Building a Progressive Spiritual Movement
This piece was originally published in the Summer 2016 issue of Kosmos magazine. It may be found on the Kosmos website here.
Let’s Unite Our Efforts and Build a Truly Progressive Spiritual Movement
Thousands of activist groups work to save the environment, address the needs of the homeless and hungry, ensure we have a safe and adequate supply of food and water, and fight racism and economic injustice. Many are making valiant efforts. Yet we continue to see the devastation and destruction of our environment, an increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots, and deepening racial tensions.
I want to explore with you what is missing from the approach of all these wonderful social change efforts and how they can collaborate more cohesively to build a comprehensive movement for social change that could achieve long-term systemic change. But before I jump into this, I need to set forth the problem as I see it.
The Crow Tribe in Montana, not unlike many other Native American communities, inner cities, and rural towns in America, does not have adequate housing, jobs, or educational opportunities. But unlike inner cities and rural towns, what the Crow Tribe does have is its own land. And the Crow Tribe’s land happens to have a lot of coal – 9 billion tons of it to be exact. The tribe planning to develop a new coal mine on its land. They have contracted with Cloud Peak energy to extract coal from their land. Not all Crow Tribe members support this unusual partnership. But all agree that the Tribe is struggling to provide the services its community members need and this seems to offer one avenue of hope and possibility.
But for the coal to be marketable (and thus financially feasible) it will need two new coal shipping terminals to be approved in Washington state. The Lummi Nation, along with several cities in Washington state that would be affected by these terminals, have joined efforts to stop the shipping terminal from being built due to concerns about pollution and the undermining of the Lummi Nation’s treaty fishing rights. This example demonstrates how the dynamics of the competitive marketplace can turn one tribe against another, both seeking to survive in a society where people seemingly have no choice but to care for their own regardless of the costs to others.
Another example can be found on a more global scale. According to recent reports, Ecuador plans to sell a third of its Amazon rainforest to Chinese Oil companies. The destruction of those forests in the pursuit of oil will do incalculable damage to the world’s already struggling climate. Ecuador needs the resources to support its people. Selling their precious lands seems the only viable option to ensure the welfare of their citizens and survival of their struggling economy.
Corporate greed and the ethos of global capitalism pit one disadvantaged group against another in a race to the bottom. Most people want to live in a world where they and their children have decent housing, education, and jobs; good healthcare; nourishing food; and a healthy environment. Yet in the global economy with its radical inequalities they quickly learn to push for their own needs, even if others suffer in the process. They don’t choose this situation but accommodated to it because they have come to believe that this is ‘reality’ and it can’t be changed.
Why? Two Worldviews
The capitalist ethos says that we live in a world where you have to look out for yourself because if you don’t, no one else will take care of you; that you have to realistic (to be idealistic is childish or foolish); that the earth is there for us to use in any way we want; and that other people are means to an end. This message has been pounded into us in various ways from childhood onward through media, education, work, etc. In this worldview, our social, political, and economic institutions are judged ‘successful’ to the extent they maximize money and power. One is considered valuable to the extent that one creates some material benefit to one’s organization, corporation, and family. For example, elders are less valued in our society; as they age, their worth decreases because they are likely to need more from others than they can offer. This discourse of separation, fear, and ‘othering’ leads to hatred and violence.
However, there is another way of seeing that each of us has experienced at some time in our lives – a reality of a world filled with loving and kind people, caring for each other for who we are, not for what we can do for others. We have experienced being genuinely seen and appreciated, and we have reflected that to others in our lives. This discourse of love, kindness, and compassion leads to generosity, care, and peace.
This worldview offers us a different path for assessing the ‘success’ of our social, economic, and political institutions – judging their success (not based on whether they maximize money and power) based on the extent that they maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity, empathy and compassion, social and economic justice, peace and nonviolence, and environmental sustainability, as well as encourage us to transcend a narrow utilitarian approach to nature and other human beings. We at the Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP) call this the New Bottom Line.
To effectively challenge the corporate elite and the wealthy that they serve, those who care about the well-being of one another and the planet need to unite their efforts and promote this worldview as an alternative to the capitalist view. Unfortunately, instead of seeing themselves as part of a larger movement with this kind of shared vision of the world they are for, social change organization operate as disparate pieces, focused on their particular issue and rarely articulating a larger vision – as if each is in its own silo. It reminds me of imaging my body with all its parts not being contained by my skin – how would I make any progress in the world? I’d constantly be picking up the different parts, trying to get them to move forward one at a time! We desperately need a container to hold all those efforts together so that we can be more effective in our efforts.
