Discover more from Queerly Devoted
Dirty Sacred Work
Against a spirituality of dissociation and towards a spirituality of connection
“The dichotomy between the spiritual and the political is also false, resulting from an incomplete attention to our erotic knowledge. For the bridge which connects them is formed by the erotic—the sensual—those physical, emotional, and psychic expressions of what is deepest and strongest and richest within each of us, being shared: the passions of love, in its deepest meanings.”
— Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic”
“Belief Initiates and guides action— Or it does nothing.”
— Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower
Dear queerly devoted,
I’ve been thinking a lot about spirituality and devotion in recent weeks. What good is spirituality in the face of extreme devastation and horror? What good is a prayer against a global superpower? What good is devotion when it seems that all the gods have fled?
I saw a post on Instagram over the weekend that said witnessing Israel’s ongoing genocide and ethnic cleansing in Palestine was not good for our emotional, mental, and spiritual health. I’ve seen similar sentiments repeated in various other posts in the wellness corner of the internet over the past month, but this was the first time I’d seen spiritual health brought into it. It got me thinking about what exactly spiritual “health” means, and what exact kind of spirituality would be rendered unhealthy by witnessing human suffering.
But before we dig into the spiritual, I want to briefly address the question of mental and emotional health. It is true that self-care is a necessary part of any resistance movement because we must sustain ourselves in order to sustain the work of ongoing solidarity. But this notion that witnessing (just witnessing) the genocide in Gaza is bad for our health—“our” in this instance being the mostly Western, mostly white, non-Arab, non-Jewish observers who I’ve seen repeating this idea—intrinsically centers the health of the observer over the health of the Palestinians actually being murdered, maimed, traumatized, and displaced. It also centers the health of the observer over the health of Palestinians in diaspora whose family, friends, and people are being annihilated with the aid of supposedly democratic superpowers; the health of Jews whose ancestors were the victims of genocide and who are now having a genocide waged in their names; and the health of the land of Palestine itself, which has now been blasted and poisoned by more cumulative explosive power than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Is our mental and emotional health more important than 11,000 dead and counting?
Is experiencing anguish, grief, rage, and anxiety in response to genocide unhealthy or exactly right?
At what point does looking away from genocide to preserve our mental and emotional health in fact become spiritually unhealthy?1
There is a pernicious belief working under the surface here that I believe we need to examine because it pervades so much of the spirituality and wellness arenas today: the belief that witnessing injustice, horror, and suffering is somehow un-spiritual.
This belief is apparent today in the “love and light” new age arena and also in the evangelical Christian prosperity gospel—two seemingly disparate spiritualities that possess striking similarities when you look under the hood. The former promotes the power of positive thinking to manifest one’s desires through visualization and affirmations, while it bans “negative” thinking for supposedly attracting negative energies into one’s life (a.k.a. the “Law of Attraction”). The latter teaches that God bequeaths blessings of wealth, health, and success as signs of his divine favor on the faithful, and that poverty, sickness, and failure are signs of personal moral inadequacy. According to the prosperity gospel, one can improve one’s standing with God—and thereby one’s material comfort in life—via “positive confession” (speaking what you want into the world in alignment with God’s will) and visualization.
Both spiritual philosophies have a common source: a 19th century movement called New Thought, which is in many ways the precursor to modern-day self-help. The goal of New Thought was to provide normal people the tools to become aware of their thoughts and use them to improve their self-confidence, relationships, health, and success. Its founder Phineas Quimby believed that all disease was a product of wrong thinking and could be healed by correcting one’s thoughts. He treated the sick by saying, “I affirm that the disease is in his belief and his belief is in error.”2 (Medical gaslighting 101.) Eventually, Quimby’s philosophy turned more to the spiritual and he began to teach that human consciousness was an extension of God’s power and could literally create reality, not in a psychological way but a material way.
New Thought’s early roots were socialist; many of its early practitioners were common people (Quimby was uneducated) who were eager to develop a radical mystical practice that could lift people out of poverty and into material security and comfort sheerly through the power of mental discipline. However, in retrospect it’s not hard to identify their fatal philosophical flaw: if people create their own circumstances with their minds and their attention, then a person’s circumstances are all their fault. Under this philosophy, systemic inequality and institutionalized oppression don’t exist. The victim is blamed for their own victimization.
New Thought practitioners swiftly adapted the philosophy to Christianity under names such as Christian Science and Religious Science and began developing it into extreme conservative and racist ideologies. Later New Thought practitioners would shift the focus more and more onto financial success, because if the mind is an extension of God and creates our circumstances, then the person with the best circumstances must have the godliest mind. Concurrently, the worse a person’s circumstances, the more ungodly they must be. Eventually, even acknowledging sickness, suffering, injustice, or poverty was tantamount to inviting it into one’s life. Engaging in politics was anathema. Influential New Thought leader Wallace D. Wattles once said, “Do not talk about poverty; do not investigate it, or concern yourself with it.”3
When one’s wealth and success under capitalism are markers of spiritual elevation, when literally ignoring the suffering and injustice of the world makes you godly, when feeling your own grief, anguish, and rage attracts negative experiences, you have the perfect spirituality for upholding white supremacist capitalist colonialist cis-hetero patriarchy. The onus for all poverty, illness, and injustice is laid on the oppressed, and the oppressor is handed a ticket to heaven on a private jet.
