Dr. Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty is chair of the department of theology at Bellarmine University. She has taught several courses in the MAS program including Social Mysticism, Women, Mysticism, and Liberation, and Spirituality and Justice: An International Experience on site in Kerala, India. In November, Dr. Hinson-Hasty will explore “The Problem of Wealth” when she gives The George and Jean Edwards Lecture on Peacemaking at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
The eyes of the international community are turned upon the reports in the news media of “blood and chaos” in Cairo’s streets and war and violence in Syria and Lebanon. You will likely be keeping up with this news. These events have caused me to think a lot about peace, or the lack of it, in recent days.
But, it is not just the crisis in the Middle East that has captured my attention. This summer I spent the month of July in New York City where I was a part of a Research Colloquium sponsored by Cross Currents and Auburn Seminary. My fellowship focused on “Moral Economy.” I spent a great deal of time reading about the widening wealth gap in the US and around the globe. Today, there are 46.2 million people living in poverty in the US while at the same time we are one of the world’s richest countries. The situation is more alarming on the global scale. According to the World Bank, in 2010, there were 2.4 billion people in the world living on less than $2 a day. Statistics never adequately capture the chronic instability experienced by people living in poverty. Many more examples could be given and I am sure also come to your mind. How can we know or experience true peace in this context? I am increasingly aware of the sense of moral incoherence that I experience as I try to live out my faith in a world where people and the earth are threatened by violence and are too often sacrificed for the sake of money and the creation of wealth.
It is tempting to say enough is enough and to put up a white flag of surrender. Maybe it is time to retreat from the world and find a way to escape by journeying inward. However, ethicist Roger Gottlieb wisely counsels us that spiritual teachings offer us peace, but not a place to hide. We are all bound up in an intricate web of mutuality that invites us to enter into a “detailed examination of our own place in the social realm” (Gottlieb, A Spirituality of Resistance: Finding a Peaceful Heart and Protecting the Earth, 29). Our personal spiritual development necessarily leads us outward. Once we begin to examine our place in a larger web of life we have to wonder how we can play a role in cultivating peace on this earth.
Cultivating peace and connecting the inward spiritual journey with outward social action are consistent themes in a Master of Arts in Spirituality course that I am teaching on Social Mysticism this August. Fourteen of us are now gathering around the table in the Merton Center on Tuesday and Thursday evenings to explore the writings and experiences of social mystics. You may be familiar with some of their names—Mother Ann Lee, Vida Dutton Scudder, Walter Rauschenbusch, Howard Thurman, Dorothy Day. I know that I have found solace and encouragement in many of the practices, disciplines, and experiences that these great spiritual guides hold in common.
The social mystics nurture a “double vision” by blending together their impulses toward mysticism and social passion. They experience the divine in the midst of the ordinary—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those in prison, bathing children, cultivating the soil, creating goods to be sold or shared. For the social mystic, social activities are not just ends in themselves, but expressions of resistance to social and political artifices that create false boundaries between people, the earth, and God. Their “double vision” enables them to develop a deep theological imagination for new communities in which people can live in peace with each other, God, and the earth.
There are a few times in my life when I have been able to sit at the feet and embrace the practices of real, live social mystics. One in particular that comes to mind is Bev Cosby, a co-founder of Church of the Covenant in Lynchburg, Virginia. Bev was truly a spiritual guide. The Church of the Covenant began in the 1950s in the midst of the Cold War and movement for Civil Rights for African American people. Those who commit themselves to the Church of the Covenant begin their journey with a retreat and pledge to engage in mission in one of the large network of ministries established throughout the city. The Church of the Covenant is a school for peacemakers although it holds no accreditation certificates and grants no degrees.
My husband and I started our married journey in Lynchburg. The extensive responsibilities he had as a pastor of a local church and my own work with an interfaith social ministry left us with the feeling that we needed a place to recharge our own batteries. I can remember many times sitting in a circle in the living room with Bev and others gathered for evening prayer in the main house on the church’s property just before we served a meal at the Lodge of the Fisherman. We found a place of refuge and rejuvenation at the Church of the Covenant. Bev, had been a leader in the city for decades, but he sat there in the circle, chair-to-chair, with us, two recent seminary grads who at that time couldn’t be more “green.” It didn’t take us long to realize that Bev’s prayers themselves were a form of social action. After evening prayer, we walked together from the main house to the Lodge of the Fisherman where we served a weekly meal. We set the table together, stood side by side in the kitchen, served dinner to anyone who came, and then rolled up our sleeves to wash dishes later. It didn’t matter who came or what you could pay. We just ate together, often heard a presentation about a pressing social, political, or economic problem, and then intentionally listened to each other and talked about things that make for peace. Through those conversations we discovered how our own experience of God could confront the world’s needs. Examining this week’s events, I think it is time for us to come back to the table.
I wonder how you cultivate peace. What are the practices that you think make for peace? Who have you encountered in our life that enabled you to bring together your experience of God with your own social passion?