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Public Theology: A Better Strategy to Respond to Terror
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A Better Strategy to Respond to Terror
Rabbi Michael Lerner writes an excellent article on the role of corporations in creating conditions for global terror.

A Better Strategy to Respond to Terror

by Rabbi Michael Lerner

TIKKUNMAIL: An Email Publication of Tikkun Magazine

IN THIS ISSUE: Now George Bush Wants Us To Believe that the Iraq War Will Protect us From Terror-- When It Actually Is Creating Terror!

George Bush has managed to create the very Terror International that he claims to be defending us against. In fact, he is intent on convincing Americans that they are in danger--and that the war in Iraq will protect us.

Truth is that there is a danger. There are people who hate the U.S. But the Iraq will only intensifies that hatred and recruits more terrorists. That hatred, however, is not genetic, but situational, and we could change the situation and we would dramatically reduce the impulse toward terror.

America is the richest nation in a world in which one out of every three people lives on less than $2 a day, and 1.3 billion live on less than $1 a day. Many of these people are near starvation. The U.S. has organized global trade agreements that work to enrich the rich and to further impoverish the poor. Millions of people around the world have demonstrated against these global pacts, but they do not have the power to effectively challenge the impact of American corporations backed the army of the U.S.

Along with American corporate dominance has come a globalization of the ethos of selfishness and materialism that is massively reenforced by the dynamics of the competitive marketplace. In my books Surplus Powerlessness, The Politics of Meaning, and Spirit Matters I present detailed accounts of how the logic of the world of work in advanced capitalist societies has produced a spiritual crisis in the Western world--because as people daily learn in the world of work to adjust their thinking to the bottom line of money and power, they simultaneously learn to see other human beings primarily as objects to be manipualted for the sake of advancing their own interests, and this dynamic contributes to the fostering of a narciessitic individual incapable of genuinely caring about others, and hence incapable of sustaining loving relationships, friendships, and incapable of experiencing the grandeur of the universe in anything but insrumental terms. Yet simultaneously, people hate this tendency within themselves and within others, and so there is a massive resurgence of interest in religions and spiritualities as people seek a way to overcome these dynamics that increasingly are shaping their cultural and emotional worlds. Hence, the surge in right-wing religious communities in the U.S. and world-wide.

For people in the U.S., the breakdown of caring relationships and traditional communities is buffered by the growing material well-being that is made possible by the American domination of conditions of world trade, and the growing gap between the rich and poor nations. But no such buffer exists for many people in the 3rd world, who see the capitalist modernization offered to them by American and Western corporate dominance as laced with the values of the marketplace, values that tend to undermine traditional communities and to generate an ethos of selfishness and materialism. Of course, in every 3rd world country there is an elite, often supported by the US or other Western powers, that has decided to work along with the interests of global capital, and to benefit by becoming the local representatives of Western power and influence. In exchange for military support to keep themselves in power, those elites are willing to serve Western interests and to do their best to convince their own people that the impoverishment that they are experiencing at both the material and cultural levels are inevitable costs for the benefit of cooperation with the West and its "progress."

These elites sit on international committees that ratify the global trade arrangements, and they meet with people like Tom Friedman and other Western pundits and politicians to affirm that their own people really want "modernization" and the "democratic values" of the West.

Actually, to be more precise, the elites of the third world are divided between older feudal groups (like those who run Saudi Arabia) who hope to maintain themselves in power by giving U.S. corporations carte blanche to exploit their natural and human resources,but who want no change intheir political arrangements, and another "modernizing" elite that wants to see the Western model of democratic elections and individual rights brought to their countries, envisioning that they would then have the people as a whole ratify the econmic inequalities in a democratic way (it's always more stable to have inequality bought into by the masses and ratified democractically, as in the U.S., than to have it imposed by force, as in Saudi Arabia or many other countries). So these elites sing the praises of democracy and individual rights, and hope that the capitalist values that have produced such success in the U.S. will take root in their own countries.

