Building alliance of progressive groups is rabbi’s life’s work

January 27, 2008

 

By David Evans

“What we witnessed in the 1960s and early 1970s was an explosion of desire. For a brief historical moment, millions of people allowed themselves to imagine what the world could be if love prevailed and a more authentic existence could be forged. Though the institutions and requirements of daily life kept chugging along and making their demands, the joyous experience of allowing authenticity, a generosity of spirit, and a freeing of creativity spread hope in ways that seemed to open new pathways in the mind. Participants in the movements of the 1960s and early 1970s often speak in retrospect of being alive in a way unlike anything they had experienced previously or since- the kind of words used by those who have experienced being resurrected from the dead or ‘born again in Christ’ or those who talk of the joy of serving God experienced in Jewish Hasidic and mystical communities. Free to ‘Imagine,’ as John Lennon put it, they found that it ‘isn’t hard to do,’ because, as Lennon went on, ‘I’m not the only one — I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will live as one.’ This was a community that had tilted as far toward the Left Hand of God as any in living memory — a community that was strongly committed to affirming hope and living as though love and caring and mutual recognition were really possible.”

Rabbi Michael Lerner brings a keen sense of progressive history to The Left Hand of God (Harper Collins; NY: 2006). As a participant in the era that he beautifully details, his own conversations with political and community leaders of the ‘60s and ‘70s do much to clarify a cultural moment that deserves more than an anecdotal remembrance.

Lerner was a leader in the National Coalition for Peace and Justice in 1972, meeting with George McGovern campaign manager Gary Hart in September. Urging a return to the antiwar focus, Lerner found Hart “totally dispirited at having lost any influence on the shape of the campaign and despairing at the stupidity and crass opportunism that had led McGovern to listen to ‘the professionals’ who advised that the campaign totally avoid the issue of the war — which it mostly did throughout September and October!”

In describing candidates from Carter and Clinton to Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry, Michael Lerner observes, “If you are on the left — whether Democrat or Green, liberal or progressive — the strategy of realism is a huge mistake. When you stop asking ‘what do I really believe in?’ and substitute instead ‘what is realistic?’ you are on a slippery slope toward the values of materialism and selfishness that receives much clearer statement by the Republicans and the Right.”

So while it may be useful to examine candidates for their “visionary hopefulness,” Lerner is firm in asserting, “Those people will respond when there is a social movement that makes it safe for them to do what their best instincts tell them to do.” Building this alliance of secular, religious, and spiritual (but not religious) progressives is Michael Lerner’s life’s work. Overcoming the greed, selfishness, and materialism (that are all products of fear) is the goal of the Network of Spiritual Progressives.

“Arguing for the Left Hand of God, “ says Lerner, is “defending the spiritual vision that has been the common wisdom of the human race for most of our existence,” and it must be done in a network open to all progressives, “taking the spiritual needs of all classes seriously” while putting “the economic interests of middle income and poor people first.”

Public policy proposals include a single-payer healthcare system, a living wage, and a Social Responsibility Amendment to the Constitution, which would require a new corporate charter every 10 years for any corporation with annual income above $50 million. New charters would be granted only to those corporations that can demonstrate social responsibility to a jury of ordinary citizens.

Lerner addresses environmental and foreign policy options and is among those advocating a Global Marshall Plan. Debt relief, ecological repair, and a “strategy of generosity” are some suggestions to balance our over-reliance on a market-based economy.

“The first, absolutely essential step is the transition from violence to nonviolence as the only acceptable method of pursuing the world we want to achieve.” Lerner goes on to quote the 1983 pastoral letter on peace from America’s Catholic bishops, “Peacemaking is not an optional commitment. It is a requirement of our faith.”

Lerner is generous in referring his readers to the important writings and examples of other peacemakers, including the Rev. James Forbes of New York’s Riverside Church, King, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and John Dear. His deepest insights explore the prophet Isaiah and the tradition and teaching of Talmudic Rabbis.

Acknowledging its biblical roots, Lerner calls the Right Hand of God “a way of understanding the sacred that emphasizes the need to wipe out the evil forces in the world through war, domination and the control of evil impulses.” He continues, “The more we are in a state of fear, the more the Right Hand of God seems intuitively correct, whereas the more we feel hopeful and trusting, the more the Left Hand of God speaks to us,” emphasizing “the need to build a world based on love, kindness, compassion, generosity, mutual cooperation…”

UPDATES: Daniel Berrigan’s play, “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine.” is being performed for a new generation in Catonsville, Md. Written during his confinement, the play takes place entirely in a courtroom and portrays the burning of draft records 40 years ago this spring. Berrigan has frequently cited the example of Nazi resister Franz Jagerstatter, who was beatified (recognized as blessed and the first step to being declared a saint) in Linz, Austria on Oct. 26. Five new editions of Dan Berrrigan’s writings have just been published by Wipf and Stock (wipfandstock.com).

Jimmy Carter is portrayed in “Man From Plains,” a verite-style documentary now in theaters. The Carter Center is celebrating its 25th year of peacemaking, disease eradication, and election monitoring. Now 83, Carter’s new book is Beyond the White House, which begins in the dark days of 1981 and describes a quarter-century of public diplomacy.

Chalmers Johnson has recently reviewed David Halberstam’s posthumously published Korean War history, The Coldest Winter, at truthdig.com. Johnson’s masterful essay reviewing Stephen Holmes’ The Matador’s Cape: America’s Reckless Response to Terror is at Tomdispatch.com.

The reviewer will profile historical and contemporary peacemakers in future editions of Grassroots Press

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