Visionaries Project: Rev. Chelsea MacMillan on Coronavirus, Sacred Activism, Climate, and the Apocalypse
Interspiritual minister Chelsea MacMillan talks faith and healing in a time of tremendous change.
The Visionaries Project is a subsection of The Liberty Project dedicated to highlighting the lives, passions, and work of radical activists currently working towards social justice and liberation from oppression. We aim to uplift the perspectives of diverse voices working in media and activism today—and not just the faces who make headlines, but the real people on the ground every day, working towards their visions of a better world.
Rev. Chelsea MacMillan is the founder of the Brooklyn Center for Sacred Activism, the co-host of the podcast The Rising: Spirituality for Revolution, and a dedicated activist, community organizer, and "warrior for peace and change." She recently taught a course called "Reclaiming the Apocalypse," and her wisdom is invaluable in these times of crisis, and always. We spoke about the overlaps between religion and spirituality, collective healing, mutual aid during coronavirus, climate change, and more.
LIBERTY PROJECT: Did you grow up spiritual, or involved in activism?
CHELSEA MACMILLAN: I grew up in a really evangelical, conservative Christian family, but I rejected it pretty early on. My parents divorced when I was like ten or eleven, and that was around the time where I realized that being a Christian doesn't mean you're a perfect person. I was just woken up to a lot of hypocrisy. I started rejecting the exclusionary attitude of the churches that we went to, and I called myself an agnostic for a while. I started to question my epistemology without realizing it, wondering why I thought the way I did.
Then I started traveling the world in a performing group, and I had a lot of really intense, magical experiences that I think were mystical experiences. I remember feeling really connected to all people and all creatures everywhere, and I felt this sense of oneness. I definitely felt spiritual, though I didn't want to put it into any form.
Then I worked on staff at a place called the Omega Institute, which is a big retreat center in the Hudson Valley. I tried out different forms of Buddhist meditation and Earth-based practices and things that were vaguely pagan or shamanic, as well as more New Agey things. But I was always really impatient with the way that spiritual communities were in terms of what was happening in the world. I couldn't really accept the idea that we were all one and that we could "be the change we wish to see" while sitting on our yoga mats. The world doesn't reflect that. Yes, it's a spiritual truth, and I've experienced that feeling of oneness and connection, but I think it doesn't do any good to just sit here and believe that. We have to realize and actualize this belief.
During one of my summers at Omega, I learned about this interfaith seminary called One Spirit. I went there and was ordained as an interspiritual minister, and it was there that I learned about sacred activism. I actually took a class with Andrew Harvey, who basically coined the term "sacred activism." He was one of the only people really talking about how activists and spiritual folks needed to come together, because there's a shadow side to both of those groups.
And I realized...this is why I came here. This is what I've been looking for my whole life. Sacred activism is the idea that activism in itself is a sacred path, because all the great spiritual teachings tell us to live our lives with compassion.
I had also been going to a lot of activist meetings and circles and thinking that the people there really needed spirituality. Everybody was so caught up in blaming and shaming. No matter what your ideology is, rigid and dogmatic ideologies are harmful. That's what I had grown up with—but now I was with the liberals, and it was the same sh*t. It wasn't loving and wasn't accepting.
Along your journey to finding the place where activism meets spirituality, are there any experiences that stand out to you as particularly formative or that you feel set you on this path?
I did have a moment recently that confirmed for me why I'm on this path. This past October, Extinction Rebellion had a global week of rebellion. We started with actions at Wall Street and threw fake blood on the bull, and we did this dramatic die-in in front of the stock exchange.
We were also doing RebelFest in Washington Square Park, which felt like an example of realizing that you don't have to perform a direct action to be disruptive. Building community is disruptive, and feeding each other for free is disruptive, and doing art together is disruptive.
That week, I also took part in the Times Square takeover with XR. We shut down an intersection with this big bright green boat, and there were 13 of us who were glued and chained to it. My comrades and I were put in the tombs, which is where they take everyone who's been arrested, and there was a woman detoxing from heroin on the floor and a pregnant woman who totally should not have been in jail. It was a really intense experience, and I remember thinking—could I go to jail for longer? Would I be willing to go to prison for this cause?
I was going through these ups and downs of feeling like I was losing my mind, and there was a moment where we all just were laughing at ridiculous things because...you lose all your power in there. You don't know [when] you're going to be let out; you're hungry and tired and dehydrated and dirty. And I was like… Could I do this more? Could I be here for months? Do I have it in me? I remember thinking, what am I called to do? How am I called to serve?
I thought of all the people who have inspired me like Dorothy Day and MLK and people who really followed that calling to make the world a better place. It's a spiritual calling.
