Sunday, 20 February 2011

ASCM and anarchist spirituality

Much of this post appeared as a comment to this article on Bristol IndyMedia which referenced (somewhat disparagingly) the Student Christian Movement.

Firstly some background: I was a member of the Australian Student Christian Movement as a university student in Perth in the 90s. I credit ASCM with much of what is positive in my current life. I was brought up in a very conservative Christian household and was saddled with much of the baggage that goes with that sort of upbringing. Time with free-thinking caring people in ASCM gave me the time and space to shed (much of) that baggage, and to redefine myself free of some of the worst aspects of Christianity. You know the stuff I'm talking about: bigotry, homophobia, a permanent fear of hell etc

Now although my divorce from the institution of the Church couldn't come soon enough, my time with ASCM did not cause me to jettison every aspect of Christianity. I met some tremendously inspiring people who follow a Christian tradition of spirituality and combine that with a deep and profound commitment to peace, social justice, and the like. This is what Christianity could be.

Still, these days I'm as much agnostic as anything else. Or, put another way, I aspire to say with Gandhi ``I am a Muslim and a Hindu and a Christian and a Jew and so are all of you..." (I would particularly want to add humanist to that list .

So that's my background, now here's the rub: I'm getting all hot and bothered over the division between my anarchist comrades at the barricades, and the Christians bowed in prayer. In anarchist circles, it seems like the word ``Christian" is only a peg above ``Capitalist" or ``Tory" or ``person who watches X-factor" :-)

I understand that the label ``Christian" is associated with much of what is appalling in the modern West. I don't dispute that for an instant - the role of the Church in modern life is frequently (usually?) poisonous. It would be a mistake to equate all Christians with the Church however. More importantly - and this is my main point - it would be a mistake to equate spirituality with religion. The first is a ubiquitous and inescapable part of the human condition, the latter a frequently horrendous human construct.

Let me put it another way: it seems to me like anarchists need to do spirituality, and we need to do it well. This aint something to be left until after the revolution. If the example of Gandhi is not enough for you, then consider this quote from that doyen of revolutionaries, El Che:``At the risk of sounding ridiculous, a true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love." This is a statement of spirit; it concerns what goes on in the heart of the revolutionary, her essence.

I contrast this with the slogan ``No Gods! No Masters! which is a staple of the anarchist placard. To me this seems a statement of anarchist religion, and it is selling spirituality short. I find myself recoiling from it; at its absolutism, its blank stare. I know, of course, what it is aiming at: the priest and capitalist lying in bed with each other, a subservient society their ghastly love-child. It aims in the same direction as Billy Bragg when he sings
They make the laws to chain us well;
The clergy dazzle us with heaven, or they damn us into hell;
We will not worship the God they serve;
a God of greed who feeds the rich while poor folk starve.
A fine sentiment, but the slogan feels wrong because it leaves no room for dissent. What place for those who have a God? (And, don't forget, there are a lot of these.) It feels wrong too because it gives an impression of a cut-out anarchist, one with no soul. All angry fist-waving, no tears, no heart.

This does anarchism a disservice. I am an anarchist precisely I believe it to be a path-of-heart. The anarchists I know care; indeed they care so much that they'll wave their fist at the system, they'll cut themselves loose from the man, and they'll take the consequences. On top of that they are people who do spirituality, however it is named. Who are motivated by feelings of love, and light.

Given this it seems a damn shame that there is an inclination in anarchist circles to dismiss matters spiritual, confusing the matter with religion. This is a mistake. We are not cut-outs. We are humans who must deal with our condition, a condition that is at least in part spiritual. These are the terms: We have been born and we will die; we need each other, yet in some sense will be always alone; we are free, but chained; we see beauty, ugliness, laughter, tears...

We should not cut ourselves loose from spirituality, or cut ourselves apart from those who do their spirituality under another label. I am not advocating that we all take ourselves off post-haste to Church, or the mosque. No, I am asking that we reclaim spirituality from the religionists; we need to do spirituality and we need to do it our way, not the Pope's way.

Society needs an anarchist spirituality as much as it needs an anarchist politics. Because an anarchist spirituality will, by its very nature, allow space and freedom for all: the anarchists can do spirituality our way so that others can do spirituality their way. If people want to call themselves Christian, or Muslim, or Jew, and to do so in peace with each other, then let it be so.

* * *

Surprise, surprise, George Orwell said much that I want to say and he only needed a paragraph. Consider his characterisation of some of his Socialist comrades:
"Sometimes I look at a socialist... and wonder what the devil his motive really is. It is often difficult to believe that it is a love of anybody... [but rather] a hypertrophied sense of order. The present state of affairs offends them not because it causes misery... but because it is untidy." (p156, The Road to Wigan Pier)
This is the loveless-revolutionary, the anarchist without heart, this is revolt minus spirit. This is a warning.

And, finally, a historical note. Anarchist spirituality aint new; check out the Catholic Workers at a demo near you...

1 comment:

Harald said...

Nick -

There may be a nuance here that I, at least, would make. It is perfectly acceptable to hold "No Gods [and no masters]" as a personal opinion; one may even hold, publicly or privately, that it is in all likelihood *the* correct opinion. (Some of the consequences of specific beliefs about deities are empirically testable.) What should, in my opinion, not be done is put unbelief as a precondition for full participation as an anarchist or socialist.