June 29, 2008, Tikkun, What Kind of a President Does America Need?, by Rabbi Michael Lerner. Lets start with what America does NOT need:
To make this kind of a focus for his/her presidency, s/he must talk at a far deeper level than merely repeating or reframing the traditional leftist demands for economic and political rights. While s/he should strongly advocate for a Global Marshall Plan, s/he should also acknowledge that these political and economic changes will only be won on a global level when the social change movements are able to address the spiritual consequences of the triumph of corporate globalization: a society-wide depression and repression of what we can variously call the life-force, eros, God-energy or Spirit. Please note that this is very different from those who talk about spiritual politics but actually mean only this: that it would be politically advantageous and opportune to take the traditional liberal agenda and dress it up with some spiritual or "values" language. So they take the existing liberal/left agenda, with its primary focus on social justice, inclusion of those who have been left out, economic redistribution, and peace-and then they find some Biblical quotes to bolster the case for the pre-existing liberal/progressive agenda. We support all that, but our movement goes much deeper.
I don't believe that our next president can convince the Congress or the country of the liberal agenda simply by reframing it in spiritual language. For a large section of the American public, the primary source of pain in their lives is not about economic deprivation or non-inclusion, but about the way that the ethos of selfishness and materialism plays out in their personal lives and in the lives of people around them in ways that are destructive and feel terrible. They are wounded and personally despairing about the manipulative, narrowly utilitarian way people treat each other and themselves and the earth. They want a framework of meaning to their lives and to the lives of those around them that speaks of higher meaning to life, shows a path to a life that is not only about maximizing money but about maximizing a meaningful life-in short, they want and need a politics of meaning, and need a meaning-oriented movement that can counter the spiritual depression that surrounds them.
Don't confuse this with those who simply are trying to put some Biblical quotes in front of the same old Democratic Party or liberal agenda.
The spiritual depression and emotional repression that suffuse contemporary life are the near-universal responses to the globalization of a self-congratulatory individualism, obsessive materialism, and consumption-all provided as compensation for the meaninglessness of our present-day culture. The one-dimensional technocratic consciousness, speed-up of work, perception that we have "no time" to do what we really believe in, and our inability to recognize others in terms that go beyond what they can do for us to advance our own agendas as rational maximizers of self-interest-all these combine to create human beings who, if they don't explode in violence (like that which we recently saw at Virginia Tech) or self-destructive alcohol and drug abuse, find themselves in varying degrees of disconnection to their inner selves, their feelings, and their capacities to be loving towards others and responding to the universe with joy. In contrast to this, our next president should encourage the recognition that "there is enough," that we can afford to share, that the material consumption that drives our destruction of the global environment does not actually yield satisfaction. Such a president should seek a replacement of postmodernist self-alienation with a renewal of Being based on awe, wonder and radical amazement at the mystery of the universe and the mystery of every human being on the planet as a manifestation of the sacred. Our economic, social and political institutions need to be replaced and rethought not only because they are unjust, but because they foster a consciousness that keeps us from connecting to the deepest truths of the universe and make it harder for us to recognize each other as fully free, fully conscious, self-creating, loving beings. In this sense, the globalization of Spirit is the antidote to the globalization of Capital. Why is it that people who live in the advanced industrial societies of North America, Europe and Japan, the richest societies that history has ever known, believe we "can't afford" to share what we have with the rest of the world so as to eliminate poverty, hunger and homelessness? It is partly because of our collective paranoia that no one will be there for us if we should ever really need their help that leads us to think our only security lies in endless accumulation, to protect our isolated self-interest in face of a deep inner certainty that others can't be counted on. And partly because we have a deep emptiness inside and we have come to believe that only material goods can fill it. We buy things to buy happiness, to compensate ourselves for the alienated work, the disconnection from each other, and the estrangement from our own inner selves that constitute the texture of our daily lives. In our spiritually impoverished world, acquiring ever more things provides an illusion of fulfillment-and a replacement for the deep connection with each other and to the spiritual realities of the universe for which we both hunger and simultaneously deny to ourselves (lest we re-experience the pain and disappointment we had at earlier points in our lives when we allowed ourselves to be vulnerable and then failed to receive the loving and recognition we needed but didn't fully get). In addition, almost every child in our culture gets strong