Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011

The State of the Spirit, 2011

Michael Lerner

The bad news is that global warming will soon be irreversible and, by the end of the twenty-first century, large parts of the earth will be under water. China is emerging as the world's greatest superpower while continuing to regiment its people and repress democratic civil liberties and human rights. Just as today the West spends its energies fighting an elusive "war on terror" generated by its fantasy that its survival depends on dominating other countries to gain their fossil fuels, in the future Western elites of wealth and power may seek to create medieval-style enclaves surrounded by private Blackwater-style armies to prevent ordinary citizens from getting at their dwindling supplies of food and other goods. Most people will be encouraged to blame each other and fight each other for the decreasing sustenance left to the majority of the planet's residents.

All this is likely to happen gradually, as American power slips away and, with it, the particular opportunities that the citizens of this partial democracy fought to win in the past. Increasingly, we in the West may be taught to believe the "common sense" that people only care about themselves and that nations will always seek to dominate others to advance the interests of their own elites -- and that therefore domination, militarism, and cruelty are necessary for "us" to survive (though in fact, that "us" will be a smaller and smaller part of the entire population). And meanwhile, the pathetically inadequate safety net won through decades of citizen and labor union activism may be cut back in the name of economic frugality and keeping taxes low, at least for the wealthy who might otherwise cut back on investments and thus provide fewer and fewer jobs for the rest of us.

Meanwhile, most liberals and progressives will likely spend the next twenty years either supporting political parties that don't even begin to address these issues in a holistic way (and justifying that by pointing out that candidate x is really much less bad than candidate y), or putting their energies into building a community garden, alternative food store, or other intrinsically good local project or struggle that is satisfying because it is achievable. But these local projects will do nothing discernible to reverse our society's shift away from its founding democratic and human rights principles unless progressives embrace a larger vision to unify their local projects such as that of "The Caring Society -- caring for each other, caring for the earth."

With increasing numbers of people feeling disempowered and retreating into relative isolation in personal life (an isolation enhanced by technologies that offer endless games and opportunities to communicate with strangers online without risking the mutual recognition and deep ethical connection that face-to-face contact arouses, as Emmanuel Levinas and Peter Gabel have taught us), these larger changes in the society and in our world are unlikely to be challenged in any serious way, even by those suffering the most. Powerlessness coupled with endlessly creative forms of entertainment and disinformation threatens to yield individuals who can't imagine ever engaging in effective struggle to change the world.

The good news is that we have a good ten to twenty years to reverse this process, and, as an old Jewish joke would have it, ten more years to learn how to live under water.

What a Conscious "We" Could Accomplish

I don't want to minimize what we could accomplish if we could create a conscious "we" that understood what was needed. This has been the goal of Tikkun since we began in 1986: to foster a vanguard consciousness among tens of thousands of our readers who could understand the depths of depravity that global capitalism and the ethos of materialism and selfishness are creating, the great dangers to the planet and our human capacities, and the pressing need to build a political movement that transcends the narrow economistic legacy of the Left. This new movement must explicitly build itself around the goal of replacing the Old Bottom Line of maximizing money and power with a New Bottom Line seeking to maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity, ethical and ecological sensitivity, and awe and wonder at the grandeur and mystery of being.

We need a "vanguard" (think: the Franciscans, the Quakers, the Sufis, the Ba'hais, the abolitionist movement, the civil rights movement, the Jewish Renewal movement, the women's movement -- all the kinds of vanguard I have in mind -- but not the communist party or the Weathermen or the Watchtower crew) that creatively reaches out to the rest of the world to help people acknowledge the way their own needs for recognition, love, and participation in a society that lends meaning to their lives is actually being thwarted by the very society which, for the moment, has provided us with unsatisfying substitute gratifications. If that vanguard could embody the love and caring that it talks about and effectively use the democratic process and the available means of communication to mobilize these underlying spiritual needs into an effective political movement, then all the disasters that otherwise seem inevitable might yet be vanquished and replaced by a humanity that serves its deepest self-interest by creating a world in which people are able to overcome the concern with narrow self-interest and instead build social institutions that reward rather than undermine our loving and caring capacities. Can we bring about this tikkun-ing of the world in our time?

