Some activists possess a certain quality that's hard to put your finger on; you just know it when you see it. They are hopeful when the situation seems hopeless, they are gracious—even to those they struggle against—and their powerful convictions are reflected not just in their speech but in the way they live their lives. In Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice, reconciliation studies professor Curtiss Paul DeYoung describes these compelling figures as "mystic activists," people driven by an activism that consumes them but is "yet deeply rooted in their faith and in the mystery of the divine." This inward-outward faith is lived intensely, through commitments to spiritual disciplines such as prayer, meditation, and fasting and an unwavering determination to work for justice.
To better define the qualities of "mystic activists," DeYoung highlights three influential, faith-inspired social justice advocates of the 20th century: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Malcom X, and Aung San Suu Kyi, each representing a different faith (Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, respectively) and culture. DeYoung's brief biographies are page-turners; in succinct chapters he does a fine job encapsulating his subjects' life and work with special attention given to the foundations and formation of their faith. Their journeys are then mined for clues that might help give shape to the description of "mystic activists."
DEYOUNG discovers four shared themes in the lives of these activists: motivation compelled by faith; a worldview that emerges from the margins of society; identity rooted in a belief that we share a common humanity; and an ethic of revolution that demands structural change. For example, DeYoung writes, Bonhoeffer experienced a transformed worldview by resisting Nazism and standing in solidarity with Jewish victims. Malcom X moved from a theology and politics of separation to an understanding of the interconnectedness of all humanity, due in large part to his mystical experiences in Mecca. Aung San Suu Kyi, currently under house arrest in Myanmar (Burma), calls for a "revolution of spirit" that demands not just political change but a total revolution of the spiritual values undergirding political systems. She does this while refusing to dehumanize the very men who have kept her under house arrest for more than a decade.
DeYoung includes the stories of others—Rigoberta Menchú, Fannie Lou Hamer, Allan Boesak, Winona LaDuke, among them—who share the spirit of "mystic activism." The book is not long enough to give each their due, but the work is enhanced by their inclusion.
Living Faith is a fitting text for anyone seeking to make sense of the way faith inspires social action. It's especially appropriate for Sunday school classes and other discussion groups where the stories and frame DeYoung uses to describe these figures' leadership could be a powerful introduction to the important themes of liberation theology, solidarity, and activism as a spiritual discipline.
Amy M. Ard is national field organizer for Sojourners/Call to Renewal.