Today, New Thought philosophies have become so accepted and enmeshed into American thought that New Thought isn’t even new anymore; it’s just thought. The New Thought philosophy of the “Law of Attraction,” the idea that positive energy attracts positive energy and negative energy attracts negative, pervades the alternative spirituality and wellness scene today and is the subject of bestselling books and movies like The Secret (2006). If you believe you can do it, you can do it. Use a vision board to manifest your desires. Say your affirmations in the mirror. I think I’m rich, therefore I am rich. Cogito, ergo sum meets multi-level marketing. High vibes only.
In addition to mesmerism, New Thought proponents were influenced by Transcendentalism and Hermeticism. Yes, Hermeticism, which is deeply enmeshed into tarot thanks to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, of which the three people most influential on modern tarot were members: A.E. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith, creators of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, and Aleister Crowley, creator (along with Lady Frieda Harris) of the Thoth Tarot. I mention this to draw attention to the tangled roots shared by modern tarot, occultism, new age spirituality, prosperity theology, and New Thought, roots that are buried in the same soil as much more dangerous alt-right movements such as Christian Nationalism (a.k.a. the folks who brought you “white genocide”).4 As Pastel QAnon taught us, the slope between spiritual wellness and far-right extremism can be a slippery one, and those of us in tarot, occult, and alternative spirituality spaces need to be vigilant and vocal against the co-opting of our practices and tools as feel-good means for fascist ends. I do believe that tarot is a queer-aligned tool that can be used for deconstruction and liberation (I wrote a whole book about it), but it can also be used for confirmation bias, fatalism, individualism, and manipulation. Just like everything else.
Aside from their roots, what New Thought, prosperity theology, and girlbossy manifestation have in common is that they are all philosophies of profound individualism, denial, and disconnection. They represent a spectacular inversion of the sacred and the profane in which the sacred has been conflated with a disconnected, individualistic, high-vibe denial that is essentially contingent on ignoring the oppression of others, while the angry, disruptive, collective work of activism and solidarity is labeled profane. There is a long, long history in the Western world of equating purity and asceticism with holiness and emotion and sensuality with sin, and it has all ultimately served to shore up institutionalized power structures by disconnecting the common person from themselves, from each other, and from the earth. When the spiritual is pure and abstract and the profane is dirty and physical, God is only available to those who can afford a cleaning staff.
But the spiritual is not the abstract. It’s not the disembodied “transparent eyeball” of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendental philosophy, perceiving the world while not being a part of it. It’s not the sanctified spiritual bypassing of New Thought. It’s not the “high vibe” ascended consciousness of new age love and light, nor the religious capitalism of the prosperity gospel. No, the spiritual is embodied. The spiritual is connected. The spiritual is deeply, fervently, blazingly, radically felt. All of the truly holy people I can think of—Desmond Tutu, Gandhi, Jesus Christ—all of them did the dirty, sacred work of activism, fighting for the freedom and self-determination of the oppressed. All of them knew what it seems so many of us have forgotten: that compassion—literally “suffering with”—is the most spiritual thing of all. That spiritual capacity for suffering with each other is what gives us the courage and the will—no, the imperative—to fight for each other’s liberation.
I want a spirituality of empathy and entanglement. I want a spirituality not of ideas but of people. I want a spirituality of dirt and blood and breath. The way to the divine, whatever that may be, has never been a pristine and abstract upward transcendence but instead down, under, with, among. Ensoiled, enmeshed, embodied, ensouled.
Audre Lorde wrote that the spiritual and the political are connected, and it’s true. Where we dedicate our spiritual belief is a choice with political ramifications. Our spirituality can give us permission to bow out, disengage, and retreat into our sanctuaries of privilege, making us complicit in the ongoing atrocities waged by the powerful against the oppressed. Or our spirituality can hold us accountable—not by promising eternal salvation on some distant judgment day, but by making us so connected, so feeling, and so loving that our souls ache along with those of strangers, that we are kept up at night with the wails of children half a world away, that our raging broken hearts demand our solidarity and action.
This moment of great suffering that we find ourselves in is not spiritually “unhealthy.” It is spiritually clarifying. If your spirituality can’t hold up to the truth of the violent inhumanity of colonialism, then you might need a different spirituality. If your spirituality requires you to turn away from the suffering of others, then it might center feeling good over being good.5 If your spirituality requires you to look away from genocide, injustice, and oppression, then your spirituality might be the spirituality of the oppressor.
