AFTER PARIS: A World That Has Lost Its Ethical Direction & Spiritual Foundation and a Media that Cheerleads for Fear and Militarism
By Rabbi Michael Lerner
For many years, we at Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives have warned that the domination and power-over strategies to achieve “homeland security” have been tried for over 7,000 years and all they have produced is more wars and violence, interspersed with short periods of peace that have, with the help of the sensationalist and natioanlist media and professional apologists for the existing inequalities, managed to hide from public view the degree of covert structural violence that every system of inequality and domination embodies. (Please read Cynthia Moe-Lobeda’s important study Resisting Structural Evil–Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation published by Fortress Press to get a full understanding of how deeply our own daily lives in Western societies are built on the exploitation and impoverishment of people around the world).
We have called for a new approach to “homeland security”—the Strategy of Generosity, as manifested in part in our proposed Global Marshall Plan (please download the full version and read it at www.tikkun.org/gmp). Until the powerful countries of the world are seen as mainly driven by a desire to care for the well-being of everyone else on the planet and the wellbeing of the planet itself, and care not only out of self-interest but also out of a new consciousness in which we all come to truly understand our mutual interdependence and oneness, what we saw in Paris this past week is destined to be an increasing reality in the coming decades.
The Global Marshall Plan we support would have the U.S. take the leadership with the advanced industrial countries of the world in working with local communities throughout the developing world, donating 1-2% of our Gross Domestic Product each year for the next twenty to once and for all end (not must ameliorate) global poverty, hunger, homelessness, inadequate education, and inadequate health care–and repair the damage done to the environment of 150 years of irresponsible forms of economic development sponsored by colonial and imperialist and materialist oriented capitalist, socialist and communist societies alike.
This is a central part of a Strategy of Generosity, but it goes well beyond this to involve a massive recentering of our energies toward healing and repairing the damage that our global economic system has generated, changing our international trade agreements so that they no longer disadvantage the poorest people in the world while advantaging our multinationals, and many other reparative steps.
Instead, we are moving toward doing more damage in response to terrorism. The more fear of “the Other,” the more resentment and anger those others will have toward us, and the cycle of violence will become more a part of daily life not only where it already is (mostly in the countries of the Global South and East), but also in the advanced industrial countries. As fear grows, fascistic and racist right-wing forces will grow more popular, their anti-immigrant policies will be portrayed as “common sense,” their empowering of domestic intelligence forces to invade our private lives will receive greater support, because people will never have heard an alternative path to security as supposedly liberal leaders seek to show that they too can be “tough.” You need only listen to Hillary and Bernie competing for who can sound more like the most interventionist and pro-militaristic response to the horrendous loss of human life in Paris to see the foreign policy future of the U.S.
Yet for those of us in the spiritual or religious world, the Torah command to “love the stranger” still resonates, so we are impelled, even while condemning unequivocally the terrorist acts of ISIS, to seek to understand how we might limit the ability of these haters to win new support as the US, France, Russia and others engage in drone attacks that have already killed more innocent civilians in Syria and Iraq than were killed by the terrorists in France. Healing of our world requires psycho-spiritual sophistication to combat tthe terrorists’ appeal to those who have suffered from the West’s past militarism and the structural violence built into the global capitalist system, on the one hand, and to combat the way that the terrorists generate support in the West for new levels of fear-generated militarism which then keeps the cycle of violence repeating and intensifying. That path is a path of love toward the people of the world and then policies that embody that love. Not policies of hunting for and expelling from the U.S. or European countries the many “undocumented workers” who escaped the economic or political violence in their own countries only to become suspects and hunted in the advanced industrial countries, yet that is what many out of fear are supporting in Western countries even before the Paris carnage, and more so now.
We saw how the legitimate grief and upset at the horror of 9/11 was channeled into a set of wars and narrowing of our rights to privacy and protection from invasive governmental power. Those wars created the prelude to ISIS/Islamic State. We are today at another moment of choice about how to respond. We already see supposedly liberal leaders embracing militaristic solutions and reducing freedoms in order to prove that they are “tough” as the right-wing militarists insist is needed. But we, the people of the world, could reject this approach if we were to embrace an alternative consciousness to the drumbeats of fear and revenge that the Western political leaders think they must support lest they be thrown out of office. You in the media personally could play a role in resisting the dominant discourse by exposing Americans to a different voice–the voice of those of us in the spiritual and religious world who believe that the militarist approach has failed and that it is time to make a sea change in our direction and embrace instead a Strategy of Generosity. .
That new consciousness must include a powerful commitment to nonviolence and to genuine caring for the wellbeing of everyone on our planet. And it will require rejecting the ethos of the competitive economic marketplace with its inevitable fostering of selfishness and materialism, and its powerful way of infusing in all of us a narrow utilitarian or instrumentalist way of seeing other human beings who increasingly are valued to the extent that they satisfy our needs or interests rather than as beings who are intrinsically deserving of love and respect, and its way of seeing the Earth and the universe solely as vehicles to fulfill our immediate needs rather than as the sacred reality that has given birth to life on this planet and as deserving a response of awe, wonder and radical amazement at the magnificence and mystery of all being. This new consciousness is not some utopian ideal—it is the survival necessity for human life on this planet.
