Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Longing for the Peaceable Kingdom: A Brief History of Hope in Modern Times


Why can’t everybody just behave themselves and do the right thing?

One of the many versions painted by Edward Hicks of  The Peaceable Kingdom
(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) 

A New World Coming

In 1970, The Mamas and the Papas sang about “a new world coming and it’s just around the bend.”  I was 15 years old, going on 16, and I took some hope from those words sung by Cass Elliot over the radio waves. We had emerged from the 1960s which was an unsettled time of protest and demonstration.  The late sixties saw a potent and fertile combination of movements reflecting peace, destruction, love, rebellion, hope and disillusion. There were hippies dropping out, Beatles breaking up, students protesting and others shouting, “America: love it or leave it!” We were seeing racial unrest in city after city while people from our hometowns were still fighting and dying in Viet Nam.

I was glad that someone was singing,”Yes, a new world’s coming/ The one we’ve had visions of/ Coming in peace, coming in joy, coming in love.” I certainly longed for that new world to arrive. Perhaps I took heart thinking that as my generation emerged, things would indeed change as we left the old behind to create the new.

Then, as we say, Life happened. Instead of finding new ways of living, we are still struggling, disagreeing, fighting senseless wars, slowly killing ourselves in a suburban life of competition, career advancement, family break-ups, disconnection. We are struggling to hold on to our own spot of what we used to call God’s green earth (until it got paved and “green” became a politically partisan term).

Spiritual Awakening

I just read an article by Be Scofield in Tikun Daily blog titled “Why Eckhart Tolle’s Evolutionary Activism Won’t Save Us.” Eckhart Tolle apparently underwent a profound inner spiritual awakening after which he looked at life entirely differently and the world suddenly made sense. He found himself living with hope rather than despair. Tolle’s books, A New World, and The Power of Now present a hopeful message of transforming the world by way of inner spiritual awakening. Scofield’s article (which you can read here) provides a very good in depth look at Tolle, his ideas, and what inner spirituality accomplishes vs. the hard work of ethics and social justice.  I recommend Scofield’s article because I am one who is naturally drawn to the inner spiritual path.  I am always ready to hear the next version of “a new world coming.” I try to balance my natural inner spiritual impulse by listening to those who speak for justice and equality by way of social action.

I do not wish in any way to discredit spiritual practice. I firmly believe that it brings health, purpose and well being to the individual. I also think that it is important to understand the limitations of individual spirituality. I mentioned earlier the turmoil of the 1960s. There was something else happening during that same time period. Evangelist Billy Graham was in the prime of his successful career in preaching the gospel in his famous “crusades” all across the country. From the 1950s through the ‘60s and into the ‘70s Graham filled football stadiums wherever he went. His work saw thousands upon thousands respond to his initiation to spiritual rebirth. Billy Graham sincerely believed, like Eckart Tolle, that if you get the individual right, the world will be right. In Evangelical Christianity, there was often no call to social action because it was assumed that if everyone could just be converted to Christ, the world would be a better place.

Getting the World Right

There was an inspiring anecdote that I heard on more than one occasion during the 1970s about a man who was busy with some important matter and his young son kept interrupting him. The man wanted to give his son something to occupy him for a while so he decided to quickly make a puzzle for the little boy. Finding a picture of a world map in a magazine, he tore it into sections and asked his little boy to see if he could put it back together. To his surprise, the boy quickly returned with the world puzzle all in place. When the father asked him how he did that so quickly, the boy replied that he noticed a picture of a man on the other side of the magazine page. “I knew if I got the man right, the world would be right.” This story captured what Billy Graham and most Evangelical Christians believed – that if you get the individual right, the world would be right.

Ah, but there’s the rub. In later years, Rev. Graham himself reflected upon his disappointment that for all of his success in bringing lost souls into the fold, there was no corresponding difference in society. We still had the same crimes, injustices, and abuses. There was still corruption and dishonesty in business and politics.

Examples of Spirituality and Social Reform

We can look to the 18th and 19th centuries for examples of how spiritual enlightenment led to true social reform. William Wilberforce (1759 - 1833) was instrumental in bringing about the abolition of slave trade in Britain as well as prison reform, education reform, workers’ rights, and the establishment of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  Wilberforce was an English landowner and a Member of Parliament who had a spiritual awakening during the Wesleyan Revival. His insights may have come by way of personal prayer and devotion, but the social changes that he helped bring about came about as a result of years of tireless work.  He engaged the political process in Parliament and coordinated economic measures to help his fellow citizens to finally agree to end the slave trade. One measure was taken that served as both a symbolic act and an economic lever: Wilberforce along with many others refused to buy sugar processed by slave labor.

John Woolman was an American Quaker who lived from 1720 to 1772. At an early age, he came to see slaveholding as being inconsistent with his Christian faith. He worked on a personal level to convince his fellow Quakers that slaveholding was wrong, even though some Quakers bought slaves in order to treat them humanely. Like Wilberforce in England, Woolman engaged in personal acts of protest against an unjust system. He refused to wear clothing made from dyed cloth because the dye industry in the American Colonies was entirely done by slave labor. One can imagine that he must have made quite a visual impression wherever he went, wearing clothes that were only the color of natural cotton of wool. 

Like Wilberforce, John Woolman’s spirituality influenced his view of what is just and humane. Also like Wilberforce, his compassion extended to animal welfare. At one point, he stopped taking the stagecoach for travel because it was too cruel and injurious to the horses. Unlike Wilberforce, Woolman was not a public political figure. His influence was on a personal level through his networking within the Quaker communities. By the end of his life, Woolman had convinced many within the Society of Friends (Quaker) to free their slaves and eventually the Friends were leaders in the Abolition Movement in the U.S.

Taking the Long View of Awareness, Enlightenment, and Diligent Work

Finding the peaceable kingdom involves inner work, outer discipline, and community involvement. Sometimes we just have to live into the idea that a better society is possible. We live with setbacks and disappointments, but we also take time to remember that some things are better than they used to be. We have worker’s rights and child labor laws that would make Charles Dickens proud and William Blake ecstatic. We still have racial inequity, but we did abolish slavery and eventually enacted civil rights legislation so that at the very least we understand that as a society we need to be standing for equal rights. There is a continuing struggle to secure equal opportunity for women and to recognize equality for gays and lesbians, but at least there is greater awareness than there was even ten years ago. We are not where we should be in green technology, yet more people are aware of the need to care for the environment. There are still plenty of scoundrels in the world, but there are also more people with enlightened views of equity and justice. 

I believe it takes all kinds of people bringing various gifts to create a society that works for the common good. Some are talented at organizing people and publically engaging the political process. Others are better at finding ways to educate people about economic and social injustices. If you can’t be a William Wilberforce to fight the public political fight, maybe John Woolman’s quieter personal style is more your speed. Most of us are not in a position to influence thousands or even hundreds, but we can have some influence on our neighbor.

We already have many opportunities to take a personal stand that can be both symbolic and economic, just as Wilberforce’s choice of sugar or Woolman’s avoidance of dyes. We can look for Fair Trade products in buying coffee, clothing or furniture. We can choose environmental friendly products and green technology. Certainly there is a vital role each of us can play in creating a better society that speaks to the common good. Some of us will get there by way of spiritual practice, some by ethical determination, some by way of compassion and still others out of a desire to preserve the earth and its resources. Some will believe that if we can sing about it, surely it is possible and they will hold on to that hope and inspiration during the long and tedious process of making the dream a reality.

So work if you can, pray if you will, and sing if you must. There is still a hope within us for that peaceable kingdom.

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Here are some previous posts affirming that things are better than they were:


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