by Julie Pennington-Russell
“He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity, and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others.” ~ Thomas Merton
It’s an understandable declaration: “Praying about injustice isn’t enough. God is calling me to do something.” This is a fair claim on the part of Christ-followers as the tidal wave of racial, social, economic and environmental injustices continue to engulf our nation and world. Ours is an active faith: “I was hungry and you fed me…I was a stranger and you took me in,” said Jesus. “Faith, if not accompanied by action, is dead,” said James.
And yet, just as faith without action is useless, so peace and justice work, if not connected to the life-affirming presence of the Holy One, must find its energy elsewhere and often winds up operating from the realm of the ego, with its need to win, convince and/or differentiate itself from the “other.”
As the U.S. reckons in this moment with disproportionate deaths of African Americans from COVID-19, police brutality against black lives on display, daunting unemployment numbers and bitter divisions along political and religious lines, our nation and world are in desperate need of prophetic people who are transcending the categories of “liberal” and “conservative” as they integrate their activism with a contemplative mind and heart.
Contemplation and Action
One common misconception about contemplative Christianity is that it avoids real engagement with the pain of the world while remaining cloistered in the prayer closet. But contemplation is not the absence of action. Contemplation is a reflective way of acting upon God’s call. Contemplative prayer inevitably leads to action grounded in the love and way of God, who is anything but passive about suffering.
Contemplation. From the Latin contemplari. It means to gaze; behold; observe; pay attention. A contemplative is simply one who is learning to pay attention to Divine Presence in each moment. Someone who’s learning to see beneath the surface and listen beneath the noise. Contemplatives are those who are discovering what it means to be present to Presence, whether praying in a secluded hermitage or marching in a protest.
An Invitation toward Heightened Awareness
If we want to live as people who lead, serve and advocate from a grounded place with God at the center, I invite us all toward three particular areas of heightened awareness:
Contemplative people have much to offer our ruptured world. The contemplative Dorothy Day co-founded the Catholic Worker movement and championed the plight of the poor. The contemplative Howard Thurman was a principal architect of the nonviolent civil rights movement in America. The contemplative Desmond Tutu stood up for peace and justice during and after the darkness of apartheid in South Africa.
The presence of the Beloved is constant, infinite and everywhere. We cannot not be in the presence of God. As we grow in our capacity for prayerful listening, we can notice and join the movements of the Spirit that bring healing, liberation and life.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a series of opinion articles on “Beyond the Divisions: Faith and Politics 2020.” We invite readers to submit perspectives of their own to email@example.com for possible inclusion in the blog series.
Julie Pennington-Russell is the pastor of the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, DC, and a 2018 graduate of the Clergy Spiritual Life and Leadership Program offered by the Shalem Institute.
 Thomas Merton, ed. Lawrence Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master: Essential Writings (Paulist Press: 1992), 375.