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Public Theology: The Consciousness of Middle Income Working People: Implications for Organizing
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The Consciousness of Middle Income Working People: Implications for Organizing
A two-tier strategy for post-Iraq political organizing, reasons for the right turn in politics.

By Michael Lerner

{{Below is the text of a talk given March 31 by Rabbi Michael Lerner to the social-action oriented leadership of Reform Judaism at thebiennial meeting of their Religious Action Center. Rabbi Lerner started his talk by listing Reform rabbis and scholars who have played an important role in the founding and evolution of Tikkun Magazine, which also has rabbis from the Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Orthodox branches of Judaism, not to mention many secular Jews, Jewishactivists and theorists as well. Rabbi Lerner specifically praised the work of the Religious Action Center under the direction of Rabbi David Saperstein, but then noted that despite the good work of the Reform Movement and Rabbi Saperstein, there has been a decided move to the Right in the past 18 years (since the Religious Action Center began its work) in American society and in the Jewish world. ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

[Rabbi Lerner continues]: I studied that move to the Right as a psychotherapist in a massive study of the consciousness of middle income working people which I and my colleagues conducted for the National Institute of Mental Health. And what we discovered was this: that most people are torn between a part of their being that hungers for a world of love, kindness, compassion and caring, a world in which there is mutual recognition and in which they find a sense of purpose for their lives that transcends the dynamics of the competitive marketplace and connects them to a higher meaning in life, on the one hand, and on the other hand a part of their being that tells them that this is impossible, that they must adjust to reality, and that the reality of the world in which they live is that of competitiveness and people willing to do anything to advance their own interests without regard to the well-being of others.

This second view, lets call it the view of "the realists," is massively reinforced each day when most people spend their lives in a competitive marketplace in which they are taught that the bottom line is maximizing money and power, that the common sense is to "look out for number one," and in which people understand that if they don't watch out for themselves others will more quickly advance on the ladder to success. In this context, people learn that self-interest means learning to see others primarily in terms of what they can do for you, and how they can be of use. And when people bring this way of thinking home, as they inevitably do after a full day of learning how to think about "reality," they find themselves surrounded by others who are similarly thinking that they too must look out for number one,and, in the words of my teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel in the years that I spent studying with him at the Jewish Theological Seminary, we learn to suspect our neighbors as ourselves.

And yet, there is another reality: a deep hunger for a different kind of world, a deep spiritual yearning, a recognition that at the deepestlevels each of us is an expression of a loving energy that both manifests through us and surrounds us--as the evening prayer in Judaism puts it: Ahavat Olam, the eternal love, the love manifested through the universe--and it is this love which animates our desire for mutual recognition and for affirming that loving energy in ourselves and in the other, and which finds expression in our talk of God and our search for the sacred.

It is this hunger that has led so many people to the political Right, because the Right explicitly links itself to a spiritual vision and articulates this desire--even though the spirituality that it affirms is tied to a metaphysics that says that the world of love and caring for which everyone hungers will not and cannot be achieved in this world. Yet the affirmation of these needs, and their centrality in the culture of the Right, attracts people to the Right who find no similar affirmation in the culture and discourse of the liberal and progressive world.

I am of course, overstating the case for the sake of highlighting the problem. But I do so because I think it will help us understand the central debate that animates and underlies the shift to the Right in both domestic and foreign policy, and both here and in the State of Israel. And we are likely to hear much more gloating from "the realists" as the American army batters its way into Bagdad and proves how effective it can be in replacing regimes of which we do not approve--just as the Roman legionairres were very effective for hundreds of years in silencing those "barbarians" who would not submit to the rule of Rome. At moments such as these, those who question the ultimate ethical vision behind the approach of the powerful are frequently ridiculed into silence--after all, the powerful get to set the public discourse in most societies throughout history, and the American media has been amazingly obsequious and congenial to these interests.

For the past three thousand years at least there have been two major contending paradigms about how to achieve safety and security in the world, and they have corresponded to two alternative flows of psychological and spiritual energy. On the one hand there is what I call the realist's paradigm, going back to Plato's Thrasymachus, articulated by Machiavelli, and today the common sense of most people in both the Republican and Democratic parties. That view says that the world is a fundamentally scary place,that the world is filled with people who will hurt us unless we protect ourselves, and that the way to get protection is through domination and control over others ,whether that be through military control, or through softer economic and educational methods.

The Jewish people emerged into history with a different world view: that there was a Power in the Universe that was a power of love, kindness, goodness, and justice--and that that Power could overcome and triumph over the forces of pain and cruelty, and could, by its partnership with human beings, create a world based on nurturing the hunger for Spirit within each human being. It wasn't that the Jews had never heard of the power of the realists--one Midrash says that 80% of the Jews of Egypt refused to leave with Moses, because they still didn't believe that it would be realistic to leave the land of their oppression.

