Moments for Fear, Moments for Hope
Rabbi Michael Lerner | 01.23.2005
Moments for Fear, Moments for Hope
King Solomon, reputedly the wisest of Jewish kings, sought to put on his ring a phrase or saying that would always be true. This is what he put: This too shall pass.Ӕ
I know many people who have gone into deep emotional depression in the past week as they watched the inauguration of George Bush. They have good reason to feel sad and worried.
We have a huge task in front of us in the next four years: to prevent or lessen the damage we and the worlds population are going to face when the Bush Administration seeks:
*War with Iran and Syria
*Continued destruction of cities in Iraq in order to end the uprising against the U.S. and its ShiҒite allies
*Torture and imprisonment without trial and other erosions of civil liberties
*Privatization as first step toward dismantling of Social Security system and dismantling of other governmental programs to benefit the needy
*Dismantling of environmental protections *Dismantling of consumer protections
*Assaults on the labor movement
*Legally restricting or eliminating womens choice in matters related to abortion.
We will not succeed in stopping these developments with the present strategies and approaches of the Democrats, the Greens, the Left (liberal and progressive) social change movements, the anti-war movement, etc. Powerful and valuable as all these are, the November election proved that these forces do not have the capacity to mobilize effectively to change American politicsҗand it is the result (a conservative majority in both the House and Senate and a right-wing presidency) that makes so many people feel depressed.
Yet this reality can be changed. It will take, however, a massive rethinking on the part of the liberal and progressive forces, and a willingness of people in every social change movement and every corner of the Democratic Party constituency (including those who voted Democratic only because they saw Kerry as a lesser evil) and the Greens and many who didnt vote to insist on a new kind of politics.
What that new politics will require:
1. A positive vision instead of simply a focus on ғNo or ԓAnti politics. What is the world we are fighting for look likeԗand what about it is worth fighting for, and how precisely do we expect to get there?
2. A compassionate attitude toward those with whom we disagree. The methodology: a significant percentage of people who voted for the Right were neither stupid nor racist/sexist/homophobic. Our task is to find the legitimate desires and needs that underlie the move to the Rightand to disentangle what is legitimate in the needs from what is illegitimate in the way that the Right addresses those needs. So, for example, people responded very positively to the Rightגs claim that America has a mission to spread freedom in the world. That is a perfectly good desire, and before we argue with people about a better way to achieve that end (e.g. by doing it in a non-unilateral way and t hrough peaceful means) we need to acknowledge the goodness in the American people that leads them to want to spread freedom. An anti-war movement that was more appreciative of the goodness of Americans, and hence more sensitive to the goodness in at least some who supported the war in Iraq, would be more effective in pointing out why the war strategy is not the best way to spread freedom. Compassion toward those with whom we disagree has not been a hallmark of anti-war demonstrations or rhetoric.
3. A spiritual values critiquefar more radical than the דwe want more material benefits crititque. Recognition of spiritual or ԓmeaning needs.
America and the Western world have many people who have been deprived of the material benefits of advanced industrial societies, and this is true for a majority of the people of the world. ThatԒs why the call of the prophets for social justice continues to resonate, and why some who call for a spiritual revival on the Left simply mean that the existing agenda of the Left is already really spiritual and only needs a reframing to include more spiritual or religious languagebecause the Leftגs main point is to include in the material well-being of the society those who have been left out so far (the poor of this country and of the world).
But there are many many people in America whose primary pain is not in not having enough money or material supports. Yet they too face a crisis in their lives, and that crisis has been addressed by the Right, yet it could be addressed by the Left even more effectively. It is a crisis of meaning. Most people want their lives to be about more than having money and material securitythey want their lives to be connected to some higher purpose or meaning. These meaning needs have been ignored or even ridiculed by the Left, and as a result, the Right gets to position itself as the champion of peopleגs spiritual needs.
It is imperative that liberal and progressive forces develop an understanding of this spiritual crisis, and a Progressive Politics of Meaning to counter the Right-wing Politics of Meaning.