Well, 3,200 years after Moses, 2,400 years after Buddha, 2,000 years after Jesus, 1,400 years after Mohammed, 200 years after Jefferson, 120 years after Marx, 70 years after Freud, and 40 years after the second wave of feminism, I'm prepared to say unequivocally: I don't know.

What I do know is that history itself is an ambiguous storyteller.

The Mixed Evidence from History

On the one hand, we can learn that throughout history tens of millions of people have contributed to advancing human knowledge and culture -- from cooking and farming or building to languages, creative arts, science, and a wide array of spiritual wisdom and traditions -- and have done so by sharing their knowledge and skills, learning how to cooperate, and acting on their own desires to live in a world characterized by freedom, consciousness, empathy, love, mutual recognition, and caring.

Human beings share a deep yearning to live in communities that provide a sense of purpose to their lives. Yearning to transcend the narrow visions of material self-interest, we long to connect to something of abiding value. We share a hard-wired empathy and love for others, as well as a deep need to be recognized, understood and loved not for what we can do or deliver for others, but for our own intrinsic worth (what the Torah calls being created in the image of God). And we have an irrepressible instinct to seek freedom; creativity; artistic expression; higher and higher levels of understanding and consciousness; love and caring for others; the creation and enjoyment of beauty and pleasure; and both joyous celebration of and awe-filled responses to all the wonders of life in this universe. These irrepressible elements of human nature provide an ongoing foundation for the utopian (that is, "unrealistic" from the standpoint of the present repressive "reality") hopes that we at Tikkun seek to nurture.

Harboring utopian dreams does not blind us to all of the violence in the world. We can simultaneously nurture big hopes and remember that, at least in the time of recorded history in the past ten thousand years, relatively small numbers of very determined men (sometimes aided by the women in their lives, and sometimes opposed by those women) have managed to enslave most of the human race -- whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually -- during each new era. In the last few hundred years they have become adept at convincing those whom they dominate or exploit that the world these elites have constructed is either the best of all possible worlds or the only one that is realistically possible. They have managed to foster widespread consent or -- where consent was lacking -- apathy, indifference, or despair about changing anything.

Over the course of these past thousands of years, there have been major advances. Despite slavery's persistence for several million people in the modern world, the percentage of people enslaved as they were in antiquity or tied through a feudal arrangement to the area of their birth and labor pool into which their parents had been born has dramatically decreased.

The effect of institutionalized religion throughout this history has been mixed. Judaism, Christianity, and some other religions originally generated excitement and adherents, not only by celebrating the grandeur and mystery of the universe, as all religions do, but also by challenging the economic and political arrangements of the existing oppressive social order, as well as the justificatory ideologies and consciousness behind them. Though each of those religions has eventually seen the majority of its practitioners abandon the liberatory vision and practices, a small "saving remnant" in each of them still preaches (and sometimes even practices) a commitment to healing, repairing, and transforming the world (in Hebrew: tikkun).

The Ambivalent Results of Liberating Movements

Over the past several hundred years we have also learned important lessons from the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and science, which have the potential to free our minds from many of the distortions resulting from our previous indoctrinations, as well as to create labor-saving, mind-expanding, and health-improving technologies.

We've had secular worldviews derived from the teachings of Marx, Freud, and the second wave of feminism, which have each contributed to the undermining of inherited forms of domination and control.

And we've had mass uprisings such as the American and French revolutions; the Russian, Chinese, and Vietnamese revolutions; the decolonization movements after WWII; and the second wave of feminism in the past forty years. In each of these, millions of people experienced the joy of partial liberations before the liberatory energies in these movements turned into something less liberating. Sometimes those retreats from what was most liberatory were forced upon these movements by external forces or conditions. For example the U.S., British, and French invasion of the Soviet Union in 1919 and their support for a civil war that lasted until 1924 contributed significantly to the destruction of the most revolutionary elements of the Russian working class and hence enabled the rise of Stalin and his repressive counter-revolution in the name of communism. And in a similar way, the U.S. economic embargo and continual harassment of Cuba has dramatically contributed to the evolution of the Castro regime from a genuine people's revolution to an oppressive state apparatus. But often the undermining of these struggles was enhanced by the limits of the activists' own vision, their failure to develop an ethos of love and caring seen as of equal importance to any other outcome, their reliance on violence and on demeaning others who were not part of their movement, and their failure to incorporate a spiritual dimension into their consciousness and daily practice. The failures and distortions of socialist, communist, democratic, New Left, countercultural, psychoanalytic, feminist, anti-racist, national liberation, and Zionist movements over the course of the past two hundred years (and particularly their inability to sustain an internal culture of love, caring, and deep recognition of each other's preciousness) has left a legacy of emotional depression and provided ammunition with which existing elites have beaten back the yearnings of the world's peoples for justice, peace, environmental sanity, love, and generosity.

