ARTIST, WRITER and peace activist Tom Block keeps surprising the world. From eye-opening paintings of great spiritual leaders to unusual theatrical works to historical analysis to activist manifestos, Tom is hammering away at a core flaw in civilization: the intersection of religion and violence. Drawing on centuries of spiritual prophets—including Maimonidies and St. Francis—Tom speaks to audiences worldwide through many forms of media.
TODAY, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Tom Block about his ongoing peacemaking efforts—and his newest book, A Fatal Addiction: War in the Name of God:
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR
INTERVIEW WITH TOM BLOCK
ON ‘A FATAL ADDICTION:
WAR IN THE NAME OF GOD’
DAVID: This new book draws hard conclusions for people of faith. For example, you write: “There are many painful truths that we might have a difficult time understanding and internalizing. This book is about one of them: our fatal attraction to violence and war. And even more confusing, the manner in which war and God are intertwined in most religions and throughout all human time, even into our own.” Compared with your earlier work, which inspired readers with fascinating connections between early Jewish and Muslim mystics—this book about religion and violence is tough stuff.
TOM: This book is the starkest thing I have done, without a doubt. It’s stark because I believe our activism has to start with honesty. This book is Step 1 for me as an activist. I can’t offer a response to the intertwining of religion and violence in the world if I don’t, first, stop and look at this problem in a clear light.
DAVID: So, you’ve written a book that you find helpful to true peace activists—a vocation you have pursued through your art and your work as a playwright and a scholar writing nonfiction books like this one. What do you hope general readers will find in this volume?
TOM: I hope people will take the time to read this book, because it opens the doorway to admitting that we all share this fatal addiction to violence. As I travel and work with people in so many places, I hear them saying: Mine is a religion of peace—but their religion? Their religion is violent. This new book is a response to all of the religious people who say: We are for peace—but they are not. The truth is that this addiction to violence unifies all of us.
DAVID: Do you consider yourself religious? I know that you identify as Jewish, right?
TOM: I put myself into a category that no religious person seems to want to accept these days: I’m spiritual but not religious. I am Jewish. That’s a moniker I accept, but spiritually I don’t see myself as the follower of a specific creed.
DAVID: Our regular readers will have just met the Irish philosopher and theologian Peter Rollins in last week’s author interview. When I consider the way that you carefully use words like “Jewish” and “spiritual-but-not-religious”—I see parallels in the way Peter describes himself as “Christian”—then says “but obviously in a different way than a lot of other people call themselves Christian.” Peter argues that what passes for religion today has become one more product for sale in our cultural vending machine. He argues that what is sold as “God” in most congregations today is nothing short of an idol. There are huge differences between your work and Peter’s work, obviously—but I also see strong parallels. In fact, I would recommend that readers who bought Peter’s book last week strongly consider buying yours as well. One thing Peter has discovered is: Some people love his message; some flat out reject it.
TOM: Some people reject what I’m saying. People within religious traditions tell me that you have to have a religious structure, tradition, liturgy and prayers to reach into spirit. I don’t believe that. I frame my whole life through a deeply spiritual understanding, born through my work as an artist, a writer, a historian. In fact, this new book grew out of a profound frustration with religion’s ability to take people out of the political system and put them into the spiritual realm. Too often, religion becomes just another political arm.
DAVID: Again, strong parallels here with Peter’s work. He aims his harshest criticism at the global economic system that thrives on preaching to people that they need the God-product religions are selling. But God is far bigger than that, he argues. Tom, you’re arguing that global political powers and religious authorities are joined at the hip in justifying self-serving violence. You’re speaking especially to readers concerned about world peace, right?
TOM: Yes, but as I have traveled, I have come to the conclusion that as pacifism is constituted these days, it’s irrelevant. It’s meaningless in the larger world. The people who consider themselves pacifists tend to be active mainly in church basements, meeting in discussion groups that say: Why can’t we all just get along? We can’t be relevant if we spend most of our time drinking coffee, sitting with our same friends and refusing to confront the larger issue. Very few people are willing to say that the entire system is ill.
DAVID: The once vigorous anti-war movement certainly has faded.
TOM: We are too tempted to talk about war, now, in ways that find honor and glory and truth and a positive ability to shape reality.
I’m calling for muscular pacifists like Gandhi to arise again. In my work, I don’t want to be a weak, irrelevant person simply saying: Oh, can’t we just get along? These times call for muscular pacifism like Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi and activists like them. These are people raising their ideals above their own safety and above their own personal interest. They are people willing to die for their beliefs.
MYSTICS AND PROPHETS LIKE ST. FRANCIS, MAIMONIDES
DAVID: As this interview with you is published, the world suddenly is refocused on the example of St. Francis of Assisi. He’s widely known in America as an animal lover. But in his day, he was a hugely controversial advocate for the poor. He also was one of the first major Christian leaders to hold a peaceful dialogue with Muslim leaders—in the midst of the Crusades, no less! (Here is an analysis by Thomas Reese SJ of Pope Francis I’s choice of St. Francis’s name.)
I think this connects with your own ongoing work, Tom. You’ve often held up St. Francis as a model for religious activists. Here’s a passage you wrote in an international journal about this issue: “Mystics of the 13th century developed a conception of prophecy that moved beyond simply acting as society’s conscience. Medieval prophets such as Moses Maimonides, a Jew, Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi, a Muslim, and St. Francis of Assisi, a Christian, all believed in an activist prophecy, in which a socio-political role was demanded of the prophet, instead of their simply providing societal oversight. It was no longer enough for a seer to simply point out the ills of society, understood through their own personal relationship with God. The new paradigm demanded that he or she propose concrete steps to help remake the society in the moral, caring image of a spiritually conscious world.”
