In the 1960’s Martin Luther King Jr. called for a revolution of values in the United States that would address racism, materialism, and militarism. His words were clearly understood as a call for societal change. In the 1980’s Aung San Suu Kyi called for a revolution of the spirit in Burma that would end dictatorship and launch democracy. No one confused her call to revolution as anything but a call for social transformation. Revolution meant the dismantling of the structures of an unjust society so that a new and more just system could emerge.

In popular culture today the word “revolution” has lost the potent edginess it had in the twentieth century. A Google search for “revolution” produces sites for a New England soccer team called Revolution, (“freedom from the oppression” of fleas and heartworm), a nightclub called Revolution, Revolution Software (computer games), Revolution Media (a multimedia software package), Revolution Magazine (digital marketing), Nintendo Revolution, Revolution Health, Revolution Kites, and Revolution Vodka Bars.

In the twentieth century, faith-inspired revolutionaries stood tall and sacrificed much to transform governments, cities, towns, and whole societies. Their names remain familiar and remind us of courage and commitment: Gandhi, Hamer, Mandela, Menchú, Romero, Malcolm, and so many others.

Today the voices of faith-inspired social justice leaders seem muted or out of the mainstream while celebrities and musicians are at the forefront of many worthy causes. Rather than a modern day Martin, Malcolm, or Mother Teresa, we look to Bono, Oprah, Brad (Pitt), or Angelina (Jolie) for our inspiration toward good works and service. I am grateful for what these individuals do to create a climate of charity and justice. In the social movements of the twentieth century, celebrities like Martin Sheen and Harry Belafonte raised awareness for causes and musicians like Joan Baez, James Brown, and Bob Dylan wrote songs chronicling the events. But the leaders were often from the religious community. Now Bono must regularly challenge religious leaders to live according to the call of their Scriptures to serve the poor.

What happened to create this reversal? Has the prophetic edge of religion been replaced by materialistic and nationalistic notions of religious faith? When faith and an economic system marry or religion and a nation form an alliance we veer off the path of our Scriptural call to social justice (where is the biblical prophet Amos when we need him?).

The idea of revolution in the twentieth century also implied a change in one’s individual outlook and lifestyle. Working for social justice in society required a complimentary personal transformation. Oba T’Shaka declared in his book on Malcolm X: “A real revolution not only changes the oppressive society from top to bottom, but it changes the thoughts, attitudes, behavior and communication patterns of the people who are bringing about the change. A serious revolution gives birth to new men and women who cast off the old worn out ideas and behavior.”1 The message of revolution is “both wide, the whole of human existence, and deep, the hearts and minds, indeed the soul, of individuals.”2

When considered from this vantage point, revolution has a seamless feel between personal and social action. If you volunteer at a city feeding program, you also address the economic system that creates the urban social conditions that lead to hunger. If you build homes in hurricane ravaged New Orleans, you also challenge patterns of racial and economic segregation that caused African Americans and poor people to experience the vast majority of the social and psychic pain. You do not just decry the massive poverty in so much of the world; you also challenge the rampant material consumption in the United States that contributes to the lack of resources in other nations.

I fear that people of faith in the twenty first century might lose sight of the social justice emphasis that is at the core of most world religions. So I wrote a book,Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice, to celebrate twentieth century religious activists and communicate the central themes and ideas of their work. If we do not grasp onto these purposeful lives they might slip away into dusty history books. I also wrote this book so that the generations growing up in the twenty-first century can remain connected to this rich legacy.

I profile three exemplars from the twentieth century: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Malcolm X, and Aung San Suu Kyi—each from a different generation, a different faith community, and a different continent. Yet my study was not limited to these three. I also utilize the insights and life journeys of many others including Thich Nhat Hanh, Rigoberta Menchú, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Allan Boesak, Winona LaDuke, Mohandis Gandhi, Elie Wiesel, Fannie Lou Hamer, Abraham Heschel, and The Dalai Lama.

I discovered in the lives of twentieth century faith-inspired activists a relentless activism inspired by and sustained through religious faith. I call them “mystic-activists” in order to describe the relational depth and vibrancy of their faith in God. These individuals were not mystics in the traditional sense of the term. Their “activism consumes them yet it is deeply rooted in their faith and in the mystery of the divine.”3 I also noticed that their worldviews were shaped at and by the margins of society, they embraced their own humanity and that of others in a way that defined their identity, and they sought a revolution of the spirit that transforms the very foundations on which society is built.

