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A Public Theology for the 21st Century: Domination or Community
In the midst of the earthquake of modernity there is time to dance the Dance of Life, the Dance of God. Can different religious communities create new and more inclusive forms of planetary community?
By Arthur Waskow
Editor's Note: We here are always on the lookout for relatively brief but comprehensive interpretations of what is worthy to be put forth as a credible "public theology" for our times. The below statement by Rabbi Arthur Waskow is an excellent example. I would like to hear responses from readers on how they read this essay.
[When I first began working on this essay, the word “earthquake” had not yet been swallowed up by the catastrophe in Haiti, and I could use the word to mean the combination of religious, political, sexual, ecological, and economic changes — often labeled Modernity — that have upended the kinds of societies that had shaped our world for the last two thousand years.
[The mournful truth is that the geological earthquake in Haiti would have wreaked far less devastation had it not been for the domineering multidimensional earthquakes imposed on Haitian society by foreign corporations and governments in the last century. Those man-made earthquakes shattered the Haitian society that could have weathered the physical quake. Similarly, the hurricane that drowned New Orleans would have been far less destructive if hurricanes of racism, corporate rapacity, governmental contempt, and economic deprivation had not both preceded it and followed it.
[So this weekend when we both mourn the dead of Haiti and honor the work of Dr. Martin Luther King is a truth-filled moment to recall his teaching on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was killed: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
[This is just as true about compassion for the dead of our endless wars and our increasing destruction of the earth: True grief demands action to dismantle the structures that are bringing about these deaths, and to grow a life-giving future instead. In that spirit I invite you to this essay.— AW]
What do mass disemployment, the US war in Afghanistan, the new US health-care system, and global scorching have in common? And what do they have to do with religion and spirituality, with God and with the Spirit?
Let us begin inductively, with the “facts on the ground,” and then try to understand what these mean about God and Spirit, religion and spirituality.
Part I: The Issue behind the Issues
The choices the present US government is actually making in these areas:
(1) Place the US economy in the hands of Wall Street, which got bailed out while millions of Americans lost their jobs and their homes. Leave local banks, small businesses, and labor unions to wither.
(2) Leave Big Oil and Big Coal in charge of the future of the world’s climate and the world’s economy, instead of making real democratic decisions to prevent global scorching by moving from fossil fuels to far more decentralizable solar and wind energy.
(3) Send more and more thousands of US soldiers to impose a corrupt and illegitimate “national” government on an Afghanistan that for centuries has been governed tribally and locally, and treating as a lethal threat to America the Pashtun community’s resistance to a government they have no share in and another foreign army in the long list they have always defeated.
(4) Leave huge health insurance companies in charge of providing health care, while providing them with tens of millions of compulsory customers and no competition, and tossing “Medicare for All” out the window as not even discussable.
What do these policies have in common? They privilege top-down pyramidal power while subjugating grass-roots communities and the institutions that arise from grass-roots needs and serve grass-roots constituencies.
It is true that these actions probably embody less Domination than the policies of the last government of the United States, and the rhetoric that explains them is much more likely to celebrate grass-roots needs and diverse communities. Indeed, all four of them emerge from efforts to lessen Domination. But the efforts are weak, and given the power of dominant institutions, even these efforts are falling far short.
What I am calling Domination is “Control” run amok. Control –- over the earth around us, over other human beings –- is a necessary and valuable aspect of life. But when Control runs amok so that interconnection, interbreathing, interbeing falter and vanish, Control becomes Domination. Becomes domineering. And disaster follows.
In all of human history and indeed all the history of life-forms on our planet, successful species and successful communities, societies, and cultures have balanced control-over and interconnection-with. . In biblical language, successful societies balance the imperative of “six days shall you labor” with the command that “on the seventh you shall rest, reflect, commune.” In Buber’s language, they balance I-It with I-Thou. In Buddhist language, they balance the process of “chop wood, draw water” with the process of “mindful meditation.”
In the language of Kabbalah, at the emotional level successful cultures balance gevurah (“rigor”) with chesed (overflowing love); at the institutional /structural level, they balance netzach (perseverance) with hod (delight).
In the practice of politics, successful polities balance a king with a constitution, with prophets, with tribal and neighborhood assemblies, with courts and parliaments, with federations, with elections. They balance large corporations with labor unions and democratic regulation; huge concentrations of wealth with redistributive taxation and publicly supported lifelines for the poor.
Successful societies balance specialization-science that peers into the minute operations of particular species, particular cells and organs, and particular social groups with ecological science that explores whole-body, whole-earth, and whole-culture interactions
Part II: Dance of Life, Dance of God
And this kind of balancing began long before human beings existed.
An amoeba survives by learning to control and eat the sugar-water in its neighborhood, and it also survives by learning to restrain itself and leave some of the food in the neighborhood for other creatures.
If it gobbles up all the sugar, it multiplies very rapidly – and then the whole bunch of ravenous amoebae fall dead.