Here is what it is about: There is a profound spiritual crisis in the Western world, caused by the triumph of materialism, individualism, selfishness, looking out for number oneӔ and narcissismways of being that are fostered by the values of the capitalist marketplace. This crisis plays out in destructive ways in personal life. People rightly seek an alternative to these valuesחand much of their contemporary attraction to spiritual and religious paths is that these paths provide a different set of values (love, caring for others, celebration of the universe, gratitude, generosity).
It is true that sometimes existing spiritual or religious communities restrict their love, caring, generosity, etc. to those who are part of the inӔ group (those who share their specific religious beliefs), but the appropriate response to this is to struggle to expand their circle of caring (e.g. by supporting the more progressive or Renewal aspects of the relevant religious communities) NOT a general assault on religion or spirituality as such.
But when religious or spiritual people encounter, as they often do, a fundamental disrespect (if not overt hostility) toward their spiritual hunger, and a total lack of sympathy or misunderstanding of what it is that is legitimate in their desire to connect to a different set of values than those that predominate in the marketplace, they close their ears to all the rest of what progressives and liberals have to say about the world.
The most pressing need of the Left is to develop a deep analysis and understanding of the spiritual crisis generated by global capital, and then to show people how a different kind of world would speak far more effectively to their spiritual needs.
It turns out that the most effective way to counter the globalization of selfishness is to advocate for a globalization of Spirit, or a spiritual politics, whose fundamental element is a call for A New Bottom Line.
The old bottom line is about maximizing money and power. The New Bottom Line is about a different logicthe logic of love, generosity and caring. Or to put it more precisely: Institutions, social practices, legislation, social and political movements must be judged efficient, rational or productive not only to the extent that they accumulate or maximize money and power, but also to the extent that they encourage or maximize love and caring, ethical and ecological sensitivity, enhance our capacity to transcend utilitarian ways of seeing and encourage us to experience the sacred in each other and to experience awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation.
A New Bottom Line should be the center of a progressive politics in the coming yearsחand developing a vision of what that would like in every arena. So, imagine if the Left were challenging the Rights approach to education not only on the grounds that teachers need better pay and students need better school buildings, but also on the grounds that the wrong values were being taught in schoolsҗand that what really needed to be taught was this New Bottom Linethat things are to be valued to the extent that they produce love and caring, etc. and NOT only if they produce more money or power. Or imagine if we were asking about foreign policy which policies generate the most love in the world, not only which produce the greatest power. Or if we were to be insisting that it is the path of love of others, not the path of domination of others, that is the best path to homeland security (and then manifesting that with a Global Marshall Plan).
This is one reason why the Left needs a Spiritual Politics. To address the hunger for meaning in life, and to do that by providing an alternative framework of meaning and purpose, one based on spiritual values of love, caring, generosity, peace, social justice, ecological sanity, open-heartedness, is a more effective way to respond to the Right than anything that the Left has come up with. It speaks to a deep level of crisis in peopleגs lives.
Some people on the Left respond to this by saying something like the following: All that sounds fine, but first we need to deal with the pressing issues of world peace and social justice. When weӒve succeeded in solving those problems for the most oppressed, then we will worry about the problems of the people whose main issue is spiritual oppression.
To which I respondԗGreat. Solve those problems please, and donӒt let us stand in your way! Only one demand: be honest with us and with yourselves about how well your strategy how been working! How much have you succeeded on your path of solving the social justice and peace issues using your strategy since the time of the New Deal some seventy years ago? The answer is, some minimal progress has been made in the advanced industrial societies, but only at the expense of increasing misery in the 3rd world, and even in the advanced industrial societies the gap between rich and poor has never been greater. It turns out that the left movements have not been so very successful even on their own terms (in terms of eliminating the gaps in material terms).
