Political Involvement

Question: How may a student of ACIM be involved in political issues and remain within the framework of the Course? Since the murders of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. I have felt the need to be more outspoken on the subject of hate crimes. My question then is this: How may a student of ACIM be involved in political issues and remain within the framework of the Course?

Short answer: One can certainly get involved with political issues while remaining within the framework of the Course, as long as that involvement is truly motivated by love and guided by the Holy Spirit. This is the Course's basic rule for all behavior, including political action. I will expand on this answer with three points below. The first deals with how the ego can use political action for its purposes, the second with how the Holy Spirit can use such action for His purposes, and the third with how one can be politically active in a way that is consistent with the Course.


1. The ego's motive for political action: Changing the external world instead of changing the mind.

I think that as we contemplate taking political action, we really need to be aware that the ego can use such action to reinforce itself. As Lesson 71 indicates, seeking external change (the usual goal of political activism) is "the ego's plan for salvation":

The ego's plan for salvation centers around holding grievances. It maintains that, if someone else spoke or acted differently, if some external circumstance or event were changed, you would be saved….The change of mind necessary for salvation is thus demanded of everyone and everything except yourself (W-pI.71.2:1-2,5).

In addition, the Course tells us that the ego uses the "fact" that the world is full of attacking oppressors (the usual targets of political activism) to justify its own attacks on the world. The Course calls the part of our self-image that does this "the face of innocence," and describes how that "face of innocence" sees itself and the world in the following passage:

[The face of innocence] believes that it is good within an evil world.
This aspect [the face of innocence] can grow angry, for the world is wicked and unable to provide the love and shelter innocence deserves. And so this face is often wet with tears at the injustices the world accords to those who would be generous and good. This aspect [seemingly] never makes the first attack. But every day a hundred little things make small assaults upon its innocence, provoking it to irritation, and at last to open insult and abuse.
The face of innocence the concept of the self so proudly wears can tolerate attack[ing] in self-defense, for is it not a well-known fact the world deals harshly with defenseless innocence? (T-31.V.2:9-4:1).

I think that these two Course passages present a good picture of the mind-set that many political and social justice movements are rooted in. They hold grievances. They seek salvation outside themselves. They demand change of everyone except themselves. Each faction believes that it is good within an evil world. Each faction sees its members as innocent, and those who oppose them as guilty oppressors. Each faction believes that its anger and attack is justified in the name of self-defense (or in defense of the "oppressed").

This is a pretty grim picture, and I don't want to overstate the case. Certainly there are some genuinely loving political activists; as we will see below, it is quite possible to participate politically in a genuinely loving way. But it is my impression that political and social justice movements do seem to be motivated at least in part by a desire to attack and punish the "oppressors," whoever those "oppressors" may be. I think that any Course student contemplating political action would do well to examine his or her mind carefully and watch for the kind of motivation discussed in these paragraphs.

The Course's alternative to all of this, of course, is to change the mind: "Seek not to change the world, but choose to change your mind about the world" (T-21.In.1:7). The ego has us focus on changing externals because it wants to distract us from the crucial business of changing our minds. Rather than focusing on all of those guilty oppressors out there, our focus should always be on healing our perception of the world.

2. But the world's forms (including political action) are neutral in and of themselves. While made by the ego for a dark purpose, they can be used by the Holy Spirit for a healing purpose.

Given the darkness of the above picture, one might think that the Course doesn't want us to have anything to do with political action. In particular, I have seen some people use the "seek not to change the world" quote above to suggest that any activity which aims to change the external world is inherently egoic, an attempt to "make the error real." But this is clearly absurd if we take it to its logical conclusion; if this were true, then everything we do would be egoic, since everything we do aims to change some external form. I wouldn't be able to brush my teeth in the morning without reinforcing my ego, let alone take political action. The truth is, we cannot help but act in the world—even the attempt not to act is an act in the world. Doing things to change the external world is not a problem in itself. It is only when we think that changing the world without changing our minds about the world will bring about salvation that we have a problem.

Therefore, working with external forms in the world—the realm of political action—is not inherently bad and to be avoided. All physical forms, though originally made by the ego to maintain separation, are neutral in and of themselves. The Holy Spirit can give these forms a new purpose, replacing the ego's dark purpose with His loving purpose: "The Holy Spirit teaches you to use what the ego has made, to teach the opposite of what the ego has 'learned'" (T-7.IV.3:3). In this vein, the Holy Spirit uses behavior in the world, which would include political action, as a means of communication:

Remember that the Holy Spirit interprets the body only as a means of communication….The ego separates through the body. The Holy Spirit reaches through it to others (T-8.VII.2:1,3-4).

