A Review Of The “Conference on Spiritual Activism”
By Shaikh Kabir Helminski
We had an amazing few days here at the Conference on Spiritual Activism. This event and this movement is making history—I have heard the most profound and practical spiritual insights. Something big is happening here and I believe it could change the world. The conference reached its capacity registration of 1300 weeks before it occurred. People came from all over the United States to this conference organized by Tikkun, a liberal Jewish organization. The stated purpose of the event was:
Challenge the mis-use of God by the Right to justify militarism, dismantling of social justice and ecological programs, and assaults on the rights of women, gays and lesbians.
Challenge the anti-spiritual biases of some parts of “the Left.”
Support a new bottom line of kindness, generosity, ecological sensitivity, and awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe to replace the dominant ethos of selfishness and materialism.
There is a spiritual crisis rooted in the ways our competitive, consumer economy fosters an ethos of materialism and individualism. We suffer from a poverty of community, human solidarity, and meaning. The right wing of American politics has recognized this malaise and has spoken about it. Many people respond to the right because the Left doesn’t even seem acknowledge that there is a problem. The Right seems to assert that gays, pro-choice people, and godless elites are the cause of this malaise. But the illness if much more attributable to the corporate drive to turn us all into consumers, the insistence that the bottom line of profitability is the most important value, that our self-worth is measured by our assets.
Most people live in a work world where the emphasis is entirely on “the bottom line” of profitability. Money becomes the foremost value. This not only permeates our workaday world; it has its effect upon every aspect of our lives. Everything becomes commodified. Even our marriages become “deals” - they work so long as someone doesn’t come along who can satisfy our needs better, i.e. offer us “a better deal”. People are suffering from a sense that human relationships are transient and unreliable. Our entire culture and its products encourages a devaluation of other people, the exploitation of sexuality to the detriment of loving, lasting relationships.
On top of all that, we have a pervasive cynicism, especially on the Left, that it will never be possible to change the minds and behavior of so many Americans. But the spirit behind this conference and this movement is that only a visionary politics can transform this self-defeating pessimism.
The Network of Spiritual Progressives hopes to identify and emphasize the universal spirituality and values that are foundational to all religions. The current secular Left has not only neglected such values, it has been suspicious of any attempt to express them, and thus it has forfeited the moral discourse, which has been taken up by the Right in its own narrow agenda of anti-abortion and anti-homosexuality. This extreme secularism of the Left has disempowered it in the struggle with the materialist values that have been enshrined by the Corporate Culture. It has allowed the Right to command the moral high-ground while actually neglecting the most moral issues of all: worldwide hunger, poverty, and disease, the ravaging of the environment on which we depend, the extreme economic disparities dividing rich and poor, lack of universal health care, and the draining of immense resources and talent through militarism. Behind all of these symptoms lies the root cause which is the coercion exercised by oligarchic power which manipulates primarily through a politics of lies and fears.
The “Left” has allowed the “Right” to command the vocabulary of spiritual and family values.
We have to have a new bottom line, one that asks: are our corporations, institutions, churches, relationships, etc. actually expressing and supporting kindness, generosity, truth, and life? Ultimately, it is not about left or right, but about focusing on the real moral issues of our time. 2 billion people in the world live on less than 2 dollars a day. 20% of the world’s population experiences the benefits of the global economy, but 80% are literally victims of it. $50 billion dollars (few months of the Iraq War) could end extreme poverty in the world.
Brilliant talks were given by many people including Riane Eisler, Frijthof Capra, Matthew Fox, Arun Gandhi (grandson of Mahatma), Bishop John Shelby Spong, Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey. Rianne Eisler, for instance, spoke about reclaiming and reframing family values. She referred to a UN study that described violence against women and children as the most ubiquitous human rights violation worldwide. She spoke about the need for policies that would help to change traditions of family violence as a long-term strategy for changing the political structures that rely on violence to “solve” problems.
One talk that was very significant to me was by Carl Pope, Executive Director of the Sierra Club. He gave a very articulate presentation on the ecological thinking of the Ikhwan al Safa and the text, The Animals Lawsuit Against Humanity. It was amazing to be hearing this from a non-Muslim speaking to 1300 non-Muslims (for sadly I am only aware of 2 or 3 in the whole group, and only two presenters). One of the plenary sessions was delivered by Dr. Ahrar Ahmed, from Black Hills State University in South Dakota. As far as I can tell, he was the only other Muslim presenter at the conference.
My own contribution was a workshop on “Islamic Extremism and How We Can Support the Moderate Voices within Islamic Societies.” I used some of Robert Crane’s ideas and made the case about how Muslims in general can be major allies in this movement to reawaken spiritual values in concert with progressive causes. It was very well attended and very well received.
One morning we were invited to a small meeting to envision the future of “The Network of Spiritual Progressives” with Rabbi Michael Lerner (Tikkun), Matthew Fox (the major Christian theologian), Frijtof Capra (author of The Tao of Physics), and some amazing Christian leaders, including the National Communications Director of the Methodist Church, John Dear (A Jesuit priest who has gone to jail more than 70 times in the name of peace) and Jim Wallis (author of God’s Politics: How the Right Gets It Wrong and The Left Doesn’t Get It At All). We spoke of the practicalities of reaching out to the wider community and how this movement might be strengthened.
During the conference workgroups addressing key issues met regularly over the course of the four days with the aim of producing position papers that could be worked into something like a platform. By September it’s hoped there will also be a website to focus the efforts of the many disparate groups represented at the conference.
A movement toward a progressive politics of meaning has clearly begun. It is a movement that does not require a specific belief in God, much less a belief in the orthodox versions of the major religions. It does, however, rest upon the conviction that a satisfactory human life requires more than the accumulation of material goods, especially when those goods are held by a tiny minority of the human population. As Rabbi Lerner expressed it: “The deepest human desiresthe desires for loving connection, for transcendent meaning to life, and for peace and justice, not just for ourselves but for othersחare rooted in what we call a spiritual conception of the world.” This same notion is expressed very well in the Quranic verse: And the word of your Lord is fulfilled and perfected in Truth and Justice. [Surah Al An’am 6:115]
A follow-up conference is planned for Washington, D.C. in February. Hopefully more Muslim presenters and attendees will be willing to be present.
Kabir Helminski is a Shaikh of the Mevlevi Order, director of The Threshold Society, translator of numerous books of Sufi poetry and and author of books translated into eight languages: Living Presence and The Knowing Heart. He is also co-director of an international project by the Book Foundation (publishers of the works of Muhammad Asad) to develop a new curriculum for Islamic education.