My heart mourns for the latest victims of our world’s craziness—the hundreds wounded and the over 130 murdered in Paris this past Friday. Every life lost to senseless violence is a tragedy. If, as Jewish tradition teaches, “she who saves one life is as if she saved the entire world,” then the converse must also be the case, that “those who cause the death of even one person are destroying the entire world, bit by bit.”
And when one of the members of our Tikkun editorial board told me that she was scared that the violence in Paris might soon become a norm in the U.S. as well, I had to agree. What lies ahead if we keep going in the direction we’ve been going since 9/11 is an ever increasing cycle of violence that will inevitably manifest in the U.S. and other Western countries as well as those outraged by our policies, our drones, our economic exploitation, and our cultural imperialism, and the impact of our global system on the lives of people they know or witness through the media drives some to the immoral and criminal acts of terrorism.
No, I don’t believe that ISIS, the Islamic State, or the other hate-filled fundamentalists, racists, misogynists, anti-Semites, xenophobes, and ultra nationalists will disappear the moment we start acting from a new spirit of generosity. We will need to take measures to protect ourselves. But as long as our resources (and here I include not only the U.S. and the West, but also China and Russia) are primarily focused on military, economic, cultural and political domination of the world, what we saw in Paris will become an increasing reality worldwide.
As long as we in the most powerful countries of the world persist in supporting a global system that inflicts daily violence on the people of the world, there will be consequences that are predictable and yet unstoppable no matter how much force, violence, control of borders, spying on everyone’s emails and phone conversations, imprisonment or torture is used to protect us.
“What, us…violent? It’s always the others who do that to us, and we only defensively respond.” That’s the story the media daily reinforces, and turns into a pervasive mantra whenever there are acts of others that are responses to the suffering we’ve created.
Yes, some politicians have pointed to the war in Iraq started by President Bush, but also supported by most Democrats in Congress who continually voted for the funding for that war year after year, and by President Obama who supported a surge in the fighting, and continued it for 3 years into his presidency, and then left American armaments in the hands of a Shi’ite government more interested in repressing Sunnis than in establishing a society that could give equal rights and respect to all of its diverse groups. Rarely do they mention the documented atrocities committed by U.S. troops or the torture that our military and intelligence forces implemented not only in Abu Ghraib and which continued in Guantanamo, but also in more secret torture locations around the world, sometimes run on behalf of the U.S. by torture-friendly regimes in other countries.
Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg. The United Nations estimates that somewhere between 6,000 and 9,000 children under the age of five die every single day from starvation or diseases related to malnutrition or that could have been cured with adequate health care available—so somewhere between 2-4 million children a year. And that’s not counting those who are older who similarly die from inadequate nutrition or health care. The UN estimates that 2.8 billion of the worlds 7 billion population live on less than $2 a day. We, the rich countries of the West, barely let this information into our consciousness, yet there is every reason for the media to tell us every day the stories of those thousands who have died the day before from malnutrition that could have been cured had we in the West shared our food with the hungry of the world.
This is what we call “structural violence,” and all of us in the advanced industrial societies that vote for candidates who do not address this issue directly are morally implicated in the resulting suffering that our global economic system generates. The unequal distribution of wealth and the resulting extremes of poverty, combined with the violence done by the regimes of elites who need to suppress dissent in order to keep their power, are a leading cause of global suffering. Add to that the trade agreements that we have implemented that benefit a small elite in the global South and East while destroying the ability of small farmers in those countries to make a living, forcing them to move to huge urban areas where they often find that they have to sell some of their children into sexual slavery in order to feed the rest of the family, or alternatively to risk their lives to get to the richer countries where as “undocumented” workers they might be able to feed their children, and you get another part of the picture. And as the environmental crisis deepens, a recent study predicts that we will soon be faced with over 100 million environmental refugees in addition to all the economic and political refugees.
Equally important is the way many people feel dismissed, their suffering of no consequence to the rest of the world. They see people like themselves being daily harassed or humiliated, whether that be in US torture chambers in Iraq and Guantaamo or at the Israeli checkpoints in Palestine, in the tendency of global media to blame all Muslims for the extremism of the few, in the way that the mass murder and genocide perpetrated by Western countries in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen (not to mention the First and Second World Wars where tens of millions of people were killed) or by Russia and China, are forgotten while the crimes of the jihadis are described as a threat to civilization itself. The hypocrisy of the West infuriates people around the world who have suffered from the Western-imposed inequalities of wealth and resulting inequalities in health. They feel outraged and humiliated…a slippery slope toward violence.
The cumulative effects of a world lacking generosity of spirit and generosity of action plays an important role in shaping the psychological underpinning that leads people to act out in various ways, of which ISIS is only one manifestation. The ruthless and immoral character of their actions seem to them (not to me) internally justified in their own self-understanding because they have been either personally subjected to humiliation, or watched as others with whom they identify being mistreated and systematically disrespected and can see no way to change that given the absence of any recognition of what they see being re-presented to them in the media or in public or political discourse. None of this excuses the behavior, but it is critical to understand it in order to develop strategies that can actually be effective in the way that more bombings and more suppression have not been.
