NETWORK OF SPIRITUAL PROGRESSIVES:  Progressives of spirit, moving toward working together

Doug King

Posted Aug 4, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Progressives of spirit, moving toward working together

by Doug King   [7-25-05]

More than 1200 people came together for four days last week for a first-time, remarkable gathering. Jews and Christians, Muslims and Hindus, theological liberals and evangelicals, and lots more all were drawn by an invitation to shape a positive progressive response to the conservatives֒ success in making faith and values something on which they seem to claim a monopoly.

People were drawn too, no doubt, by the star-studded list of speakers. Rabbi Michael Lerner, the founder of the progressive Jewish organization Tikkun, began working for this event after last Novembers election, in which the religious right exercised such a large influence, and claimed such a grip on debates in the name of religion and “moral values.” The Rev. Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, has long been active as an evangelical committed to work for peace and justice. His recent book GodҒs Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesnt Get It has become a best-seller because it articulates a progressive view of AmericaҒs current mess from a Biblically informed perspective. Lerner and Wallis gave the keynote addresses on the first evening of the conference.

They laid out some of the main themes that were woven through the rest of the four days: That America is in a profound moral crisis (thats where the right gets it right), and the crisis arises out of our nationҒs long-standing commitment to an ethic of materialism and individualism, which leaves most people in a state of deep loneliness and dissatisfaction, which they try to overcome by buying more and more of the stuff that our market economy keeps pushing at them (thats where the left has some understanding of the problem, but canҒt offer a deep enough critique because it refuses to recognize the spiritual dimension of human life).  [We’ll provide more on their talks later.]

Here are my notes on two of the first major presentations, that set the stage for much of the conference:

Michael Nagler: our spiritual crisis and a non-violent alternative

Dr. Michael Nagler gave the first address on Wednesday morning (July 20, 2005), with the title “Our Spiritual Crisis and the Role of Nonviolence”  which he suggested amending to talk about spiritual opportunity. Professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at UC, Berkeley, he also founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program, and still teaches there, as well as offering courses in meditation. Without minimizing the crisis, he did see real signs of hope. A veteran of Berkeley֒s free speech struggle in the 1960s, Nagler reminded the group of how that group of students, responding to the civil rights movement, “woke up our nation to the fact that racism was wrong. And now,” he said, “we have to show that violence is wrong.”

But the struggle against violence “must start with ourselves,” dealing with the violence in our inner worlds. And then we must build a constructive alternative, a new platform to replace the “commercial civilization,” with its barrage of 3,000 advertising messages a day that insist to each of us that we have a right to feel good about ourselves, that life is a matter of “you, you, you!”

He noted that Zbigniew Brzezinski said of our current approach to the world, “This is not working. We are making terrorist faster than we can kill them.” Its time to try something new. ItҒs time, he said, to recover our true human nature, which is not to be violent. And we can do that by using “our secret weapons of spirituality,” transforming our sexual energy into creative energy and non-violence.

Nagler also tossed out a quote from someone who offered a delightful note of realism: “The purpose of the peace movement is to take the angriest people in the world, and keep them out of the military.”

George Lakoff: language of values in American politics

Professor of Cognitive Science of UC Berkeley (these folks did turn up fairly often here and with good reason) and Senior Fellow at the Rockridge Institute, Dr. Lakoff is author of two books ֖ Dont Think of an Elephant and Moral Politics Җ that have made “reframing” a key concept for progressives as they try to find more effective ways to connect with the American people. He outlined some of the insights he has gained from research in cognitive science and neuro-science. These have led him to the distinction between people who are raised in families with a “strict father model” and those who grow up with a nurturant parenting model.

While all children are born with the capacity for empathy, those who are reared under the “strict father” model learn to see life as competition, people as basically evil, and the pursuit of self-interest as the only way to a good life. For these folks, social programs to help people as immoral, because the undermine discipline. People raised under the nurturant model, on the other hand, learn to value relations with others, to empathize them and trust them. Such relationships for them are not a matter of indulgence, but of permission to live a good life. They value fairness and fulfillment and freedom, and participation in community. They live with an attitude of trust rather than fear of the other, cooperation rather than competition, and confidence rather than anxiety.

Lakoff acknowledged that we carry both models within us in various sorts of mixes. Many “red state” citizens are deeply involved in nurturing families and community; some environmentalists care for the natural world because they love hunting and the challenge of defeating animals in a kind of contest.

Lakoff used this contrast to consider the shift in religions role in American politics. From 1850 to 1920, he said, Portestant Christianity reflected a faith in a nurturant, gracious God (he mentioned Horace BushnellҒs ground-breaking book Christian Nurture), and so it generated social and political actions that abolished slavery, strengthened laws against child labor, and gained womens suffrage. But this has changed over recent decades, as conservatives have taken seriously the fact that morality is shown in action, while progressives have forgotten that.

Finally, Lakoff noted that metaphors are the only way we can talk about God. That might be strongly contested, of course, by many of the religious conservatives with whom he wants to communicate. But he suggested that there are many metaphors beyond the parental ones; he mentioned talk about God through metaphors of infinity, or as the source of all good things, or of the world. He opened a window there that invites much more consideration.