messages to focus attention on that which can be useful, and away from the spiritual dimension which has no "practical application." Indeed, this message has been so deeply ingrained in many of us that we instinctively shy away from the spiritual realm as though it were as dirty as not being toilet trained. We fear that were we to acknowledge to ourselves or others that we actually wish for connection with that which cannot be used or made practical, cannot be subject to empirical observation or turned into a commodity or something that will make us more attractive or salable on the job or relationship marketplace, we would subject us to ridicule and humiliation. Fearful that we will experience that pain once again, we often build strong external walls to keep us out of touch with this deep yearning for connection to each other and to the universe. Instead of drawing on our own inner resources, we too often find ourselves looking to the media-dominated mass culture for fulfillment and reassurance that our scaled-down sense of possibility is "what everybody else is doing" and hence "the only possible path for us too." The media is one of the many institutions that speeds up time-protecting us from the quiet moments in which we might doubt the whole way our lives our being lived. Instead of finding our own pace, we find ourselves rushing about, seeking machines and gadgets that make things go faster, becoming accustomed to media and technology which speed the pace while "shallow-ing" the intellectual and emotional level of our daily consciousness. We learn to forget the past and focus only on the new while devaluing the old, which leads to decreasing literacy and an increasing difficulty in following a complex discussion, sustaining a long-term relationship, or committing to social goals that can't be accomplished immediately. Sadly, our social institutions only reinforce this materialist view. Our institutions provide us with the illusion of permanency (pretending we won't die) and the illusion that the "real world" is the world of power and wealth. Compound this with the patriarchal assumption that we should be tough and ignore our feelings, and we are left with a "common sense" that dismisses the relevance of our inner lives. We are told that spirituality should be left in the home, relegated to the weekend, kept separate from the pragmatic decisions that should shape politics and the business world. On the contrary, the next President should be someone who can help people affirm progressive spiritual values in the public sphere without weakening the separation clause that protects us from allowing any particular religion from becoming "established" as the only legitimate form of spiritual life. I've detailed how to do this in my book The Left Hand of God: Healing America's Political and Spiritual Crisis (paperback, 2007, Harper San Francisco). This is one reason why our next President should take the Spiritual Covenant with America that we've developed in the Network of Spiritual Progressives and make this the center of her/his political agenda. While space here precludes a full presentation, of the idea (you can find it at www.spiritualprogressives.org
Changing all global and regional trade agreements in which the U.S. is currently involved so that they no longer privilege the most powerful and economically successful Western countries and the elites of other countries at the expense of the poor of the world. Global trade must be both multilateral and equitable. New agreements must provide support and encouragement for working people organizing, being paid a living wage, and providing adequate safety and health conditions and environmental safeguards so that economic growth is encouraged in ways that respect the rights of working people, promotes their well-being, and ensures their dignity and human rights. Trade agreements must also protect farmers, both at home and abroad, encouraging food prices that make it possible for farmers to make a living and poorer people to buy adequate food. Ensuring hands-on involvement from peoples of the Western world, starting with the United States. We wish to create an international Peace and Justice Corps which would provide ways for people with useful skills to volunteer two years of their life (at any age of their life) in donating their talents toward the goals of the Global Marshall Plan. To make this viable for professionals and others who have gained valuable skills and who fear losing their jobs, we envision a guaranteed job for anyone volunteering two years in the Peace and Justice Corps at the level of income at which they were working before they entered the program. While participating in the Peace and Justice Corps, people would receive the average salary that they were receiving in the five years before volunteering so that they could continue to help their families (though they would be encouraged to bring with them and spend in the countries in which they were working the same salaries that the people in those countries receive for doing comparable work). For high school graduates, three years of volunteer service in the Global Marshall Plan would be rewarded with a fully paid college or professional school tuition plus student housing and food for four years as long as they were making satisfactory progress in an accredited college or graduate or professional school. Using the International Peace and Justice Corps not only to build the capacities of people around the world to ensure their own future economic well-being , but also to deliver certain necessities including emergency food supplies, the building of environmentally-sound housing not only for the millions who are currently homeless but for the hundreds of millions of people