Perfect Circle - G&G Interviews
G&G Speaks with Rabbi Michael Lerner
Building a new spiritual foundation for progressive politics
Rabbi Michael Lerner, author of the forthcoming The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back from the Religious Right, is both rabbi of Beyt Tikkun and editor of Tikkun magazine: A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture and Society. Tikkun is one of the most respected intellectual and cultural magazines in the Jewish world, but also one of the most controversial. On the one hand, Lerner and the magazine Tikkun stand in favor of the rights of Palestinians, which locates them in the minds of many as the leading spokesperson and most prominent voice in the U.S. of Jewish supporters of the Israeli peace movement; yet on the other hand, they cogently critique the anti-religious and anti-spiritual biases of the secular Left, insisting that the Left needs to understand that the spiritual hunger of Americans is as significant to them as their material needs. Lerner calls this a hunger for "meaning" and says that for many Americans the desire to transcend the individualism and selfishness of the competitive marketplace, and to connect their lives to higher meaning, is as important as any interest in money or material things, and that one reason why people who might on purely economic grounds be supporting the liberal and progressive social change movements actually end up supporting the Right is that the Left doesn't have a "politics of meaning."
Michael Lerner is also author of the book Spirit Matters and co-author, with Harvard African-American Studies Professor Cornel West, of a book entitled Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin.
As part of our effort to explore a political perspective outside the mainstream corporate media's narrow purview, Garlic & Grass spoke with Lerner by phone.
Below is a transcript of the interview, edited slightly for clarity.
G&G: The first thing I want to ask you about is fundamentalism, and the role that fundamentalism is playing in the world today. We see in the Middle East violence that some people attribute to the role of fundamentalist Islam. And meanwhile other people look at the state of the government in this country and see that there's a lot of fundamentalism guiding the policies of our current government. How do you view the role of fundamentalism in the world today?
Rabbi Michael Lerner: Well, it's certainly very destructive. But I don't think that people who are likely to be reading this or listening to this broadcast need to be convinced of that. I think it's much more important for us to recognize that the people who are attracted to fundamentalism in this historical period are mostly people who have felt alienated from the dynamics of the competitive marketplace. There is a core group of fundamentalists who are true believers, but there are an awful lot of decent people who have been attracted to fundamentalism. It's only in the fundamentalist or ultra-right wing churches, synagogues, and mosques that they hear a set of values that are an alternative to the dominant
'me-first-ism' and materialism of the capitalist marketplace.
Unfortunately, the liberal and progressive forces, while they challenge the marketplace in some respects, nevertheless seem to accept the same value system – that the most important thing is to maximize money and power. The liberal critique is simply that it's unfairly distributed. But the fundamentalist critique – the religious critique that's identified with fundamentalism – is a critique that says there's something else in life besides money and power, and that they can offer it.
Now my view is that that hunger for meaning and purpose is a very valuable, good thing. It's what I call 'meaning needs' – the hunger for a framework of meaning and purpose that transcends the dynamics of the capitalist marketplace. It's a good set of needs. But it's manipulated by fundamentalists in a reactionary direction. So what we need is a progressive spirituality that can address the same needs that fundamentalists address, but to do that in ways that do not require suspension of the intellect, an assault on science, a blaming of feminists or gays or whoever happens to be the demeaned or the other of the society for the problems of materialism and selfishness, but instead to understand that the real roots of materialism and selfishness are in the values of the capitalist marketplace.
G&G: Amazing. What you're talking about is a very positive role for spirituality in politics, and I think it's something we don't see enough of. Do you see it as an inspirational role, that it adds a spiritual inspiration for people working with politics, or do you see it from a different perspective where people are actually getting involved in politics because of their religious background?
Rabbi Michael Lerner: Let me put it to you this way. It is a different set of criteria for what is to be valued in the spiritual world than what we see in much of the rest of the world. The spiritual world is unafraid to say that love, caring, generosity, kindness, celebration of the grandeur of the universe are things that ought to be central in people's lives. I agree with that; I think that that's what the spiritual world has to offer to the political world.
The political world has been too narrowly focused, because it doesn't understand human reality. It thinks human beings are simply maximizers of pleasures and security for self. It doesn't understand – it doesn't have a place for – the set of needs that human beings have to connect with each other, to be mutually recognized by each other, to build loving connections and long-term relationships, to build a relationship to some transcendent meaning in the universe. These are needs that the political world doesn't adequately address.
When people bring those things into the political sphere, they are helping to recast what our political system and our economic and what are social system should be about. That's potentially a very good thing, unless they bring into the political sphere in ways that are simply tied to a narrow fundamentalist agenda for how to achieve that. See, once you decide you want to achieve that in the public arena, in politics, in the social reality, in economics, then it's possible to have a debate with the fundamentalists about what is the best and most effective way to achieve that. I believe the fundamentalists are mistaken and that a radical spiritual approach – the approach taken by the organization that I've been involved in building called the Network of Spiritual Progressives – that our approach is much more likely to win people over once they decide that that's what they want. Once they decide that they want a world based more on love and kindness and generosity and awe and wonder.
G&G: In speaking with people, how do you find a spiritually-based government would work with something like the economy, or something like the laws governing corporations?
Rabbi Michael Lerner: The points that have been developed in the Network of Spiritual Progressives – what we call a Spiritual Covenant with Americans (which is published in the new book, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country From the Religious Right, which I've written and people can get) – one of the keys is how to make an economy that is responsive to these values. I'll just give you one point.
The political world has been too narrowly focused, because it doesn't understand human reality. It thinks human beings are simply maximizers of pleasures and security for self.
