Jan Garrett Jan Garrett is an active member of his Unitarian Universalist Church in Bowling Green KY, a member of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and a professor of philosophy in the Philosophy and Religion Department at Western Kentucky University.
This is the second half of a two-part series. Read the first part here.
Brian McLaren’s description of the problems humanity now faces is more accurate than we usually get from preachers, politicians and the mass media. But has he adequately clarified the institutional resistance that must be overcome to alter or abolish the Societal Machine that he says has become a Suicidal Machine. His largely realistic description of this Machine has a curious blind spot, which needs correction if we are to develop an effective counter-approach. His Christianity is a source of strength but also of limitation: Jesus lived in a social order radically different from ours, one that prevented him from seeing the problems we face today and developing solutions now open to us, if we can act collectively.
The Core of Jesus’ Vision
Ultimately, Jesus’ vision (and McLaren’s) is based on and limited by the idea of radical generosity. Generosity, like its opposite stinginess, is a question of distribution. It is closely related to (though somewhat different from) distributive justice, which is concerned with fairness in distribution. McLaren hardly mentions production except as the source of the goods we consume. Yet even the first “law” of Theocapitalism, Progress through Rapid Growth, is usually understood in terms of growth of production.
The modern system of production, the capital system, did not exist in premodern society; it did not exist in ancient Palestine, in the Roman Empire, or anywhere else for that matter before 1500.
Spiritual progressives often say they are open to wisdom in other faith traditions. One way we can practice this openness is to appreciate what people operating from other perspectives say when they say it well and then present our differences in the framework of basic respect. Starting a conversation of this sort is a way of strengthening a shared spiritual journey.
In April of this year, members of the Bowling Green community in Western Kentucky had a chance to hear Brian McLaren present his analysis of current global problems and his vision of how to confront them inspired by his interpretation of the message of Jesus. A more elaborate version of his view is found in Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crisis, and a Revolution of Hope (Nashville, TN, 2007). McLaren is an evangelical Christian — a fairly radical progressive evangelical, in fact.
I intend to summarize his diagnosis of the problems, then explain how he understands Jesus’ message, which he contrasts with the visions advocated by rival social movements forces in Jesus’ time. I will assume that McLaren accurately gauges the social message of Jesus – if you want to question that assumption, we can take it up in discussion. Then I will indicate how he sees Jesus’ perspective addressing our problems today. Finally, in a second, related post, I will discuss the adequacy of this approach as a strategy for our times.
Four Global Problems
Drawing from public official and theological sources, McLaren identifies four root problems, or global emergencies – the “PPPR” problems: Planet (global environmental issues), Poverty (apparent economic injustice in the absence of opportunities for vast numbers of human beings), Peace (the prevalence of war and all the devastation that it causes), and Religion. Not surprisingly, he thinks that some forms of religion hold out more hope for solving our problems than others.
Apart from academic specialists, business and government personnel with experience in the Middle East, and U.S. residents who have emigrated to the U.S. from the area, Americans are poorly informed about the Middle East, although Tikkun readers are probably much better informed about the Israel/Palestine issue than the average person thanks to Michael Lerner’s efforts to educate us over the years.
But ignorance about the Arab world is great, and so it is not surprising that a deep understanding of the causes of the recent revolt has not emerged from contributions to Tikkun Daily on the topic in recent days. To begin to address that gap, I call to your attention an article by Ali Kadri, “A Period of Revolutionary Fervor”, that appeared February 24, in The Bullet, the E-Bulletin of Socialist Project in Canada. Kadri is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics; he formerly served as an economic analyst for the UN regional office in Beirut. I limit myself to partial summaries, representative quotations, and a few comments of my own based mostly on recent studies of global political economy.
Two Phases of Egyptian History
“Egypt’s recent [i.e., post-1953] economic and social history could be split in two phases. A golden phase of high equitable growth, which ended in the mid seventies [this phase was associated with Nasser's nationalist regime - JG], and a leaden period of lower inequitable growth – it was lower but still high growth relative to other developing countries… “
A Rip Van Winkle Experience
When you have lived more than six decades, it is possible to have a Rip Van Winkle experience. Life may have assigned an aspect of the social universe you once followed closely to the bare horizon of your awareness, where it may have lurked for decades, and then events occur that make you again pay attention to it. When you do, it may seem that, like the fabled Van Winkle, you have been asleep and things, though not entirely different from what you once knew well, have substantially changed.
The “Death” of Socialism?