Yet for many others in these countries, the globalization of capital becomes defacto the globalization of selfishness. They can see that as the me-firstism and narcissism-generating qualities of the "bottom line" consciousness becomes more powerful, the traditional tribal, communal and familial sources of support begin to dissolve. Increasingly, people are left to fend for themselves, and there is no "safety net" funded by the third world, because they are the third world. International trade arrangements destroy the market for many locally produced agricultural goods or handcrated products, international companies come in and buy up or enclose land making it impossible to move animals to traditional grazing and water lands, and then international corporations start to privatize essential natural resources like water and to sell it back to the people of the country at rates that are prohibitive for those who had been living at subsistence levels--all of which contributes ot the collapse of the subsistence farming and village life in which people had been living for thousands of years. So what happens is that villages and traditional societies either get physically uprooted, or become economically impossible to sustain, and people are forced off their lands and into the huge slums surrounding major cities, where they live in horrific conditions, often witnessing their children choosing between starvation, crime, and prostitution.

They witness a withering of caring relationships as more and more the values of "looking out for number one" are sold to their children as "progress" and the "realism" of the future.

It is important to note that the resentment at what the West is bringing is not only an economic resentment, but a cultural and spiritual resentment. And for good reason.

Western societies are rightly proud of having created democratic institutions. And the institutionalization of human rights is a contribution that will remain a major advance in the history of humanity. We who live in the West have good reason to rejoice in these aspects of our society-and to want to do all we can to preserve and extend these accomplishments, and to offer them to the rest of the world as well, because they rest upon universal values that are appropriate for the entire human race.

Yet we should also notice that Western societies have developed a particular kind of market society based on competition, individualism, materialism and selfishness, and that these values are not good for the U.S. and not good for the rest of the world either. Market economies have championed a narrow notion of rationality-so that institutions are judged efficient, rational and productive when they produce lots of money and power for those at the top. Anyone working in these institutions quickly learns that the most important thing they can do is to focus on "the bottom line" (that is, the amount of money or power being generated). People quickly learn to see others primarily thorugh the frame of whether these others are "useful" in advancing our own individual goals, and using others to maximize our own advantage, or what is called "looking out for number one," becomes the frame through which all human relationships get measured. Keep such a society functioning for decades and you begin to see the emergence of personality types that are self-absorbed, narcissistic, unable to care about others, and highly successful in manipulating others. Such people have developed the skills to "succeed" in the marketplace, but the very talents that are rewarded in the marketplace make these people very dysfunctional when it comes to building friendships, loving relationships and families, and so we see a decline in family stability and a rapid increase in divorce and in alienation and loneliness (including loneliness within relationships, because people who are reared in such a society find it increasingly difficult to trust anyone).

The psychodynamics of this kind of society leave many people feeling unhappy, distrustful of others, scared that no one will really care for them in moments of need, and fearful that their world may collapse at any moment. For some, a quiet and abiding depression becomes a way of life (sometimes countered by medications or drugs or alcohol). For others, a frenetic life style can momentarily drown the pain or the fear. For still others, the immersion into a religious or spiritual community provides an alternative. So we see the emergence of fundamentalist religions and an openness to various visions of apocalypse. Yet in the advanced industrial societies, all of this individual suffering is buffered by the reality that global economic arrangements allow for an expanding wealth that gets divided, albeit unequally, in ways that provide material satisfactions that can momentarily distract from spiritual crisis.

There is no such buffer in much of the Third World. The entrance of global capital into those societies provides a set of opportunities for a small elite, who are able to convince themselves that everyone in their society will be better off if these elites can make deals with international capital to bring the marvels of Western corporate life to the underdeveloped. In fact, small middle classes emerge that benefit mightily from the infusin of capital, and this can produce a rise in the income level or wealth of the society as a whole-though it is a rise that is never seen and doesnot work for the benefit of the majority in those countries. For the majority of people in the society, the impact is quite different: and it is not only in the deepening divide between rich and poor, but also and primarily in the destruction of the ethos of solidarity that existed in village societies, and its replacement by an ethos of "looking out for number one" that is fostered by the common sense of global capital.

I don't want to glorify life in village subsistence societies-it was often harsh and oppressive. Yet there was a pervasive sense of community that made almost everyone feel that they could count on each other for caring-that there really was a social safety net which would allow people to be taken care of. People felt that they knew their place, and that they were part of a society whose values extended beyond materialism to reach a sense of larger purpose and meaning. In such societies, families were patriarchal, hierarchical, and often experienced as oppressive, but they were also places in which everyone felt cared for and felt that they had a role and a purpose for their lives. And the ethos of mutual responsibility and caring , articulated in the religious and spiritual systems and lived out in daily life, was so strong that it became part of the ethos of life even for those who had left the villages and were living in the big cities.