In one section of the Covenant we call for a Social Responsibility Amendment to the Constitution. The Social Responsibility Amendment to the Constitution says that every corporation with an income of $50 Million a year or more – so we're not talking about little mom and pop operations, we're talking about the big corporations – that every corporation with an income of more than $50 Million a year must get a new corporate charter once every ten years. And that new corporate charter can only be granted if the corporation can prove to a jury of ordinary citizens that it has had a satisfactory history of social responsibility over the past ten years.
Go ahead if you want to say one more. I think that's a great thing for people to hear. Not just the lofty talk – which I think is amazing talk that needs to be articulated more in our political spectrum – but also bringing it down to the real world about something basic like the economy.
Rabbi Michael Lerner: Well you asked about the law. We want to go beyond an adversarial system, which assumes that people are set against each other, and instead to try to reconstruct the law in ways that recognize our common interest.
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For example, we want to emphasize reparation to the community for crime rather than primarily punishment to the criminal. The goal here is to rectify the spiritual, social, and economic imbalance that has been created by a particular crime. And to ask, for any crime, how do you repair the society? Too often, we focus on a narrow issue of guilt or innocence without really paying attention to the larger context within which the crime has been committed. That is not to say that I'm in favor of forgiving every criminal for what they've done, but rather, I'm asking criminals to actually be involved in repairing the social fabric that they have ripped.
That's what we call restorative justice, and that approach to restorative justice is one of the things that's now being tested out in various communities around the country, and so far it has worked very well to decrease the level of crime in those areas.
G&G: And what about something for the environment? Do you have a restorative justice plan for that as well?
Rabbi Michael Lerner: The problem with environmental movements is that they don't understand that they're never going to get the kind of changes that are needed until people have a change in their spiritual vision of the world. Because insofar as people believe that the world is constituted of individuals who are constantly out to look out for number one and maximize their own advantage without regard to the consequences for others, they will inevitably feel there is no point in they themselves being ecologically sensitive or to reduce their level of consumption when they believe that everyone else will just be maximizing theirs.
Why would I be the one jerk on my block if everyone else is just looking out for number one?
This is part of a problem of a worldview system that says that everyone is just out for number one. We have to help people understand that actually in every human being there are two conflicting desires: One, a desire to be in a world of love and caring, and the other, a fear that that is impossible, that that can not ever be achieved and that consequently all people can do is to look out for number one. Those two voice are always there in almost everyone. And our job is to strengthen the voice of hope and to challenge the voice of fear.
G&G: That's beautiful. I want to turn to something else in the real world theme. How do you personally, and how do you think religious people generally or religious political people generally, should respond to the Iraq war?
Rabbi Michael Lerner: First of all, we should be against all wars. Violence doesn't work. It's not only immoral, it's unrealistic. It doesn't have the effect of preventing violence. It's trying to reverse 5,000 years of history with the theory that if we can use violence, we can stop violence. Actually it just escalates violence, one against another in destructive and terrible ways.
In every human being there are two conflicting desires: One, a desire to be in a world of love and caring; the other, the fear that that is impossible.
So the progressive spiritual will seek ways that end the war in Iraq and all other wars.
We are organizing a large spiritual demonstration against the war, in Washington, D.C., May 17-20, to say in a very clear way that we are standing up for the people of the United States to oppose the war. However we are trying to make it unlike other anti-war demonstrations that are primarily about what we're against, because we want to focus also on what we are for. And what we are for is a global Marshall Plan to eliminate poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, and inadequate healthcare. We believe in what the Network of Spiritual Progressives is calling for, which I write about more my book The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country From the Religious Right, where I explain that if we were simply to organize G8 countries to dedicate 5% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to eliminating homelessness, hunger, and poverty in the world in the next 20 years, we would then have a totally transformed world in which people are safer. That's our program for homeland security – not dominating others, not controlling others, not using violence against others. We're challenging both the Republican and Democratic parties in that regard and calling for a whole new bottom line, a whole new vision of what counts as smart, rational politics.
G&G: And say the name of that group again.
Rabbi Michael Lerner: It's called the Network of Spiritual Progressive. You can find it online at www.spiritualprogressives.org. You can find it discussed in our magazine, Tikkun, and at tikkun.org. But the best place is to read all about it in my new book, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country From the Religious Right.
G&G: Thanks for getting the name of the book right, because I think I stumbled on it at the beginning of the interview [laughs]. So the best place for people to go if they've been inspired by some of the words that you've said today are your book and the magazine.
Rabbi Michael Lerner: We're doing the National Conference, May 17-20, in Washington, D.C., and we'd very much like people to come to that conference and help us build a Network of Spiritual Progressives.
It's not just for religious people, it's also for people who consider themselves spiritual but not religious, who do not accept a traditional conception of God or theology but nevertheless recognize the spiritual deficit in the world and that it needs to be repaired and cannot be repaired in the terms of liberal politics. The world needs a new focus on a new bottom line of love, caring, and generosity.
G&G: It's great. You have a very inspirational message. Thank you very much for sharing it with us.
Rabbi Michael Lerner: Well, thank you for sharing this work with others. I'm hoping that other people will work with us, because many people say 'Yes, Amen!,' but then they don't put their energy or their money where their mouth is. It is a time when we absolutely need to do that, because so many people on the religious right and the fundamentalist right are putting their money and their time where their mouth is. We need to have progressive people do the same.
G&G: I'll say Amen to that [laughs]. Thanks very much for talking with me.
Rabbi Michael Lerner: [laughs] Yes, thank you.
Much more information on Rabbi Michael Lerner, the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and Tikkun Magazine
is available at tikkun.org
Interview conducted by Tony Brasunas.
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