'Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action'

"Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action" documents the sun-flares of spiritual activism taking place around the globe. Director Velcrow Ripper ("Scared Sacred") introduces us to a noble assortment of activists who cheerfully devote their lives to improving the human condition wherever injustice reigns. For most of them, activism isn't simply a project but a mindset. They are so completely absorbed in their work that their very identities become graceful extensions of their causes.

These folk include such icons as Alice Walker, Desmond Tutu, bell hooks, Julia Butterfly Hill, John Lewis, Ralph Nader, Sam Harris, Thich Nhat Hanh and others. Each of these men and women, to varying degrees, are champions of human rights, advocates of reason, conscientious objectors, environmental protestors, academics, mystics, and poets — untiring participants in the grand scheme of human decency. I admire them all. And that is precisely why I was stunned by the film's intellectual shallowness.

Sure, "Fierce Light" has its heart in the right place. It's difficult to condemn any film that seeks to prove a more just world is possible. Insofar as it is inspiring to witness white hot, bend-over-backward goodness at work, the film succeeds. But I would have been more inspired if it had been less about psychospiritual nonsense and more about politics and ideas. As it stands, "Fierce Light" is rather barren of substance.

Ripper glosses over several modern cases of institutional tyranny that led to spiritual activism, from Gandhi's non-violence movement in India to the disgrace of South African apartheid.

The entire film is structured by one case in particular. South Central Los Angeles once boasted the nation's largest urban farm. When it thrived, the farm delivered joy and nutrition to its community. Then the city's authorities bulldozed it in the face of mounting protest. Daryl Hannah speaks wistfully on the subject, her voice quavering between resignation and defiance.

Yet in none of these segments do we get a firm grasp of the stakes involved, of ideas clashing, of specific political interests at work. Michael Moore may be unrepentantly biased, but at least he allows his opposition to speak for itself (if only so Moore can ridicule it). Ripper's opposition has no human face, no talking-head of its own. In fact, the opposition is rarely named except in the abstract: evil, racism, ignorance, greed, etc. We leave with the impression that a vague assembly of dark forces threatens humankind, and only a widespread show of spiritual support can defeat it. That's essentially the depth of the film's philosophy.

Speaking of which, it's about time we jettisoned the word "spirituality" from our lexicon. Any word that connotes (a) community, (b) lovingkindness, (c) wacked-out metaphysics, and (d) religious dogma is too promiscuous for its own good. A hefty portion of "Fierce Light" is devoted to fruitless equivocation on this word, and we learn nothing useful except that everyone tailors it to fit her own set of beliefs.

"Fierce Light" features a warmongering Christian preacher who represents the reactionary superstition retarding society's progress. The dangerously ignorant remarks that issue from his mouth are immoral, yes, but theologically defensible and fit cozily beneath the all-purpose blanket of "spirituality." His spirituality-of-hate contrasts with the spirituality-of-compassion that "Fierce Light" endorses. Now let's see both camps attempt to prove via evidence and argument which spirituality is the right one. Not the more comforting or the more humane, but the right one.

All we'd have are unjustified, hermetically sealed worldviews talking past each other. When we move a conversation from the raw materials of human emotion and survival — pleasure and pain, happiness and suffering — to the metaphysical realm of the spirit, the bottom drops out. Words like "spirituality," "soul-force," and "fierce light" only obscure the issues. Simply put, to engage in this kind of spiritual dialogue is a futile way to prosecute an authentic war of ideas.

Activism is great, and necessary, but must we couch it in spirituality?

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