Re-Enchanting the Activist: Spirituality and Social Change is a new book by Keith Hebden, who led the End Hunger Fast in 2014 and is now Director of the Urban Theology Unit. This review is by Sandra Dutson, a member of Church Action on Poverty’s Council of Management.
I did not find this an easy book to review, and part of the reason for that lies in the title. Words are very carefully used throughout the book but the word ‘re-enchantment’, repeated many times, is intriguing, at times challenging, but did on occasion jar.
The intended audience of the book is people of faith engaged in social action and close to giving up, through the depression and burn-out that can follow years of “fruitless struggle for change”. The whole book – and maybe the use of word ‘re-enchantment’ – is about not just re-energising, but helping people to reconnect with each other and the earth, and to live in an environment of prayer, cultivated by spiritual practices, so compassion is once more the ‘lifeblood’ of their activism.
The mix of personal experiences, stories from others and quotes from people of many faiths who have influenced Keith is very rich in every chapter. He has been involved in many direct actions such as the RAF Waddington drone protest, an ‘exorcism’ at the DSEI, and local actions. There are insights from Dorothy Day, Francis of Assissi, Simone Weil, Rowan Williams, Ambedkar, and Philip Berrigan, amongst many others. Over the years his home has been open to many people, some with complex difficulties, and that has clearly at times been far from easy. However, the relationships with all those whose experience of abuse or homelessness means their life has been very different from his own, have been founded on respect and willingness to learn.
The roles of religion and the church are considered in early chapters. He does not duck questions about the way religion has often been implicated in injustice and wrongs in world, but stresses the way “the faithfulness of belonging to others can be a radical and liberating stance”. For him, activism and spirituality are “forged in the crucible of common life”. He quotes an African proverb: “If you want to go fast travel alone, if you want to go far travel together”.
The chapter ‘Enchanted by affliction’, where I definitely wanted to question the word ‘re-enchantment’, was however an invitation to find ways of acting in solidarity with those who experience outright pain because of injustice or conflict. He describes in some depth his experience with two others of an entire 40 days of fasting in 2014 in the End Hunger Fast, which was a way of identifying with those experiencing hunger because of benefit sanctions as well as highlighting the issue to bring about change. He points out his own experience was not linked to all the humiliating extra factors like debt and being shamed by others. Such solidarity is about drawing lives closer together, narrowing the “chasm between human beings in a messed up world”.
In the final chapter he talks of a decision to go barefoot to a conference and the reflections on that speak of connection, relationship and authenticity. The book is certainly about all those things. I still however struggle with the use of the word ‘re-enchantment’. It is too light a word, and does not convey for me the passionate, totally rooted engagement with people and the earth which leads to action. Maybe some anger – though not hatred – would add to the energy behind what is a very thoughtful, insightful book.