If on the other hand it learns to share the food together with other life-forms, it becomes part of an eco-system – a biological community — that produces more sugar, more food, for everyone. Indeed, every life-form in the ecosystem becomes food for the others — each other. Fewer amoebae, but the community of amoebae lives longer.
In human history, the same process emerges, in a subtler and more complex way.
Indeed, our great religious communities and traditions emerge out of this dance of control-over and interbreathing-with.
As Evan Eisenberg teaches in The Ecology of Eden, the Sumerian Empire invented irrigation mono-crop agriculture and overwhelmed all its neighbors with more food, more people, more soldiers. Its irrigation, done without self-restraint, soaked the soil with salt and in the long run ruined the fertility it had created.
Meanwhile, before its self-ruination, the new technology and its social impact were threatening the Western Semites with destruction of their life-path (small farms on rocky hillsides, shepherds moving from meadow to meadow, a spirituality that left “ownership” to God.)
In response, some of the Western Semites heard God anew and incorporated some of the new economics but affirmed their earth-affirming worldview through Shabbat, the sabbatical (shmitah) year, and the vision of Jubilee. Torah: A new form of community, that balanced Control with Interbeing in a new way. It survived — small but vital and ultimately amazingly influential – while Sumeria failed out of letting Control run amok into domination.
More recently, Hellenistic civilization and the Roman Empire invented new forms of economic, environmental, political, and military control over the Mediterranean basin. Their hegemony wrecked biblical Judaism and many other traditional cultures. Some Jews responded by hearing God anew and creating two new forms of community – Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. Each of them, in different ways, integrated into itself the balance of control with interbeing, and each of them, in different ways, worked out a modus vivendi with the later Roman Empire and its successors, bringing their emphasis on communal connection-making to balance or even fuse with the Empire’s focus on control.
Am I reducing the great religious traditions to mere socio-historical phenomena? No. I am suggesting they reflect one vital aspect of the Presence of God in the world.
The dance of life, the dance of history is the dance of God, and it is a two-step dance.
Control-over, then interbeing-with, then control …
More efficient control => broader and deeper range of interbeing => balanced community => more effective control => deeper interbeing =>…
If the dancer gets stuck on one step – usually the Control step – then after a while, as the dancer gets more and more awkward, stretching further and further to control more and more without broadening and deepening the inclusive field of interbeing that now seems to be weak, submerged, “under control” -– the dancer loses balance, stumbles, gets frightened, gets angry, falls.
In the story of Eden, the human earthlings are invited to eat of all the magnificent abundance of the Garden – the Earth. But they are warned to restrain themselves. “Of one tree you may not eat.” Like successful strains of amoebae and all successful species since, they are invited to become part of an eco-system.
But they overreach, they try to gobble up the earth, and the over-reaching itself plunges them into exile and harsh toil to wring only “thorns and thistles” from a hostile earth.
If there is an eternally recurring sin encoded in the story, it is the sin of humanity (in Hebrew, adam) overreaching over the earth (in Hebrew, adamah) –- the effort to dominate, to run control amok. Some think the story is an ironic critique by the Western Semites of the Sumerian urge to dominate, and a warning on behalf of creating a culture that balances control with self-restraint. But whether or not it grew from that experience, as an “inductive” report on the nature of God, it survived because it spoke about a constantly repeated reality.
And then there is the biblical story of a line of Pharaohs. Having turned workers into first sharecroppers and then slaves and then victims of attempted genocide , Pharaoh brings plagues upon not only grass-roots human communities but upon the grass itself, the earth itself. And he over-reaches far enough that he and his army are swallowed up in the Red Sea.
It matters little whether this particular story describes historical fact. Like Eden, it encoded a deep and archetypal historical and spiritual truth, and it was so powerful a story that its description of the eruption of Step 2 in the Dance of God deeply shaped the God-experience of Biblical Judaism, Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and influenced even many modern “secular” movements seeking national, class-based, and gender-based liberation.
Part III: The Crisis of Community Today
And we ourselves live in the same kind of crisis as the crises created by Sumeria and Rome. Modernity—economic, political, environmental, military, cultural – undertakes a great leap forward in the “Control” aspect of the dance. In the process, it wrecks or drastically weakens all the traditional cultures –- Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism — and this time, its control runs so far amok that it endangers the ecological balance of the planet as a whole.
Pharaoh writ large: Billions of human beings reduced to the slavery of hunger, malnutrition, and starvation; others to he slavery of having little or no share in shaping their future and seeing their traditional grass-roots community trampled underfoot by elephantine, pyramidal power – while by running amok in their own pursuit of Domination, powerful top-down institutions bring plagues upon the earth itself.
We are now in a monumental struggle to see whether we can hear God anew to create a new form of community.
To be successful, to embody the dance of God, that new form of community must accept many aspects of the new triumphant means of control — the information transformation, for instance – and do so so in way that also honors self-restraint and interbeing.