[Added on 7-26-05]
Peter Gable: the politics of meaning, an alternative to traditional liberal politics

The third major address on the first day of the conference was given by Peter Gable, who is President Emeritus of New College of California and associate editor of Tikkun magazine. He has worked with Michael Lerner in developing the Politics of Meaning, and is author of The Bank Teller and Others Essays on the Politics of Meaning.

His role was to set forth an introduction to spiritual politics and the politics of meaning, which he has been developing with Rabbi Michael Lerner. He began by elaborating a point that had been made by Michael Nagler, and that echoed through the whole conference: “The greatest source of violence and social misery is our experience of isolation,” seen in blank gazes and flatness of expression. He posed the question, “If we long to be fully present to each other, we long for mutual recognition, why donҒt we do this? This is just as important as the need for food and shelter,” he went on. “Its our essentially social nature.” But this desire for connections with other people is denied in our everyday life Җ just as our TV news presents us with newscasters playing artificial roles, not even present to what they are saying. We internalize that artificiality, and learn not to show ourselves to others.

We deny our own longing for recognition, he explained, because we learn to fear humiliation. We have learned to perceiving the other as a threat, rather than as a source of our fulfillment. This happens because society teaches us to be afraid. He pointed to the “circle of collective denial” that occurred after the attacks of September 11th. For two weeks after 9/11, he said, “there was a breakthrough of the collective denial, an outpoint of awe and compassion.” Then the forces of denial shifted to an attitude of “were gonna get ‘em,” and we retreated into our habitual patterns of fear and isolation. Even the progressive voices Җ “Al Gore, John Kerry, the Democratic Party”  ignored the spiritual dimension of the crisis, and simply offered lists of things to do, all external, all simply deepening the isolation.

Since the time of Ronald Reagan, he continued, the Right has addressed this spiritual need, providing a framework of moral discourse, and offering images of connectedness. (Remember Reagan֒s early ads: “Its morning in America” and images of loving families?) Those images and slogans may be fantasies, but they also point to realities in the lives of many people, and in their religious congregations. Now, he said, religious progressives need to be willing to talk about their values, their sense of the meaning of life, their experiences of mutual recognition and the sacredness of nature.

Finally he posed the question of how progressives can break through the cycle of collective denial, and elicit a new sense of hope. The first step, he said, is to become, as persons, “a moral presence.” That means learning to attend to our own lives and how we relate to the other. It means “being present,” which he contrasted to the “hollowness” people saw in John Kerry.

The second step is “building a parallel universe ... a culture which nurtures relationships, offers mutual recognition and caring.” As an example he cited his own suggestion at New College, that the evaluation of each other in the college be done on the model of Rosh Hashanah Җ with ten days of reflection on the past year, people talking with one another in pairs, and writing up their evaluations of each other and suggestions for the coming year.

The third step is to develop “a spiritual-activist platform connecting a vision of community with specific actions. So, for example, we might talk about health care not in terms of insuring bodies, but as a matter of caring for one another. Starting from that value of mutual care, then universal health care would simply become a clear moral imperative. Likewise we should talk about Social Security, not just about “keeping it the way it is,” as the Democrats have been doing, but as one of the great human achievements of our society, as people care for one another across the generations. And about education? “No child left behind” is a good idea, he said, but we need to think about it in terms of our children, and our desires that they learn awe and reverence, cooperation, and so much more than can be subjected to required testing programs.

Thandeka on building community

One of the central elements in the conference was the small groups workshops and work groups, and small groups of ten that met once each day for a few minutes of personal sharing. This process was introduced by the Rev. Dr. Thandeka, who is co-president of the Center for Community Values, and Research Professor of Theology at Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago.

She opened by proclaiming, “We֒re here because we can transform the world, and were here because we cannot do this work alone.” The group needed to form a community, she said, in order to build “a coordinated vision and practice.” With Martin BuberҒs image of dialogue as sacramental, she invited conference participants to join actively in their small groups, and in the discussions in workshops, as well as in the work groups that were asked to develop planks for a “platform” on a number of issues.

Theres more to come. WeҒll provide more detailed reports as time permits.

[Added on 7-30-05]
Jim Wallis: “Were the ones to change the wind.”

The first day of the Spiritual Activism conference was climaxed by two keynote presentations by Jim Wallis and Rabbi Michael Lerner, both speaking out of the deep involvement in the movement to involve people of faith more actively and more effectively in the political life of the United States at this critical time.

Wallis led off, speaking mostly out of his thinking as reflected in GodҒs Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesnt Get It Җ and his wide range of encounters around the country on book tours since its publication.

He described his book as a statement of “what this movement is all about,” and as his effort to provide “inspiration and action ... a vision of what we can be.”

