Monday, February 20, 2006

Politics of Faith: The Left Hand of God, by Michael Lerner, review LA Times.

The politics of faith
The Left Hand of God Taking Back Our Country From the Religious Right Michael Lerner HarperSanFrancisco: 408 pp., $24.95
By Ed Bacon
The Rev. Ed Bacon is rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena.

February 19, 2006

RABBI Michael Lerner's The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country From the Religious Right is his latest contribution to a long list of inspiring and practical writings. Here, Lerner contends that "the America we love" is threatened with destruction. His critique stems from the moral values, spiritual practices and political actions of the ancient speak-truth-to-power prophetic tradition.

Lerner's career of balancing social and political action with religious practice began in the Jewish Theological Seminary, where his professor Abraham Joshua Heschel held that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in his preaching and his politics, was in effect the 20th century incarnation of the Hebrew prophets. In this book, Lerner — rabbi of San Francisco's progressive Beyt Tikkun synagogue and editor of Tikkun, a journal striving to "mend, repair, and transform the world" — updates this tradition for the beginning of the 21st century.

Lerner believes America is in the grip of a spiritual crisis.

On the one hand, there is what scholar Walter Brueggemann calls "the imperial consciousness." This right-wing mind-set worships its own power — an act of idolatry, according to Lerner. Its adherents ignore the groans of the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized, conducting business as usual as though no one were hurting and there were no groans.

On the other, an impotent liberal cohort lacks the moral courage and political savvy to resist a culture of imperial domination in both church and state. The compromises made by the left because of political expediency result in a political lassitude, which amounts to complicity with the forces of empire.

But Lerner is chiefly concerned with the millions of people who are not conservative ideologues but who have in recent elections voted that way because they yearn for the "purpose-driven life of meaning" promised by the communities of the religious right. There they find a sense of belonging, of dignity, of outrage at meaningless marketplace thinking — and (in Lerner's indictment of his own liberal tribe) a respectful absence of condescension. The irony that begs for explanation is the phenomenon of this group voting against its own enlightened self-interest.

Lerner's reflections are informed by his interviews with "middle-income working people," conducted over 28 years for the Institute for Labor and Mental Health, which he co-founded in 1977. "The psychotherapists, union activists, and social theorists who were working at the institute," he writes, "had one question we particularly wanted to answer: why is it that people whose economic interests would lead them to identify with the Left often actually end up voting for the Right?" What he and his colleagues discovered was "that many people need what anthropologist Clifford Geertz once termed a 'politics of meaning' and what I now call a spiritual politics — a spiritual framework that can lend meaning to their lives [and] allow them to serve something beyond personal goals and economic self-interest. If they don't find this sense of purpose on the Left, they will look for it on the Right." With consistent passion, Lerner insists on respect for this group of people. The left sabotages its efforts every time it views them as somehow less intelligent and evolved than, say, the liberal elite.

For Lerner, the key is something he calls "meaning needs." The left has to recognize "that people hunger for a world that has meaning and love; for a sense of aliveness, energy, and authenticity; for a life embedded in a community in which they are valued for who they most deeply are, with all their warts and limitations, and feel genuinely seen and recognized; for a sense of contributing to the good; and for a life that is about something more than just money and accumulating material goods." The right, he maintains, has supplied all this in a variety of ways. The left is clueless, unaware that such needs even exist.

At the core of Lerner's argument is his description of two competing theologies.

The theology of the "right hand of God" gives conservative ideologues their religious credibility. This theology "sees the universe as a fundamentally scary place filled with evil forces…. God is the avenger, the big man in heaven who can be invoked to use violence to overcome those evil forces, either right now or in some future ultimate reckoning….[T]he world is filled with constant dangers and the rational way to live is to dominate and control others before they dominate and control us."

The "left hand of God" theology sees God as "the loving, kind, and generous energy in the universe" and "encourages us to be like this loving God."

Lerner readily admits that the right-hand theology exists in the scriptures of the world's major religions, but he objects to its use by the religious right to promote a kind of imperial dominion, à la Pat Robertson's 1986 stated goal "to rule the world for God." The scriptural passages often used to justify a dominionist position — in both Judaism and Christianity, Lerner points out — were originally written to empower the oppressed with assurances that God would hear their cries and come in power to liberate them and establish a reign of justice and peace. Thus, he argues, the hard-core religious right has perverted religion: They distort scriptural texts and ancient theologies written for the powerless and use them to theologically undergird the powerful. Lerner sees this core as a relatively small part of American society. The much larger populace that votes with the religious right does so in support of what it sees as "a community that gives priority to spiritual aliveness and is affirming and loving. That is the experience they are looking for, and for that they are willing to hear God's voice in the way the Religious Right hears it."