Remember: Ruthless Elites Are Still Human Beings

The elites of wealth and power, and the corporations they run, have shared interests. They often collaborate and have fostered institutions and social arrangements to perpetuate their power and wealth. They allow into their circles and even share their wealth with some of the brightest and most creative people who can help them in their enterprise of retaining that power and wealth and of convincing the majority of people that these arrangements are either in everyone's interest or cannot be changed without taking personal risks that are not likely to pay off and in the meantime endanger their own lives, incomes, and the well-being of those close to them.

The priorities of education are oriented around the paradigm of a world of competing nations and corporations, so the task of a "good education" increasingly promoted by both liberal and conservative forces is to prepare one to compete effectively in the global economy. This orientation is then strongly reinforced when one enters the world of work, which is similarly organized to channel people into a global economy in which competition of all against all prevents rationally compassionate allocation of material resources or human skills and wisdom. It is an economy that results in the production of unnecessary goods that contribute to the looting, polluting, and destruction of the earth.

The major media are organized to provide the bread-and-circus element and to support passivity, alienation, false information, distortion of our collective historical memory, and a decreasing capacity to pay attention to any theme for longer than a few minutes. Meanwhile, the society's resources are misallocated to provide huge funding for global military bases and advanced military technologies, armies, navies, air forces, police forces, surveillance operations, intelligence operatives, homeland security forces, and mass imprisonment to back up laws, lawmakers, and judges who have proven their usefulness and loyalty to the established order of injustice, violence, inequality, poverty, suffering, and wars. And the funding priorities of the few wealthy people on the Left are usually oriented toward economistic or narrowly measurable outcomes -- not more visionary outcomes such as building a cohesive worldview or developing a new ethos of love and caring within social change movements or in the larger society.

Yet when we talk about these elites we risk failing to notice that they are human beings who are made in the image of God like the rest of us. A good guy-bad guy dichotomy distorts the far more complicated picture: that these people are engaged in the same struggle as each of us, the struggle between the voice of fear that leads us to believe that we are alone in the world and that our safety depends on our ability to get power over others, and the voice of hope that leads us to believe we could achieve safety, security, and the fulfillment of our needs through love and generosity and caring for others (what I have called "the left hand of God"). Just as many of us choose passivity or despair when the voice of fear becomes dominant in us, so many of those who are situated in circumstances where they can economically, politically, or socially dominate others choose that path because of fear that if they chose paths based on the possibility that love and kindness could prevail and provide them with fulfillment of their needs, they would be betrayed by those they trusted. So they imagine it is less self-destructive to rely on opportunities for power over others. Having a compassionate attitude toward these people does not in any way vitiate our righteous indignation at their actions or our commitment to transform the system that benefits them at the expense of the rest of the human race and the planet's animals, plants, trees, water, and air.

The Spirit Reasserts Itself

Despite all that, the Spirit of God (or YHVH, the Christ, Allah, Eros, the Shechinah, the Force of Healing and Transformation, the Buddha, the Goddess, species being, human essence, the Goodness of the universe, or however else you choose to language it) that is manifested in every human being continues to reassert itself in every generation. It will never be fully crushed, no matter how effective the technologies of domination become.

That Spirit, manifested through past struggles, will always be available to us and is pushing us toward liberation. Because of that, we ordinary folk have been able to create ideas embedded in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and the charter of the United Nations, and institutions such as trial by jury, democratic elections, the right to put propositions or reforms of state constitutions on state ballots, the right to assembly, free speech, and freedom of religion. These laws are supposed to apply equally to everyone. When they are, they give citizens some (small but still very important) mechanisms for limiting the arbitrary use of power by the elites. Though those elites have used their vast array of resources to employ others to work constantly to limit and undermine these past victories, and those struggles continue on a daily basis both in the United States and around the world, we have something to celebrate in having achieved some important victories at very high costs. And we've been able to use those victories to limit the impact of sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and other solidarity-destroying human pathologies.