What follows is from my book Living Faith. As you read these excerpts from a chapter titled “The Ethics of Revolution,” ask yourself if you might join these mystic-activists and become a faith-inspired revolutionary in the twenty-first century.


Throughout the Burmese struggle for freedom, Aung San Suu Kyi envisioned a revolution of the spirit. As a faith-inspired activist, she saw that her country needed more than political change. Her vision remained consistent whether she was speaking to crowds of hundreds of thousands or was alone and confined under house arrest. “I have always said that true revolution has to be that of the spirit. You have to be convinced that you need to change certain things—not just material things. You want a political system which is guided by certain spiritual values—values that are different from those that you’ve lived by before.”4

Other mystic-activists also share the idea of a revolution of the spirit. Malcolm X reflected on this notion in his autobiography: “Mankind’s history has proved from one era to another that the true criterion of leadership is spiritual. Men are attracted by spirit. By power, men are forced. Love is engendered by spirit. By power, anxieties are created. . . . The only true world solution today is governments guided by true religion—of the spirit.”5

Martin Luther King Jr. called for a revolution of values. In a speech, he proclaimed, “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” King rejected a materialistic notion of revolution. He continued, “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”6

Before Aung San Suu Kyi, Malcolm X, and King, Mohandas Gandhi had pursued a strategy based on the assumption that “lasting political change is through the inner transformation of masses of individuals.”7 When Aung San Suu Kyi and others call for a revolution of the spirit, they truly believe that “religion can become the spiritual force for revolutionary change.”8

Those who call for a revolution of the spirit know that the end will reflect the means. For justice and freedom to be the final outcome, justice and freedom must imbue the process all along the way. The ethics and methods of the spiritual revolution itself must match the integrity of the end sought. Malcolm X’s cry for freedom and justice “by any means necessary” expressed the urgency felt by those oppressed. But the call for a revolution of the spirit articulates the deeply felt desire for an egalitarian community where the very terms oppressor and oppressed become unnecessary.

The Most Revolutionary Person on Earth

Dietrich Bonhoeffer proclaimed in a sermon: “The man who loves because he is made free by the truth of God is the most revolutionary person on earth. He is the upsetting of all values, the dynamite of the human society. He is the most dangerous man.”9 Mystic-activists can be called revolutionaries—freed by the truth of their religious faith. Bonhoeffer clearly fit his own definition of a revolutionary person. He embraced his freedom by upsetting the values of the Nazi regime. No one would argue with the contention that Malcolm X was the “dynamite of the human society.” He was a revolutionary “both in the sense of a return to a former principle and in the sense of an upheaval.”10 Aung San Suu Kyi is revolutionary in her call for a revolution of the spirit and in her amazing ability to always reach out with love to those who persecute her. As faith-inspired revolutionaries, they join a much too small group. The reality is that “religious institutions have more often played a role supporting established elites than one of rebellion against them, and a revolutionary role is least common of all.”11

Mystic-activists call for revolution as a response to existing injustice. Malcolm X used a colorful metaphor in a speech to illustrate the need for a revolution for racial justice in the United States:

It’s impossible for a chicken to produce a duck egg even though they both belong to the same family of fowl—a chicken just doesn’t have it within its system to produce a duck egg. It can’t do it. It can only produce according to what the particular system was constructed to produce. The system in this country cannot produce freedom for an Afro-American. It is impossible for this system, this economic system, this political system, this social system, this system, period. It’s impossible for this system as it stands to produce freedom right now for the Black man in this country. And if ever a chicken did produce a duck egg, I’m certain you would say it was certainly a revolutionary chicken!12

If the system in place cannot produce freedom for all members of the society, then a change is called for.

The purpose of a revolution is “to abolish the present status quo and to attempt to replace it with a qualitatively different one.” The aim of a revolution is “a just society based on new relationships of production [and] an end to the domination of some countries by others, of some social classes by others, of some people by others.”13 Martin Luther King Jr. said, “For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of the society, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.”14 Revolution is about dismantling structures in a society to create a new and more just system. A call for a revolution of the spirit is a call for both societal transformation and individual conversion.