Not long ago socialism, especially in its Marxist varieties, was widely declared dead. Yet the economic debacles of capitalism in 2008-2009 have stimulated new interest in socialism and non-Stalinist Marxism. Many who in the 1960′s and 1970′s took socialism seriously turned away from such “passé” perspectives in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Perhaps they were convinced by the setbacks and reversals endured in the Latin American Revolution, in the Soviet bloc countries, and the turn of “People’s” China to capitalism that the best people could hope to achieve in their lifetimes would be a “progressive” holding action. Perhaps we might, through single-issue united fronts, non-governmental organizations devoted to social justice, and focused electoral interventions, set limits on sweatshop exploitation of labor, improve health care, halt the degradation of the environment, and win formal and enforceable approval of women’s and gay rights.
Well, it’s only an apparent tide and to the extent to which it seems to have momentum, it is reversible. Those are conclusions of what is, in my opinion, an excellent analysis of the current political state of play on the immigration rights issue, in a just published article, “The Preventable Rise of Arizona’s SB 1070,” by Justin Akers Chacon.
Last June the General Assembly of my Unitarian Universalist denomination adopted Immigration Rights as a 4-Year Study-Action Issue, orienting its associated congregations, as much as possible given UU pluralism, toward a single primary topic of shared conversation. Since then I have been looking for a coherent way to understand the causes, the political forces standing in the way of a just resolution, and a sense of how progressives might engage this issue with some chance of a positive outcome.
Chacon’s article is the best analysis I have seen so far. On a first reading, three major points stood out.
Galen Guengerich, Senior Minister of All Souls (Unitarian Universalist) Church in New York City, thinks so. At the recently completed General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Minneapolis, he posed, elaborated, and defended this position for Unitarian Universalists (UUs) in an eight-part series of well-attended talks. (Ideas discussed in this post may be found in this sermon that Rev. Guengerich delivered prior to General Assembly and that overlaps with his first talk at G.A.)
A More Demanding Spirituality
Character, as Guengerich conceives it, is about asking more of ourselves than an “anything goes” spiritual multiculturalism does. It’s about self-discipline. He thinks that people are looking for a more demanding form of spirituality than is conveyed by the answer “we have no creed” often given by lay UU’s to the question “but what do UU’s believe?”
Guengerich is reasonably concerned about the fate of his own denomination. Although some UU congregations have grown recently, over-all the denomination has numerically stagnated – it has not grown in absolute numbers since Unitarians and Universalists joined forces in 1961, yet in the same period the U.S. population has doubled. But the challenges to “religious liberal” or “spiritually progressive” values are greater now than ever, as indicated by the influence of the religious right even after it suffered from its association with the political meltdown of the Bush II Administration. Guengerich thinks that if UU’s and their social witness are to make a real difference, we need to consider what an ethics of character has to offer.
Sometimes a review of a book is a good substitute, for those with limited time, for actually reading the book. This may be the case with what appears to be a thoughtful review by Bernard Porter of a new book by Sasha Polakow-Suransky, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa. Although the book does not seem to concern itself with the extent to which Israeli society itself is similar to apartheid South Africa, the reviewer discusses that question in passing, noting disanalogies. Not discussed, so far as I can tell, is whether the term “global apartheid” can be applied to the global socioeconomic system and if so, to what extent Israeli society, like our own, is complicit in it.
The review starts by considering the issue of whether Israel did or did not offer nuclear weapons technology to South Africa in 1975 and then continues:
We have known for some time that Israel consistently dissembled, in the 1970s and 1980s, about its wider alliance with South Africa: this is the far more interesting puzzle that Polakow-Suransky’s well-researched, readable and (I think) balanced book sets out to unravel.
It’s puzzling, of course, because of the deep political gulf that surely ought to have separated a nation born of Nazi persecution from a regime of (largely) ex-Nazi sympathisers.
The rest is here. Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now interview with Polakow-Suransky in May is here.
I have recently returned from the 49th General Assembly (GA) of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA, for short), which met in Minneapolis June 23-27. I was one of two delegates representing my congregation in Bowling Green, KY. Since Tikkun Daily includes subscribers and bloggers who consider themselves UU’s and the UUA grapples with many of the same challenges as do otherwise affiliated or unaffiliated spiritual progressives, it’s a reasonable guess that what occurred at the UUA General Assembly will interest Tikkun Daily readers.
Above: Excerpt from Native American activist, environmentalist, economist, and writer Winona LaDuke’s June 26 lecture to the 2010 General Assembly of the UUA. See the complete lecture here.
The Unitarian Universalist Association resulted from unification in 1961 of two of the country’s oldest radical/liberal religious denominations, both of which have roots in the Radical Reformation. General Assembly is the annual decision-making gathering of delegates representing the congregations that belong to the Association. This denomination is committed in principle to democratic process in society and in its member congregations. Like other socially engaged religious movements, it has continuously faced the task of renewing itself in changing social, political, and spiritual conditions. This was especially evident at this General Assembly. One index of the urgency of this task is the fact, reported by UUA President Rev. Peter Morales, that half of our ministers are likely to retire in the next decade.