Political action is certainly one way in which we attempt to reach out to others. As such, it is one form the Holy Spirit can use to communicate the love of a healed mind to others (for an in-depth discussion of the positive role behavior plays in the Course's program, see my article on this website, Does Behavior Matter?).

Given all this, I think that the Holy Spirit definitely guides some people to take political stands. But our motivation is everything. A political stand motivated by guilt, fear, anger at the "oppressors," special love for a particular person or group, desire to punish the "guilty," or anything other than true love will not bring about real positive change, no matter what its outward form. Conversely, a political stand motivated by true love and guided by the Holy Spirit will ultimately bring about real positive change (because it communicates a real change of mind), no matter what its outward form.

Certainly there are examples of people who have worked for political causes from a purer, more loving frame of mind—people who were motivated by authentic love and who were thus able to use the forms of the world to bring about political and social justice in an authentically loving way. Jesus, though I don't think he was a political activist in the usual sense, is depicted in the Gospels as standing up for the poor and downtrodden. Gandhi and Martin Luther King also come to mind. These people transformed the world, I believe, precisely because their actions stemmed from minds that were incredibly loving and forgiving. I believe that the love and forgiveness they exemplified was the real source of their power as they took their stands in the world.

3. So political action is a valid and worthwhile thing to do, as long as it is truly motivated by love and guided by the Holy Spirit.

So, if you feel motivated to take political action, I say by all means do so, if such is your guidance. Here are a few suggestions for how to do so in a way that is true to the spirit of the Course:

  • Observe your mind as you act; be on the lookout for the egoic motivations mentioned in Point #1 above, and allow the Holy Spirit to replace those motivations with His. This is the Course's practice of mental vigilance.
  • Work on purifying your motivation by letting your mind be healed as much as possible through Course practice. Make your Course practice a priority.
  • In particular, bring the specific political issue you are working with into your Course practice; apply your Course practice specifically to that issue. The Course urges us to practice "with great specificity" (W-In.6:1).
  • Listen to the Holy Spirit's guidance on what specific actions to take, to the best of your ability.

By the way, I don't think one's motivation has to be 100% pure before he or she can act. If that were the case, we would never act. I think that most of the time our motives are mixed between the ego and the Holy Spirit, and all we can do is simply act as best we can from the purest motivation we can muster. The key is that as we take action, we need to continue to do Course practice to heal our minds. That is the priority. To the extent our minds are truly healed, to that extent will our actions be much more powerful and effective.

Conclusion:

I want to conclude with a couple of points. First, I truly believe that the Course considers the desire to help others, as exemplified by your desire to take a stand for people like Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., to be the holiest and noblest of desires. Here is a quote from the Psychotherapy supplement:

Healing is holy. Nothing in the world is holier than helping one who asks for help. And two come very close to God in this attempt, however limited, however lacking in sincerity. Where two have joined for healing, God is there (P-2.V.4:1-4).

Helping others is a holy thing. To the degree that our egos are involved, there will be some limitation and insincerity in our desire to help, but the desire itself is a holy thing, not an ego trap. So I really want to encourage you to listen to that desire and build upon it, working with the Course to weed out egoic impurities, so that you can "be truly helpful" (T-2.V.A.18:2). As a later quote in the Psychotherapy supplement says, "Hear a brother call for help and answer him….There is no other way to find your Self" (P-2.V.8:4,8).

Second, I think that whatever we do politically, we should always keep in mind that from the Course's standpoint, the only thing that will ever bring about true justice in this world is forgiveness: "Forgiveness is this world's equivalent of Heaven's justice" (T-26.IV.1:1). We have such a tendency to believe that forgiveness is weak and ineffectual. We may think that forgiveness is a lovely gesture, but really kind of wimpy when push comes to shove. We think that the forgiving person is doomed to be chewed up and spit out by all the evil attackers in the world. We think that attack is really where the power lies. But I think forgiveness is truly the greatest power in the world. I think that action motivated by true forgiveness and guided by the Holy Spirit can be a powerful force for good in the world. True forgiveness leads to incredible, transformative acts of love. "Forgiveness is the home of miracles" (W-pII.13.3:1). And each of the miracles we offer our brothers "becomes an illustration of the law on which salvation rests; that justice must be done to all, if anyone is to be healed" (T-25.IX.10:2).

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