15 Books for Fighting for Justice in the Trump Era
When I woke up around 3:30 am on Wednesday morning and saw the election results, my first thought went to the incarcerated students in my MLK and Malcolm X class. Casualties of our (in)Justice Department, many of them are young black men serving life sentences. My heart broke at the realization that their already hopeless situation just got more hopeless. In the midst of my lament, I was already planning for action. I knew I couldn’t stand by and watch the global injustice of a Trump presidency. I knew I had to keep fighting for justice, even in the face of body-slamming pain and despair. But I also sensed a strong conviction that how I fight is of grave importance.
For so many years, my fight for justice was powered by a potent but ultimately poisonous combination of fear, self-righteousness, angst and youthful idealism. By my early 30s, I had endured the crash-and-burn cycle a few times, clogged my spiritual arteries with resentment, and made a practice of shaming people into doing the “right” thing. This was not a sustainable pathway to justice. And it also wasn’t godly, life-giving, liberating, or effective.
For the past few years, I’ve been on a journey toward becoming what Christian reconciliation theologian Curtiss DeYoung calls a mystic-activist (see below for his book on mystic-activism). This is a way of digging deep into spirituality as we do the difficult work of justice. The spirituality and social justice are two sides of the same coin. I’ve found that I am more skillful in the outer work of justice when I am doing the inner work that I need to do in order to fight from a place of love and not fear, and to have the courage and selflessness to speak truth to power no matter the cost.
I don’t always reach these goals (If you don’t believe me, ask my students!), but these books have significantly helped me to keep growing as a mystic-activist. I hope they’ll help you too.
Much love to you all.
15 Books for Fighting for Justice in the Trump Era
1. Pilgrimage of a Soul: Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life by Phileena Heuertz
In my journey for justice, I’ve discovered that contemplative practices are the only practices that help me to face the world with love instead of fear, vulnerability instead of shame, and openness instead of defensiveness. This is an excellent and accessible introduction to the Christian contemplative tradition and its intimate connection to social justice action.
2. Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur
As the demographic group that is the most at risk for sexual assault, deportation, and poverty, it can be argued that women of color have the most to lose in the Trump era. Kaur’s stunning collection of poems illuminates the scarring pain that women of color regularly encounter as well as our brilliance, resilience and capacity to heal ourselves and our communities.
3. Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes by Mitri Raheb
Contemporary Palestinian theologians like Raheb know a thing or two about dealing with Empire, oppression, pain, despair and conflict. We would do well to listen and learn from their wisdom, lived theology, and witness.
4. Inequality: A Contemporary Approach to Race, Class and Gender by Lisa Keister and Darby Southgate
In order to do this work, we must understand the social forces that cause and maintain inequality. This is one of the more comprehensive texts on stratification in our society. I especially appreciate the authors’ ability to engage the complex issues of intersectionality.
5. Martin Luther King Jr. (Profiles in Power) by John A. Kirk
This is really a history of King’s movement and it reads like a war manual. I appreciate it because it shows the calculated strategy and social dynamics behind each of King’s non-violent direct action efforts, analyzing why some efforts were successful and others weren’t. It’s a helpful way to begin thinking about strategic efforts in our own communities.
6. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by JD Vance
One of my constant goals is to see the humanity in the hate. This book about white poverty, written from both a personal and politically conservative perspective, helped me to do that.
7. Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chogyam Trungpa
All thoughts, emotions and actions come from either a place of love or fear (1 John 4:18). This insightful book draws from Buddhist spirituality to offer practices that help activists to live from a place of love, even in the face of deep pain.
I still experience fear. It's part of the human experience. But it doesn't consume me or direct my action to the extent that it used to. I still experience pain. It is unavoidable. But I’ve learned that pain doesn’t have to lead to suffering. I’ve learned that it is possible for me to experience and process pain in a way that leads to greater empathy, courage, and skill as I continue to work for justice. I have a deeper empathy for and ability to see the humanity in others. And I'm able to feel their pain without being paralyzed into inaction. This book has been so helpful on this journey.
8. Freedom from Fear: And Other Writings by Aung San Suu Kai
The Lady of Burma lived under house arrest for 15 years while her people toiled under a violent, dictatorial regime. Yet she never stopped fighting against fear and oppression. This collection of essays offers an incredible look into her pathway through disillusionment and on to hope.
9. Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace by Angel Kyodo Williams
Rev. Angel knows the constant fear that black experience in the U.S. And she has discovered ways that contemplative prayer has helped her to face and overcome that fear, so that she can skillfully and freely fight for racial justice. This book is practical, honest, “woke,” and incredibly convicting.
10. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
If you want to understand the philosophy, biology, political science and psychology behind our divided country, look no further than this book. It will surprise you, convict you, educate you, affirm you and most importantly, help you to see when you’re contributing to the problem.
11. Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice by Curtiss DeYoung
This book exposed the agnosticism in my youthful, self-righteousness powered justice efforts led me to a deeper well. DeYoung suggests that we all need to become mystic-activists — deeply spiritual people who integrate our justice work with our spirituality — if we want to stay committed to this hard work. And he shows us the way.
12. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells by Ida B. Wells
I believe it’s a gift that we just celebrated All Saints Day. I am so emboldened and accompanied by the people who have gone before me on the justice path. I regularly read biographies of justice leaders and this is one of my favorites. Wells was indomitable and just reading her stories reminds that I’m not alone, that the moral arc of the universe is long but just, and that I too can keep going.
13. The Search for Common Ground by Howard Thurman
A beautiful essay on the nature of humanity and our capacity for connection even in the midst of division — written in Thurman’s characteristic gracious yet convicting style.
14. Privilege: A Reader (4th Ed.) by Michael Kimmel and Abby Ferber
This is a wonderful collection of short and accessible essays on various forms of privilege. These are great to read if you need talking points and research to draw from as you discuss power and inequality in our society. They’re also great to share or to use in discussion groups.
15. Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins by Miguel De La Torre
This book is not for the faint of heart but I believe it is absolutely necessary in this era. We need to rethink what is ‘right’ and who gets to decide what is right. (Hint — It’s not the people in power: white people, men, straight people, Americans, etc.) This book helps us to do this.