One problem with operating as separate parts is that as activists fight for ‘realistic’ change, global capitalists provide the finances needed for political leaders to afford the high costs of getting elected and staying in office, pushing back against the small victories we achieve. Thus, even when we win a few battles, we do not change the larger context in which corporate power and right-wing ideology are becoming more abusive to the powerless, the middle class, and the earth that sustains and nurtures us.
I know that everyone working for social change dreams of a world where all human beings live in peace and harmony, co-exist in alignment with the needs of each other and the planet, and treat each other with dignity and respect – where social, economic, and environmental justice are the norm rather than the exception, and where we celebrate the awe, wonder, and radical amazement of the universe and each other. If we connect our efforts into a unifying vision, we will be more effective individually and collectively. We spiritual progressives have developed such a vision. I invite you to read it and help us deepen it with your input! www.spiritualprogessives.org/covenant.
So what is getting in the way of this? Foremost, our own lack of belief that a New Bottom Line is possible. We have internalized global capitalism’s message that the only way we can survive is by looking out for ourselves. Yet, if you look around the world, it is pretty obvious that this paradigm is not serving us particularly well. Other countries less dominated by this competitive ethos are doing better than the US – better health care, working conditions, more vacation and sick leave, longer life expectancy, less crime, and less anxiety. We’d be better off if we begin to tell and live a different story – one in which we actually do look out for and care for each other, practice generosity and love, see each other as embodiments of the sacred, and respond to the universe with awe, wonder, and radical amazement.
Many people tell themselves and each other that the kind of world they really want can’t happen and that it’s more sensible to narrow their efforts to more immediately realizable goals. In this US election campaign of 2016, we hear variants of this message again and again: Bernie Sanders is too idealistic; we need a more realistic and practical approach like the one offered by Hillary. I have experienced the same thinking when our Network of Spiritual Progressives has sought to end the role of money in politics. While seeking the same goal, most of the organizations working to address the corruption of our political system promote a Constitutional Amendment that would give Congress the ability to regulate the amount of campaign contribution candidates can accept. But a recently as December 2014, Congress increased the amount individuals could donate to their campaign by over 500%! When I have asked folks working to overturn Citizens United why they are promoting an amendment that will be ineffective, they say: “It’s the only thing that’s realistic, and it’s the only way to get a large enough coalition together.” Let me state this explicitly. They are going for something that actually will not achieve their genuine long-term goal nor what is actually needed, instead settling for something less by convincing themselves that they have to be ‘realistic.’
Finally, the Left is reticent to integrate into their social change work the very language that would unite people across the party lines. We often wonder why working class and poor people seem to vote against their own economic interests by voting for the Right. We hear that they are afraid of losing or are single-issue voters such as pro-life and pro-guns, or worse yet, they are stupid, racist, and homophobic. But what research conducted by the Institute for Labor and Mental Health uncovered (you can read more about their study in The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back from the Religious Right by Rabbi Michael Lerner) is that people turned to the Right because the Right speaks to their needs for lives of meaning and purpose. It was the Right, not the Left that identified the family crisis and the sense of loneliness and isolation that people experience. This lack of connection, meaning, purpose, and sense of being valued are all a real phenomenon. As people absorbed the work-world attitude (what can I get from you, how can you serve me), it shaped and transformed people’s personal lives and relationships and undermined families.
The Right stated that the cause of the family crisis is due to the ethos of selfishness in our society – which is true. The Right then blames special interest groups (i.e., the ‘demeaned Others’ – Native Americans, African Americans, Women, LBGTQ, Muslims, etc.) for this phenomenon. They argue that these groups are selfish because they only care about their own group and not about the well-being of everyone and that this undermines families. In fact, what these groups have in common is the desire to rectify past harms that arise from the legacy of ‘Othering’ and hatred that is the foundation of our country. Furthermore, the Right argues that as these groups gain more rights for themselves, it means that ‘you’ (average White folk) will end up losing even more and you already don’t have much – thus successfully pitting middle and working class and poor white people against people of color, women, Muslims, and LBGTQ people. This sense of scarcity – that there is not enough for everyone and if some increase their access to education, jobs, etc., then others will lose out – is grounded in the capitalist order.