I realized I do feel like I'm willing to sacrifice my life for building a more just and loving world. I was surprised to feel that in a moment of despair, but that's where I felt closest to God, spirit, or the great unknown. I felt like I was being called, and it felt very powerful.
What does your vision of a better world look like?
What excites me is thinking about the mystery, rather than coming up with the best plan for a bright new world. This requires us to be in the present and in the future and to bring the future into the present. When I think about a vision for the world, I ask questions like: How do I want it to feel? What does it look like, sound like, feel like?
I think what the future looks like is here now. I see it all the time. I see it with the current crisis, in the ways in which people have been jumping into action around creating and activating networks of mutual aid—and taking time to play with their kids, and rest and take walks in the park. I see it in places where we're really connecting with each other.
I think of a new world, or the future, as one in which we're taking care of each other, in which we're really connected. Can you imagine, if we really took care of each other? We wouldn't need housing justice. We'd already be doing it. We wouldn't let anybody not be cared for. We wouldn't have people going hungry, because we'd already be feeding each other.
It sounds a little overly simplistic to say all of that, but I think bringing things into the present and asking—what do we have that we want to grow?—actually helps us be more grateful for what we do have.
Humans have a limited capacity for understanding. We understand a lot and we're constantly innovating, and that's sort of what it means to be human—finding meaning—but we can't see the future, and we make mistakes. As soon as we have a plan for the future, it limits creativity and the emergence of something that can grow from the ways we're already connecting with each other and being with each other.
So many religions seem to boil down to this idea of compassion, and I'm definitely seeing that in responses like mutual aid. So in light of all your work, how have you been processing the current crisis? Are you seeing potential in it? I know you taught a workshop on the apocalypse—not that this is an apocalypse, but...
But we are! It's like a perfect example of the apocalypse. Apocalypse means "to lift the veil," and having this crisis is showing us how f*cked-up our medical system is and how f*cked up our whole economy is to rely on humans as capital. It's showing us how our leadership is broken, how so many people were living alone before this.
As a climate activist, we've wondered for a long time what can really change the momentum. It's so hard to make any change when there's such collective dedication towards keeping a system going, a system that is based on extraction and exploitation and corruption and domination and all of those things that are literally killing us and the planet. In XR we talk about stopping business as usual—well, here we are, and business is literally stopped.
It's my hope that it doesn't go back to normal. I don't want to go back to a world in which we're all hustling to make ends meet and we're working so hard and so long that we don't have time to connect to each other.
I do think it's showing us what's possible. All of the politicians and businesspeople have told us for a long time that it's not possible to stop the system and change it all in order to stave off the climate crisis—but we're doing it.
If the New York Times was reporting on the climate crisis as much as it's reporting on the coronavirus crisis… that could change things. If everyone was told that we have to stop using our cars and we have to stop doing this thing and taking flights and traveling for our safety and so we don't die…maybe we wouldn't have as big of a problem. The response we've been taking with coronavirus actually needs to happen with this climate crisis.
It all does seem like a wakeup call. Before this, it seemed like most of the people I know—even if they weren't plugged into the climate crisis—had the feeling that something unsustainable was going on, that something precarious was happening. And this does seem like a large planetary exhale to me.
We need to bow down and honor what's happening to us, to step back and see how enormous this shift is. It kind of takes my breath away. It's honestly the same feeling that I felt when I was sitting in jail.
It's interesting that you compare the feeling you're having in this crisis to the feeling of being in jail. Those both seem like moments of great change and shift. I keep seeing Octavia Butler's "God is change" quote everywhere and it feels like these moments could be related to that.
I love that quote. It's probably my favorite way to describe God.
I'm seeing all this in two ways: There's tragedy, but there's also growth that could be happening. It feels like if anything it's waking us up to the importance of community and the current lack of community. Even a lot of activism work doesn't seem to hone in on community or connection or rest and then there's so much burnout, and it feels like all this is kind of calling for a practice of rest and community-building.
I think it's so easy for humans to jump in and ignore all of our feelings and ignore connecting to each other, focusing on how we might fix this painful feeling, instead asking—what is this moment telling us? There's something beyond my comprehension happening right now.
It's easy for me to say that in times of crisis, people jump into action to help each other, because that's what I see in communities. But it's also true that there are people who get scared and hoard and only take care of their own.
I think every human has both responses possible in them, and this reminds me of a story that I read as part of my apocalypse research called Why the World Doesn't End by Michael Meade. He says there are three kinds of people in the world: There are the people who just only care for themselves and maybe their families, who in times of crisis will turn on their neighbor, and who are just trying to survive. Then there's a second group of people that really care about others and contribute to community and are attuned to other people's needs; but those people, under great stress, will also turn on their neighbor and contract and hoard and try to protect and defend themselves and their families.
