Rabbi Michael Lerner has created a new social movement, the Network of Spiritual Progressives(NSP), that aims to reclaim God from the right wing. His book, The Left Hand of God, tries to account for the capture of God by mean-spirited, militaristic conservatives. To my mind, his account is not altogether convincing, but I like his argument, despite its wobbliness.
His explanation turns on the notion that there is a “spiritual crisis” in contemporary society that amounts, more or less, to an absence of meaning, lack of the sense that one’s life is a contribution to a larger purpose than oneself. This lack is palpable, real, and needs to be recognized in the political discourse as much as in other areas of life, for otherwise one must doubt that politics is addressing values in any serious way.
But the left has abandoned any discourse about this spiritual crisis. Instead, Democrats (as well as any political groups further to the left of Democrats) hold an entirely secular point of view. Thus anyone experiencing the spiritual crisis as a prominent problem will have no support for this perspective within the Democratic groups. It is the Right who have taken possession of the discourse of spirituality, despite the obvious contradiction, even hypocrisy, that this orientation entails.
Compounding the problem of this loss of a spiritual politics, there is a split between two other perspectives on life – the loving, generous, compassionate, sharing perspective – the “left hand of God” – and the realistic perspective that sees a mean, competitive world where you have to look out for yourself – an outlook that Lerner calls “the right hand of God.” Our current problem results from the fact that the political Left, which actually promotes compassion and generosity, has abandoned any claim to God at all, and hence loses the support of many people who feel the spiritual crisis, whereas ironically they have only the Right to turn to for any recognition of their spiritual needs – the Right that is socially mean-spirited. The Left has alienated, offended, and rejected many spiritual people whose social values might have been congenial to their own, driving them into the arms of Rightists. Only the emergence of a new spiritual Left will rectify this mistake, Lerner claims — and he has set out to create that alliance.
Lerner has long been engaged with left-liberal Jewish spirituality in an organization that publishes a popular magazine, Tikkun. I heard him give a talk at Cody’s in Berkeley this winter and was impressed. He and numerous other left-leaning spiritual types (including the Buddhist peace studies professor Michael Nagler) have been organizing opposition to the Christian fundamentalists who now run the US government. The first big NSP gathering took place in Berkeley in July 2005, and now their second national meeting has been completed — this time a four-day conference in Washington, D.C. for more than 1200 people.
In the lengthy e-mail he sent out describing this event, Lerner frankly discloses his disappointment with its tone. Apparently it started well enough, with Lerner leading prayers
“for the healing of the brokenness and fear-driven consciousness of the people in the White House including President Bush. I emphasized that while we were not interested in decreasing the intensity of our critique of the hateful and murderous policies of these people, we nevertheless continue to see them as God’s children, created in the image of God and embodiments of the sacred, deserving to be seen in their complex humanity just as we ourselves need to be seen that way and not as demons….
“The tone of much of this prayer-gathering was quiet, respectful, and God-oriented. But the tone changed decisively when we brought up Cindy Sheehan to speak. Suddenly the scene was dominated by the media as television cameras and paparazzi jockeyed for position to get the best angles on her and the thousand of us who had made it to stand opposite the White House. From a tone of contemplation and reflection the energy shifted more to cynicism and anger, and I personally was disappointed.”
Lerner was also disappointed in the distorted press coverage, especially by the New York Times religion editor Neela Bannerjee, who may not have been present for the key parts of the conference. At any rate, she called the meeting unfocused and devoid of specific programmatic ideas. Lerner said that most of the meeting had dealt with very specific proposals — especially the “Spiritual Covenant with America.” I checked his book, The Left Hand of God, for the details about this eight-point proposal, which is described in Chapter Nine. They are as follows:
1. Covenant with American Families
2. Covenant of Personal Responsibility
3. Covenant of Social Responsibility
4. Covenant for a Values-Based Education
5. Covenant for Health Care
6. Covenant of Environmental Stewardship
7. Covenant for Building a Safer World
8. Covenant to Separate Church and State and Science
The policies are, in themselves, pretty much what liberal Americans have long believed. The distinctive thing about this new “spiritual covenant” is that it reflects a genuine spirituality, a generosity of soul that goes beyond the selfishness that now is used to justify right wing politics. The item about building a “safer world” especially appealed to me. Lerner wrote (p. 236):
“The United States will join with other advanced industrial societies in creating a Global Marshall Plan to dedicate part of our GDP each year to eliminating homelessness, hunger, poverty, inadequate education, and inadequate health care. Within twenty years we will help raise the standard of living in the developing world so dramatically that terrorists will find it almost impossible to recruit people who are angry enough to want to give their lives to fight the values and power of the United States and its allies.”
Brilliant! Why doesn’t everyone see this point? Why should it even need to be stated? Why did liberals become afraid to be tainted by religiosity?
In any case, I am grateful for Lerner and his colleagues. It is high time that God becomes associated again with an attitude of goodness, compassion, care, and generosity. All that I’m still puzzled about is the question that Lerner tried to answer, but without complete success: “How did the Religious Right manage to steal God from us?” I think they actually did not steal God. We gave her away voluntarily.