The Revolution Will Not Be Fetishized: Taking Resistance Beyond the Spiritual Industrial Complex

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When I participated in the Indianapolis Women’s March, I proudly held a sign that read, “I didn’t come from your rib. You came from my vagina.” The sign felt especially personal to me, not only because I fear the threats Trump poses to women’s access to healthcare and other basic human rights, but also because my very identity as a scholar pivots around a commitment to historicizing religion and unveiling its social ramifications. All of those dimensions of my identity infuriate those traditionalists committed to patriarchal visions of divinity, creation, and God’s intentions for humankind. The sign was also personal because I have birthed and breastfed two sons who I hope will be committed and vocal feminists.

But the sign also signified something else that is less personal and speaks more to my own social contingencies. It reflected an envisioning of the body that infuses our contemporary consumer culture and that denies a fundamental difference between the body and the self. It attributes sanctity to the body so thoroughly that enhancing the body is considered a part of the transformative and transcendent process of self-development. Attempts by others to oppress or violate one’s body, in turn, are not only physical violations, but also spiritual ones. This particular approach to the body is detectable throughout popular culture, but especially serves as a cornerstone of that infamous and growing “alternative” to religious orthodoxies: spirituality.

The Pew Research Center has testified to the growth of the “religiously unaffiliated,” which they have dubbed the “nones.” While I question their conclusions regarding the extent to which the unaffiliated are actually religious or spiritual, their evidence suggests the unaffiliated are not only on the rise, but are also more likely to identify as Democrats than as Republicans, and, more significantly, that they are more liberal on social and political issues. When it comes to the spiritual people, this is not really surprising.

Although popular spiritualities are not monolithic, are fraught with divergence and debate, and have even been shown (see RD herehere, and here) at times to serve certain neoliberal, conservative, or nationalist agendas, there are a number of commitments that many of them claim to embrace. These include commitments to the following: religious and cultural pluralism, gender equity, racial and sexual diversity, environmental sustainability, scientific inquiry and historical-critical commentary, and a public space that guarantees both freedom of and from religion.

Hence, I am certain the number of self-proclaimed “spiritual but not religious” people at the marches on January 21st was significant. But, more importantly, I wonder what those spiritual people will do now to resist the oppressive policies and efforts of the Trump administration? It is not enough to raise their signs at Women’s Marches, lower their bodies into downward dog at Lolë “peace” events, cloak themselves in Spiritual Gangster leggings with “Good karma” appliqued across the butt, or shop for “eco-friendly” biodegradable paper plates at Whole Foods. There is a difference between gestural subversion and collective resistance.

According to the website of the athleisure apparel company Spiritual Gangster, “We exercise love as the most powerful form of activism.” The company donates an unspecified percentage of every sale to provide food for those living in poverty. This is generous, but it does not quite qualify as “activism,” since there does not appear to be any effort to actually transform the systems (ideological, behavioral or political) that produce poverty and hunger. Spiritual consumers can feel like good people by buying the brand’s products without actually doing anything to prevent inequality and oppression.

On the contrary, activism would require them to combine their individual privileges, skills or knowledge with collective resistance even if it means putting those toned, spandex-clad bodies in between Trump’s administration and the most vulnerable populations—Muslims, Mexicans, blacks, queers, disabled people and women. To be activists against poverty and hunger, they would need to embody resistance through concrete action. They would need to support the efforts of groups like the anti-war Code Pink that resorts to reason, empirical evidence and visibility to challenge U.S. development policies, or the Platform for the Movement for Black Lives, (one of the most advanced and inclusive political visions ever articulated), or the Fight for $15 movement that successfully campaigned to raise the minimum wage in many parts of the country. It would mean standing in solidarity with protesters of the Dakota access pipeline calling for a boycott of its investors, including Chase Bank, or government scientists who are “going rogue” by using Twitter as a way to defy Trump’s attempts to quiet spokespeople for climate change research.

The reigning order of corporate capitalism that gave birth to the Trump administration was also characterized by a spiritual industry whose rhetoric reflected capitalist-individualist understandings of “progress.” This largely replaced the radical anti-hierarchical, egalitarian, anti-capitalist understandings of emancipation that had flourished in 1960s and 1970s spiritual movements. Consider the political dissenter Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World and what it represented to many participants in the 1960s British-American counterculture whose countless spiritualities subverted the social status quo through bodily and community actions.

As rain poured down on Trump’s inauguration, I looked at my like-minded friends, family and colleagues and quoted John 11:35: “Jesus wept.” Will the spiritual people, moved by compassion and troubled by the imminent threats to vulnerable communities and to our ecosystem, subvert the patriarchal, white supremacist, capitalist-exploitative heterosexism Trump represents through action, or will they resort to t-shirts and paper plates that fetishize dissent and commitments to equality, ecology and diversity?

The spiritual people pride themselves on giving individuals the tools they need to heal themselves, and there is an abundance of evidence suggesting many of those tools are physically and psychologically effective. But that is not enough in the Trump era. They must also use their resources—strong bodies, communities and commitments to science and reason—as tools to resist the state violence that causes so much of the trauma that necessitates healing to begin with, to demand social justice, and—as Angela Davis speaking at the Women’s March on Washington put so well—to recognize “that we are collective agents of history and that history cannot be deleted like web pages.”

Davis insisted, “The next 1,459 days of the Trump administration will be 1,459 days of resistance: Resistance on the ground, resistance in the classrooms, resistance on the job, and resistance in our art and in our music.”

May there also be resistance in spiritualities, which are already everywhere—in Saks Fifth Avenue, Whole Foods, and high-end yoga studios, but also on college campuses, in trade unions, immigrant rights movements, environmental justice organizations and civil rights projects. Many of the spiritual people in those spaces already value social justice, but they must resort to concrete acts of collective resistance in order to bring it to fruition.