The three principle mystic-activists in this book clearly called for a revolution of the political structures. Malcolm X stated his sentiments in his chicken and duck speech. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was willing to participate in a plot to kill Hitler in order to produce a change in the system. Aung San Suu Kyi regularly calls for democracy rather than military dictatorship. At the same time, they invited their fellow revolutionaries, as well as those opposed to their efforts, to engage in an ongoing revolution of their hearts and minds.15

What was said of Malcolm X can be said of other mystic-activists: “He was a revolutionary without an army, or an ideology, or any clear sense of how the revolution was to be waged and what it would do if it won. Malcolm, instead, was a revolutionary of the spirit, which is the most subversive sort of all; he was interested less in overthrowing institutions than in undermining the assumptions on which our institutions have run.”16

[pages 121-124]

A Socially Just Society

Aimé Césaire wrote in Discourse on Colonialism: “A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization. A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization. A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization.”17 Mystic-activists are prophets who seek to open eyes to see the exploitative political and social systems in their societies. They prophesy to dying societies. They announce, they call for, a revolution of the spirit in order to create a more just and humane system. They plead for social systems that breathe life into communities.

Similar to Césaire, Howard Thurman declared:

If there be any government or social institution of whatever kind that operates among people in a manner that makes for human misery, whether of the mind through fear and despair, or of the body through the freezing of the freedom of movement, or of the spirit through the destruction of any sense of the future, such a government or such a social institution, without regard to its sanctions, is evil.

Then Thurman sounded this warning: “To the extent that it is so, it cannot survive, because it is against life and carries within the seeds of its own destruction. The moral law is binding. There is no escape.”18The cry for a revolution of the spirit emerges because an unjust society by its nature is a dying civilization.

Many twentieth-century mystic-activists did not have the opportunity to participate in the creation of a new and just government. Dietrich Bonhoeffer returned to Germany from the United States so that he might join such an effort but was executed before the war ended. Malcolm X was murdered as he was moving into a phase of life that held great promise for social change. Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party was elected so that she might help construct a socially just government. The military dictatorship has not recognized the election as valid.

While these mystic-activists do not present a detailed blueprint for a new government or a just society, they do point toward some of the needed ingredients. Revolution implies that something new needs to be created. A new kind of community, nation, and society needs to be built on a foundation of integrity. Aung San Suu Kyi states, “Political integrity means just plain honesty in politics. One of the most important things is never to deceive the people. Any politician who deceives the people either for the sake of his party or because he imagines it’s for the sake of the people, is lacking in political integrity.”19

In order to reach a place of integrity, confession or truth telling is often required. Catholic monk and social critic Thomas Merton wrote that if whites in the United States listen to the truth told by African Americans “the whites may have to admit that their prosperity is rooted to some extent in injustice and in sin.” Merton further stated that such a confession “might lead to a complete reexamination of the political motives behind all our current policies, domestic and foreign, with the possible admission that we are wrong. Such an admission might, in fact, be so disastrous that its effects would dislocate our whole economy and ruin the country.”20 While at first glance Merton’s vision appears somewhat naïve, it also seems refreshing and, if ever embraced by a dominant group in a society, courageous and transformative.

In addition to integrity, a new order is built on justice. Aung San Suu Kyi notes, “The Buddhist concept of law is based on dhamma, righteousness or virtue, not on the power to impose harsh and inflexible rules on a defenceless people. The true measure of the justice of a system is the amount of protection it guarantees to the weakest. When there is no justice there can be no secure peace.”21 Mohandas Gandhi insisted that “improving the conditions of the most oppressed [was] the decisive test of political sincerity.”22 Liberation ethics implies that the test of a society’s commitment to social justice is its treatment of those at the margins.

Since 1994, South Africa has been in the process of nation building. Efforts have been made to develop a just government to replace the previous unjust and corrupt apartheid government. The hope is to build a society on the foundations of reconciliation and social justice. This requires an ongoing revolution of the spirit. Allan Boesak writes that such revolution is only possible by “standing where God stands, however, sharing the pain and the destitution of the poor, feeling the pain of their exclusion as well as the burning for their right to inclusion.” The success of the venture cannot be assessed “from the comfortable seats of power, but from the depths of the pits from where the poor are yearning to be heard. Reconciliation begins truly when the voice from the pit is heard, and when that voice sets the tone. For that is the voice that unmasks the lie, reveals the truth, disempowers the myth, opens the way.”23 Government should be judged by “its response to the poor and weak of our society, in terms of its laws, economic policies, social and political transformation; it all must be measured through the eye that looks from the pit.” A revolution of the spirit is complete when the poor, excluded, and exploited in a society are content. They have “seen and found justice so that their human potential stands a chance of fulfillment.”24

In his final days, Dietrich Bonhoeffer contemplated “forgiveness within history” as a feature of a society built on justice. From prison he mused,

This forgiveness within history can come only when the wound of guilt is healed, when violence has become justice, lawlessness has become order, and war has become peace. If this is not achieved, if wrong still rules unhindered and still inflicts new wounds, then, of course, there can be no question of this kind of forgiveness and man’s first concern must be to resist injustice and to call the offenders to account for their guilt.25

Bonhoeffer did not live to see this actualized in history. Perhaps he foresaw the spirit of something envisioned in truth and reconciliation commissions in South Africa and elsewhere.