Lerner's solution is to call for the redemption of religion in the thinking of the secular left, along with the establishment of a politics that refuses to allow the values of the commonwealth to be trumped by the powers protecting private wealth. He advocates the development of a "spiritual left" as a coherent alternative to religious triumphalism. Were we to adopt this "spiritual-political alternative" and bring together three groups he has identified on the left — the secular, the "spiritual but not religious" and the "progressive religious" — then America could be rescued.

Like Rabbi Lerner, I am a clergyman in a faith community rooted in the prophetic tradition. I share his concerns about the health of the United States and of the world, as measured by our care for one another in a context of peace. I share his hope that there is abundant spiritual energy available to individuals for effective social action over the long haul. That energy is accessed when people are meaningfully rooted in communities where their dignity (along with that of every other human being) finds warm affirmation and where prayer leading to vigorous social action is the norm. These communities can, as Lerner insists, be empowering oases of hope in the midst of the politics of fear in which we now live.

Rabbi Heschel taught that in every moment something sacred is at stake. His student, Rabbi Lerner, has written a book that sends a clear call to everyone who cares about the future of America to take part in the transformation of our history into something of beauty, meaning and justice — a work that, whether we think of it that way or not, is intrinsically sacred.

Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times

Friday, February 17, 2006

Clash of Fundamentalisms, Cartoon Controversy, a Muslim view.

This is the real outrage

Amid the cartoon furore, Danish imams ignore the
tragedies suffered by Muslims across the world

Tariq Ali Monday February 13, 2006 The Guardian,,1708259,00.html

The latest round of culture wars does neither sideany good. The western civilisational fundamentalists insist on seeing Muslims as the other - different, alien and morally evil. Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons in bad faith. Their aim was not to engage in debate but to provoke, and they succeeded. The same newspaper declined to print caricatures of Jesus. I am an atheist and do not know the meaning of the "religious pain" that is felt by believers of every cast when what they believe in is insulted. I am not insulted by billions of Christians, Muslims and Jews believing there is a God and praying to this nonexistent deity on a regular basis.

But the cartoon depicting Muhammad as a terrorist is a crude racist stereotype. The implication is that every Muslim is a potential terrorist. This is the sort of nonsense that leads to Islamophobia.

Muslims have every right to protest, but the overreaction was unnecessary. In reality, the number of original demonstrators was tiny: 300 in Pakistan, 400 in Indonesia, 200 in Tripoli, a few hundred in Britain (before Saturday's bigger reconciliation march), and government-organised hoodlums in Damascus burning an embassy. Beirut was a bit larger. Why blow this up and pretend that the protests had entered the subsoil of spontaneous mass anger? They certainly haven't anywhere in the Muslim world, though the European media has been busy fertilising the widespread ignorance that exists in this continent.

How many citizens have any real idea of what the Enlightenment really was? French philosophers did take humanity forward by recognising no external authority
of any kind, but there was a darker side. Voltaire: "Blacks are inferior to Europeans, but superior to apes." Hume: "The black might develop certain attributes of human beings, the way the parrot manages to speak a few words." There is much more in a similar vein from their colleagues. It is this aspect of the Enlightenment that appears to be more in tune with some of the generalised anti-Muslim ravings in the

What I find interesting is that these demonstrations and embassy-burnings are a response to a tasteless cartoon. Did the Danish imam who travelled round the
Muslim world pleading for this show the same anger at Danish troops being sent to Iraq? The occupation of Iraq has costs tens of thousands of Iraqi lives. Where is the response to that or the tortures in Abu Ghraib? Or the rapes of Iraqi women by occupying soldiers? Where is the response to the daily deaths of Palestinians? These are the issues that anger me. Last year Afghans protested after a US marine in Guantanamo had urinated on the Qur'an. It was a vile act and there was an official inquiry. The marine in question explained that he had been urinating on a prisoner and a few drops had fallen accidentally on the Qur'an - as if pissing on a prisoner (an old imperial habit) was somehow more acceptable.

Yesterday, footage of British soldiers brutalising and abusing civilians in Iraq - beating teenagers with batons until they pass out, posing for the camera as they kick corpses - was made public. No one can seriously imagine these are the isolated incidents the Ministry of Defence claims; they are of course the norm under colonial occupations. Who will protest now - the media pundits defending the Enlightenment or
Muslim clerics frothing over the cartoons?

It's strange that the Danish imams and their friends abroad ignore the real tragedy and instead ensure that the cartoons are now being reprinted everywhere. How will it end? Like all these things do, with no gains on either side and a last tango in Copenhagen around a mountain of unused butter. Meanwhile, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine the occupations continue.

