American Politics: The U.S. Needs Repentance and Atonement
by Rabbi Michael Lerner
Watching American politics these past months, culminating in the revelation of Donald Trump’s disgusting comments about women that he groped, I was overwhelmed by the sense of how much American politics needs a fundamental re-orientation. We need a New Bottom Line of love and generosity that could reshape every dimension of our economic, political, cultural and spiritual assumptions about reality. To get there, we need a fundamental transformation of consciousness. Although not in the same league of outrage as what Trump has done to legitimate misogyny, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and xenophobia, the Democrats would also be challenged by a New Bottom Line–and even Hillary Clinton’s call for a “no fly zone” in Syria would have to be scrutinized against the alternative approach to foreign policy a New Bottom Line would suggest (namely, seeking homeland security through generosity and a Global Marshall Plan so that the US becomes known as the most generous and caring society in the world, not the toughest and most militarist).
The place to start is with repentance and atonement. One does not have to believe in God or be part of a religious or spiritual community to understand that changes to the heart require more than a spiffy op-ed, they require a fundamentally new way of approaching reality. And I’d like to advocate for taking the technology developed in the Jewish world and used on Yom Kippur (which this year begins on Tuesday night October 11 and goes till evening October 12th.
What makes the Jewish approach to repentance and atonement relevant to American politics is that it does not focus only on the ways we as individuals “sinned” (actually, the real meaning of that word sin is to miss the mark, not some sense of being drenched in evil, but just getting off course) but rather recognizes us as part of a community for which we must take collective responsibility.
Americans are so used to the extreme individualism promoted by capitalist values that we rarely think of ourselves as having responsibility for each other. But that is precisely what is needed. So we at Tikkun, the interfaith and secular-humanist-and-atheist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives, and Beyt Tikkun synagogue-without-walls have developed a set of confessions in the form of
“we have sinned when…” that mention many things that you personally may never have done, but which are taking place in and through the social, economic and cultural arrangements in our society for which we have communal responsibility.
So I suggest that you bring together people in your friendship circle, and encourage them to sit together some day or evening and read these aloud, and afterwards talk about which make most sense and which someone has difficulty with. Having this kind of conversation could be an important first step in creating a different way of approaching our problems that speaks more to the heart and reaches deeper into our inner being. And the discussion that it generates might be the first step in creating a different kind of culture within liberal and progressive circles that might offset some of what has made liberals and progressives unpopular with a significant section of American society whose support we need if we are ever going to make the fundamental changes needed to end racism, sexism, homophobia, environmental irresponsibility, militarism and vast economic inequality.
When your group (could be as small as 3 or as large as twenty) assembles, take turns reading these outloud and wait till they have all been read before then braking down into small groups of 3 people each to discuss their reactions to these ideas and to suggest what they’d add that isn’t here and what they’d want to eliminate this is here.
Try it–you will be surprised at how much doing impact this little exercise can have even with people who normally seem shut off and unlikely to share their fears and hopes.
For Our Sins as Individuals and As a Society
Everyone reads this together: We take collective responsibility for our own lives and for the activities of the community and society of which we are a part. We affirm our fundamental interdependence and interconnectedness. We have allowed others to be victims of incredible suffering, have turned our backs on others and their well-being, and yet today we acknowledge that this world is co-created by all of us, and so we atone for all of it.
While the struggle to change ourselves and our world may be long and painful, it is our struggle; no one
else can do it for us. To the extent that we have failed to do all that we could to make ourselves and our community all that we ought to be, we ask each other for forgiveness–and we now commit ourselves to
transformation this coming year, as we seek to get back on the path to our highest possible selves.