But then there's a third kind of person that in the midst of crisis will rise up and reach out when the impulse is to actually turn back in. I think that's what being a sacred activist is: someone who can be with the unknown and who can be with the vulnerability of reaching out in times of danger.
I think in order to be able to reach out, you have to rely on something other than yourself. You have to be able to rely on something, even if that's your community or if that's God or spirit or even the earth. You have to feel supported enough to reach out to others in a time of crisis.
I think that's been sticking with me. Who's going to be that third group of people?
Alright, I'm done on my soapbox. That's my sermon for today.
What do you suggest people dive into, if you're looking for a way to get involved at this time? I know you mentioned mutual aid.
XR has been plugging into neighborhood groups and existing networks of mutual aid. That could be taking care of your neighbors and seeing what they need or delivering meals to aging populations. Also there's something called The Leveler, a wealth redistribution tool that allows people to donate a certain amount of money to people who just lost their jobs.
But also...check in with people. Be with the feelings. XR has ramped up offerings for people to connect with each other and share their feelings and meditate. It's called "Extinction Resilience," and it'll pretty much be happening twice a week right now, and that's a great place to cultivate inner resilience.
Climate despair is becoming so widespread that some people are losing their will to live. Is this the new normal?
If you're reading this, you probably know that the earth is not doing well. A 2018 UN report declared that we have 12 years to keep the global climate from rising more than 1.5 degrees, or we'll face catastrophic warming levels. Even knowing this, our worldwide carbon emissions have only continued to rise, with atmospheric CO2 reaching a record high at 417.4 ppm in May 2019.
In essence, we know the world is ending, we know why, and yet we have done nothing to stop it. In fact, things are getting worse.
Image via blog.derby.ac.uk
The Argument for Despair
Faced with this truth, it's all too easy to slip into despair, and this is what's happening to people all over the world. A recent VICE article explored the mental health crises that many people are experiencing because of climate change. Known as "climate despair," sometimes called "eco-nihilism" or "human futilitarianism," chronic feelings of hopelessness about climate change are becoming all too common among those who have allowed themselves to fully comprehend the extent of the crisis.
For people who suffer from these feelings, it doesn't help that life appears to be continuing on as normal, while only a few of us seem to care that the world is burning down. This creates a sense of duality that can be even more painful than consciously accepting the reality of climate change, as it involves a deep suppression of pain and fear, which is then left to fester in the psyche. Living this "double life," according to Joanna Macy's essay "Working Through Environmental Despair," can be detrimental. "Awesome and unprecedented in the history of humanity, the awareness lurks there, with an anguish beyond naming," she writes.
This awareness can manifest in many ways; and often it has lead to depression or suicidal thoughts. Even therapists are having trouble knowing how to handle the looming specter of climate despair. Several people quoted in the VICE article described how their therapists attempted to trace their terror of climate change back to personal traumas, instead of acknowledging the validity of these fears.
Image via Its Nice That
Children are just as vulnerable to these feelings as adults. As they watch governments refuse to act, kids are growing up in the world with little faith in the government or the adults around them, and with the knowledge that they've been born into a disaster they never asked for but have to deal with.
Greta Thunberg was one of these kids. She's spoken extensively about the feelings of despair that nearly paralyzed her as she became more and more aware of the climate crisis. "Before I started school striking, I was … so depressed and I didn't want to do anything," she once said.
But when she began to speak, as many of us know, she became one of the most outspoken and well-known climate activists in the world. According to Thunberg, this was not a choice. "I feel like dying inside if I don't protest," she said. For those suffering from climate despair, that feeling of dying inside is a familiar one. But Greta's inspiring actions contain seeds of hope, perhaps the best hope against climate despair.
The truth is that things are only hopeless if we don't take action. Conveniently, taking action might also be one of the best things we can possibly do to work through climate despair.
Image via Handelszeitung
Our Best Shot at Hope
Although they might be realistic responses to the threat of climate change, feelings of despair—when they aren't turned into action, or are suffered through in solitude— present a terminal danger to the climate movement, as they promote stagnation when what is truly needed is unity and protest.
This doesn't mean that we should deny the gravity of the situation. Action begins with admitting the problem, not stuffing it away under layers of performative normalcy. "Until we find ways of acknowledging and integrating that level of anguished awareness," continues Joanna Macy, "we repress it; and with that repression we are drained of the energy we need for action and clear thinking."
Still, the answer is also not necessarily to let oneself fall down a hole of hopelessness. Often, the doomsday-esque reports that are inundating the Internet and certain academic circles can be the opposite of productive. Sometimes, these reports are inaccurate, overly dramatized and apocalyptic. These alarmist articles that proclaim that we are all doomed often have the opposite effect, shaking people into complicity when the truth is that though things are really bad, there is definitely hope.