For such societies, the introduction of global capital has not produced universal happiness, but rather has often meant a huge increase in social breakdown, family breakdown, and a breakdown in established systems of meaning and community. The freedom of the West, while for some meaning a welcome liberation from oppressive sexist and patriarchal and coercive practices, has for many others meant a pressure to succumb to the "modern" way of caring only for oneself and fending for oneself in the competitive marketplace. Selfishness and materialism have marched into these societies as the unstated but very real concomitants of Western-style corporate globalization, and the results have often been felt to be distorting and undermining of all that was good in the past.

There was a time during the Cold War when people in these societies who wanted to resist these dynamics turned to communism. But communism was itself insensitive to the spiritual needs of these people, so when the Soviet Union collapsed the resistance to the values of the marketplace increasingly found expression in various forms of religious fundamentalism.

Let me be clear that I oppose these fundamentalisms. In my book Spirit Matters I argue against the fundamentalist response to global capital, and for what I call and Emancipatory Spirituality. Among the elements of fundamentalism I critique: 1. The tendency to believe that there is only one path to God, and that they have it and others do not. 2. The tendency to demean some "other" (often a domestic minority) as the source of evil or the impediment to salvation 3. Patriarchy and homophobia 4. The tendency to oppose privacy and desire to control every aspect of life 5. The tendency to deny the importance of rational thinking and scientific inquiry 6. The tendency to deny the value of pleasure and the tendency to think of bodily needs as less important than "higher" needs. 7. The willingness to subordinate one's own critical thinking to that of a supposedly divinely-inspired leader.

Yet the appeal of fundamentalisms cannot be dismissed as simply and solely a rejection of democracy and a fear of freedom. We must understand that at least part of its appeal is based on the hunger that people have for a framework of meaning and purpose that transcends the thinking of the competitive marketplace, affirms community and affirms love and caring for each other, social solidarity, and a non-utilitarian orientation to the universe. All of this comes together in the way that fundamentalisms in the third world (and even, to a lesser extent, in the advanced industrial societies) becomes a form of resistance to the worst aspects of the globalization of selfishness that has been the public face of the international capitalist marketplace.

All of these concerns are particularly obvious in the way that Islamic fundamentalism has fought to protect "its" women from the scourge of marketplace exploitation. Of course, much of this concern is motivated by the desire of many men to keep women safely within the bounds of patriarchal relationships. But that is not the whole picture. When I lived in Israel in the late 1980s and early 1990s I remember many instances in which fundamentalists would burn down bus stop ads that featured scantily-clothed women in sexually provocative poses attempting to sell a product by associating it with that sexual allure. The commodification of women's bodies and the experience of many women in being used by men for sexual pleasure without commitment as an essential element in the "freedom" that the marketplace provides led many women (including a small but significant number of former feminists) to be attracted to communities in which women were embedded in large families less concerned about immediate sexual pleasure than about long-term caring and commitment. Though Islamic societies have often imposed restrictive activities and dress on women, it is also true that in the past thirty years many women have voluntarily put on the veil and covered their bodies in both Jewish and Islamic fundamentalist communities as a way of saying: "No, I am not available to be commodified or turned into an object for the sexual pleasure or fantasies of random men."

If Islamic and other fundamentalist communities have seemed excessively uptight about matters of sexuality, it is in part a response to what they perceive to be the exploitative nature of the sexual marketplace. Westerners have often reduced this to a repressed longing on the part of fundamentalist men for sexual pleasure denied them by the society, longings that constantly threaten to break through unless they are rigidly imposed. This is undoubtedly a sufficient explanation for some, but it allows us to hide from ourselves the other dimension in which these men genuinely resent the invitations to lascivious-ness that they have rejected in order to be part of a society with different values. The inability of Westerners to respect that kind of value choice, our insistence that it can only be a product of irrationality and psychological distortion, is for many fundamentalists a proof of the moral arrogance and chauvinism of the secularism that parades itself as the height of universal tolerance.

So when capitalist societies use the excuse that they are invading another country, in this case, Iraq, to bring higher values to the people, don't expect that this is going to be taken seriously by many (except by those who have already decided that they would be better off trying to make it as individuals into the small middle class and hence eagerly seek to welcome the advent of global capital and its most powerful champion, the U.S.). And when it is revealed that the invader, in this case the US in Iraq, is establishing not a democratic government but instead appointing a government held in place by 135,000 U.S. troops occupying the country, and when its prisons are revealed to be embodiments of the very sexual acting-out and distortions that everyone suspected was the inevitable concomitant of Western rule, then even though people could reasonably rejoice in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, many may nevertheless feel equally threatened at the invading forces and their international sponsors.