Why? Well, the pessimists say: ԓbecause people who dont side with us are selfish.Ҕ But I say, that is the wrong analysis. The real reason is: because people are in pain in their lives, and the Left seems not to notice that pain and in fact acts as though they donӒt think that any pain except material deprivation is real or worthy of political or social redress. Or to put it another way, because the Left is tone deaf about the spiritual crisis deriving from the deprivation of meaning in peopleԒs lives as they become acculturated to the Old Bottom Line and the common senseӔ of the capitalist marketplace and begin to live out those values in daily life.< P> So if youve followed this line of reasoning, you understand that the only way that the Left is ever going to actually win is if it can change its fundamental orientation away from a materialist worldview in which the only real deprivation is material deprivation and turn to a spiritual analysis in which it recognizes the centrality of the spiritual deprivation that is central to global capital and endemic in its operations and is able to offer an alternative in the form of a New Bottom Line that is the heart of a Progressive Spiritual Politics or a Progressive Politics of Meaning.< /P>
But to even get to the point that people on the Left could understand any of this, they are going to have to overcome the culture of antagonism to the religious and spiritual world.
Not to say that I donҒt understand some of that antagonism and anger. After all, spirituality and religion have been used and are being used today as justifications for policies that are racist, sezxsit, homophobic, militarist, authoritarian and cruel. And many people who are militant leftists grew up in religious communities that supported such policies, and they quite reasonable wanted to escape them.
The error happens, however, when one identifies those policies as being the essence of the religious communities, rather than as distortions in them. The Left has no problem making this distinction in other arenas. For example, the ideals of socialism and communism were used by the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, and many states in Eastern Europe as the official religion to justify totalitarian rule. But people on the Left managed to say, True communism and true socialism are not about totalitarianism and all the other distortions in the Soviet Union and the states that called themselves communist or socialist, because the ideals were not embodied in the states that used these ideals.Ӕ There were far more people killed in the name of this misuse of socialism and communism in the past hundred years than have been killed in the name of the misuse of religious ideals, but the Left is unwilling to make this same distinction when it comes to religion between the underlying spiritual message and the distorted way that that message has been appropriated by some religions.
And they dont make that distinction even though there are many people working inside religious communities to build a progressive spiritual voice. The anger against religion is so deep in secular Leftist circles that they are unable to acknowledge that one of the most successful progressive movement of the past fifty, the civil rights movement, was deeply embedded in and led by religious leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., or that a major source of support for the anti-war movement in the 60s came from liberal churches.
IҒve found that Tikkuns attempt to create a Progressive Spiritual Voice has often been met by hostility not onlyfrom the politicians on the Right (who are very aware of how dangerous it would be for them were the spiritual needs to be addressed and associated with a progressive politics) but also and even more powerfully from the Left, where our efforts are often dismissed as anti-rational, anti-scientific, flaky New Age emotionalism, or even as a Trojan Horse for right-wing politics.
Many secular people think that their anti-religious bias is not a bias at all, but simply a commitment to being rationalҗthey have no idea how condescending their language and attitudes are toward people who have a spiritual commitment. Nor are they aware of how they make it very difficult for progressive people with a spiritual or religious commitment to be enthusiastic supporters of progressive causes. (Example: on Sunday, Jan. 23rd Not In Our Name published a full page ad in the NY Times critiquing the Bush Administration. An earlier draft had a series of anti-religion statements attacking what the authors thought were examples of the irrationality of religionדA biblical flood did not create the Grand Canyon was one example. Now, why in the world does someone who wants to oppose the Bush administration find that they suddenly have to take a stand for or against what the Bible said about a biblical flood, or engage in trying to explain to the authors of this that there is no mention of the Grand Canyon in the Bible? And there was much more in that statement that led some religious leaders I know to refuse to sign. But the drafters of this statement have so much anger at religion that it probably never occurred to them that taking out that anger as part of a statement critiquing Bush was not wise. I refused to sign the statement till most of that language was refused, and so only remnants of it remained in the version I signed, though even that version still suffered from a negative spin.)
What is needed is a campaign to challenge the negativity toward spiritual and religious issues in the Left. People have to be forced to decide the following: would they rather live in a world ruled by the George Bushes, while they retain their own anti-spiritual and anti-religious prejudices, or would they prefer to live in a world in which the progressive forces have triumphed by creating an atmosphere of respect for people with liberal and progressive politics who take spiritual or religious commitments seriously?
