Spiritual Power, the Subterranean River

Christopher Timm

The family I grew up in was ashamed of the pride many Americans have for their country. The kind of pride that embarrassed my parents was the kind that identified America’s greatness only with its military prowess and celebrated the right to own a gun as a great leap forward in freedom. Actually the shame was not about the pride, per se. The real issue was the idea that was so often attached to that brand of pride: that it is a violation of the country’s greatness to engage in a substantive critique of its problems. This misconception, this willful act of denial, is at the heart of every dysfunctional relationship: If I love and respect a person I should be blind to his or her faults.

Denial is like a phantom. Its movements are hard to perceive. The idea itself appears schizophrenic and illogical. A duality exists where it should not. How can I deceive myself? But denial is real. In fact, to greater or lesser degrees, we all walk through life with this ghost just ahead of us, sifting out data, discerning what we will be conscious of. To confront this shadow-like creature requires, I believe, superhuman courage. It requires a connection to God. To strip the illusions we have about ourselves requires a deep confidence that there is something else of value.


The fact is that America has always had a shadow. Our glorious strides for freedom have rarely, if ever, been devoid of the impulse for exploitation and oppression. Those who have born the brunt have always felt the irony:  women, blacks, indigenous people, those with minority sexual orientations. Sadly, the list goes on. Although time has shown progress in many ways, the darkness remains, and within it is a frightening potential for destruction.

At one point the interviewer expressed her wonder by saying, “If you can see spirituality in those protests then you must see spirituality everywhere!” I wish.

The aim of nonviolent protests has always been to force society to confront its shadow. For me, that was the result of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. I was transfixed by images of storm trooper-like police attacking a crowd of protesters, turning Seattle into an apocalyptic scene. How was it that so many Americans were willing to risk being beaten to protest an organization I had never heard of before? I felt so much spiritual charge in this act of people coming together to stem the tide of exploitation and greed. I wondered if the people there saw their efforts in such a way. And so I began the exploration that eventually took shape as the documentary film Today We Have the Power.

Recently I was interviewed on radio in Seattle by a newswoman who witnessed the protest first-hand. She was amazed that I looked at the event from such a perspective. At one point she expressed her wonder by saying, “If you can see spirituality in those protests then you must see spirituality everywhere!” I wish. Well…and I do work at it also. But the fact is that a spiritual dimension was not the forced imposition that she, and many people, might imagine. The topic of God might not be discussed very often in daily news reports on current affairs, but a great number of the people I spoke with who were instrumental in making the Seattle protests happen saw their work in a spiritual light.

Empowerment of God

In our society, the topic of spirituality in political discourse about social change is much like such a subterranean river. It is invisible to the mainstream. But the river flows nonetheless.

Hidden things are not always negative. In India the sacred river Sarasvati, which is mentioned in ancient Sanskrit texts, is said to have gone underground. It’s not that it died. It’s just no longer visible. In our society, the topic of spirituality in political discourse about social change is much like such a subterranean river. It is invisible to the mainstream. But the river flows nonetheless. I believe we must undertake the work to make this explicit before we see the transformation in society that so many of us yearn and work for. We must bring that conversation out into the open in a way that is relevant and sensitive to the pluralistic age we live in, and yet retains its force. This is the single most important step I see in bringing light into America’s shadow.

My point is not new or novel. An appeal to God was a core element of the greatest social change agents of the past century. Gandhi wrote in one issue of his magazine Harijan, “I have no other resource … than the assistance of God in every conceivable difficulty.” Martin Luther King Jr. abided by the same principle. Since the time of King, however, the spiritual current has largely gone underground. Today you can watch hundreds of documentaries about the problems of society without the topic of God or spirituality coming up – unless it is a film about the negative effects of a fundamentalist group.

As soon as I began to look for the empowerment of God in the Seattle protests, I found it. I found it in people organizing for the labor movements who saw their work as an extension of their devotion to God. I found it in environmentalists who had become activists because they saw nature as sacred. I found it in animal rights activists who felt a spiritual connection with animals. I even found it in the black bloc anarchists who smashed windows as a tactic to get people to confront the question of alienation in our present society – although I must confess it took me a long time to think of asking them about spirituality.

I knew I was tapping into a powerful current that may have gone underground but is still very much alive when I finally spoke with Norm Stamper. Stamper was the chief of police in Seattle during the protests and shouldered a bulk of the blame for the police brutality that went on that week. He resigned a few weeks after the protests. It literally took me years to gather the courage to reach out to him to see what he had to say about the event. Maybe he needed the time also, because when I finally did reach him by phone he had come to a change of heart about the choices he had made that week. But what was most exciting for me was the response I got when, with a bit of fear that the topic might discourage him from doing the interview, I told him that I was attempting to draw out the spiritual lessons from the event. There was a moment of silence from his end of the phone while my heart pounded. Then he said, “You know, you’re the first person that’s ever brought that up to me, but that goes to the heart of the problem.”

Christopher Timm is a returning M.A.R. student at YDS. For more information about Today We Have the Power, his film about activism and spirituality at the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, see www.todaywehavethepower.com.