The Religious Left Fights Back
Rabbi Michael Lerner is stirring up trouble again -- thank God.
Earlier this week, Lerner was the main organizer of a national gathering in Berkeley, California, for the religious Left. His "Spiritual Activism" conference was intended to help launch a much-needed new initiative: the Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP).
Lerner has been the spark-plug for many progressive, faith-based undertakings over the years, including Tikkun magazine. But this latest effort is an order of magnitude more challenging than anything he has attempted thus far. And given the stakes for our ailing would-be democracy, the birthing of NSP may prove to be his most important calling.
Lerner wants to help forge a new alliance of "religious, secular and spiritual, but not religious, progressives." This alliance will someday expose and challenge the cancer of American consumerism. And it will oppose the religious Right's abuse of scripture to promote war, intolerance and ugly corporate agendas.
By itself, those two goals would warrant full-throated support from all progressives. But don't be surprised if the good rabbi's efforts also draw some serious "boos" from many parts of the Left, as well. That's because Lerner's bravest and hardest work is aimed much closer to home.
He wants to do more than just minister to the mall-lobotomized masses or give the fundamentalists a well-deserved spanking. He also wants to challenge the Left's chronic and toxic bias against religious feeling, expression and people.
Lerner hopes to end "religio-phobia among progressives." And such efforts will not be welcome among a great many rabidly secular progressives.
As for me, I will be praying for the Rabbi's success. I am an African-American Christian who was raised in the American heartland. When I moved to the cosmopolitan coasts of Connecticut, and later California, I ran headlong into shocking levels of anti-religious bigotry among progressives.
I literally have had liberals laugh in my face when I told them I was a Christian. For awhile, I felt self-conscious about telling other activists that I preferred not to meet on Sunday mornings, because I wanted to go to church.
It is still commonplace to hear so-called radicals stereotyping all religious people as stupid dupes -- and spitting out the word "Christian" as if it were an insult or the name of a disease. I thought progressives were supposed to be the standard-bearers of tolerance and inclusion.
I certainly know the monstrous crimes that have been committed through the ages in the name of religion, or with the blessings of religious people. But I know a few other things about religion, too.
I grew up in the Black churches of the rural south, listening to the stories of my elders. As children, we heard about the good, brave people who had poured their blood out upon the ground so that we could be free. We learned how police officers had clubbed and jailed them. We learned how Klansmen had shot and lynched them. And how the G-men from Washington had just stood by and doodled in their notepads.
We learned of marches and mayhem, freedom songs and funerals. We saw images of billy-clubbed Black women on their hands and knees, searching for their teeth on Mississippi sidewalks -- crawling while still clutching their little American flags. We felt pity for the children who spent long nights in frigid jail cells, wearing clothing soaked by fire-hoses, while their bones -- broken and untended -- began to mend at odd angles.
We saw pictures of Black men, like our fathers, hanging by their necks -- their faces twisted, their bodies rigid, their clothes burned off -- along with their skin. And we saw photos of carefree killers, sauntering home out of Alabama courtrooms -- their faces white and sneering and proud.
We learned how the very best of humanity had faced off with the very worst of humanity -- each circling the other under the same summer sun. That epic struggle had elevated southern back roads and backwaters onto the Great World Stage. And the fate of a people -- along with the destiny of a nation -- hung in the balance, for all to see.
In the end, we children cheered, for the righteous did prevail. More than that, they performed one of the great miracles in human history: They transformed American apartheid into a fledgling democracy, tender and delicate and new.
All progressives today proudly celebrate that achievement -- and rightly so. But one key fact seems to escape the notice of today's activist crowd. The champions of the civil rights struggle didn't come marching out of shopping centers in South. Or libraries. Or high school gymnasiums.
To face the attack dogs, to face the fire-hoses, to face the billy-clubs, these heroes and she-roes came marching boldly out of church-houses. And they were singing church songs. They set an example of courage and sacrifice that will endure for the ages. And as they did it, they prayed on wooden pews in the name of a Nazarene carpenter named Jesus.
The implications are clear for those who seek today to rescue and redeem U.S. society. The facts are simple and profound: The last time U.S progressives captured the national debate and transformed politics, people of faith were at the center of the movement, not stuck in its closet.
As a descendent of enslaved Africans who were told that God (and not capitalist greed) required their degradation, I know the crimes of the Christian church as well as anyone. But as a child of the civil rights movement, I also know the power of Christian faith, the power of moral appeal and the power of spiritual strength -- to break asunder the bonds of servitude.
And in our do-or-die effort to set things right in America, it is time for U.S. progressives to return to the bottomless well of soul power that sustained the slaves and defeated Jim Crow.
That is why I applaud Rabbi Lerner's efforts. He is standing in a long tradition of faith-honoring Americans, who have helped lead the charge from barbarism toward democracy. In the 1800s, escaping Africans fled enslavement through the bedrooms and basements of Quakers, along the famous Underground Railroad. In the 1980s, religious congregations led the Sanctuary Movement. Their efforts opened up U.S. cities to Latinos who were fleeing U.S. President Ronald Reagan's violent and covert interventions in Latin America.
The Rabbi's new efforts also resonate today. Reeling from the steady string of recent defeats, even the most hard-core U.S. activists are seeking deeper meaning and spiritual sustenance in their lives. At the same time, previously apolitical "spiritual types" are getting involved as activists for the first time -- to defend the Earth and her people from the predations of the Bush agenda.
Rev. Jim Wallis' most recent book, God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, struck a chord this year and became an instant bestseller. Rev. Frances Hall Kieschnick (spouse of Working Assets wunderkind Michael Kieschnick) is taking steps to start a Beatitudes Society, to give more voice to progressive people of faith. Similar efforts are springing up on smaller scales all across the country.
Somewhere, in all of these stirrings, I see the seeds of a wisdom-based, Earth-honoring, pro-democracy movement -- one that affirms and applauds religious and spiritual impulses, while opposing fundamentalism, chauvinism and theocracy. Over time, this kind of progressive movement has the potential to win -- and win big -- in the United States. To be honest: it is probably the only type of progressive movement that stands a chance in a country as religious as ours.
Such a movement is within reach. But progressives must abandon the old pattern of reducing the Great Faiths to their worst elements, constituents and crimes -- and then dismissing all other facts and features. It is not just stupid political strategy. At a moral level, it is a form of blindness and bigotry that is beneath all of us.
My prayer is that a critical mass of progressives can agree on two basic premises.
Number one: Any progressive approach to "faith in politics" that ignores the awful crimes of religiously-inspired people is dishonest, inauthentic and can never achieve emancipatory ends.
Number two: At the same time, any approach that fails to honor and embrace the positive contributions of religiously inspired people is also wrong-headed, and it foolishly and needlessly shuts progressives off from our own history, achievements and present sources of vital support.
I believe that Rabbi Lerner has come up with a thoughtful, sensitive and wise approach, worthy of broad-based affirmation. He aims to: "build an alliance between secular, religious and 'spiritual but not religious' progressives -- in part by challenging the anti-religious biases in parts of the liberal culture (while acknowledging the legitimacy of anger against those parts of the religious world that have embodied authoritarian, racist, sexist, homophobic or xenophobic practices and attitudes").
That is a formulation that the vast majority of progressives should be able to adopt, affirm and cheer about. And I proudly say to it, Amen, brother Lerner ... Amen!