But those Jewish slaves who left Egypt said that there could be a different logic in the world: and that is what it meant to be a Jew--to proclaim that the realists were wrong, that there was a Power that made for the possibility of breaking the pain of chain. Moses asked that Power at the burning bush what is Your Name—and God responded “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh”--I shall be whom I shall be,that is, I am not some existing part of the world as you know it, but the Power of Healing and Transformation, the power of what can and ought to be. And because there is such a God, manifested through a part of our own being, each of us has the potential individually, and all of us have the potential collectively, to build a fundamentally different kind of world.

God is the force of Healing and Transformation, the force that makes possible the breaking of the repetition compulsion--the tendency to pass on to others the pain and cruelty done to us, to pass it on to others.

So the most frequently repeated injunction of Torah is that when You come into your land, do not oppress the stranger -- remember that you were strangers in the Land of Egypt. Now this was the height of un-realism. It is the voice that says, in Isaiah, that our House of God will be a house for all peoples, not just for Jews-“kee beytee beyt tefilah yeekareh lechol ha'amim,” and it is a voice that affirms that the real way to serve God is not through ritual, but through actually,right now,not in some future messianic era, ending all forms of oppression,hunger, and homelessness.

But this is a scary position for many of us, as it was for the Jews themselves--and there is throughout our tradition, starting in the Torah itself, another voice, the voice of the accumulated pain of history, that tells us to wipe out the other, that there is no choice. In short, even in our own tradition, and in every one of us,there is this struggle between two voices--and which of those voices gains ascendancy at any moment shapes the way we see every particular issue in front of us.

So political energy is always flowing either towards fear or towards hope, towards belief that the world is fundamentally scary and protection can be achieved through domination, or towards belief that others are really like ourselves and that we can build a world based on caring for each other.

Today people will tell you that the reason we don't have universal health insurance, or that we don't build housing for the homeless, or that we don't provide adequate salaries for teachers or child care workers, is that we can't afford it. But actually in the Depression,when this country was far poorer, people believed that they could afford it. What was different was the level of social solidarity--the degree to which people did not dismiss as New Age hokum ideas like "we are all in this together" or that we are mutually interdependent. When energy flows toward hope, we can afford domestic caring and we can afford to care for others around the world.

Please don't misunderstand--it's not that others' behavior doesn't effect all this. But even after Hitler there was enough hope left from the social solidarity people had experienced in the 30s and in the war effort itself that people were willing to create the United Nations. After 9/11 the level of fear has risen dramatically--but it isn't the event of 9/11 that forced a particular interpretationon us that the world is scary. To the extent that we brought that worldview to those events,as our President and elected leadership did, we were told to focus on the evil of the perpetrators. But what about the goodness of all those thousands of people who risked and in many cases lost their lives to care for others. There was in fact a tremendous outpouring of goodness that could have been highlighted to show us that even though there are hurtful people around, the greater reality is one of caring and solidarity. So, it's not the facts that dictate the interpretation, but the interpretation that constructs the facts into a picture that either pushes for more fear or pushes for more hope.

But there needs to be an articulator of that vision of hope. That was the job of the Jewish people, that is the job of anyone who seeks to remain witnesses to the possibility of a world governed by God. A Religious Action Center and the good people in the Reform Movement, and other liberal political ventures, will always be condemned to trying to stop yet another outrage from the government, another assault on social services,another attack on civil liberties--as long as the energy is flowing toward fear--and that can be just as true under a Democratic Administration that has decided to become champions of realism as under a Republican Administration.

But as wonderfully important as that work of blocking the latest attacks is, and as much as I honor it, there is no way to counter the flow of energy toward fear unless one begins to articulate an alternative vision of hope. And that is what the liberals and progressives in our society have failed to do, and what a Religious Action Center and anyone who wishes to remain witnesses to the possibility of a different kind of world must do. You cannot counter the tax cut of 1.5 billion dollars with a strategy that says: no,we will only cut 1.1 billion dollars. Insofar as you are engaged in that battle, you are already reinforcing the worldview that underlies the cuts in the first place.