There is hope.
Though we won't be able to reverse climate change, it is possible to salvage so much of the world and to prevent the worst consequences of ecological decline. Human beings have mobilized massively before—we've split atoms and spread cell phones across the globe in less than a decade—and we can do it again. We have the technology, the money, and the capability: All we need to avert immediate crisis is the will and the public support to elect people into office who will take action.
Image via Flickr
We have the resources to fight climate change. Many countries are instituting programs to reduce their carbon emissions. Small nations like Denmark and Belgium have successfully slashed their carbon emissions, and plans like the Paris Agreement are promising attempts at global change. What we need to do is fight, to spread awareness, to elect people into office who will take action, and to make it clear that we as a human race won't go down at the hands of an elite cult of carbon-worshipers determined to ruin all of our futures for the sake of their own fortunes.
Climate activism doesn't solely have to be a fight against something, though: it can be a fight for a better world. Though climate change is often painted as an entirely doom-and-gloom issue, some of the things that fighting it will combat it could actually benefit our whole society, healing some of the deep wounds that have caused our modern epidemic of mental illness, addiction, and loneliness.
According to Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, this impasse at the brink between oblivion and climate disaster presents an unprecedented opportunity for positive change. This crisis can be a beginning, not an ending, she argues: the beginning of a movement towards a more interconnected and compassionate world.
"Climate change—if treated as a true planetary emergency akin to those rising flood waters—could become a galvanizing force for humanity, leaving us all not just safer from extreme weather, but with societies that are safer and fairer in all kinds of other ways as well," she writes. "The resources required to rapidly move away from fossil fuels and prepare for the coming heavy weather could pull huge swaths of humanity out of poverty, providing services now sorely lacking, from clean water to electricity. This is a vision of the future that goes beyond just surviving or enduring climate change...It is a vision in which we collectively use the crisis to leap somewhere that seems, frankly, better than where we are right now."
This kind of future would require a paradigm shift, a complete departure from our current free-market model that glorifies isolated successes and prizes maximum consumption above all else. It would require that, among other things, we sacrifice our own desires for the good of everyone else.
We need to sacrifice the concept that the goal of life is to be able to pursue one's individual fortune to the highest level: And we have to acknowledge that we operate in an interconnected network, and must lift each other and our planet up, if we wish to continue to live on this earth.
The shift is already beginning. Organizations like Sunrise and Extinction Rebellion have emerged at the forefront of the fight against climate change; and artists are starting to wake up, too. But even if you don't have a massive platform or aren't going to protests, even just talking about the ecological crisis with others can ignite powerful chain reactions. Overall, probably the most meaningful thing you can do is work to elect officials who will make good on their promises to cut emissions and create a better world while doing it.
Image via Ethics and International Affairs
Where We Go From Here
Still, considering the amount of mobilization and effort that these changes require—and considering how determined major, extremely wealthy fossil fuel companies are to squander these efforts—it's extremely difficult to be hopeful all the time when it comes to the climate crisis. Plus we've already damaged some things beyond repair, and we've lost many people to the wildfires and hurricanes rooted in climate change; to name a few, the 79 people lost in California's Camp Fire, and the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives in Hurricane Maria.
And so, as the VICE article proposes, to comprehend the full extent of the climate crisis, first we need to let ourselves grieve. We need to allow ourselves to grieve as we would in the face of any other tragedy—to comprehend the harm that we've done to our planet and to recognize and honor our feelings about it.
Once we recognize these feelings, we can begin to deal with them. As Macy continues, "To experience pain as we register what is happening to our world is a measure of our evolution as open systems. This is true not only from the perspective of systems science but from that of religion as well. How many mystics in their spiritual journey have spoken of the 'dark night of the soul'? Brave enough to let go of accustomed assurances, they let their old convictions and conformities dissolve into nothingness, and stood naked to the terror of the unknown. They let processes, which their minds could not encompass, work through them. It is in that darkness that birth takes place."
While it's important to embrace one's despair and grief regarding climate, it's equally important to view these feelings as starting points for a spiritual and political revolution, instead of hindrances that need to be suppressed. If we view climate as a consequence of evils we've always been peripherally cognizant of—like selfishness, greed, and the hypocrisy that plagues human society—then we can view the climate crisis as an opportunity to at the very least connect with other people who understand that we, collectively, cannot continue this way.
Through this lens, climate despair is far from an end point. Rather, it connects us to the world around us, and to other people who care enough to want to see a better future for everyone and everything. "As our pain for the world is rooted in our interconnectedness with all life, so surely is our power," writes Macy.
So if you're pained by climate change, good. That pain means you love something. That love means you're alive.
Image via Occidental Arts and Ecology Center