prison term in 1908. In 1914, the Asiatic Registration Law was repealed. This was a landmark success for nonviolent resistance.

Returning to India soon after, Gandhi set about turning the independence movement into a massive and dynamic organization utilizing powerful nonviolent tactics. He led boycotts against British manufacturers, engaged in hunger strikes, and led marches and protests. In 1930, he shepherded a spectacular example of Satyagraha in the Salt March, when he led thousands of Indians on 240-mile walk in protest of the Salt Acts. They walked for nearly a month, beginning at Gandhi’s ashram in Sabarmati, and ending at the Arabian Sea. The Salt Acts banned Indians from selling or collecting salt, and required them to purchase it from the British at a heavily taxed rate. The protest resulted in Gandhi’s arrest and eight-month imprisonment. The salt tax was only abolished when the interim government took power in 1947, but the march shook the British, helped turn worldwide public opinion against them, and secured Gandhi a place in negotiations.

Although independence didn’t come until 1947 and after much bloodshed, Gandhi showed that nonviolent resistance could be a powerful tool in the hands of the oppressed. Martin Luther King Jr. and many other social-justice campaigners drew inspiration from Satyagraha and Gandhi’s life.  

Gandhi is quoted as saying:

“Who am I? I have no strength save what God gives me. I have no authority over my countrymen save the pure moral. If He holds me to be a pure instrument for the spread of non-violence in place of the awful violence now ruling the earth, He will give me the strength and show me the way. My greatest weapon is mute prayer. The cause of peace is therefore, in God’s good hands.”

5. Joanna Macy

Joanna Macy is one of the most profound wisdom influences on thousands of activists working for peace, justice, and ecology. Also a scholar, Macy’s activism is an organic expression of her deep understanding of Buddhism, systems theory, and deep ecology.

In 1972, while earning her PhD at Syracuse University, she began integrating the ideas that would become her life’s work. As she began leading meetings and workshops, she was powerfully struck by the unacknowledged grief of many activists. Following the publication of her article,“How to Deal with Despair,” she started receiving invitations to conduct workshops on the theme. She discovered that when people opened up to the pain they felt for the world, they began to sense a deeper connection with life. From these experiences, she created the Work That Reconnects, a groundbreaking theoretical framework for personal and social change, with a powerful workshop methodology for its application.

Thousands of people around the world have now participated in Macy’s trainings, or have experienced the Work That Reconnects as adapted for use in classrooms, churches, and grassroots organizing. She helps people transform despair and apathy—in the face of overwhelming social and ecological crises—into constructive, collaborative action. This brings about a new way of seeing the world, as our larger living body, freeing us from assumptions and attitudes that now threaten the continuity of life on Earth.

One key aspect of Macy’s work has been to serve the recognition that our world is in danger from climate change, depletion of resources, rising toxin levels, destruction of ecosystems, and a growing gulf between rich and poor. Our current self-destructing political economy sets its goals and measures its performance in terms of ever-increasing corporate profits—in other words, by how quickly materials can be extracted and turned into consumer products, weapons, and waste.

Macy also articulated the Great Turning as the essential adventure of our time: the shift from an industrial society, inflamed by an economic system dependent on accelerating growth, toward a life-sustaining civilization.

In the face of global crises, Macy provides teachings that move people from despair to empowerment, without creating distinctions such as good/bad, and us/them. Her work has changed the lives of people around the world, from the California redwoods to the devastation of Chernobyl, and helped them find the courage to transform helplessness and overwhelm to healing and genuine transformation of our troubled planet.

As an activist and practitioner, I have personally benefited from Joanna’s friendship and mentorship. She is a truly mature wise woman, an enormously important “founding mother” of what I call “a new republic of the heart”—the order that is coming into being by the revolution that is now building.  

Macy writes:

“We have the technical knowledge, the communication tools, and material resources to grow enough food, ensure clean air and water, and meet rational energy needs. Future generations, if there is a livable world for them, will look back at the epochal transition we are making to a life-sustaining society. And they may well call this the time of the Great Turning. It is happening now.”


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