But we have not been able to sustain a social movement with which all who seek to be fuller expressions of God and who yearn for peace, environmental sanity, justice, and a world filled with love could be part. We have not been able to sustain the conviction that we are part of a "we." Political movements have been formed around specific issue areas like higher wages, unemployment, immigration reform, environment, human rights, peace, and health care -- and yet most of the participants and supporters of these movements have been unable to see that their own success depends upon the success of all the other movements. As a result they have been unable to develop ways to share their resources, personnel, fundraising, and access to the media.

Why We Fail to Create the "We"

Crippled in part by their own need to show themselves to be "realistic" and tough-minded, many of these movements have rejected any spiritual consciousness; instead they frame their programs in the most narrow technocratic language. And in part because of a justified outrage at repressive elements in some streams of the religious world, most of these movements have not allowed themselves to learn from the wisdom that has been accumulated in the spiritual and religious worlds for the past several thousand years. Crippled by a pervasive religiophobia, our movements for liberation have rarely been able to create sustaining rituals that publicly express our values.

We've been narrowly focused on the present and have not given the energy needed to create enough schools and camps and youth organizations to prepare the next generation to continue the struggle. In large part because of the extreme individualism of the society, which all of us have internalized, few of us are willing to make a long-term consistent commitment of time and energy, or the serious commitment of tithing -- sharing materially -- to our movement. Raising money is absolutely essential if we are to sustain a new consciousness and bring it to our neighbors and friends. So, instead, we've relied on momentary upsurges of energy, like that which we could find at a large anti-war rally or during an election campaign. Those can be wonderful and important, but their impact has not lasted very long, particularly given the way the media ignores them unless they are run by the Right or by television comedians.

As we've pointed out before, the current emotional depression sweeping through much of our world today was fostered in part by the great hopes that were invested by tens of millions of people in Barack Obama, and by the subsequent disillusionment when Obama not only did not fight for what we had expected him to fight for, but did not even present policies that reflected the ideals he had himself articulated. He did not provide the indispensable element: a coherent worldview. Yet as Associate Editor Peter Gabel pointed out in an email we sent out after the elections in November, what we should have learned from this was something that past movements already understood -- that the kinds of societal transformations we hope for can only come through the building of a powerful mass movement that uses electoral politics as one of its expressions but not as the central and determining one. This is crucial because electoral politics feeds into the fantasy that we just need to elect the right person and then watch as our hero battles for us.

It simply never works that way -- the forces aligned against social change are overwhelming, and our elected officials only respond to democratic pressure when we are mobilized in an ongoing movement that has many other non-electoral dimensions and is working in a coherent and powerful way to change consciousness and institutions using every possible nonviolent method, including disruptive civil disobedience, to push forward its agenda and worldview. That is why we are still hoping that people will respond to the programs and worldview we've put forward in the Network of Spiritual Progressives, particularly our Spiritual Covenant with America, our campaign for a Global Marshall Plan, and our campaign for the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (please reread the details of all of these campaigns at www.spiritualprogressives.org).

Of course, we recognize and honor the huge energies and efforts being made by millions of dedicated liberals and progressives working in movements and local organizing projects around the country. Yet we are convinced that these efforts do not yet build on each other and are not able to sustain themselves for very long or to move the consciousness of tens of millions of people not yet reached by them. They will not until large numbers of activists are able to unify around a shared worldview and leadership that has been empowered by them to articulate their views in the public domain.

Instead, most of these groups make themselves much less effective than they could be because of an unwillingness to unite with groups doing other kinds of work and to develop with those groups a shared worldview. They are hamstrung by a continuing anti-leadership and anti-intellectualism bias, and by divisions along the lines of class, race, sex, religion, and more. The triumph in the liberal and progressive world of "identity politics" was a short-term necessity to counter the destructive impact of racism, classism, homophobia, sexism, and anti-Semitism. Yet its abiding presence has also contributed to the difficulty so many people have in seeing beyond their own group interests to recognize that those interests will never be adequately addressed until we create a movement that speaks to the general interest of everyone, addressing the fundamental shared human need for love, caring, kindness, generosity, and ethical and ecological sanity, as well as for communities that enhance our capacity to recognize each other and our common aspirations.