What is needed then is a two tier strategy--one that allows some of us to focus primarily on fighting on the terrain of the "realists" and trying to head off the worst assualts on civil liberties and programs for the needy, but simultaneously supports others of us to be involved in teaching and putting forward a different vision of the world, a vision that supports the hunger for mutual connection and the actual real desire of people to find a world based on love and not on domination and power over others. Let the Reform movement become the place which supports the popularizing of a new vision of a world based on our highest ideals--what I call an Emancipatory Spirituality--and let it articulate those ideals even as it also engages in the day-to-day struggles to preserve minimal sanity in politics. Indeed, our hope is that every religion would adopt The TIKKUN COMMUNITY and participate with us in promoting this kind of visioning--and in promoting campaigns in every aspect of American society on behalf of a NEW BOTTOM LINE.

What would a spiritual politics be about?

In a word, it would be about a New Bottom Line. We should be putting forward a struggle to redefine productivity,efficiency and rationality,so that instead of judging institutions efficient,rational and productive only to the extent that they maximize moneyand power,we should also judge them efficient or inefficient, rational or irrational, to the extent that they maximize the amount of loving and caring, the amount of ethical and ecological sensitivity, and the degree to which human beings are encouraged to move beyond a narrow utilitarian perspective when they deal with other human beings and with nature itself and begin to respond to others and to the universe with a sense of awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur of creation.Let this be the central demand of a spiritual politics--and let us define how this would apply in the details of every educatinal, political and economic institutionin our society. I've done some of this in my book Spirit Matters:Global Healing and the Wisdom of the Soul. In that book I've outlined what a New Bottom Line could look like in our legal system, our medical/health care system, and in educational institutions.

Lets turn to global security: America will be spending hundreds of billions on its war and subsequent occupation of Iraq. But it will not increase our security. A spiritual politics would have an alternative way: If America wishes to enhance its security, it could do three things that would be far more likely to bring about that result:

1. Let the U.S. be and be perceived to be the world's leading force for ending global poverty, hunger, homelessness, disease, and illiteracy.

2. Let the US be and be perceived to be the world's leading force for rectifying 150 years of destruction of the environment, rather than as it is now the world's leading force preventing the implementation of global environmental accords.

3. Let the US be and be perceived to be the country that in fact embodies in its domestic institutions and in its international dealings the New Bottom Line I've described above.

Where will the money come from for all of this? Well, a nice down-payment could come from that 1.5 trillion George Bush thinks we could give back in taxes.

And it is this same kind of thinking which says that if Israel wishes to achieve security, let it become a Jewish state by embodying this spirit of generosity and caring for the other.

I want to say that I have profound respect and sympathy for my many Israeli friends and family who have had to endure endless and in my view morally unjustifiable assaults by terrorists. Their courage in the face of fear and violence is itself something to give us great pride. But at the same time there will never be an end to this until one side or the other steps outside the logic of giving back what has been done to you, and instead acts from a spirit of generosity. And since Israel has by far the greater military and economic power in the situation, I daily pray that the people of Israel will develop the capacity to overcome their own fears and resentments and begin to act in such an overwhelmingly generous and kind way that it melts the ice and suspicions that have been built up by 36 years of Occupation.

I had these conversations with Yitzhak Rabin after Oslo, but Rabin went back to Israel and instead of saying "It is your patriotic duty to make friends with Palestinians, to transcend the old pains, to welcome them into our homes and learn Arabic and build a whole new relationship, " Rabin instead returned to Israel and said,"Don't worry--I didn't give up too much, I still don't trust them, we will go very slow, I am tough." He was, of course, playing to “the realists”--and it was only in his last two months of life that he realized that what was needed was a whole new discourse, because the discourse of distrust always helps strengthen the right, and his strategy of small steps couldn't break through the paranoia on both sides that gave credibility to acts of violence by both Palestinian terrorists and Israeli settlers. And similarly, the ability of the Clinton Administration to go for a discourse of distrust against the poor, that led some of the most principled liberals like Peter Edelman and Robert Reich to resign their poitions, may have given temporary short-term "realist credits"to that administration, but only created the foundation for a further move of the population as a whole to the right.

What is needed is a whole new discourse and a whole new vision--and that is precisely what the Tikkun Community, a new national organization that is for both Jews and non-Jews, secularists, religious,spiritual or whatever. At the Teach-In to Congress June 1-4 we will be articulating that new Vision and showing how it could actually be applied to American foreign policy And domestic policy. And we will be talking about our Resolution to Congress calling for an end to the Occupation,and calling for Israel to “Bring the Settlers Home” to the pre-67 borders of Israel, to have Israel return to the pre-67borders (with minor border modifications mutually agreed upon), to provide reparations for Palestinian refugees (but also for Jews who were refugees from Arab countries), to end all violence on both sides, to provide recognition and peace with all surrounding Arab states, and to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that will foster a process of mutual atonement, repentance and eventually of genuine forgiveness for all the cruelty and pain each side has delivered to the other.