Now, each person reads one of these, until all have been read out loud:
For the Sins:
For the sins we have committed before You and in our communities by being so preoccupied with ourselves that
ignore the larger problems of the world;
And for the sins we have committed by being so directed toward outward realities that we have ignored our spiritual development;
For the sins committed in the name of the American people through our invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, and
Pakistan, and the violence we used to achieve our ends;
And for the sin of not rebuilding what we have destroyed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan;
For failing to prosecute those in our government who enabled the torture of prisoners around the world and in
American detention centers and the denial of habeas corpus and other fundamental human rights;
And for the sin of not demanding that our elected representatives provide affordable health care and prescription drugs for everyone, and for not demanding dramatic changes that are needed to save the planet and lessen the power of big money to shape our democratic process, so that it no longer primarily serves the interests of the corporations and the wealthy;
For the sin of those of us in the West hoarding the world’s wealth and not sharing with the 2.5 billion people who live on less than two dollars a day;
And for the sin of supporting forms of globalization that are destructive to nature and to the economic well-being of the powerless;
For the sins of all who became so concerned with “making it” and becoming rich that they pursued banking and investment policies that were destructive not only to their investors but to the entire society;
And for the sins of blaming all Muslims for the extremism of a few and ignoring the extremism and violence emanating from our own society, which continues to use drones to kill people suspected of being involved in supporting terrorism;
For the sin of being cynical about the possibility of building a world based on love;
And for the sin of dulling our outrage at the continuation of poverty, oppression, and violence in this world;
For the sin of believing “homeland security” can be achieved through military, political, diplomatic, cultural or economic domination of the world rather than through a strategy of generosity and caring for the people of the world (e.g. in creating a Global Marshall Plan to once and for all eliminate global and domestic poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate health care and inadequate education),
And for the sin of believing that we can get money out of politics as long as corporations have the right to move their investments abroad to any place where they can find cheap labor or lax environmental laws, the threat of which is sufficient to have them get their way in American politics–the alternative being the ESRA–Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which would require any major corporation selling goods or services in the U.S. to prove every five years a satisfactory history of environmental and social responsibility to a jury of ordinary citizens)
For the sin of not being vigilant stewards of the planet and instead allowing the water resources of the world to be bought up by private companies for private profit, energy companies to pollute the air and ground, and endless consumption to waste the earth’s scarce resources and contribute to the rapidly increasing climate change;
And for the sin of allowing military spending and tax cuts for the rich to undermine our society’s capacity to take care of the poor, the powerless, the young, and the aging, both in the United States and around the world;
For the sin of not doing enough to challenge racist, sexist, and homophobic institutions and practices;
And for the sin of turning our backs on the world’s refugees and on the homeless in our own society, allowing them to be demeaned, assaulted, and persecuted;
For the sin of acting as though those who do not share our understanding of the need to fundamentally change our economic and political arrangements are either evil, dumb, deplorable or without moral consciousness;
And for the sin of making people who have different cultural, religious or intellectual proclivities from our own feel that we are looking down on them;
For the sin of believing the myth that we live in a meritocracy and that therefore those who are “less successful” than us (either economically or in some other way) are actually less deserving;
And for the sin of not recognizing that the pain people feel that leads them to religious or nationalist fundamentalist movements is in large part related to not feeling adequately respected or cared for, and even demeaned by others and by the assumption that they have failed in their lives;
For the sin of not reaching out to those who share different world views and trying to find that which is beautiful in them or that which is in pain and needs to be healed,
And for the sin of not responding with empathy to people whose pain has led them in reactionary directions, even as we rightly continue to oppose their concrete political actions;
For the sin of talking as though being white or being male makes all of us or them somehow wrongly privileged, thereby ignoring the huge class differences between rich white males and middle income working people and poor people;
And for the sin of making men or white people feel guilty for crimes that some men and some whites have done but not all men or all whites;
For the sin of being so concerned about our own personal tax benefits that we failed to oppose tax cuts that would bankrupt social services;
And for the sin of not taking the leaflets or not opening the emails of those who tried to inform us of what was going on in the world that required our moral attention;
For the sin of missing opportunities to support in public the political, religious, spiritual, or ethical teachers who actually inspire us and whose teachings would help others;
And for the sin of being passive recipients of negativity or listening and allowing others to spread hurtful stories; For the sin of being “realistic” when our tradition calls upon us to transform reality;
And for the sin of being too attached to our own picture of how our lives should be–and never taking the risks that could bring us a more fulfilling and meaningful life.
