How do we respond spiritually to the upheavals in the Middle East – to the tens of thousands of courageous souls who face down the guns and the militias and the government thugs to demand their freedom?
Surely this should tell us, if we needed to learn, that spirituality is not just a matter of "fixing yourself before you fix the world." By facing their fear, being willing to risk their own lives for the good of others, and trying to make a better world for their children at the possible expense of the little they have to call their own, the demonstrators are developing themselves spiritually even as they seek deep political change.
At the same time, however, a moderate acquaintance with history tells us that even if the current dictators and their cronies are removed, the future for these nations is very much in doubt. It was a grand thing when the brutal Shah of Iran was overthrown, but the "Islamic Republic" that replaced him has proven more than a match in brutality. Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe helped end its racist regime, but now, as long-time ruler, he has arrested people for just watching the recent demonstrations in Egypt on TV. Further away in time, but a profound historical reality, the Russian Revolution of 1917 soon devolved into a nightmare of irrational, bloody, repressive, one-party domination.
Why should revolutions give us any hope that things will get better? Often, far too often, they lead to something just as bad – or worse. Perhaps we should go back to the spiritual goal of just changing the self, developing mindfulness, becoming more compassionate, doing one's own little bit in one's own little daily life. At least that's not going to lead to secret police, torture chambers, or the "religious" subjugation of women.
Changes takes time
As tempting as this response is, I think it is mistaken. For one thing, certain kinds of historical change just do seem to take a very long time to happen, and to require many failures before any success. Consider that as part of the Reformation, with its emphasis on the individual's personal relation to God, a kind of proto-feminism emerged. A small but passionate number of women preachers demanded equality in relation to God. As valid as their claims were, they were also (to say the least) way ahead of their time. But their demands were the first trickle of a historical learning that would, as the centuries passed, eventually turn into the unstoppable tide of the women's liberation movement.
And it may be the same with current struggles for democracy, human rights, and civic freedom. Perhaps Egypt or Tunisia or Libya or Zimbabwe is not yet capable of these. Perhaps the demonstrations will give way to new dictators. But the experience of freedom, no matter how short, is never completely lost. Like that of Enlightenment or hearing the voice of God, it provides a goal, an orientation, something to set against the follies of the personal ego or of social tyranny and despair.
We can never go back
In moments of political freedom, like moments of spiritual grace, we learn that something else is possible. This possibility serves as what Herbert Marcuse called the "negation" of a present from which there seems no way out. As the mind often seems an inescapable source of anxiety or depression, until mindfulness meditation or prayer awakens a different sense of what life can be, so one can now hear citizens of Egypt and Libya saying: "I never thought this was possible. I have lived my whole life in fear, and I will never go back to that way of living. Freedom or death."
And that is why, even knowing that the future may be terrible, we can and should rejoice in what we see on the news today. These brilliant and beautiful political movements are not in vain, even if this is not the time that they will come to fruition. We can take deep moral and spiritual pleasure in what they are, no matter what they turn in to later. And besides, who knows whether or not this is the time? If we have learned anything about social life, it is that human beings are very hard to predict. If we often do the worst, sometimes – surprisingly – we do the better.
But we do not need to live in the future to take joy in the present. If most trees are dying of acid rain, we can still love the ones that are left. If revolutions often go astray, we can still celebrate the courage and open-heartedness of them as they begin. Faith, after all, is not the certainty that what's coming will be wonderful, but the ability to find and give love in the present, no matter what it holds. Strangely enough, it is an essential ingredient not only in individual religious life, but in politics as well.
Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the author of numerous books and articles on religion, spirituality, politics, environmentalism, and ethics, including "A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and our Planet's Future" and "Engaging Voices: Tales of Morality and Meaning in an Age of Global Warming." His column, "Spirituality in an Age of Ecocide," is published on alternate Wednesdays at Patheos.com, where this piece first appeared.