The spirit of prophecy shapes the ethics of the revolution. The authenticity of any new society is built on the foundation of the ethics of that revolution. Aung San Suu Kyi declares, “The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit, born of an intellectual conviction of the need for change in those mental attitudes and values which shape the course of a nation’s development. . . . Without a revolution of the spirit, the forces which produced the iniquities of the old order would continue to be operative, posing a constant threat to the process of reform and regeneration.”26

[pages 132-135]

1. T’Shaka, Oba. The Political Legacy of Malcolm X. Richmond: Pan Afrikan Publications, 1983. p28-29.
2. Brady, Bernard V. The Moral Bond of Community: Justice and Discourse in Christian Morality. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1998. p44.
3. DeYoung, Curtiss Paul. Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007. p7.
4. Aung San Suu Kyi and Alan Clements, Voice of Hope (New York: Seven Stories, 1997), 75–76.
5. Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grove, 1965), 376.
6. Martin Luther King Jr., “From Beyond Vietnam,” 138-147, in Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the Civil Rights Struggle of the 1950s and 1960s: A Brief History with Documentsby David Howard-Pitney (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004), 145.
7. John Hick, “Gandhi: The Fusion of Religion and Politics,” 145-164, in Religion, Politics, and Peace, edited by LeRoy S. Rouner (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999), 150.
8. Oba T’Shaka, Political Legacy of Malcolm X (Richmond: Pan Afrikan, 1983), 209.
9. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gesammelte Schriften, (Munich: Chr. Kaiser, 1965), 4:86.
10. James Baldwin, “Malcolm and Martin,” 257-279, in Malcolm X: As They Knew Him, edited by David Gallen (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1992), 269.
11. Bruce Lincoln, Religion, Rebellion, Revolution: An Interdisciplinary and Cross-cultural Collection of Essays (New York: St. Martin’s, 1985), 8.
12. Malcolm X, Two Speeches by Malcolm X (New York, Pathfinder, 1967), 25.
13. Gustavo Gutiérrez, Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1973), 48.
14. Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Free, 2000), 39.
15. When a revolution of the spirit is dismissed, blocked, or sabotaged by the status quo, other visions of revolutionary activity emerge. Malcolm X declared of the world situation in the 1960s: “Time is on the side of the oppressed today. It’s against the oppressor. Truth is on the side of the oppressed today, it’s against the oppressor. You don’t need anything else. I would just like to say this in my conclusion. You’ll see terrorism that will terrify you, and if you don’t think you’ll see it, you’re trying to blind yourself to the historic development of everything that’s taking place on this earth today” (Malcolm X, Two Speeches by Malcolm X, 25). Perhaps the increased terrorism of the early years of the twenty-first century is a result of ignoring calls by mystic-activists in the twentieth century for a revolution of the spirit. Malcolm X’s comments forty years earlier seem to have foretold this. Is it possible that since a revolution of the spirit was embraced by so few, a revolution of terror emerged? Is it possible that in the absence of social justice in the world, a new horrific form of protest has emerged on the world stage?
16. Peter Goldman, The Death and Life of Malcolm X (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979), 398-399.
17. Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism (New York: Monthly Review, 2000), 31.
18. Alton B. Pollard, III, Mysticism and Social Change: The Social Witness of Howard Thurman (New York, Peter Lang, 1992), 91.
19. Suu Kyi and Clements, Voice of Hope, 19.
20. Thomas Merton, Seeds of Destruction (New York: Farrar, Straus & Company, 1964), 42.
21. Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom from Fear and Other Writings (London: Penguin, 1995) 177.
22. Richar Falk, Religion and Humane Global Governance (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 105.
23. Allan Boesak, The Tenderness of Conscience: African Renaissance and the Spirituality of Politics (Stellenbosch, SUN, 2005), 201.
24. Ibid., 207.
25. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1965), 118–119.
26. Suu Kyi, Freedom from Fear, 183.