For these sins we ask the Force of Healing and Transformation to give us the strength to forgive ourselves and each other.
For the sins we have committed by not forgiving our parents for the wrongs they committed against us when we were children;
And for the sin of having too little compassion or too little respect for our parents or for our children or our friends when they act in ways that disappoint or hurt us;
For the sin of cooperating with self destructive behavior in others or in ourselves; And for the sin of not supporting each other as we attempt to change;
For the sin of being jealous and trying to possess and control those we love;
And for the sin of being judgmental or listening to (or even spreading) negative stories about the personal lives of others;
For the sin of withholding love and support;
And for the sin of doubting our ability to love and get love from others; For the sin of insisting that everything we do have a payoff;
And for the sin of not allowing ourselves to play;
For the sin of not giving our partners and friends the love and support they need to feel safe and to flourish; And for the sin of being manipulative or hurting others to protect our own egos.
For the sin of seeing anti-Semitism everywhere, and using the charge of anti-Semitism to silence those who raise legitimate (though painful to hear) criticisms of Israeli policies;
For the sin of letting the entire Jewish people take the rap for oppressive policies by the most reactionary and human rights-denying government the State of Israel has ever had;
For the sin of blaming the entire Palestinian people for (inexcusable and murderous) acts of violence, kidnapping, murder by a handful of terrorists,
And for the sins that Israel committed stealing West Bank Palestinian land and access to West Bank water, creating settlements of ultra-nationalists who regularly harass Palestinian children or uproot olive trees and otherwise intensify the evils of occupation, imposing checkpoints for Palestinians and building West Bank roads that are only available for Jewish Israelis, taxing West Bank Palestinians while not allowing them to vote in Israeli elections, and then pretending to be on a higher moral plane than the Palestinian people;
For the sins of tribalism, chauvinism, and other forms of identity politics that lead us to think that our pain is more important than anyone else’s pain;
And for the sin of allowing communal institutions, colleges and universities, government and politics, the media, and the entertainment industry to be shaped by those with the most money, rather than those with the most spiritual and ethical sensitivity;
For the sin of not putting our money and our time behind our highest ideals;
And for the sin of thinking that our path is the only path to spiritual truth;
For the sin of not recognizing and celebrating (with awe and wonder) the beauty and grandeur of the universe that surrounds us;
And for the sin of focusing only on our sins and not on our strengths and beauties;
For the sin of not transcending ego so we could see ourselves and each other as we really are: manifestations of the loving energy of the universe.
Now discuss with others your reactions to these, add or eliminate what doesn’t seem right, and use these as you reflect on the direction you want your life and the movements or causes or political parties or candidates you support to take on as their own.
Repentance is not meant only as an exercise to help us feel better, but also as the beginning of organizing our personal and communal lives to begin the process of changing. To join with others in this sacred work, come to our conference in the SF Bay Area at which we will celebrating Tikkun’s 30th anniversary (details at www.tikkun.org/30thcelebration) please read our worldview at www.tikkun.org/covenant, and if it speaks to you, then please join as a dues-paying memberthe (interfaith and secular-humanist-and-atheist-welcoming) Network of Spiritual Progressives at www.spiritualprogressives.org/join or donate to Tikkun at www.tikkun.org/donate to keep our non-profit organization functioning! by Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor, Tikkun magazine, for Yom Kippur 2016 or in the Hebrew calendar, the year 5777.
Rabbi Lerner is author of 11 books includingThe Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right; The Politics of Meaning; Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation; with Cornel West: Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin; and Embracing Israel and Palestine. He welcomes you to join with him in helping to transform the liberal and progressive world along lines consistent with the ideas in this article. To see Rabbi Lerner, google: You Tube Rabbi Lerner Ali Memorial and hear the talk he gave now watched by over one million people.