Add to this the inner suffering of hundreds of millions of people in Western socieites reared in competitive market societies where they are taught to distrust each other, to believe that human nature inevitably leads to “looking out for number one” and that hence the only rational way to live is to advance one’s own interests without regard to the consequences for others, and who then find themselves surrounded by others who are just looking out for themselves and who therefore can’t really be trusted to be true friends of allies when circumstances get tough. These ways of thinking, now increasingly exported to the rest of the world through Western media and Western movies and television and computers, play an important part in undermining communities and solidarity among people–and resisting the West is in part about resisting this aspect of Western culture.
Our societies have been amazingly successful in channeling the boiling up anger and outrage that so many people feel into self-blame, psychological depression, and other self-destructive paths: addictions to alcohol, drugs, television, sexual conquests, social media, endless consumption of material goods, nationalistic and religious chauvinisms, and you can add more to this list. For the most part, all this internalization creates unhappy people, and then manipulative politicians often succeed in channeling their unhappiness into anger at some external group —African Americans, women, homosexuals, immigrants, Latinos, Muslims, Jews, liberals—and the same pattern repeats itself around the world with a rotating “Other” depending upon the ruling elites of a given country. If you happen to be in Islamic countries, Sunni or Shiite Muslims are the “Other,” if you’re in Europe or America, African Americans and Muslims are the “other,” if you’re Jewish, it’s the Palestinians and if you’re Muslim or Christian, it has historically been the Jews.
The legacy of ignoring global pathologies generated by global capitalism and other systems of domination that preceded it has led to the current reality—and it will be with us for many years to come. If we continue to respond to only the immediate threats without the awareness of the context that creates them, generations into the future will be paying the price. But if we start now to embrace a Strategy of Generosity, build the Caring Society (Caring for Each Other and Caring for the Planet) the current crop of haters will not grow but diminish in strength and ability to attract others. It will be harder and harder for the haters to convince their neighbors and young people that the world as currently constituted is evil if that world is deeply involved in manifesting genuine love and caring not only for themselves but for every person on the planet and caring for the planet itself. Instead of letting politicians focus solely on what to do now, we could insist that right now they take steps that involve articulating publicly and beginning to implement a long-term strategy of generosity.
As two concrete steps in this direction, please help build support for our Global Marshall Plan and our ESRA, our proposed Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which not only will require public funding of all state and national elections and ban every other source of money, but will also require that large corporations operating in or selling goods or services in the U.S. (those with incomes over $50 million/yr) be required every five years to prove a satisfactory history of social and environmental responsibility to a jury of ordinary citizens who will hear testimony from people all around the world who have been impacted by the operations, products, services, environmental behaviors and economic policies of these corporations.
Sound utopian and fanciful? No, what is utopian and fanciful is believing that somehow through more militarism, more repression, more thought-control in our schools and media, more self-serving demeaning of others, more capitalism, and more infringements in privacy, we can avoid the terror and other manifestations of hatred that will dominate public life in the years ahead.
And why is it not utopian to believe that we can build a different kind of world? Because most human beings actually would love to live in a world based on love, kindness, generosity, environmental sensitivity and awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe (what we at Tikkun and the NSP Network of Spiritual Progressives call The New Bottom Line). Please read our vision of what this would look like by going to www.spriitualprogressives.org/covenant and then join as dues paying members our interfaith and secular humanist and atheist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives www.spiritualprogressives.org/join.
So don’t ever say that “I didn’t know what to do,” because joining our movement is what you actually can do—so do it now! And by the way, insist that any candidate asking for your support (in the coming elections in whatever country you reside) be explicitly committed to implementing the Global Marshall Plan and explaining to the people of her or his country why the Strategy of Generosity is far more likely to succeed than the Strategy of Domination. And outreach to your local city council, state legislators and Congressional reps to endorse both the Strategy of Generosity (by that name) and the Global Marshall Plan and the ESRA.
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine www.tikkun.org (winner of the Best Magazine of the Year Award from the Religion Newswriters Association both in 2014 and again in 2015), chair of the interfaith and secular-humanist and atheist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives, and author of 11 books including two national best-sellers The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right and Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation. His most recent book, Embracing Israel/Palestine shows how to apply the strategy of generosity to one of the world’s seemingly most intractable struggles, his book with Cornel West Jews and Blacks:Let the Healing Begin shows a path to renew the alliance between these two groups, and his book The Politics of Meaning presents some of the ideas that Hillary Clinton was claimed to have embraced when the media in 1993 mistakenly dubbed Rabbi Lerner “the guru of the Clinton White House.” If this analysis moves you, please join the Network of Spiritual Progresssives or make a tax-deductible contribution to Tikkun at www.tikkun.org/donate and then contact RabbiLerner.firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss how you can help build this movement for a world based on love and justice.