Radical Kindness and Generosity

Print More

When a shooting of twenty children at Sandy Hook Elementary School isn’t enough, when a shooting of fourteen non-profit workers in San Bernardino isn’t enough, when a mass shooting somewhere an average of every single day in this country isn’t enough to change our approach to the problem of gun violence, there’s clearly something that we’re collectively just not getting. And this goes for all of us on all sides of the debate.
The pro-gun side keeps insisting that having more guns will make us all safer. We now have the laxest gun laws in the developed world and the highest rate of gun violence. There’s something that they are clearly just not getting. At the same time, when gun-control advocates point to the most recent mass shooting as the last straw, the crossing of a red line, the atrocity so horrible that now, finally everyone will have to admit that it’s time for gun control, and then are freshly shocked and appalled when conservatives re-up their call for more guns, there’s something that they are clearly just not getting. We are completely missing each other in this debate, talking past one another, as if speaking two different, untranslatable languages.
Back in the 90’s, Michael Lerner, a psychologist and rabbi (and now the editor of Tikkun magazine), set out with a research team from the Institute for Labor and Mental Health, to try to understand how people’s life experiences and especially their work lives related to their politics. What made people feel as they did about how society should address issues of poverty and violence? What made people support political parties even when that meant voting against their own economic interest? They interviewed working people of all backgrounds and classes and ethnicities; people in all kinds of jobs; people who would not have participated in this conversation if they were told it were “therapy.” What they found through these conversations was stunning in its consistency.Marjorie Sanders, a telecom worker in LA summed it up this way in her interview: “I’ve worked as a secretary, I’ve worked as a waitress, I worked for years as an assistant to a producer in a movie production company, and I worked at a plant constructing airplanes, and I can tell you that they are all the same; they are all governed by one and only one thing: money. They are in business to make money and your only worth to them is whether you can help them make money.”
Carlos Hernandez, a successful manager at a Silicon Valley firm, summed it up this way: “I can tell you that a lot of these people who work for this firm are great people, but that doesn’t change the bottom line, and the bottom line is this: everyone is out for themselves and everyone is going to get an advantage whenever they can … and that means don’t trust anyone, because they are all going to do what they have to, to get ahead and make it for themselves. It’s just how it is – and I don’t blame anyone, but I know to keep my eyes open.”
Sandy Levin, a physician in Chicago, summed it up this way: “I never imagined that medicine would turn out to be so bottom-line oriented… but in the late 1980’s, the medical system was taken over by insurance companies and suddenly I became an employee of some huge corporation whose only interest in health was that they could make a buck off of someone else’s suffering…. I’ve come to realize that everyone goes along with this whole thing, and there’s not much point in fighting it, because that’s just the way it is. What is hardest for me is that I wanted my life to be about serving some higher purpose. I thought medicine was a kind of calling to service for humanity. Now I have to resist treating my patients as objects. But it’s like this everywhere I look – everything is reduced to material gain. The world used to be such a magical and enchanting place for me… but now it all seems so flat, lifeless, even pointless. I feel like I’ve lost too much!”
These three were not unusual in Michael Lerner’s interviews. People across the board felt the same kind of disillusionment. They didn’t like the bottom-line orientation of the work world; how people all seemed to be out for themselves; the harsh hierarchy of winners and losers, with power and money and dominance as the names of the game. All of them had had dreams of a life motivated by ideals and purpose beyond just making money – a life of meaning. They had been forced to foreclose on those dreams. The process had left them deadened inside. They felt, in the words of the physician, that they “had lost too much.” As painful as it was for each of them, they felt that resistance was futile because there was nowhere else to go. They had to harden themselves. Although they had yearnings for a different kind of world – a world of kindness and generosity -they had to suppress those yearnings, they said, because that’s just not the way the world works. I think many of us probably recognize this feeling.
The question of how the world works is basically a theological question. And these issues of workplace values are basically questions of meaning. Michael Lerner and his team learned that it was these questions of theology and meaning that were at the heart of people’s discontent. And it was these questions that were also at the heart of their politics. He wrote a book about this, published in 2006 called The Left Hand of God. I read it back then and it has influenced me a lot and has been deeply meaningful to me on a personal level. In  Left Hand of God, Michael Lerner lays out two understandings of God or, if God isn’t your language for it, two visions of how the world works. For as long as anyone can remember, these two visions have competed in our individual hearts, in our cultures, in our sacred texts, and in the interpretations of our sacred texts.
