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Contemplation & Social Justice

Contemplation & Social Justice

Our Church, which has been fighting in these years only for self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to man and the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and sense, and our being Christians today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among men. All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing, must be born anew out of this prayer and action.

Those words were written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1944 while he was imprisoned by the Nazis. The words were part of a baptismal liturgy written shortly before his execution. The words written almost 80 years ago speak to the situation of the Christian Church in 2024. Our words have definitely ‘lost their force and lack sense’ to many folks in Western society. It is time that the church take a serious look at the words we use and our concept of prayer.

In 2012, Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams was invited to speak to the Synod of Roman Catholic Bishops in Rome. The proposed topic was to be evangelization. Rowan Williams’s speech moved in a direction totally different from what might have been expected. Using the words of Bonhoeffer he gave a new meaning to ‘prayer and action.’

To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit.  To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly.  It is a deeply revolutionary matter.

Rowan Williams’s understanding of efficacious prayer in the twenty-first century would be contemplative, meditative prayer. Our words have failed us. Humanity needs to rediscover that silent center that exists in all human beings. A center of our souls that leads in Williams’s words to, “freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them.” Rowan Williams’s understanding of prayer and action reflects the same understanding of Christian mystic Meister Eckhart written seven hundred years earlier: “What we plant in the soil of contemplation, we shall reap in the harvest of action.”

Silence, contemplation and meditation should never be understood as some kind of retreat from the demands of social justice. In fact, in the twenty-first century they are the lifeblood of such action. Much of the church’s social justice actions are based on egos and partisan politics. Archbishop Williams continued:

The human face that Christians want to show to the world is a face marked by such justice and love, and thus a face formed by contemplation, by the disciplines of silence and the detaching of the self from the objects that enslave it and the unexamined instincts that can deceive it. . .It should not need saying that this is not at all to argue that ‘internal’ transformation is more important than action for justice; rather, it is to insist that the clarity and energy we need for doing justice requires us to make space for the truth, for God’s reality to come through.  Otherwise our search for justice or for peace becomes another exercise of human will, undermined by human self-deception.  The two callings are inseparable, the calling to ‘prayer and righteous action’, as the Protestant martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, writing from his prison cell in 1944.  True prayer purifies the motive, true justice is the necessary work of sharing and liberating in others the humanity we have discovered in our contemplative encounter. 

In an era when the church’s many words no longer resonate with most people, a recovery of the ancient practice of silent contemplation is a revolutionary form of evangelization. It will lead folks to discover what lies in the soul of each of us. It will be an evangelization that will speak without (or with few) words. When we discover that in the words of St Paul, “. . ;your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit that you received from God and that lives in you.” (1 Corinthians 6:19)  From that understanding which comes through contemplative practices we can do the work of ‘righteous action’ in our troubled, chaotic world.

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