A New bottom Line

Discussing spirit and politics with Rabbi dr. Michael Lerner
Interview by Doug Collins


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Michael Lerner
J Edgar Hoover once called Michael Lerner " one of the most dangerous men in America."

Because of my life experiences, I, like many modern people, find I can't devote myself to any one particular religion in a traditional sense, though I enjoy learning about all religions as world traditions.

That curiosity led me to the surprising ideas of Michael Lerner, author of The Politics of Meaning and a new book, Spirit Matters. Lerner says the core meaning of spirituality and religion is not what church or temple you go to--or even if you go to one. Instead, it's the willingness to care, to fight for causes you believe in that are against the odds, and to forge a sense of globalism, not in terms of business, but in terms of respect and equality for people from all traditions--a new "bottom line" of love and caring rather than dollars and profits.

So even if you consider yourself an atheist, you may in fact be highly religious in a non-traditional sense of the word.

In a recent essay, Lerner has compared the WTO protestors in Seattle to the Maccabees of ancient Judea, who against the odds fought the domination of the ancient Greek empire, and who eventually succeeded in their David-and-Goliath struggle.

Although he's based in California, Lerner has an interesting history in Seattle. He was one of the Seattle Seven anti-war protest organizers who were arrested here in 1970 on federal charges that were later dropped. Since then, he has become a psychologist, then a rabbi. He currently heads a synagogue in Berkeley and is the editor of Tikkun magazine, which focuses on spiritual, progressive and political topics from a Jewish perspective.

I spoke with Lerner in Seattle in December during his book tour for Spirit Mattersand found he had some excellent ideas on the shortcomings of progressivism in the US.

COLLINS:30 years ago you were in jail on comtempt of court charges as one of the Seattle Seven What brought you to Seattle and to jail here?

LERNER: I had come here to test out my ideas of how to build the movement. In Berkeley everyone was fighting with each other about which direction to go. It seemed like a good idea to come here where the movement wasn't as developed. In a matter of three months, I had organized the Seattle Liberation Front which had a thousand people in it, the largest progressive group in the Northwest. The basic idea I was interested in testing out was: what would happen if you built a movement that assumed the American people were on our side and not against us? The main way was to put on the ballot an initiative that would have lowered taxes of middle-income and working people at the state level and also set up an institution to receive federal income taxes that would withhold the money from the federial government until it ended the war in Vietnam. When we started that initiative process we had people lining up in the streets to sign it. Within two weeks after we launched this plan, the federal government indicted me and others I was working with. The conspiracy trial was based on a demonstration that had taken place a few weeks earlier at the federal courthouse. I was charged with "using the facilities of interstate commerce with the intent of inciting a riot". The "facilities of interstate commerce" was the telephone in my case. The charges were later on declared unconstitutional, but this succeeded in scaring lots of people. I never threw a rock in my life. If I could be brought into court for allegedly having a bad intention, people in the movement became too scared to stay involved.

The demonstration was not peaceful because the police attacked us. The prosecution claimed that the police came out because some people threw rocks and paint at the courthouse, but during the trial it was revealed that the FBI had all these agents in our organization. One admitted during the trial that the FBI had paid for the paint and that FBI agents brought a bunch of rocks to throw by the courthouse. Police agents were consistently playing the role of baiting anybody who supported nonviolence.

The initiative we sponsored probably would have passed had Slade Gorton not intervened by keeping it from the ballot. He was the attorney general at the time. I sued him to let the electorate have the vote on this but it didn't work. So he was defeated recently? I'm very happy about that!

How did you develop spiritually during your jail experience?

I had a too narrow conception of human needs at that time. I was in prison over Hannukah. The Rabbi who came to the prison didn't bring a menorah or the candles. We asked him, "How come you don't have this?" and he said, "I was only allowed to bring one thing and what I thought you'd really want is this salami so you could all have something good to eat." It was very interesting that all the Jewish prisoners were really disappointed because we wanted our souls to be nourished more than our stomachs. The assimilated consciousness of American Jews at the time was buying into America's materialism and thought that really what people wanted was just a bigger salami. That moment really crystallized for me what was happening in the Jewish world that upset me: the lack of real spiritual understanding. And then I began to realize the problems of our organizing. We were assuming that people were only interested in material needs. We thought we could lure them by reducing their taxes in connection with ending the war in Vietnam. What we didn't address was the hunger that people have for spiritual reality.

