Contemplating spirituality, law and politics
By Rhonda V. Magee
Even as I am moving through these months on a reduced schedule, my role as a Professor of Law keeps me committed to noting the major trends shaping our culture and times. I start where I am, right here, in the changing culture and political backdrop of the United States in 2023. I am aware, of course, that the current U.S. Supreme Court — the disproportionate conservatism of which is a legacy of the former President — has been systematically dismantling the civil rights gains of two generations.
Though it can be painful to reflect on these often-traumatic dimensions of our shared history, I believe that it is truly important to put these actions in historical context. In the mid-1850s, a conservative U.S. President believed that the Supreme Court of the day could somehow forestall changes (in what we now call “human rights”) whose time had come. To that end, he eagerly awaited a Supreme Court opinion that would, he correctly anticipated, seek to make slavery a permanent condition, to bar even free Blacks the rights of citizenship, and to entitle slave owners to enslavement privileges even in so-called free States. This opinion — the Dred Scott decision — was out of step with the mood in the country and the evolving moral consensus, which was turning against chattel slavery in the United States and beyond.
That President — who believed that an over-reaching, out of step Supreme Court was the answer for resolving the tensions of those times — used to be considered the worst President in U.S. history. (His governing policies led to what is called in these times “the Civil War.” In that War, more than *650,000* Americans were killed — by one another.)
The past has a way of repeating itself, if we aren’t willing to stop, notice, and resist the temptation to keep doing our part to mend – reform – what is not merely broken, but flawed in its original design.
I believe that the time has come, then, for a more serious break from our usual ways of making sense of the world, and of coming to terms with our places within it. It is time for a spiritually-progressive approach to social justice work, grounded in the deeper mindfulness practices capable of supporting us in beginning again.
In this effort to bring a spiritually-informed critique to bear on law, policy and politics, I continue to be inspired by the teachings and humbling practices of a deepening approach to mindfulness. Indeed, when I look at how I came to socially-engaged mindfulness (as opposed to a purely personal approach), I recall how I was inspired by a small group of law professors seeking to enact a spiritually- informed, progressive way of teaching law and supporting transformative approaches to activism in these times.
It all started in about 2002, during my days as a young law professor. While researching critical legal theory for one of my scholarly pieces, I typed in the term “spiritual.” I came across an article by the late, great Peter Gabel, a founder of the progressive (and now defunct) New College School of Law in San Francisco, in which he described a spiritual critique of law. The approach he was reflecting on had emerged from within the Critical Legal Studies movement (which, not incidentally, I think, also birthed the Critical Race Theory movement).
I immediately knew that I wanted to connect with this scholar, and so, I did a search to find out where he was teaching at the time. To my delight, I found him teaching and living right across town from me in San Francisco. Peter graciously invited me to join him in a reading/discussion group, made up of a small circle of law professors. After hearing me say more than once that I thought that we needed to engage in practices together, he recommended that I join “the sitting lawyers.” And that’s how I first came to learn of the existence of a group of meditating lawyers who were meeting regularly across the bridge in the East Bay.
That group encouraged me, way back in the early 2000s, to experiment with integrating mindfulness into my own work in law. From there, I started to see how my courses in Race and Law, among others, could benefit from an infusion of mindfulness. And the rest of the story of my leading the way toward integrating mindfulness with the study of race, diversity, equity and inclusion, is, as they say, history.
But what I have not shared widely before now is just how much this effort was grounded in a desire for a spiritual approach to progressive social change work.
As I look at all of the ways that the social justice movements of our times are faltering, I am convinced that the time has come to return to these deeper roots, and to work out some way of pointing toward a new way of seeking to change the world. This is the focus of my work now.
How does this touch you? Does it resonate with where your deepest longings, your most courageous voice, are beginning to point? Are you turning toward something similar in your heart, spirit and practice-life? If so, I am so very glad you are here! Now, let’s find ways of communing on this journey together. This community of practice aims to be one such way and home-place. Let’s co-create something new from here. Let’s welcome one-another into this soul-spirit work. Keep in touch, stay tuned, and be well!