Spiritual Movements and Metaphors

By Donna Schaper

In faith-based organizing or spiritual movements, we rely on internal power a lot. We wear T-shirts that read, “What’s inside Matters.” We generate our own power. We don’t have material power, don’t have big lobbyists to pay, or a lot of wind at our back from the status quo. Thus, we go inside. We are powered by solar and wind energy, renewable energies, by the power of God to show us the way.

Antonio Gramsci talked a lot about traditional intellectuals who accept as given what is and organic intellectuals who challenge what is. They don’t see the status quo as a gift but instead as a problem.

Rebecca Solnit, a wise woman, says, “We have to change who gets to tell the story. That will change everything.” Gramsci and Solnit have a lot in common. They know the story has metaphors and strange twists. And they also know that the traditional people, and their given power, are in the way. They dominate with their story as if it were the only truth, which it is not.

Traditional people think of things as static, unmovable, fixed. Like my mother-in-law, they mask privilege by saying, “that’s just the way it is” or “money rules” or “you can’t change city hall.”  Organic people, whether leaders or not, look at what is and imagine what might be. We agree that the system is rigged—and look for power inside to change it. Often we have to fake it till we make it.

We depend on flimsy metaphors to evoke the inward, inner, and internal. They help us tell our story the way we want to tell our story.

One comes from the great cave paintings of Lascaux, another from the great quarry at Les Carrières de Lumières at Les Baux-de-Provence. The cave paintings were lost to history until some boys were playing near the buried caves one day in 1940.  They climbed in and discovered what had been there for centuries. Since the paintings have been discovered, they have been digitalized and are now protected by the French Ministry of Culture. The drawings remind us of that place in the heart, from which strength comes. They show what people can do, even if what we can do is hidden in plain sight. I use them as icons—as devotional objects—when I have one of my regular bouts of despair, which usually starts from deep within the cave and quarry of my own heart.

Once in the great quarry, I had a terrifying experience. It is a famous tourist attraction now and you enter the cave to be greeted by wonderful music and a multimedia show on its walls. I realized I was in the famous “inside” with hundreds of other people, all enjoying the space. I got a claustrophobia similar to the one I often experience in police vans or at marches or in long dull meetings about strategy. I had to leave the beautiful quarry and get out in the air. I had to escape the tourists of the movements of the spirit.

One aspect of being an activist in a spiritual movement is how stuffy it can be. We try so hard to get things right. We are often in an undecorated cave, behaving as tourists. We observe more than participate. We criticize more than accept. We imagine ourselves the center of the movement’s story when we are clearly not.

Examples abound.

#MeToo suffers, as Masha Gessen says, from a sex panic. She worries that we women are punishmentalist towards our oppressors. Others are worried about the youthful vigor of the #neveragain movement, that it is too white in its origin to ever prevail. At these stuffy meetings, we can also be dismayed by the racism in the opioid response as though crack cocaine never hurt anybody “important.”

When we need to breathe, we need to breathe. Sometimes a lonely look at the inside from the outside can help us get our metaphors and our meanings right.

We can’t get “it” right in movements of the spirit. We are so critical of each other—and likewise critical of our opponents. We can only draw, we can only paint, we can only color our experience.  The metaphors of cave art can help us, especially as we analyze them, over and over again.

Another metaphor for movements of the spirit, equally strange, is playing tennis. Focus is important. Keeping your eye on the ball is important. Not over thinking is important. Never underestimate your opponent even if the score is 5 – 2 and the set is almost over. Playing against yourself may be as important as playing the opponents. Knowing what shot you want to make next is important. Authority in a spiritual movement is your ability to control yourself, not control of others.

A final useful metaphor comes from the art of marriage. The worst thing you can do in a marriage or partnership is win. You may be more right than right about how to get downtown at rush hour or the best way to make a quiche. You may be more right than right about police power, racism, sexism, the right slogan around “Black Lives Matter,” or something else that other people have decided to say or do about themselves. It never ceases to amaze me how much white middle class people imagine they/we know about everything.

You may be totally committed to the partnership or marriage. Learning the art of losing, while prevailing, is as important as learning the art of winning. Especially important in this aesthetic version of activism is losing to win and learning to win by losing. We have powerful enemies in changing the world. They need something that saves face, especially as the sure and certain victory of the good and right—the law written on everyone’s heart—finally prevails, which it will.

En Shala.

I just traveled to Haiti to visit a congregant of ours who was deported. He is a leader in the immigrant rights movement. While there, I was able to meet with many members of many Haitian movements. One person was a wise woman who runs a large business and used to run a school for Haitian children. The school went out of business because Venezuela decided to accept Haitians without visas. All the students emigrated.

She was more than spiritually disappointed. She used a famous metaphor about religion. She said within minutes of our meeting each other that “Religion is a business.” Why? “Because religion is about power.” She is right on both counts and her spiritual disappointment—her failure at doing good for long—was heavy on her heart. We talked our way into something that may also be a metaphor, that of what she termed “the positive voo doo.” By that she meant the power of the inner, inward, and insides the law of the heart to do good instead of be poison.

Haiti is a heartbreaking place, with rubble and smog and despair in deep ruts in most of the streets. Simultaneously, there are people standing, sitting, staring at the ruts, every square foot of them. Imagine a business that assigned 2,000 square feet to every 12 people. I know. Where would you put all the garbage? Compost anyone? The internal power is there. The external assault is also there, and especially so on the first peoples to become free of colonialism in the Caribbean.

Do the metaphors matter to the power against them? Yes, if we let the meaning of activism be something more than winning the fight. If we go deep into our own caves and quarries and mine the energy there. If we pay attention to our own 20,000 square feet. And if we keep our eye on our own game.

Donna Schaper is Senior Minister at Judson Memorial in New York City, author of 35 books, most recently Never Enough Time: A Practical and Spiritual Guide to the Time Famine. She lives in Manhattan and Hopewell Junction, New York, and grows a really good tomato most years.

3 comments on “Spiritual Movements and Metaphors”

  1. C says:

    Respond vs React…sitting & staring (labeling & judgement) is a reactionary choice. External assault is a victim mindset which is a choice that purposefully places blame outside oneself and purposefully blinds individuals to the responsibility required that all (rather than being more right than right…judgement) human beings must responsibiily attend to his/her cave…quarries…20.000 square feet…and keeping an eye on his/her own game.

    The power of choice…Respond or React…the choice is yours…now that’s a movement!!

  2. Williams says:

    Small world – I’m from Hopewell Junction! Thanks for the interesting read. You’ve given us a lot to consider.

  3. Williams says:

    Interesting post. Thanks for the insight!

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