It is only when they get beyond the hostility that they can actually confront the challenge we in The Tikkun Community are putting to the rest of the progressive forces: namely, the invitation to adopt a spiritual politics or, if the very word ԓspiritual is too hard to adopt, then a progressive Politics of Meaning, as one of the most effective ways to build a progressive force that could actually win power in America. Please recognize that this is not a strategy merely of ԓreframing or marketing or putting a new spin or finding a better p.r. or any other market-wise manipulations. This is a question of getting a whole new way of thinking about what is it that the Left really stands for.
Similarly, there are people today who talk about a spiritual politics, but all they mean is adding words like ԓspiritual or ԓGod or ԓprophetic politics to the vocabulary, but when it comes down to what they are struggling for, itԒs the same agenda of the current Democratic Party or the Greens. That is NOT what Im talking about. IҒm talking about a New Bottom Line, and a whole new focus that would flow from that focus.
Now, what in the world could make me hopeful, if that is the kind of change that I believe is necessary?
Well, let me cite a few things.
First, listen to the language being used by George Bush in his 2nd inaugural address. Listen to the ideas that are being expressed, and youll see that they speak to a high moral purpose. DonҒt worry, I understand the profound contradictions between what he was saying and the policies that he is actually pursuing. But why couldnt Bush be honest about his AdministrationҒs goals of world-domination? Why did he have to frame his talk in language that gives us a basis for saying hey, you are not living up to these values!Ӕ? And the reason is this: we in the liberal and progressive world, when we were most visionary and utopian, articulated values that spoke to most Americans deepest aspirations. So when George Bush talks about overcoming racism, for example, or talks about opposing tyranny, he is appealing to values that revolutionaries throughout American history managed to move from the sidelines to the center of public discourse. And the reason we could do that is because of the fundamental goodness in people, their desire for a world based on love and kindness and generosity, a desire which recently found fuller expression in the outpouring of caring and generosity in response to the Tsunami. It is this deep goodness in people, including in people who are voting for candidates who espouse policies that are objectively hateful and hurtful, that is a basis for hope. To tap into this goodness requires smarts and sophistication strategically, but first and foremost it requires that we in the progressive world not lose our understanding that this goodness is really there and is really accessible. Our task, then, is not merely to point out the contradictions in the RightҒs policies, but to provide a vision of a world and a way to achieve that world that speaks to this goodness in people and mobilizes it.
Second, Ive given this talk in many places around the U.S. and wherever I give it people come up to me and say, ғyes, we want that kind of movement too that you are talking about or ԓyes, I recognize that my anti-religious or anti-spiritual biases are hurting us politically, and so Im going to rethink themҔ or even this is the movement I always hoped forӗone that puts love at the center. What IԒve found is that many people on the Left have their own spiritual values, only they havent felt safe to talk about them. They hide their spiritual part when they are involved in social change activities, and then go off and on the side create a spiritual practice, whether that be meditation, yoga, chanting, or even belonging to a church, mosque or synagogue. So they feel relieved at the prospect of being allowed to bring their full being into a progressive social change movement and not having to split that off in order to be acceptable. And many many secular people acknowledge their own spiritual part, once they think about it, realize that to be spiritual doesnҒt mean that they have to believe in any particular Supreme Being, and that their own moral commitments are more rooted in a spiritual foundation than in anything that can be validated by science or rationality as currently constructed.
I dont want to deny, however, that we live in a moment when fear is the dominant reality, and the religious and spiritual forms presented to us by the Bush supporters is often more dominated by fear than by love.
This too will pass.
The hunger for love will reassert itself. And if we use this period to build a framework within which that hunger can be expressed and addressed, the social healing we all seek will be possible. Till then, we need to give each other as much love, caring and support as possibleҗand not lose hope.
—Rabbi Michael Lerner
Chair, The Tikkun Community