(You can read Tom’s entire article on Prophetic Activist Art as it appeared in the International Journal of the Arts in Society, as posted within Tom Block’s website.)
TOM: Yes, I believe that prophetic activist art connects with medieval concepts of prophecy. I’ve studied a lot about past mystical thinkers. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Jewish and Muslim mystical thinkers developed ideas about prophecy that went into something called prophetic activism. They considered it their prophetic job to translate these ineffable messages they received into tangible action. And I am pointing toward people like Maimonides and Francis.
That’s what I’m talking about when I use a phrase like “spiritual but not religious.” These mystics and prophets showed how we can raise the gaze of humanity to the ineffable and focus people again on matters of the spirit. As an artist, I also connect with the tradition that says we can do this through art. Of course, over the past 150 years, art has lost this role. We can talk about why that happened—and, for that discussion I refer people to some of the articles on my website—but the point is not to go back and spend all our time arguing about the past. I want people to reclaim the purpose of art and to wed it with this kind of prophetic action we need to revive today.
TOM BLOCK: MUCH MORE ART AND WISDOM ONLINE
DAVID: We’re going to include links to your website, which really is a treasure trove. So, please, tell readers a little more about what they’ll find.
TOM: My website has a lot of materials that will help to introduce readers to my overall body of work. On my homepage, you’ll find an introduction to my painting and writing and, then, down the right side there are current events in which I’m involved. If you click on some of the topics on my home page, you’ll find much, much more. Under Visual Art, you’ll find a series of art I’ve done dating back to the early 1990s. There are maybe 15 different series of art shown here. And, each series includes 10-15 images. There are more than 200 images to look at on my website. Plus, all of my published writing in magazines, journals and websites is posted in its entirety. Understanding the philosophical basis of my art and writing takes a while and I have provided lots of material to explore.
DAVID: I appreciate discovering rich, deep websites like your collection, Tom. At ReadTheSpirit, we also maintain our entire archive of stories, which readers can access through our Search box or other links. This area in which we jointly work is not something people can pick up at a glance.
TOM: We live in a culture where, if you can’t say it in 140 characters, it isn’t worth listening to. There are other parts of the world where that isn’t the case. I have worked in Scotland.
DAVID: In fact, let’s also provide a link to the Center for Human Ecology in Glasgow. Later this year, they plan to publish your manifesto: Prophetic Activist Art: A Handbook for a Spiritual Revolution. At ReadTheSpirit, we’ve done a lot of coverage and cooperative sharing with the Iona Community and the creative folks at Wild Goose publishing in Glasgow. All spiritual roads seem to lead to Scotland these days, hmmm?
TOM: I find people in places like Scotland to be distinctively caring and politically mature in ways that leave them open to the kinds of things I talk and write about. This is true in a number of other countries. I was over in Barcelona working in a residency program when another artist told me: “Man, you were born in the wrong culture.” When I talk about America being the most warlike nation since Rome, this is difficult for a lot of Americans to accept. No country can get a clear vision of itself. We need distance. But let me stress something right here: I am not trying to bash America in this new book. That’s not the point.
TOM BLOCK: ‘AN ETHICAL FULCRUM’ TO NURTURE EQUITY, JUSTICE
DAVID: I don’t want to leave readers with the impression that you’re a fringe figure way out there on your own. I’ve known you for years and, while you’re not a household name, you’re certainly active around the world as a guest artist, writer and speaker for many organizations and institutions. One of the people endorsing your work is retired Air Force General Charles Tucker, who has spearheaded a number of nonprofit groups concerned with human rights and global security. He wrote this: “Tom Block is a visionary at the intersection of art and conscience. His vivid representations and sagacious convictions merge to form a coherent, cogent and compelling world-view. Written with style and conviction, his new work is a ‘must read’ for those searching for an ethical fulcrum from which to nurture equity, justice and human security.”
High praise, indeed, from a significant figure!
TOM: He is a fascinating man and I appreciate his very positive words. We do not always see eye to eye on every issue, but I appreciate his work. He hosted a conference of activist artists in Chicago and I met him there. Then, he also had me come out and run an art festival around some work he was coordinating on Iraq. We were part of a whole week of events—a mini art festival, discussion groups, films, and panels. He and I are coming at this, we might say, from opposite ends and meeting somewhere in the middle. His support is important because I do believe we need far more than artistic actors in the world buying into these ideas.
DAVID: There are very dark conclusions that you draw throughout your work about the fundamental ills within religion and world culture. Yet, the very fact that you pursue this activism with such passion and creativity, I think, is a hopeful sign.
TOM: This is difficult work. I am calling for people to confront the world in a new way. I’m frustrated with people expressing general hopes, but not acting. I can see a profound ecological disaster in my children’s lifetime—changing life around the planet—and I see no tangible hope that this can be avoided. Meanwhile, look at what we’re arguing about in our country: Whether we should raise taxes a couple of percent. What an absolutely irrelevant issue in terms of the major dangers ahead of us in the world! So, I can’t see the mature choices taking place that will help us make the leaps we need.
Humanity has a responsibility that we have not accepted. There’s a wonderful line from Nelson Mandela, who says: “If God isn’t going to come along and save the world soon—then we have to do it ourselves.” That’s my point. Unless you’re a Quaker or Amish today, you can’t claim your religion is a religion of peace. We need to dig deep into what is wrong at the core of our civilization and culture.
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.