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= Engaged Ecumenism as a political perspective

Project: From the Crisis of Capitalism to the Emergence of Peer to Peer Political Ecologies


Summary by Jose Ramos:

Religions form an important part of the globalisation process (Beckford, 2000; Lubeck, 2000) and religious orientations have been an important part of the WSF(P). Some of the WSF(P) founders, such as François Houtart and Chico Whitaker, have important roots in Catholic liberation traditions (Sahabandhu, 2006). A survey of WSF(P) participants showed the majority belonged to some religious tradition, which ‘seem[s] to point to the important role religion plays among the social groups fighting against neo-liberal globalisation…’ (Santos, 2006, p. 90). ‘Ecumenism’ pervades the WSF(P) and movements for another globalisation.

Ecumenism, a Christian concept, is expanded here to describe a pan-spiritual interlinking of dialogue and action, inclusive of religious traditions around the world. One of the most striking features of the social forums is the presence of a diversity of religious and spiritual organisations. These range from Catholic liberation theology, Protestant churches (The World Council of Churches), Ananda Marga / PROUT, Hinduism in the path of Gandhi, Engaged Buddhism (including the Free Tibet movement), Muslim groups and many more. Because of the open nature of social forums, groups that adhere to the charter of principles are assured a space in which to present and collaborate. Thus, social forums have become a location for a deep ecumenical convergence for Alternative Globalisation. Drawing from the broad religious inheritance of humanity, spiritual political action follows in the footsteps of prominent leaders such as: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, P.R. Sarkar, Desmond Tutu, Thich Nhat Hanh, Cesar Chavez and many others (Ingram, 2003a).

Gandhi is the seminal figure in this process; he had direct and lasting influence on spiritual social activism globally. Other notable campaigns include: Martin Luther King’s leadership during the US civil rights movement, the Dalai Lama’s struggle against the Chinese occupation of Tibet, Thich Naht Hanh’s peace work during and after the Vietnam war and Cesar Chavez’s farm worker justice campaigns in California. In this broader context Gandhi represents the marriage of political action and spirituality, the offspring of which is non-violent ‘ahisma’ confrontation and (non) participation (Schell, 2003, p. 117).

Spiritual ecumenicalists look at the inner world itself, bringing compassion to the psychological projection of ‘enemies’, humanising those considered oppressors (and those considered different or constructed as the ‘Other’). This spiritual standpoint sees the enemy as an aspect of the self (Ingram, 2003c, p. 55). Deep ecumenicalism entails a movement away from religiosity, certainty, fundamentalism and an uncritical faith in the righteousness of one’s beliefs (Schell, 2003, p. 117). It embodies an awareness of how the mind is easily distorted by ideology (Galtung, 1995, pp. 122-123). This includes ‘sharply distinguishing itself between true spirituality and blind faith’ (Maheshvarananda, 2003, p. 146), and being critical of the historical trauma and suffering religious fundamentalism has created (Mshana, 2005, p. 38). For Gandhi a spiritual orientation was also a deeply ecumenical experience embracing all faiths (Fischer, 1962, p. 184).

Gandhi’s message, and spiritual ecumenicalism also speak in contrast to the economic materialism of the world, carrying an anti-consumerist message (of simplicity) - that we do not need excessive luxuries to be happy (Ingram, 2003f, p. 91). In a fundamental way, spiritual-political activism critiques consumerism and material temptations, advocating for simplicity and right livelihood (Ingram, 2003b).

The key ontological foundation of spiritual activism, following religious traditions, is a transcendent reality, an understanding which provides frameworks to live life with integrity: through acts of compassion, love and moral living. In different forms, religious traditions contrast the material world and the spiritual world ‘between the force of mind and the force of materialism’ (Ingram, 2003d, p. 26). Spiritual reality is the unity of all humankind: ‘The vision behind [neo-liberal] globalization includes a competing vision to the Christian commitment to the oikoumene, the unity of humankind and the whole inhabited earth’ (Mshana, 2005, p. 47), or in the words of the Dalai Lama: ‘[spiritual] practice brings the clear realization of the oneness of all human beings and the importance of others benefiting by your actions’ (Ingram, 2003d, p. 24). As Maheshvarananda writes:

The theme of the World Social Forum, ‘Another World is Possible’, refers to our shared dream for a new world that could be described as post-capitalist, global, Neo-humanist, etc. What must be emphasised is that humanity will only have a future if we share the goods of the Earth and the fruits of human work (Maheshvarananda, 2003, p. 220).