The impact of this move by the Right is that it gave people a sense of community and a way to understand what they were feeling without having to blame themselves. By identifying the lack of meaning and purpose in people’s lives and even their lack of economic success as a social problem rather than an individual problem, the Right alleviated the cycle of self-blame perpetuated by the capitalist ethos of meritocracy (if you aren’t succeeding, it’s because you have done something wrong) by blaming some ‘Other.’ Self-blame increases stress in our lives and undermines family life. Through this sleight of hand, the Right gained an incredible amount of power and loyalty because they spoke to people’s deep yearning for lives of meaning, purpose, care, community, and belonging, and gave people a way to understand their angst. The Left rarely speaks to these needs. Instead, it focuses on gaining ‘equal opportunity’ to compete in a marketplace that leaves them feeling empty inside and fails to meet even their basic economic needs.
We need to recognize that the choices made by people voting against their economic interests are grounded in real needs, speak to those needs, and help them understand that the competitive marketplace is undermining their family, security, and sense of meaning and purpose and not the Left or some demeaned ‘Other.’
By uniting our efforts under a vision New Bottom Line, we will undermine the ability of the Right and the capitalist ethos to pit issues and people against each other and will simultaneously speak to people’s desperate yearning for meaning and purpose.
What Can the Left Do?
First, the Left can begin to articulate a worldview based on the New Bottom Line. This means that as the Left and its social change organization push back against the draconian assaults and attacks by the Right on abortion rights, voting rights, clean water and air, defunding schools, Medicaid and Medicare, etc., it simultaneously needs to embrace the language of a New Bottom Line and directly challenge the ethos of the capitalist marketplace.
Second, rather than simply saying what they are against, they also need to articulate a vision of the world they want. As Rabbi Michael Lerner likes to point out, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not become famous by giving a speech, “I Have a Complaint.” He had a vision and dream of a different world and when he articulated that vision, he mobilized and inspired millions to join him.
Third, the Left needs to be wiling to put forth strategies that encompass what we really want, rather than what is politically expedient or seemingly possible to achieve in this particular historical moment. When we narrow our vision of what is possible to what those in power tell us is possible, we actually bolster their power. Idealists (abolitionists, feminists, LBGTQ, civil rights and anti-apartheid activists, etc.), not realists, initiated all great movements for social change. They put forth a vision that seemed ‘unrealistic’ at the time but ultimately became reality.
What Would This Look Like?
Instead of settling for a Constitutional Amendment that empowers Congress to set limits on campaign contributions, we need to have a more far-reaching and radical proposal such as the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment (ESRA) as proposed by the NSP. The ERSA would establish (i) that all federal and state elections be publicly funded (thus banning all private or corporate money); (ii) that corporations with incomes over 50 million dollars a year obtain a new corporate charter every five years, which they’d only obtain if they could prove a satisfactory history of environmental and social responsibility to a jury of ordinary citizens; (iii) a social and environmental responsibility initiative in all schools such that courses on empathic communication; the legacy of slavery and discrimination against people of color; civic engagement; environmental sustainability; and learning to live in harmony with each other and the planet be required at every grade level.
The effort, energy, and resources it would take to get a Constitutional Amendment on the ballot and then to actually pass it are enormous. Rather than spend that energy going for what is ‘realistic,’ we should push for what is desirable and what will actually stop the ruling elite from owning our elected officials and destroying our environment.
We also need to advocate for a foreign policy grounded in the vision of global peace, not endless war. Our foreign policy is currently based on the belief that we will achieve homeland security through domination and power over. We will only achieve homeland security when we prioritize generosity and caring for the well-being of others. This can be achieved if all industrialized countries provide 1-2% of their Gross Domestic Product for the next twenty years, distributing it to neglected and exploited counties and communities, to once and for all eradicate homelessness, hunger, inadequate healthcare, and inadequate education. Policies such as this (we call this the Global Marshall Plan) will build sustainability and security around the globe.
If the Left were to take on this challenge to build a spiritually progressive movement embracing the New Bottom Line, ESRA, and Global Marshall Plan, we would begin to truly tackle and transform the capitalist ethos that maintains endless violence and war, pits tribes and communities against one another, permits scape-goating of the ‘Other,’ perpetuates meaningless lives of struggle, and allows corporate greed to run our government and economic systems. Instead, we would build a world where the needs of the people and planet are primary and love, justice, and peace flourish. I realize that these proposals seem completely ‘unrealistic’ today. But the same can be said for the abolition of slavery, the now legal status of gay and lesbian marriage, and the end of the apartheid.
Thankfully, there are millions of ‘idealists’ who have a burning desire to live in world based on values of love, kindness, generosity, justice, and sustainability. These are people who believe that our security and well-being are intricately tied to the well-being of all and the planet itself and who also believe that caring about each other and the planet is the ethical imperative and calling for our times. It’s time we join together, don’t you think?