He gave flesh to this vision with stories, including one of being with a group of religious leaders in the Capital Rotunda, joining in a call for an end to the war in Iraq. The group of clerics was ordered to leave the sacred (and secure) halls of Congress, and refused to move, to they were arrested. As they were arrested, an eighth grade civics class from a Catholic high school, watching from the balcony above, broke into applause. One of the boys in the class said later what it meant to him: “I learned that sometimes you can get arrested for your faith. But when you do its good to have some friends with you.”

And he told of preaching not too long ago at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, from the pulpit graced over the years by the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was having trouble preaching there, and was far from matching the great African-American preachers that the congregation has heard. One deacon in the front of the congregation kept urging him on, calling out to him to preach it Җ and slow he found himself warming to the job. That deacon, he said, pulled out of him preaching he didnt know he could give. And so, said Wallis, “religionҒs job is to pull out our best stuff.” But today through the religion right, religion “is pulling out some of our worst stuff.” The last election showed clearly a deepening polarization, “growing out of the uses and abuses of religion.”

But after his book tour, and meeting 80,000 people in 21 cities around the land, he says “I am now convinced that the monologue of the religious right is over, and a new dialogue has begun.” He sees that in the facts that many evangelical Christians come to his book signings and appreciate what he is saying. After all, he says, millions of evangelicals in America dont feel represented by the Jerry Falwells of the Right. George BushҒs visit to Calvin College, a conservative Christian school where his advisor Carl Rove expected a friendly reception, showed that conservatives can stand in opposition to the administration, as many faculty and students did by sponsoring newspaper ads stating their (faith-based!) reasons for rejecting the war in Iraq.

Likewise, he added, many Catholics do not feel they are represented by the statements of their bishops opposing Catholic political candidates who favor womens choice. And black evangelicals are saying that “the evangelicals” supporting Bush are white evangelicals. Many Jewish and Muslim leaders, and people from other traditions as well, are recognizing the struggle today between fundamentalist and prophetic traditions.

So, he said, “I think what weҒre seeing today is much more than the rise of a religious left.” We are seeing a response to “the political seduction of the religious right,” which is making it into “a partisan wedge to divide,” while the true function of religion is “to be a bridge to unite.” Thus the role of religion is to critique both left and right, by providing a “moral center for our public life.”

Bad religion, he added, leads to “arrogance ... and bad foreign policy,” while good religion “leads to humility and patience.”

The religious right is wrong, he said, because “they narrow everything to two moral issues: abortion and homosexuality. But when I find 3,000 verses in the Bible about wealth and poverty, I have to insist that poverty is a moral issue” far more important. He has to ask, then, “how did Jesus become pre-rich, pre-war, and pre-American?”

Wallis has seen an enthusiastic response from young people on his travels. “One kid who saw me on a TV interview said I didnђt know you could be a Christian and care about poverty ... and war.” That points, he went on, to the biggest error of the religious left, which has been to “concede moral values to the political and religious right. I believe in the separation of church and state, but we donҒt have to leave faith out of the public square.”

The fact that most of the inmates of Sing Sing prison, north of New York City, come from just four or five neighborhoods in the city, as if from the beginning of their lives they are destined to “get on a train that takes them there” is an issue of faith. The fact that one billion people in the world are living on less than $1 a day that֒s a issue of faith. When 30,000 children are dying today of hunger that֒s an issue of faith.

Wallis closed by presenting the group with some choices. The biggest choice, he said, is between hope and cynicism. George Brown, Britains Chancellor of the Exchequer, recently said that we can end extreme poverty in the world from 5 billion dollars. Cynics respond that they see the world as it is, theyҒre tried to change it, and failed, and now theyre against any more efforts. But hope, he said, is a choice, a decision made because of faith, “believing in spite of the evidence, and than watching the evidence change.”

So young people are facing a choice too Җ between career, assembling and protecting their assets for themselves, and vocation discerning their gifts and putting them to use for the world.

As an example he cited Lisa Sullivan, a young African-American woman of great gifts. Friends told her, “Lisa, the problems are too big ֖ the drugs, the poverty and we֒re too small. We havent got any leaders any more.” She responded, “WeҒre the ones were waiting for,” and went to work to make changes happen.

Politicians, he went on, wet a finger and put it up to see which way the wind is blowing. “Changing politicians wonҒt change that,” he added. “We have to change the wind. The time of the religious right is now passing, and our time has finally come. We are the ones to change the wind.”

Wallis, concluding his talk, went on to introduce Rabbi Michael Lerner as “the person who thought this all up.”

Lerner was arrested for anti-war protests during the Vietnam war; later in his doctoral studies he focused on the psychodynamics of Americas shift to the right after that war. Eventually he realized that Americans were in a state of “spiritual crisis,” feeling isolated from one another and unable to build relationship. And this crisis was pushing them to the right.

So Lerner founded Tikkun magazine, where he offered commentary about the need for peace-making between Israel and Palestine Җ “not such a simple thing!” So Lerner found himself saying “its not just about politics. ItҒs about the heart, about reconciliation.” And that, said Wallis, “led to more death threats than anyone I know.”

Rabbi Michael Lerner:  Our report on his talk will follow soon.

Originally published on the website of The Witherspoon Society at and reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.