In the coming years, I worked as a psychotherapist with low and middle income people and my major project was to try to understand why people were moving to the right politically. In the course of the research we discovered something startling. Namely, that people were moving to the right because the right was saying something correct: there is a spiritual crisis in American society, and the left and liberal/progressive forces didn't understand that at all. The left tended to focus entirely on the issue of inclusion in America's material celebration and political rights. I totally supported that agenda and I still do, only what I discovered is that it is only one dimension of human needs and that there were other dimensions that were deeper. A need for love and caring. A need for a world that is non-instrumental. A need to relate to the universe with awe and wonder, not just an attitude of how we use it.

There is an ethos of the left movement that made people feel like they had to choose between religious consciousness and progressive consciousness. If you had a religious foundation, you were made to feel apologetic or to just keep it to yourself. We should challenge the secularism and anti-religious biases in the movement. After all, one of the most successful movements of the 60s--the civil rights movement--was based entirely on a spiritual foundation.

Many religious circles are politically reactionary and repressive, but we--the movement--misunderstood that. We identified the essence of religion as being reactionary. That was a big error.

Secular people in the movement expected revolution immediately, and when it didn't happen they said, "Oh well, we tried that. Now let's go work on our own heads because we can't make social change." The religious people had a tradition that teaches you how to continue even when you're not winning. Religious traditions are good at sustaining ideals when it looks like you're not going to win right away.

Another modern movement, communism, started as a very idealistic belief that inspired many people to fight for ideals that were against the odds, but it ended up creating widespread cynicism in most of the countries where it eventually dominated. Doesn't this mean there are some limits to idealism?

I don't interpret that as a limit of idealism. I interpret that as an abandonment of idealism and a triumph of cynicism. Stalin was crazily involved in power. The reason he succeeded was the despair of people in the Soviet Union because of the failure of revolution to develop in the advanced capitalist countries. Stalin said, "Forget about revolution in other countries. We'll just consolidate here." That appealed to the realists, not the idealists. Most people became "realistic", and that's why Stalin won. They then used Marxist words, but had given up on really believing in it.

So people might think, "Doesn't that warn you that any ideals can be turned into something else?" Yes! Any ideal can be transformed into its opposite. There is never a guarantee that the ideal will be sufficient in keeping some people from taking that ideal and using it for the opposite of what it stands for. That's in the history of every religion, of Marxism, of Freud's psychoanalysis, and every liberatory tradition. In the name of "democracy" they've just eliminated democracy in Florida, right? In the name of "freedom" the US went in and murdered three million Vietnamese....

There's a story that when the next-to-the last capitalist is being hanged, the last capitalist will be selling the rope. Everything can be sold. In that context there are all kinds of flaky forms of spirituality that come forward and that are marketed for the sake of making a buck. There's as much spiritual snake oil as any other kind of snake oil. It's the difference between the kind of phony love you see on television and real love. You have to go in with an open heart and experience it and see if it feels real to you. The problem with opening your heart is that sometimes you get disappointed. That's as true as much in love as in spirit. Whenever you open your heart, there may be people who are willing to manipulate your openness. You just have to pay attention. You can learn to distinguish between superficial and non-superficial forms of spirituality and love.

You've received high-progile lambastings by Rush Limbaugh and having written books that have become famous, so you have become somewhat of a celebrity yourself. Do you feel some temptation to follow the same sort of Hollywoodization and marketing of your own spiritual beliefs?