So there is a very important role for a spiritual politics—and it could play out in a powerful new way of approaching the Middle East. It is that approach which we will be presenting to the nation at our Teach-In to Congress June 1-4. But we are also talking about a much larger social healing, a real tikkun politics.

The central task of such a politics, my friend Peter Gabel points out in an article in the May/June issue of Tikkun magazine, is to strengthen the confidence of each person in their own longing for love and recognition--to help people realize that that desire is shared by everyone else on the planet, and thereby to strengthen the pscyho-spiritual field which allows for the flow of energy toward hope.

"But surely you can't think that we could have surrounded Saddam Hussein with hope--and that would have done anything? Don't we know that such ruthless dictators only fall when overcome by greater power?"

Well, that is exactly what Jeanne Kirkpatrick argued in her famous essay that the Soviet Union was not merely an authoritarian regime capable of being overthrown, as happened in Argentina's dictatorship, but a totalitarian regime whose means of terror and thought control guaranteed that change could never take place from within. But it did--and though there were those who always advocated military responses, it was in fact by building a more generous and hence more successful world outside the communist bloc that the West managed to encourage people inside to witdraw their loyalties, and eventually the system collapsed from within. And we have seen that repeated in a different form in South Africa--where the ability of Mandela to affirm the humanity of the Other eventually pierced the hardened hearts of the Pharoahs of that society as well.

So, yes, what Peter Gabel calls "the thawing" of anger through a spiritual politics based on recognizing the goodness and humanity of the Other, and insisting on putting that in the forefront of one's consciousness and one's politics, is actually more realistic,more likely to produce a world of safety and security, more likely to overcome the paranoid fantasies that produce the suicide bombers and the fundamentalist killers and even produce those who kill and bomb in the name of democracy (killing over three million people as this society did in Vietnam, and who knows how many that we may yet kill in Iraq).

Yes, this is ultimately a faith position. And is it really outlandish to ask that a Religious Action Center build its politics on a faith position? The faith that there is the possibility of the triumph of good--and that our task is to affirm this not as some other world position, as do some of the Christian fundamentalists, but rather, to join with spiritually alive people in every tradition and every religious group and to affirm that right now, on this planet, even in the dark days of carnage in Iraq and cutting of budgets for social programs in the most advanced industrial society in the history of the world,that we affirm the yearning of humanity for a different kind of world,and we will no longer keep that affirmation in our synagogues, churches, mosques and ashrams, but will bring that out into the public arena and base our vision of politics on a redemptive vision of our common humanity.

As Jews, and as spiritual beings, we are witnesses to the ultimate Unity of All Being, of the mutual interconnectedness of all with all, and witnesses to the possibility of a world based on kindness, compassion, gentleness, and genuine caring. Our strategy in the TIKKUN Community must be to release in others their own desire for love and caring. That can never happen if our major focus is on manipulating and gaining advantage within the world of realistic politics alone--we must be at least as strong and at least as clear in our energy, our financial resources, our institutions supporting the development of the voices affirming the yearning of all humanity for a world filled with sanctity and goodness, allowing ourselves to model the kind of healing and caring that we want in the future.

To be committed to God is to be committed to the notion that this is not some distant fantasy, but a present possibility -- to be an idolator is to allow that which is at this moment to shape our vision of what is possible. It is time to challenge our own religion and every other religion to reject those parts that have reflected our fearful moments,and to build a new direction based on our most hopeful and loving moments. It is time to take our high ethical values out of the synagogue and into the reality of daily life. This doesn't mean that we want to undermine the 1st Amendment or allow politics to endorse any particular religious observance. But what it does mean is that we take seriously the shared legacy of all the spiritual traditions, a legacy which is also shared today by many many secular movements,the legacy that teaches that our world can be based on love, kindness, generosity, compassion and peace.

And it has been my contention that in so doing, we will be far more successful in stemming the move toward the Right than we have been in these past several decades--because we will have a vision that speaks to the part of human beings that so desperately seeks to find actualization in the 21st century, and which is the precondition for the possibility of building a new kind of global humanity that can deal with the steps we need to take to rebuild the ecological and economic systems which we have inherited. So go for your highest vision, and you will find that that is the most practical, realistic, and God-like path. ***********************************************************

To register for The Tikkun Conference & Teach-In to Congress, June 1-4, 2003, please go to"> or call 510 644 1200. If you can't come, please set up a time to meet with your own Congressperson before June 1st, and get them to come to the Teach-In. And if you resonate to the themes raised in this talk, please go to"> and actually become a dues paying member of The Tikkun Community. You can join on line.

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Date Added: 4/4/2003 Date Revised: 4/4/2003 8:30:45 PM

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