Here we come, walking the Rebel Trail along the line of HS2 carrying flags printed with squirrels, leaves, woodland creatures. Fine and light, they catch the wind and ripple like waves, making the squirrels dance and run. When we come to a town, we wave them back and forth and sing. When we climb the stiles over fences they catch in the hedgerows and brambles. They scare the cows and scatter the sheep. It’s hot. Really hot. We melt and sweat and burn. I have blisters all over both sweating feet. The people at the back moan about the people at the front going too fast. The people at the front whine about the people at the back going too slow. Every now and then we come across a fence blocking a footpath, or a digger stranded in a sea of gravel and tree stumps. We would like to stop them cutting down the ancient woodlands. We would like to stop the whole £100 billion project. We break through the fences, trespass across the work sites, shout a bit, wave our flags a bit, straggle on into the next field, down the next track. In the heat. When we pause someone reads out our mission statement “Let’s take a moment – this moment – to remember why we are here”. I can’t remember why I’m here.
Andrew Harvey, who invented the term Sacred Activism, describes it as the synthesis of the mystic’s passion for truth and the activist’s passion for justice. I’m a minister and I meditate a fair bit, so that ticks the mystic box, I suppose. At least, I have structured my life around the calling to wake up from the dream of the world and come to know God directly, which is an aspiration the mystics would recognise. And I joined the rebellion: Extinction Rebellion, which exploded onto the streets in 2018 with a radical message of non-violent civil disobedience as our last best hope to address the climate catastrophe. I took myself up to London to add my voice and my hands and got arrested – among other things – for lying in the road with my arm in a concrete tube. So that makes me an activist, I suppose.
But I still look every day at the world around me and wonder what it is that I could do that might actually help and I still don’t know. I don’t know how I would even tell if the outcome of an action I take or don’t take is of benefit, or not of benefit. The Masters speak of this. The Tao De Ching tells us to do our work and set no store by it. The Bhagavad Gita tells us we have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only, not to the fruits. Spiritual wisdom tells us to let what is, be. It tells me I have no way to know if walking from Birmingham to London along the line of an imaginary train track, with blisters and a flag accomplished anything in the world. It tells me, if I were wise, I would abandon the desire to know.
And yet, at the same time, there is a spiritual imperative that we do act. Religious or not, observant or not, we are called to service. We cannot help but look at injustice, at suffering, at the destruction of Life, and want to do something. Being in the world, we cannot but act. And if I don’t – and can’t – know the outcome of my action, then how can I act for the good? How can my action be sacred? Of course, there are rules: The Ten Commandments; The Noble Eightfold Path; The Bill of Rights. And they help set a direction; but I find they only take me so far. Is it okay to break the rules on trespass to stop HS2 breaking the rules on when they can cut down trees? The Old Testament is not clear on the point – at least, not to me. Is my time better spent mindfully appreciating nature, or avidly signing petitions to protect it? Finding the balance, moment by moment, between being and doing; making these decisions on how best to use my precious resource is the central task of adulthood. But how do I actually do it? What action is sacred?
THE WHO AND THE HOW
It’s important to understand that it’s not just the nature of the action that determines whether it is sacred. I need to be clear WHO (or what) I am acting for. If I’m acting on my own behalf, to further my own opinion or make the world conform to how I imagine it ought to be, that’s not sacred. When I joined demonstrations about leaving the EU, that was not sacred activism, even though I naturally think that the outcome I favour would benefit others as well as myself. Walking the Rebel Trail, or lying in the road with Extinction Rebellion I am acting – or wishing and hoping to act – on behalf of Life. That’s why the banners have images of bees, oak leaves, and beetles. I may benefit personally from any change my action contributes to. Or I may not. It doesn’t matter. For action to be sacred, it has to be selfless, in the sense that it is not about me and what I can get from it. The biggest indictment brought this year against Extinction Rebellion is that it is not inclusive; that we are using our white privilege to try and protect oak trees and barn owls and all the while the state is killing black people – we should be acting to protect them! To the degree that we are trying to protect oak trees and barn owls because we like them and enjoy spending time in the woods where they live, we are not engaged in sacred activism. To the degree that we are trying to create and preserve a world where all beings can live and be well, then we are. We need to bring this discernment home to our personal practice as well. Why am I meditating now? Is it for myself or is it in service of Life? The key thing here is not the answer I come back with but that I ask the question.
HOW we act is just as important as for whom – and that means the internal as well as the external action. Walking the Rebel Trail, stopping again to wait for the rear guard, standing in the ruthless sun, heavy pack glued to sweaty back, shifting the weight on my tender feet, I was shocked how fast pain and fatigue could lead me to hatred and resentment for whoever was holding up the line. There’s nothing sacred about that! One of the Principles guiding Extinction Rebellion is “No blaming and no shaming”, understanding that projecting our fear and hatred onto others, such as the police, doesn’t get us anywhere with climate change. We would chant “Police, we love you. We’re doing this for your children, too” as we stood in lines blocking the road. Roused from my pop up tent blocking the road around Trafalgar Square, I witnessed a couple of protestors getting into an argument with the police. I went and help up my little scrap of pink cloth, printed with a heart and the words “We Love You”. “No we ***** don’t!” said the protestors. It’s a tough line to hold: Remembering that this individual police officer is a person, who’s been working stupid hours, who has kids, who joined the force to help people and do good, who maybe agrees with the cause we are fighting; and knowing that the Police as an institution are there to uphold and enforce the power of the state, using violence and coercion if need be. People like me – white, middle class, middle aged, female – sent cards and flowers to Brixton Police station, trying to enact the principle of Welcoming Everyone, of not blaming or shaming. And not remembering that four black men had died in that same police station over the previous year. If our activism leads us to anger and to hatred, then how it can be sacred? But if we cannot directly challenge and confront injustice, oppression and violence, including the people who, knowingly or not, support it, then in how can it be activism?
Sacred activism requires us, somehow, to love the world exactly as it is while working passionately for it to be different. To hold fast to the mystical belief – maybe even the knowledge – that every Life is a sacred manifestation of the divine. Even the ones whining at the back. Even the ones cutting down the trees. Even the ones with the nightsticks, and the ones signing the big deals. Even us. An act of sacred activism does not come simply from our rational mind, which says “don’t be ridiculous”. It comes from some deeper knowing.
Ultimately the only difference we can know that our action makes, is if it makes a difference to us. After I was up in court and convicted, I felt a great freedom. The action I took changed how I see my place in the world. Sitting in a police cell, the last time, I was surprised by a feeling of deep and serene freedom. The walls literally fell away in my mind and I felt as free as if I was walking on hills at sunset. I learnt, briefly, what many have said – that freedom is dependent not on what is without, but on what is within. That must be the test of sacred activism. Did it change you? Are you more loving? More conscious? More free? Can you demonstrate that for yourself and for others in your daily life? Yes? You are engaged in sacred activism. You are making a difference in the world.