The honest truth is that I'm not famous enough. I haven't really felt that I'm at the level where there's much temptation. In Tikkun I've been taking stands critical of Israel's policies towards Palestinians based on the spiritual understanding that every human being is equally valuable. We have to love Palestinians as much as we love Jews. As I've done this in the past few months, I've been getting death threats, people are canceling subscriptions to Tikkun. That's a kind of spirituality that doesn't easily lead to sell-out. It's a spirituality with teeth that is concerned about social justice. The media doesn't want that kind of spirituality. The marketplace wants spirituality to accomodate the dominant power, not challenge it.

One idea that you write about is "spiritual emancipation": the notion that no religion is superior to another and the need to develop a spirituality that transcends any one religion. Will the diversity of traditional religions be lost as we pursue a more global spirituality? Wouldn't it just be a globalization of spirituality similar to the much-criticized globalization of business?

In order to have emancipatory spirituality, you don't have to eliminate the particularities of each religion. All they have to adopt is another meta-view that there are other possible paths. If I have kids I can believe that my kids are the best kids in the world, but that doesn't force me to denigrate anyone else's kids, or prevent me from seeing that other parents might see their own kids as the best.

I'm not for a homogenization of religions into one tradition. I'm for developing a sense of respect for all of them, not based on grudging acceptance, or on a triumphalist view such as "after we die, I'm going to heaven and they're going to roast in hell." A post-triumphalist view accepts that all religions are legitimate paths as long as they accept human beings as created in the image of God, and don't denigrate others.

I am for a globalization of spirit with regard to one important question: the need to create a new bottom line of love and caring, and the need to replace the old bottom line of money and power. We can fight the globalization of capital with the globalization of spirit. The globalization of capital can best be understood as the globalization of selfishness. It encourages people to think that everybody's out for themselves and that everybody wants to accumulate as much money and power as possible.

In an essay entitled "Clinton's Spiritual Crisis" you criticize hypocritical outrage at Bill Clinton over the sex scandals, and point out that Americans need to look at their own personal lives more closely, rather than just the President. If we progressives take a self-critical look at our own organizations, what do we see?

If you go to an orthodox world in Judaism or an evangelical church you'll sermons full of reactionary drivel, but after the service is over, you find people coming up to you and asking questions like, "Do you have a place for lunch?" or "Is there anybody in your family that's sick that needs a visit?" or if you're single, "Can I introduce you to somebody?" There is caring and concern on a real grassroots level. Whereas in the left and in progressive social change movements, you go to a meeting and ideas are being articulated, sophisticated and so forth, but as soon as the meeting is over, nobody cares for you. You're on your own. There's no ethos of people taking care of each other. If we had a spiritually oriented movement that said that loving and caring is our bottom line, then we'd see it's not just about social justice, it's also about caring about each other.

The Ralph Nader and Green movements have been through a lot of gut-wrenching changes since the election. Having written an essay in support of Nader on the "problem of lesser-evilism", where do you see the movement going now?

Think of all those people who ended up voting for Gore. They didn't get Gore, and they didn't vote for somebody they believed in. They really threw their votes away. They're saying, "Why didn't those Nader people vote for us?" But their "realism" didn't make Gore win, and meanwhile they abandoned their ideals. What did they get? Nothing.

Moses was the Ralph Nader of his time when he went to Pharoh and said, "Let my people go." Everyone else was saying, "We're slaves, but we've learned how to be slaves. It's terribe, but what can we do." After Moses came back from his first encounter with Pharoh, Pharoh increased the pain and suffering of the Jewish people. He said, "From now on, we're not going to provide you with straw to make the bricks. You go collect your own straw. If you have so much time to agitate for social change, them I'll use up your time by making you collect the straw." Nader/Moses comes back, and what has he accomplished? He's made things worse rather than better. The people were furious at Moses because he had made things worse. That's the mentality of people who are stuck in slavery. This is always the problem of anyone who is doing organizing against the powerful. The powerful can make things worse for the people, at least at first. Eventually the people rallied behind Moses, but at first they wanted to kill Moses. I think that's the situation the Greens are facing right now. They are being told it's their fault that things are getting worse. But it's not their fault. It's George Bush's fault that things are getting worse. And what about the 48 percent of people who didn't even vote? Why wasn't Gore able to get them to vote for him? Pharoh is the pig, not Moses.

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