What Lerner calls the “right hand of God” is the religious tradition of God as power and might. It’s the avenger God; the judge; the God who led the people in Biblical times to victory in battle; the God who’s supposed to arrive at the end times and reward the good and punish the evil. The worldview that goes with right hand of God is one in which power is worshipped. The natural world is a resource to be exploited. The weak will be destroyed, so you’d better not be weak. The world is a dangerous and hierarchical place and the best way to stay safe is to be stronger than those who would do you harm. You better look out for yourself and your own because ultimately everyone is out for themselves. (You can hear the echo of those interviews in this.)
What Lerner calls the “left hand of God” is the religious tradition of God as love and compassion. This is the God who nurtures and heals, who gives blessings and has a special concern for the vulnerable and the poor. This is the God of reconciliation; who brings peace in the Biblical stories between siblings, between parent and child, and between nations. The worldview that goes with this tradition is one in which loving-kindness is worshipped. The natural world is viewed with awe and reverence. From this view, everyone deserves to be recognized and loved. Everyone deserves compassion. We all have times when we’re weaker and times when we’re stronger and so we’re here to help each other through the hard times. In this worldview, the best way to stay safe is to be generous and welcoming and give others the dignity and recognition that we all crave.
This struggle between these two voices is at the heart of our gun control debate in this country. The pro-gun voice says that the world is a dangerous place, there are always going to be people with guns who want to kill you, and the best way to stop them is to be able to shoot them first. The anti-gun voice says that we need to help the wounded people who are driven to violence and have fewer and fewer guns at all. Liberals tend to be particularly baffled and even sometimes mean-spirited when it comes to addressing the pro-gun lobby. As if anyone who thinks we need more guns has got to be stupid or have some ethical defect. We like to think that we, by contrast, are free of stupidity and ethical defects. We liberals are squarely in the “left hand of God” camp. Those other people are the ones with the problem.
And yet if we’re really honest with ourselves, it’s not just them. The right hand of God exists in all of us. We each have a gun lobby in our hearts. It may not be a lobby for physical guns, but it’s a lobby for emotional guns, verbal guns, the bullets of our actions and the armor of our inactions. When we feel threatened, when we feel alone and vulnerable, we sometimes want to arm ourselves and fight back against a dangerous world. We have a gun lobby in our hearts. When we feel things changing in our lives, out of our control, shifting beneath our feet at home or at work or in our communities, it can be so disorienting, we sometimes want to lash out and stop that change no matter what it takes. We have a gun lobby in our hearts. When we’re scared, the gun lobby shows up. When we feel humiliated or demeaned, the gun lobby shows up. When we’ve been hurt by someone we love, the gun lobby shows up.
And that lobby is relentless. Every single day dropping by our office, putting its feet up on our desk, waving a checkbook at us, promising big returns if we will just agree to be realistic. Don’t let that new person into your life – they could be dangerous. Don’t give your money away to a “cause,” – you might need that money and it won’t do any good anyway. Don’t stick your neck out for that person – that’s their problem, not yours. Don’t rely on that person – the last time you relied on someone you got hurt. Don’t treat your workers any better than you’ve been treated – that wouldn’t be fair. Don’t treat your kids any better than you were treated – they’ve got to learn how the world really works. Be realistic. That voice chatters away and cajoles and threatens.
Our spiritual challenge is to learn how to respond with love to the gun lobby “out there” and “in here” in our hearts. The most evolved teachings of our many faiths embrace the vision of the left hand of God. They teach that we are all one – one human family who all laugh the same and bleed the same, who depend on each other for everything we have and share one beautiful earth. They teach of a loving consciousness, infinitely compassionate and forgiving. We try to be that loving consciousness for one another. When we speak of the left hand of God, in whatever language we use for it, we speak of a world based on generosity and kindness and compassion, not just in some theoretical way or future time, but here, now in this world – to have public policies based on these values, to hear politicians and corporate executives and parents and teachings speaking in this language.
When we say such things, the gun lobby calls us naïve. “That’s a childish and dangerous longing,” they say, “that’s not the real world. It’s never gonna’ happen. Grow up.” It’s our challenge to counter that false realism with faith. It’s our challenge to counter it with compassion. Because of course the gun lobby “out there” and the gun lobby “in here,” originate from a place of fear and pain and hurt. Nobody, deep down, wants the world to be like that. None of the workers Michael Lerner interviewed want to work in a place where money is the only goal and they can’t trust their co-workers. Nobody, deep down wants to walk around fearing that they might need to pull out a gun to kill an attacker. No one wants that. It’s our challenge to gently and lovingly say that in fact, the world doesn’t have to be like that. The future is hidden. It’s entirely up to us. Whether the left hand or right hand of God is the one that wins out in the end is entirely in our hands.

Ana Levy-Lyons is a senior minister at First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn, NY. She is writing a book on the Ten Commandments as a radical spiritual and political vision. Visit facebook.com/Ana.LevyLyons.author. Twitter: @Ana_LevyLyons. Email: analevylyons@hotmail.com