This vision of the oneness or unity of humankind can be seen in the understanding of what (from a Buddhist perspective) Macy refers to as ‘co-dependent origination’ (Ingram, 2003e, p. 136). From the physiological to the ideational, any entity that can be said to exist also owes its existence to a myriad other sub-processes and factors; no one ‘being’ has an independent existence. We are bound together from the beginning to the end of time, humans and non-humans alike.

Gandhi’s conception of satyagraha (truth force), and ahimsa (compassion / non-violence), expresses the core logic of engaged ecumenist agency. ‘Satyagraha’ (moral spiritual truth in practice) was the force that moved people to accept change. This was not the ideal truth of one’s campaign or convictions (which others must accept) but the truth revealed through a person’s practice of living according to their conscience, which then moves other people’s conscience to change.

It is not a truth reducible to words, but a truth expressed through action, and the power that action demonstrates in the world. Ahimsa, non-violence, was the fundamental pre-requisite for the effectiveness of satyagraha. Agency in engaged ecumenism is spiritual non-violent political action, expressed at the social level through organised non-violent confrontation of political or economic injustice directed at institutions complicit in structural violence. At a personal level, ahimsa is expressed through forms of participation and non-cooperation, as well as (self) critical moral reflection (Schell, 2003, pp. 126-127).

Ideas of non-cooperation and non-participation are central. Gandhi drew from figures such as Thoreau (who demonstrated courage through civil disobedience). Schell argues that non-cooperation is not just a moral act, but also a weapon - not just a moral gesture, but an exercise in political power (Schell, 2003, pp. 129-131). For Schell, individuals give away political power through cooperation with dominant structures. Political repression and exploitation stem from ‘consent, and [the] cooperation that flow[s] from it…[which are] the foundation of dictatorship as well as of democratic government’ (Schell, 2003, p. 130). It is also worth noting that ahimsa coupled with the strategic use of media has proven useful - from Gandhi’s symbolic salt march to Martin Luther King’s march on Birmingham, to anti-Apartheid struggles, Poland’s Solidarity movement, the Philippines’ people power movements, and more recently anti-globalisation protests (Ackerman, 2000; Ingram, 2003c, p. 46; King, 1967).

The temporal dimensions of engaged ecumenism are also particularly noteworthy. Macy speaks of the ‘‘beings of the three times’ – past, present and future - and the need for reverence and care for all these’ (Ingram, 2003e). Ecumenical political activism seems to contain both the past and future within the present, in a tacit hermeneutical process not limited by scientific notions of time and causality. The re-interpretation of scriptures in the context of globalisation is the historical expression of ecumenical politics; futures emerge from foundational moral and spiritual discourse, the key metaphors and narratives that constitute a religious tradition. The religious vision of time is comprised of a perennial orientation that on-goingly re-interprets past and future in the context of the present. Each tradition draws upon ancient writings and stories that allow a comparison with the present. For example, as the World Council of Churches write:

the present form of a pernicious economic and political project of global capitalism [has been] described as “neoliberalism” …. In the Bible, [this] system of wealth accumulation that pushes people into poverty and destroys nature is seen as unfaithful to God and the cause of preventable suffering. It is called mammon, and characterized as the root of all evil. (Mshana, 2005, pp. 1,7,36)