The Movement We Need

Until that working together happens, all the liberal and progressive forces will appear to be little more than an assemblage of "interest groups" with no higher moral appeal than the interest groups of the Right or of the ruling elites themselves. It is only when that interest-group politics gets transcended by a politics that speaks confidently and powerfully about the needs of humanity as a whole, and does so with a language that evokes the deepest yearnings of the human soul that the Left has any chance of being heard by those who today experience us as just another set of groups clamoring for attention and power. We so desperately need a politics expressed with a spirit of generosity and sensitivity to what our ally Rabbi Irwin Kula calls "the sacred messiness of life." We need a Left that speaks with gentleness, humility, humor, and uses art, dance, music, and other creative forms.

We know that we need a political party or at least a powerful movement organization that can unite all the liberal and progressive forces, but our experience has taught us that there is no point in creating such an organization or party unless it is composed of people who feel unequivocally committed to affirming that they want a New Bottom Line of love, kindness, generosity, awe, wonder, radical amazement and behavior grounded in ethical and ecological sensitivity. That is why nothing short of a spiritual progressive party, the party of Love and Generosity, the party of Environmental Sanity, the party of Peace and Justice, or the party of Awe and Wonder (OK -- what name would you give it?) can possibly transform the contemporary mess in politics.

I hope you've read our critique of scientism in previous issues (particularly in the Science and Spirit section of the November/December 2010 issue of Tikkun). Because of the widespread unconscious allegiance that many liberals and progressives feel to scientism, with its belief that all these spiritual, ethical, and love-oriented commitments are not really substantial because they can't be measured or verified through methods deemed "objective" (which is to say, related to empirical sense data), such commitments are dismissed as having no legitimacy in our public life, and the idea of a spiritual progressive party is perceived as laughable or deeply mistaken or utopian. The result is that progressive movements are severely limited and unable to remain centered on love and caring or on helping each other manifest our creativity, beauty, kindness, and generosity. The very yearnings that lead people to progressive movements and that energize those movements are simultaneously denied if not disparaged by the official worldviews that dominate the Left.

Yet it is the deprivation of these central human needs in contemporary capitalist societies that is actually the central cause of pain in people's lives and the real source of human misery. Despite all the repetition of capitalism's mantra that "it's the economy, stupid," the truth is that many people who lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s, or who came from other countries with materially far less than most people in the Western world have access to, report that the human solidarity that existed in those materially deprived circumstances provided people with a sense of mutual recognition and caring that yielded higher levels of satisfaction and happiness than they see in materially flourishing Western societies today.  

How come? Because those who live in a society where people care for each other are far richer and far safer than many who have endless material riches and armies to protect themselves. Yet the Left remains stuck in the fear that it would discredit itself if it were to call for a society based on love and generosity. As a result it renders itself more powerless than it needs to be, even given its unequal access to media and money, etc. I describe these dynamics in detail in my book Surplus Powerlessness and some in my book The Left Hand of God, and have also analyzed them extensively in Tikkun for the past twenty-five years.

History is not over, and we are all immensely blessed to live at a time when the possibilities for human liberation and the need for overcoming all forms of separation among the peoples of this planet have become a survival necessity. I hope you'll help us keep Tikkun and tikkun.org alive and growing in influence through the next twenty-five years. We owe that to ourselves, our children, and to the human race. I bless us all that we can participate together in good health and with much love and humor in creating the movement and the world we so badly need!




Source Citation: Lerner, Michael. 2011. The State of the Spirit, 2011. Tikkun 26(1): 17

 
Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun, co-chair of the interfaith and secular-humanist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives, rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in Berkeley, California, and author of eleven books, including two national best sellers: Jewish Renewal—a Path to Healing and Transformation and The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right. His most recent book is Embracing Israel/Palestine: A Strategy for Middle East Peace. He can be reached at rabbilerner.tikkun@gmail.com.
tags: Abiding Perspectives, Activism, Economy/Poverty/Wealth, Editorial   
Tip Jar Email Bookmark and Share RSS Print
Get Tikkun by Email -- FREE

COMMENT POLICY Please read our comment policy in full here which requests civility and sticking to the topic. We reserve the right to remove any comment for any reason.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*