Feminist Spiritual Politics: Getting Personal About Gun Control

The personal is the political, has always struck me as incomplete. It was Teilhard de Chardin who first said “we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” The ‘personal is the political’ assumes an incomplete worldview, a cosmology of separation where the individual is forced to turn to the political as the end we seek – as though we were fundamentally political beings.

Grasping onto a worldview of connection, of interbeing, we hear nature whisper that we are fundamentally spiritual beings, quanta of spirit, mind and body, integrated. We weave our lives as spiders do their webs, out from ourselves and binding us to one another. Our fulfillment is in making these connections, in participating in a whole. That is what I see as spiritual politics: being accountable to the inescapable whole of which my life is just one of many, a unity masquerading as a diversity. When the personal is more than the political, when it is the sacred, I become whole.

When I move from this sacred dwelling of the heart outward into the world with a sense of knowing — knowing my purpose, and who and what I am, that movement is ultimately on its way back inward, like a heartbeat. It’s the same heartbeat I have always had, it is me.

It happens that Charles Baudelaire is one of my favorite poets. I absorbed the passion of his words through a strong woman, a French teacher. He is, generally, misogynist in his writing, but we read him for other reasons — subversive spiritual searching.

My French teacher and I were two women surviving. She had just turned 50 and was beginning the process of divorce from her husband, the father of her two grown daughters because she needed more affection and partnership. I was turning 17, inwardly self loathing and suffering from bulimia and anorexia, not knowing that I was evolving into a feminist, spiritual seeker through our meetings, that as a way out of her suffering she was planting seeds of strength and shining a light toward a “way out” for me.

One of my favorites was his prose poem Windows he tells the story of a woman who he can see through her window from his apartment. He describes her as always bent over something. He has recreated the life story of this woman in his mind, and sometimes it brings him to tears. He adds with a certain irreverence, “perhaps you will ask me whether this story is true” with the words that remain ingrained in my soul, almost understanding them from the first day I read them, “What does it matter reality outside of myself, so long as it has helped me to live, to know that I am and what I am?”

I think that what drew me so intensely to this question, like a longing, was that I would later begin to seek to understand reality as it exists inside of me and how the mind can shape or distort who we are by painting the world with violence as though there were no alternative. That yes, “reality outside” has to matter, but, on the other hand there could be something else: a possibility, something longing to know myself, a desire to find my humanity and know it. This desire, with which we hold each other; it held me, and provides balance, perspective and moves wisely from the expression of the problem we see to something more hidden — what happens inwardly when violence erupts.

Today that violence is speaking through gun shots throughout the country. Think about the gun. A right, some say. Instantiating the threat of death and harm, with its symbolic phallus, the barrel. Power, fear, separation, othering. It is the instrument of patriarchy, the symbolic expression of rape and often its tool. An apparatus for murder, for “security.” I think of the sculpture of K.F. Reutersward outside of the UN in New York of the gun’s barrel, twisted into a knot, and I ponder the subtle violence of this image, the strange emasculation of the patriarchal guard. Too severe. . . I think of the protestors, inserting daisies into the barrels of soldiers. Too soft… and besides, both of these images seem to make the gun a natural appendage of our world order. Worse, perhaps, it portrays the act of not shooting a gun as “nonviolence,” as though violence were the ultimate reality and nonviolence nothing more than its negation. That is a dangerous reduction for feminists and seekers alike. Why? Hannah Arendt in her famous 1969 essay “On Violence” offers a bold, challenging response:

The chief reason warfare is still with us is neither a secret death wish of the human species, nor an irrepressible instinct of aggression, nor finally, and more plausibly, the serious economic and social dangers inherent in disarmament, but the simple fact that no substitute for this final arbiter in international affairs has yet appeared on the political scene.

I’d rather not see a gun at all, but a statue of a man or a woman putting down the gun with one hand and reaching out with the other to something entirely different. That is nonviolence, that is feminism. It is not the negation of violence, it is not the negation of patriarchy, it is the affirmation of life, relationship and connection. It is a bell sounding the arrival of something else, no less real and in many ways, I would argue, more real because it is the more accurate enactment of our unity. There is so much to learn about these alternatives, from peace teams and shanti senas, to new economic models, to restorative justice, to new activisms, to new conceptions and practices of power, to new stories of belonging and cultural narratives yet to be imagined, integrated, history, science calling us to examine ourselves as Socrates asks us to do with our very short lives. Still, we have to hear that bell ringing ourselves, no one can force us to hear what cannot be heard with the ears. As children–those shapers of humanity– know, it is heard through the heart.

Gandhi maintained that we can, and should for that matter, only renounce violence once we have seen that we are capable of it. We need to rely on our spiritual worldview to interpret this. When one person shoots another, we are too often more willing to put ourselves on the side of the victim alone. How can I be safe from others? But we are not different fundamentally from the offender in so far as we are equally human beings surviving as best we can and know how in a culture that glorifies violence. How can others be safe from me? That is the only real security.

A nonspiritual politics controls women and renounces or ignores nonviolence as a serious option. A feminist spiritual politics holds sacred our lives and our relationships and therefore controls guns and renounces violence as the only option. The challenge is to allow ourselves to unfold, unknot, untwist our being so we can know where it resides, not outside of ourselves, but hidden by the untrained mind, which is, in the words of a friend and self-identified ‘eternal feminist,’ “the ultimate imperialist oppressor.”

When we recognize this oppressor in ourselves, we are called to act, to convert it into a more potent form of power that rests on a bedrock of radical, inward security in an insecure world. Guns can never make us secure, only we can. All of my life I have been learning, a truly secure person in an insecure world is a revolutionary.

Stephanie Van Hook is the Executive Director of the Metta Center for Nonviolence.

This piece was first posted at Tikkun Magazine online on January 25, 2013.