If we understand this larger framework, we can understand why at least some people would be attracted to Al Queda or other violent forms of resistance to the globalization of capital, and why, though at first their anger would primarily be directed against domestic elites who are local proxies and prostitutes for international capital (as Al Queda did when it focused against Arab elites), they will eventually turn to the international sponsors (symbolized most powerfully by the World Trade Center and the Pentagon).

Similarly if we understand this larger framework, we can also understand why the nearest example of a capitalist society, Israel, would generate so much anger, and why the people of the region would continually link their anger at the US with anger at Israel. I don't want to discount the lasting impact of anti-Semitism, except to note that it was an enduring legacy in Islamic societies, but one which rarely undermined the counter-legacy of good will and good relations that existed between most Jews and most Muslims for hundreds of years. Even when feudal Arab regimes sought to demean Israel and championed the fate of Palestinians who were fleeing their homes in 1947-48, fewer than 10,000 Arabs from the entire Islamic world responded to the call for volunteers to fight against the newly emerging Zionist state and its army. Popular anger and resentment only grew to be a powerful reality after decades of the Occupation of the West Band and Gaza, and the history of home demolitions, arbitrary imprisonments without trial or charges of tens of thousands of Palestinian men, humiliating body searches at endless check points that prevented freedom of movement, and other forms of collective punishment by the Israeli government against the entire Palestinian population There, being enacted in miniature, was the whole story of Western humiliation of the Arab and Islamic world, and done with an arrogance and insensitivity that was infuriating. Although that anti-Israel anger might have been more reasonably directed against their own Arab elites and the international corporations who had made alliances with those elites, their deflection onto Israel was not without some foundation beyond pure irrational anti-Semitism (which played a role as well). So as someone who wants Israel to remain strong, I know that Israel's best interests lie in disentangling itself from the web of institutions and values that make it tilt toward identification with the globalization of capital so that it can insted tilt toward what I describe in detail in Spirit Matters as the globalization of spirit.

It is only when we understand these larger dynamics that we can possibly develop an effective counter-strategy to protect ourselves from the scourge of terrorism and protect Israel from future wars generated by the lingering anger from this historical moment.

To explain the anger at Western imperialism, globalized capital, and Israeli occupation is not to suggest that the actions of the terrorists are therefore "understandable" or acceptable. They are not. I'm writing to counter them, not to encourage sympathy for them. But the only way to develop a strategy to counter them is to understand the basis of their appeal, and then find a more effective way to address the legitimate part of their appeal and separate that from its hateful manifestation in terrorist activities.

And yes, there is a way to do that.

So here is what would be a far more effective way to combat terror:

1. Let the United States initiate and take the leadership in getting all the advanced industrial societies to participate in a Global Marshall Plan that would dedicate hundreds of billions of dollars each year for the next thirty years with the aim of eliminating hunger, homelessness, inadequate education and inadequate health care in under-developed countries. Let the U.S. then set up an international body of internationally recognized spiritual leaders, academics, health care workers, educators, and community organizers to supervise the expenditures and guarantee that they are used in ways that are not siphoned off by selfish national leaders but instead are used in creative ways to achieve the goals cited.

2. Let the U.S. initiate a program of global ecological repair to undo the damage done by 150 years of environmental irresponsibility by the advanced industrial societies (including both capitalist and socialist societies).

3. Let the U.S. require that every citizen give at least two years of national service to be spent in delivering services, providing training, education or otherwise assisting in the implementation of the Global Marshall plan.

4. Let the U.S. use the full weight of its resources and power to push Israel to end the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (along lines described in my book The Geneva Accord and Other Strategies for Middle East Peace, North Atlantic Books, 2004), and to then fund the development of a Palestinian state that is economically and politically viable, while providing leadership in the creation of an international cartel committed to providing compensation to Palestinian refugees for their years of refugee-hood (on a sliding fee scale according to current need).

5. Let the U.S. demonstrate in word and deed that it is not trying to "buy infuence" but to genuinely respond to a new set of priorities, embodying a New Bottom Line of generosity and kindness.