To be successful, the new form of community must include not only all human cultures but also such aspects of the earth as the proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere, the fresh-water tables everywhere, all the species that intertwine our complex eco-systems.
Why is it so hard to hear God’s Word and embody God’s Dance in this new way? Because the institutions that have emerged to Dominate human societies and the earth have become so adept at domination — at top-down power – that they can often block the forming of new communities that might threaten their power:
In effect, they block the second step in the dance of God, and turn it into a one-step that over-reaches, oversteps, and lurches into destruction. Even as top-down Over-Control – Domination — brings about wider and wider circles of disaster — indeed, a world-wide earthquake in all aspects of life — their power invites them to block new communities.
We might look to the great religious traditions that in the past embodied Step 2 in God’s dance, to do so again in the crisis we face today.
When we do look to them, we find a sharp and deepening division within them, as well as in the more secular cultures of the modern world.
On the one hand, we see that the triumph of Domination and the very havoc it creates drives some of the public into supporting the institutions of Control in the hope of restoring some sort of certainty to their own lives. Indeed, within the religious communities themselves, some institutions seek Domination over their own members in the name of the older revelations.
One major form this has taken is unwillingness to involve women equally with men in shaping understanding of ancient texts, the present practice of the community, and its vision of its calling into the future.
Another has been the insistence that only one’s own religion embodies the truth of God’s Unity, and that all other forms are either mistaken or lying because they claim to celebrate the One through other texts, ceremonies, and practices.
This effort to restore the past faces an intrinsic problem: As in many stories about “genies” in and out of the bottle, it is easy to keep an insurgent energy “in the bottle” when it is not ready to be insurgent, but extremely difficult to force it back into the bottle once it has become self-aware. To “restore” the past often requires a degree of coercion, even violence, that was not present in the past.
Thus women; a broad range of cultures and communities that to any one religious community seem “other” and heretical; gay people; grass-roots faithful who are outraged by sexual abuse; and others formerly “in the bottle” are now out of it – and require stern coercion to “restore” their past acquiescence.
Part IV: Transformative Religious Communities in God’s Earthquake
This impulse toward restoration of the past has a sibling, born of the same earthquake but moving in a very different direction. This impulse might be called “renewal” or “transformation” rather than “restoration.” It is often less intense, more uncertain, and it often comprises fewer activists. This impulse responds to the world-wide earthquake by trying to transform the old communities, drawing on older glimpses of the Unity of life in order to create broader new forms of community.
It is always easier to see and reenact even a distorted photograph of the past than it is to hear and embody God’s prophetic calling to a different future. In the midst of an earthquake, one attractive response may be to grasp for a pole of rigid certainty and domination. But if the earthquake is shaking the entire world and every aspect of our lives, it may be more life-giving to do something much more difficult — to learn to dance in the earthquake. New dances, always changing as the earth shakes.
Surely if we are to shape new forms of community, the medium and the message, the means and the ends, must be integrated:
Can different religious communities create new and more inclusive forms of planetary community without abandoning their own distinctive traditions and communal practices? Can our communities directly address specific issues – wars, mass hunger, global scorching — and also go beyond them, seeing them as specific outbreaks of a deeper fever?
We have seen in the movements led and symbolized by Mohandas K. Gandhi and Badshah Khan, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Thich Nath Hanh and Dorothy Day, Archbishop Oscar Romero and the Dalai Lama, Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Ruth Messinger, Starhawk and Thomas Berry, Rabbi Arik Ascherman and Sister Joan Chittister, Jamal Juma’ and Rev. Jim Wallis, Aung San Suu Kyi and Abdallah Abu Rahmah, Mairead Maguire and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, that efforts at renewing Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Wicce are notably though sporadically under way. Each of these leaders and the movements in which they arose have drawn on their own tradition to heal some specific illness in their own world, and have discovered in the process that to get the work done, they need to transform their own tradition.
But almost all of them have gone their own particular way, with only a glancing contact here and there. Can these new parallel paradigms, these movements for religious and spiritual renewal, share a purpose, a mission, a task beyond themselves? Are they simply a reaction to the world transformation, or are they prepared to enter the process of transformation as a proactive rather than only reactive community?
Can they imagine not only themselves as movements for Jewish, or Christian, or Buddhist, or Muslim renewal and still see their presence as one element in a movement for world renewal? Can they take joy in the sense of their pathways as spirals, drawing deeply on their several pasts to move into the transformed future? Without abandoning their festivals, their sacred texts, their guidelines of daily practice in food, family, sexuality, work, money, can they refocus those practices to meet the needs of a world in crisis? Can they define themselves as movements not in name only but as bodies of people that are themselves in motion and can move others spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, physically? Can they shape shared practices and symbols that intertwine them, threads of connection, new “fringes” on the edges of their cultural garments?
We today are living in God’s earthquake. The meaning of the 21st Century is this: Shall we respond by grasping for a pole of rigid certainty and domination, or learn to dance new dances in the earthquake?
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