soon to be born into poverty before the program can fully succeed, the rebuilding of crumbling city infrastructure, the building and/or rebuilding of dams, levees, roads, bridges, ports, railroads in environmentally sound ways, and the training of hundreds of millions of people with the skills necessary to do well in the economic marketplace and to survive those aspects of environmental collapse that at this point may be impossible to avoid. Retraining of the armies of nations around the world to become experts in ecologically sensitive construction of those aspects of their own societies that need relief and reconstruction, including agriculture, health care, housing, infrastructure, education and computers, and other appropriate technology. Training for everyone on the planet in techniques of nonviolent communication, respect for ethnic and religious diversity and differences, family and parental support, ' stress reduction, child and elderly care, emergency health techniques, diet and exercise, and caring for others who are in need of help. - Training for everyone on the planet in the essentials of living in accord with the survival and sustainability needs of the planet. We estimate that this program, if fully implemented, could cost as much as 3-5% of the GDP of the world. Our commitment is to start with the 1% of US GDP and move from there. We offer this plan with a commitment to humility and a conviction that it cannot work unless it is understood as deriving from our own commitment to the well-being of everyone on the planet and not primarily as a self-interested plan to advance American power or influence. One of the values of having an international agency to administer the plan is that from the start it will be clear that this plan is not simply another puppet for U.S. power. We must also insist that the plan be implemented with a clear message that although the West has superior technology and material success, we do not equate that with superior moral or cultural wisdom. On the contrary, our approach must reflect a deep humility and a spirit of repentance for the ways in which Western dominance of the planet has been accompanied by wars, environmental degradation, and a growing materialism and selfishness reflected in a Western- dominated global culture. Given these distortions, it is central to our mission to convey in the Global Marshall Plan a recognition that we have much to learn from the peoples of the world, their cultures, their spiritual and intellectual heritage, their ways of dealing with human relationships. So part of the program must also include cultural exchanges in which we invite into the cultural and educational systems of Western countries some of the teachers, musicians, artists, religious leaders, authors, poets, and philosophers of the non-Western world. We view this not as a sop thrown to ameliorate possible hurt egos, but as a genuine attempt to recognize that our superior technology and material success has not brought with it a superior ethical or spiritual wisdom, and that there is much to learn from societies that from a material standpoint are "under-developed" but from a spiritual standpoint may have within them teachers and cultures that are far more humanly sensitive than our own.
That is not to say that such a president should be unaware of the Yetzer HaRa, the inclination toward hurtfulness that has been shaped in each of us by our childhoods (as it says in Genesis, God saw that the inclination of people was evil from their childhood). Our president will need a dose of Niebuhr-ian sensibilities. S/he must be aware that all the calls for love, generosity, peace and social justice will face an immediate resistance from the people of the U.S. and the people of the world. And so s/he must take that into account and plan for how to overcome it.
But what such a president should do with that recognition is to develop a public campaign against cynicism that speaks about its roots, and simultaneously a new program for education that seeks to develop in children some of the necessary defenses against the ways that their inclinations toward hurtfulness are fostered in school and in family life.
This is, of course, a hefty agenda. To some it will seem nave and utopian. But in my view, what is utopian is to imagine that our world can survive the 21st century without this kind of political leadership. It is certain that the locus of global power will shift in the next twenty-thirty years to China and India. But this is the moment in which the West still has the power and influence to shape the development of a sustainable and morally coherent global culture. What America needs is for our next president to have the vision and the courage to engage with the spiritual vision I've hinted at in this article. Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine (www.tikkun.org ), rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco and Berkeley, and national chair of The Network of Spiritual Progressives, an interfaith organization for people who agree with the vision articulated above (and co-chaired by Cornel West and Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister). He is author of 11 books, including Healing Israel/Palestine, The Politics of Meaning, and most recently The Left Hand of God. He welcomes your responses: RabbiLerner@tikkun.org as well as submissions to Tikkun (send your finished article to him, but only after you've been reading Tikkun magazine regularly enough so that you have a sense of what we publish, the style, and acceptable lengths). He also invites you to become his ally by joining and working with him in The Network of Spiritual Progressives www.spiritualprogressives.org
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