6. Let the U.S. develop a new set of guidelines for international trade which promote and reward ecological safety and sustainability, workers' rights, respect for indigenous peoples and for the world's multicultural realities, and a clear commitment to promote the wellbeing of the least powerful people on the planet.

7. Let the U.S. adopt the Social Responsibiity Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which requires every corporation with an income of over $30 million a year to get a new corporate charter every ten years, which would only be granted to those corporations that could demonstrate to a jury of ordinary citizens chosen at random a satisfactory history of social responsibility not only in the U.S. but n any other countries in which it operates, sells goods or services, or otherwise impacts on the life and environment.

None of this is enough unless all this is done with a willingness to atone for past misdeeds, approach other countries in a spirit of cooperation and repentance, and a commitment to not only giving to third world countries but also learning from their histories and traditions lessons that might be valuable for us as we attempt to build a society based on generosity and open-heartedness.

Sounds visionary? Well, yes, it is meant to be that. But it often turns out that the visionary approach is far more practical than the approaches of the pragmatists who led us into the world in which terrorists struck on 9/11 and into the war in Iraq where continued US insensitivity and irresponsibility has generated far ore hatred toward the U.S. than had ever existed there previously.

Going this route does not mean that we have to unilaterally dismantle our armed services (though some disarmament of a unilateral sort would be an important step. Still, we can continue to have searches at airports, and we can continue to have a strong army. But lets get real: none of that is going to protect us!!! The military approach is a dead end or worse-it simply generates more and more terrorists. We could have learned that from Israel's failed strategy of Occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. Instead, we copied a failed strategy, and as a result have managed to create alienation and anger at us from an Iraqi population that might plausibly, had we acted with sensitivity and nuance to the conerns of a stragegy based on generosity, rejoiced in having been liberated from Saddam Hussein by the United States.

This is not a matter of a few changes in tone or a few overtures to the United Nations (though that is part of the picture). What I'm talking about is a sea change in our orientation to the world. That's what we did when we transcended the isolationism of the early 20th century in order to fight the war against Hitler, and that is what is needed if we are to effectively fight the war on terror. This sea change is a change toward taking seriously our highest values, and seeking to embody them in our actual activities in the world.

It is toward that end that I created The Tikkun Community as an interfaith organization dedicated to this kind of worldview, and I hope that if you haven't already done so, you'll read our Core Vision at, or my book Spirit Matters: Global Healing and the Wisdom of the Soul, and then actually JOIN the Tikkun Community and help us build it in your community (either on line or by calling Stephanie at 510 644 1200). The kinds of changes I'm talking about are achievable even though visionary, and they are absolutely necessary if we are to protect ourselves effectively from terrorism.

This is the opposite of the direction charted by George Bush. And unfortunately, it doesn't have much in common with those Democrats whose only critique of Bush is that he is not being smart in implementing his strategy to quash the terrorists, and that they could do it better. I want to be respectful and compassionate toward people in politics who disagree with me on these issues, but I also want to challenge them to recognize and engage with the kind of analysis Im putting forward here. This is a different strategy-and one that is rarely articulated in the public discourse (unfortunately, not much by people on the Left either who tend to confine their discourse to what they are against rather than what they are for, and who often tend to dismiss language about generosity and open-heartedness as New Age mush rather than understanding that it is in fact a serious alternative worldview . It is my contention that I am presenting (albeit in outline form) , a strategy that would work-and for that reason, you have both idealistic and very pragmatic reasons to want to do what you can to bring these ideas to the attention of your friends and everyone else you know. Please feel free to circulate this statement widely, to bring it to the attention of the media and your elected officials, and in any other way that you can to help get this perspective discussed in the public sphere.

In the meantime, let me bless you for having taken the time to read this overly long statement. I hope to reprint it in Tikkun, and to invite those who disagree with it to argue against me (because it is in that kind of free-wheeling exchange of ideas that the best ideas eventually emerge, and I've learned and changed some of my own ideas by having them challenged in Tikkun magazine!). '

I'm sending this out on the eve of Shavuot, the Jewish Holiday commemorating the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai some 3200 years ago. Since then, there have been many developments in the way that that Torah has been understood. So this little article I've just written is my way of applying some of the principles of Torah to the present moment-and as testimony to the fact that the people dedicated to the original vision of a world based on love, justice and peace continue to seek ways to embody that vision in the world.

--Rabbi Michael Lerner

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Date Added: 5/26/2004 Date Revised: 5/26/2004 10:14:40 AM

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