In each of my four semesters as a fellow at the Kairos Center and Poverty Initiative, I have been privileged to witness and participate in a major public event. Each of these four events have had differences in character and theme, but all of them interrogated the question of religion’s role in the struggle to end poverty, and all of them prioritized the importance of arts and culture in building a broad social movement cutting across many lines of division. This April, we celebrated a strategic dialogue and the launch of a new poetry anthology, Out of the Depths, with an event aptly titled The Spirit of Struggle. Perhaps more so than the other events I’ve been a part of, this one felt like a seamless expression of what the Kairos Center stands for—convictions that have become so internalized to the Center’s approach to religion and popular struggle that even a major public event can feel like someone’s dining room.
This is not to say that planning and pulling off the event was effortless. Far from it. But by embodying the values of the social movements whose leaders, teachers, and scholars attended the event, there was a definite sense of it being the most spontaneous and Spirit-led celebration that I’ve attended at Kairos. This itself was deliberate and appropriate—The Spirit of Struggle aimed to draw on the experiences of struggle in numerous movements around the world to better understand the relationship between religions and human rights. In the Christian understanding, the Holy Spirit is militant and active in the world, God accompanying God’s good creation in its struggle to become fully realized and free from the bondage of sin and death. Without subsuming all Spirits to the Holy Spirit, we can still understand the Spirit of Struggle in a similar way. It is a Spirit that is present in the world in the struggles of individuals and movements in their fight against injustice, in their striving toward the full realization of human dignity.
On the first night of the strategic dialogue that preceded and followed the public Spirit of Struggle celebration, Richard Pithouse, a scholar who works closely with the South African shackdwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, described what he sees as the common language of many popular social movements—the language of dignity. In these struggles, people often start from an affirmation of dignity or fullness, Pithouse explained to us. This affirmation does not emerge from feel-good sentimentality, but as a deeply felt response to attacks on human dignity and from the experience of people’s humanity being vandalized. As a common language, the language of dignity is very different from the impersonal, technocratic language often relied upon by governments and NGOs—it is a human language that stresses the urgency of defending “the viability of every human being.” Pithouse suggested that this language, as a common starting point for many global social movements, forms a connection between social movements and liberation theology.
Certain people I interact with on a daily basis might be understandably getting tired of me talking about the Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx all the time. But when Pithouse spoke at the strategic dialogue, I was reminded of Schillebeeckx’s understanding of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit, as universally present in creation, especially with human beings in their struggles for the realization of human fullness, is what Schillebeeckx understood to be behind the language of dignity. The Holy Spirit, as a Spirit of Struggle, moves us to affirm our human dignity and viability in situations of extreme negativity. Our specific struggles, cultures, and religious beliefs might differ greatly, but as Pithouse explained, social movements for justice tend to have a common starting point in the affirmation of human dignity. It is the Spirit of Struggle that underlies that affirmation, a Spirit that irrupts when humanity is under threat from poverty, racism, and other forms of oppression.
At the Spirit of Struggle celebration, what I witnessed was just this sort of irruption. The gathered activists, leaders, scholars, and students were not there to hear a speech or an academic panel discussion, but to break bread together, seated not in a lecture hall but at tables in Union Theological Seminary’s James Chapel. We heard movement songs, recited poetry from the new book in the midst of the people, and ate together while we discussed the incredible work being done by the movements highlighted throughout the event. In addition to Abahlali, we learned about Sisters in Islam and Musawah, organizations of Muslim women fighting for gender equality; we heard about the need for a new Poor People’s Campaign for today to continue the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and we practiced a ritual from the Iona Community led by Paulo Ueti, an activist and theologian active in the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement. The spaces for discussion between these introductions were not forced or guided, however. At our tables, the Spirit of Struggle moved among us, and we found communion through our shared meal and our desire to better understand the role of religion in the struggles for human dignity breaking out across the world.
Along with other Union students, I had the privilege of reciting two poems from the new anthology in the course of the celebration. I’ve always understood poetry to be a Spirit-led vocation, but bringing the words of those suffering from and struggling against poverty in the midst of the gathered leaders was a powerful experience. Too often these kinds of events—even those held at a seminary like Union—are merely academic, without bringing in the experiences of people on the frontlines of the very issues we are talking about. But I felt the Spirit’s presence in the words of the poems we read, the Spirit who moves us to irrupt in struggle against attacks on our humanity, the Spirit who graces us with resilience in the face of injustices like poverty. The atmosphere during some of the poems was tense, but not because of academic disagreement or discomfort—some of the poems were almost unbearable in their accounts of the deprivations and obscenities inflicted on human beings in this world for no justifiable reason. But the Spirit held us up, and our shared meal and shared communion kept us going. That’s the very nature of liturgy, and the nature of the Spirits present in our human religious experience.
The celebration was like a microcosm of the struggles its participants brought to their tables—struggles that move from resilience to resistance to renewal, led by that Spirit of Struggle that has many names, but is ever-present in our response to attacks on human dignity. To appropriate a phrase used by the philosopher and mystic Louis Claude de Saint-Martin during the French Revolution, I believe that all popular movements are Last Judgements in miniature—judgements on the injustices that have no place in God’s good creation. If this is so, then the Spirit of Struggle was a liturgical celebration of that reality. Many of our major events at Union are held in James Chapel due to its size and equipment, but this one felt especially fitting. It was a sacred moment, an invocation of the Spirit.