Finally, spiritual ecumenicalism contains a faith in the human power of transformation based on spiritual practice. This may be because many of these traditions already have enacted their spiritual values through history creating alternative social orders at various levels. Many spiritual communities, like Ananda Marga, the Kibbutz movement, Ashrams, and Christian or Buddhist monasteries, represent living alternatives to mainstream societies. As unique communities with alternative narratives and ways of being, they call forth the need to create social alternatives to our living practice in the wider context of globalisation. So while an eschatological gestalt is present and immanent in the spiritual vision, everyday work is focused on what can be done in the present to build concrete alternatives at scales manageable and possible by these communities. This is succinctly expressed by Houtart, who said:

The struggle for Utopia is a struggle for hope, and that means it is not a struggle for something impossible to get, but with the idea that ‘something which does not exist today could exist tomorrow’… In the World Social Forum we have discovered that alternatives exist in all sectors of the collective human life… That means that the Utopia is possible and it is not just a dream. (Sahabandhu, 2006)

From [1]


Ramos, J. (2010) Alternative Futures of Globalisation: A Socio-Ecological Study of the World Social Forum Process, P.h.D. Thesis Dissertation, Queensland University of Technology

P2P Commentary

Michel Bauwens:

I can only speak for myself here, as spirituality is also a very personal subject. I am very sympathetic to engaged spiritual ecuminism, the seeking of spiritual unity and commonality across diversity and division.

In my view, we can take some additional steps. One is the inclusion of secular and post-secular spiritualities, i.e. the recognition that secular views are also spiritual views and can and do exhibit the same moral qualities, even if there is no explicit recognition of transcendental realities. It is perfectly possible to have a sense of mankind's and nature's unity, directly from a place of perceived immanence.

The second is the recognition of the efficacy and interest of psycho-spiritual technologies that assist in recognizing such unity in diversity, technologies that are of course embedded, but also relatively autonomous from the tradition in which they were embedded. This opens the way for a peer to peer spiritual practice that is based on a common exploration of the spiritual inheritance of mankind, independent, but not opposed to, denominational religious affiliations.

Social change is an integrative process in which the outer and the inner cannot be properly distinguished, and true emancipation requires inner spiritual transformation, while structural changes in unequal societies can be an enormous catalyst for massive 'personal' change towards a civilisation of love and care. What peer to peer brings to the table is the stress on the horizontal aspects of our relations to each other and how peer to peer dynamics are the most liberatory of all human relationships. As we move to true p2p dynamics in the production of common value, peer goverance and peer property, we will also develop new spiritual forms, beyond those that were developed in gift-economical, hierarchical or market-based societies. Spiritual ecumenism is part of that evolution, but not the whole of it.

Jose Ramos:

I really appreciate your sensitivity and candidness in reflecting on your own experiences of spirituality and sense that it belongs to far more than religion or even spiritual traditions themselves. Here I only can offer what I hope to be some provocative ideas, putting myself in hot water in the process and exposing my ignorances...

Reflecting on what you wrote, would you consider the peer-to-peer movement an example of “post-secular spirituality”? If service to humanity and each other is by nature spiritual practice (even political services, Gandhi... Guevarra?!), to what extent is peer-to-peer practice and service to humanity and service to each other?

The structural foundations of spiritual traditions, in my humble analysis, rests on ethics. Communities and societies cannot function or progress without the value or care for community and service to humankind. People are required to do what is right for each other in the most basic sense. In this sense, I would argue, that peer-to-peer theory is indeed an emergent ethic for the common good, as well as articulating practices of “service”. The question here would be, what you think these ethics and practices are?

Agency within engaged ecumenism is based on satyagraha. Does peer-to-peer practice have a corollary mode of engagement?

The eschaton of spiritual traditions is to create “heaven on earth” the construction of communities in the here and now which reflect transcendent values. The question here then is, to what extent do peer to peer producers creating “utopias” in the here and now which reflect their transcendent values?

Finally, there seems to be a tension within spiritual traditions between the authority of Scripture and the somewhat anarchistic and communalistic approach of some our spiritual founders (Buddha, Jesus, etc). Clearly, self organization and authority are not mutually exclusive. How about in peer-to-peer theory and practice?