However, if you are spiritually struggling right now, I think that is right and good. If your prayers are anguished, that is right and good. If your conscience is unquiet, wrestling you through the night, that is right and good. That painful feeling gnawing at your soul is not spiritually unhealthy but the opposite. That’s your bone-deep, soul-deep revulsion at the bloody machinery of capitalist colonialism exposed. That’s your conscience grieving that you have been complicit, whether you knew it or not. That’s your connection to the living spirit of all people and all living things, crying out in horror and pain as entire families are wiped from the earth. Listen to that feeling, feel that feeling, and let it lead you out of silence and complicity and into solidarity and action.
Witnessing these atrocities is mentally and emotionally devastating, to be sure, but when we are observing from the vantage of relative safety, the healthy thing is not to become complicit in the very atrocities that so horrify us by looking away and staying silent. The healthy thing to do is to take concrete action against genocide, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, collective punishment, islamophobia, anti-semitism, and the systems of capitalist colonialism that are the root causes of all the unhealthiness in the first place. If we are truly concerned about mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual “health,” then dismantling those systems should be our ultimate objective.
So let us refuse the sanitized spirituality of dissociation and instead court a spirituality of connection.
Spirituality connects us to ourselves, to each other, to life in all its joy and suffering, or it does nothing. Spiritual connection demands that we take action, that we pray with our boots, that we devote ourselves to a love so huge that it does not stop at our borders, does not stop at people who look like us or believe like us. Devotion to queerness means devotion to all oppressed, marginalized, and “othered” people, because our liberation is entwined.6 Our spiritual practices can and should give us support at times like this, but that support should not be of the sort that permissions us to wall off, hole up, and disengage. It should instead be a support that holds our hearts even closer so we may have the spiritual fortitude to not look away, to take action, to engage our voices and talents and resources to do everything in our power, and then a little more.
Prayer, like all magic, is most powerful when it is deeply felt and deeply dedicated. Prayer, like all magic, requires us to act toward the object of our prayer to the best of our ability. Prayer, like all magic, is a petition, a plea, and a dedication of will.
May our prayers be lifted on the smoke of our rage.
May our tears water our grief so it grows into action.
May our love be so great that we never look away.
Suggested Resources for Education and Solidarity with Palestine
All Out for Palestine Toolkit by the Palestinian Feminist Collective contains extensive resources for learning, teaching, solidarity, and action.
The BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) Movement works to end international support for Israeli apartheid and oppression of Palestinians and has lists of corporations to boycott and companies to divest from.
Palestine as a Queer Struggle toolkit by the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights (USCPR) contains information on pinkwashing, educational resources, action items, and queer Palestinian organizations to support.
Jewish Voice for Peace is a progressive Jewish anti-Zionist organization dedicated to organizing for solidarity with Palestinian liberation. They have excellent resources as well as easy emails and calls scripts for contacting your U.S. congressional representatives to demand a ceasefire and end to U.S. support of Israel.
Haymarket Books currently has three of their ebooks on Palestinian liberation available to download for free.
The healthy/unhealthy metaphor can quickly and easily slip into ableism and fat shaming, so let me be clear that I am using these terms because they were used in the original post I’m referring to and are often deployed in the service of the religio-spiritual systems I talk about later. However, it must also be said that health is truly on the line in Gaza, as actual lives are being lost, medical conditions untreated, and disabilities sustained via traumatic injury, starvation, dehydration, and chemical exposure.
Mitch Horowitz, Occult America: White House Séances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation (New York: Bantam Books, 2009), 83.
New Thought, by the way, is also an integral part of Donald Trump’s individualistic and megalomaniacal ethos. For more on the links between occultism (including New Thought) and American politics see Mitch Horowitz’s book Occult America. For more on the connection between alt-right occultism and the rise of fascism, see Gary Lachman’s Dark Star Rising.
By “being good” I do not mean “good behavior” but the opposite. I mean behavior that disrupts, yells, chants, protests, boycotts, walks out, and fights for the liberation of all people. Here I must quote Lane Smith, author of the forthcoming tarot book 78 Degrees of Liberation, who puts it better than I can in this hauntingly astute 2023 Year Ahead [Tarot] Reading post on Medium: “You can’t be good by being ‘good.’ You can only be good by being ‘bad’ under systems of oppression… Breaking rules, being disruptive, being loud and angry and socially unacceptable and unsuccessful and out of step with what’s considered normal are all required; otherwise you’ll be nothing more than an usher for the genocidal theater, waving to people on their way out.”
Zionists have come into my comments section and DMs to tell me that Palestinians would kill me for being queer. This is certainly not true of Palestinians in general, many of whom are queer whether they can be out or not, and this type of comment is in itself a kind of queerphobic violence. This is a tactic called “pinkwashing” that Israel intentionally uses in propaganda campaigns, and you can read more about it on the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights page, also linked in the resources section above. Also read “A Liberatory Demand from Queers in Palestine” by Queers in Palestine.