. Tariq Ali is the author of Clash of Fundamentalisms:
Crusades, Jihads and Modernity.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

THE CARTOON CONTROVERSY: Misunderstanding Muslims

Misunderstanding Muslims
By James Carroll | February 13, 2006

WHEN THE KORAN was said to have been denigrated by American guards at Guantanamo last year, Muslims reacted with rage, but most observers in the West misunderstood why.

It was easy for Christians and Jews -- the other "people of the Book" -- to think that such an insult to the Koran was like an insult to the Bible. That would be sacrilege enough, but it was worse than that.

Drawing analogies between religions can mislead, but the Koran stands in Islamic belief more as Jesus does in Christian faith than as the Bible. As this Christian understands it, the Koran embodies the incarnational principle, with the chanting of the holy words that came from God to Mohammed as the way God's presence is experienced again.

Non-Muslims tend to think that the Prophet is to Islam something like what Jesus is to Christianity (which is why non-Muslims have mistakenly called the religion "Mohammedanism"), but it is the Koran that holds such a central place. Hence, Islamic visual celebration is calligraphy, not images. Therefore when the Koran is disrespected, the insult Muslims feel is nothing less than insult to God.

Insult, of course, is the issue that has been put so explosively before the world recently. The Danish cartoons were a flame applied to a primed fuse, and the extraordinary reactions to the images from across the whole House of Islam point beyond the immediate provocation to a far broader sense of insult that Muslims have been made to feel.

One need not excuse the indiscriminate violence of mobs in the streets, nor dismiss the good question of why such rage is not directed against the blasphemy of suicide-murders carried out in the name of Allah to take a lesson from what has happened. The Islamic world seems astoundingly united in sending a stern message to "the West," and instead of focusing again on "what went wrong" with Islam Europeans and Americans would do well to take that message in.

Thinking of deep history, for example, we might recall that the very structures of politics, culture, and thought that define western civilization were expressly erected in opposition to Islam more than 1,000 years ago.

What we call "the West" was born in the clash of civilizations that climaxed in the Crusades, with Muslims assigned the role of the external "negative other" against which Christendom defined itself positively (The internal "negative other" were the Jews). Among Europeans, and then Americans, that intellectual polarity was sublimated over the centuries, but its insult remained current among Muslims, and was powerfully resuscitated by the assault of colonialism.

The economics of oil, including the creation of an oppressive local class of Western-sponsored oligarchs, locked the grievous insult in place. As if to be sure it was more sharply felt than ever, Europe imported "guest workers" from the Islamic world, openly consigning them to an underclass that is as religiously defined as it is permanent.

And then the United States launched its wars. One of the major disconnects in the present conflict is the way in which European and American analysis obsesses with the apparently anarchic outbursts of violence in the "Arab street" without taking in how brutally violent the post-9/11 "coalition" assault has been, not only physically but psychologically.

Mobs throw stones through the windows of European consulate offices, and the legion of CNN watchers recoils with horror. Meanwhile, unmanned drones fly across stretches of desert to drop loads of fire on the heads of subsistence farmers in their villages; children die, but CNN is not there.

Billions of dollars are being poured each month into the project of imposing an American solution on an Arab problem, and increasingly the solution looks, from the other side, like annihilation. Muslims, that is, understand the new reality far better than non-Muslims do -- the state of open cultural warfare that "the West" imagines is a narrowly targeted war against "terrorism." Muslims, as Muslims, experience themselves as on the receiving end of a savage -- but, alas, not unprecedented -- assault.

Are they wrong? In the argument over "Enlightenment" values, sparked by the cartoons, some champions of free expression have fallen into the deadly old mistake that led, in the 20th century, to a grotesque betrayal of those very values -- the over-under ranking of human beings, with the lives of some being counted as cheap.

Why are we killing them? As with multiple problems today, this one comes back to the misbegotten American war. It threatens to ignite the century, and must be stopped.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Quote of the Day, Andrew Sullivan blog, Feb 13

"We believe that among God's good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator," - from the Clergy Letter Project, in which hundreds of mainline Protestant denominations took stand against the rise of Christian fundamentalism.

The same applies, however, to Muslim fundamentalists. It seems to me that one of the most urgent tasks for theological departments in Western universities is to pioneer scholarly research into the origins of the Koran, to deepen our knnowledge of its origins, and shed the light of reason on the claims of Muslim fundamentalists.

Quote of the Day, Andrew Sullivan blog, Feb 13

"We believe that among God's good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator," - from the Clergy Letter Project, in which hundreds of mainline Protestant denominations took stand against the rise of Christian fundamentalism.

The same applies, however, to Muslim fundamentalists. It seems to me that one of the most urgent tasks for theological departments in Western universities is to pioneer scholarly research into the origins of the Koran, to deepen our knnowledge of its origins, and shed the light of reason on the claims of Muslim fundamentalists.