Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine and founder of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, has written an astounding essay connecting the current groundswell of concern for peace and compassion to the historical context of the progressive movement of the 1960's.
He begins by framing the internal struggle that each of us as humans goes through on a fairly constant basis, and that is the struggle between fear and hope, the latter being another expression for love. This appears as a tension between our desire for meaningful community (hope) balanced with our fears of protecting our self-interest. Some version of this dichotomy is experienced by all who wrestle with questions like: How can I help? What difference can I make? Is peace even possible? Who really cares?
At any moment when people go for their highest ideals and momentarily overcome their fears, those fears and tendencies toward narrow self-interest have not been eradicated, and are still there. In each of us there is a deep yearning for loving connection and mutual recognition, for a world of meaning and higher purpose, and for a morally and spiritually coherent life and a community within which to live such a life. But there is also a set of voices that tell us that these yearnings are purely our own, and may even represent some level of infantile or adolescent fantasy or even individual pathology, and that to be a realistic and rational adult these yearnings should be repressed and we should learn to be fearful of the others who surround us.
Within this context of people overcoming their own fears and doubts to finally take action, all of us who consider ourselves part of a "peace movement" must be tolerant, open, and accepting of all points of view and levels of commitment. Lerner describes how a lack of acceptance hurt the movement in the Sixties:
A smart and successful movement must make room for all of these, and take a compassionate attitude toward the various levels of ambivalence. Unfortunately, the movements of the 1960s and early 1970s were not smart in this sense, and allowed a “political correctness” dynamic to emerge in which people were constantly putting each other down for not being committed enough, not being willing to take enough risks, and still having within their own consciousness elements of ego, self-interest, racism, sexism, homophobia, “white-skin privilege,” and various other maladies. And, of course, the criticisms were often true. But the point is that they were delivered without compassion, and hence in an extremely destructive way that pushed millions of people away from these social change movements.
Knowing that anger, self-righteousness, bitterness, and violence, whether expressed verbally, emotionally, or physically, have no place in a peace movement, we must be ever vigilant in our own internal experience to observe these negative emotions and surrender them. Only in this way can we keep them from poisoning and fragmenting any sort of unity the movement might otherwise build. For those that have been reading my series on Father Keating's guideposts for Christian transformation, his ideas on the false self vs. the true self resonate with what Rabbi Lerner is saying here. We all have a higher self that wants to transcend the strife, bitterness, and divisiveness we see in our society, and we have to get in touch with that higher self, cultivate it, and remember it in our daily lives if we are truly going to work for peace.
The truth is that when Americans are informed about something that is hurting others unnecessarily, and there is something that can be done, they want to do something to end the pain. In short, the abiding secret that is the major foundation for progressive politics is this: Americans have a strong ethical instinct, a fundamental goodness and caring and generosity, that can be tapped whenever they feel safe to show it. Usually that takes a natural disaster like a hurricane or flood or earthquake or mass starvation, but in 2006 they showed it by insisting that their elected representatives end the killing in Iraq.
Rabbi Lerner points out that we are now in the very heart of an axial moment as a society; a groundswell of compassion has risen to the surface and acted as a catalyst for change. Now, what will we do with the catalyst? Judging by the timid actions of our newly elected Congress, it looks as if, at least politically, this energy may be squandered. As Lerner puts it:
So instead of Democrats acting like they have a mandate for a new vision of politics, they instead talk as if their mandate is for “bipartisanship” and “governing from the Center” and a bunch of other empty ideas that will squelch the moment of hope and disarm the idealism that made this victory possible.
And wait, it may get worse before it gets better:
Bush and Cheney may be setting up the country for an even more reactionary regime in the not-too-distant-future. Imagining that it can keep a military presence of some sort in Iraq until the next president takes over, the Bush/Cheney wing of the political Right may be able to then blame “the loss of Iraq” on a liberal/progressive movement that has “stabbed America and democracy in the back.” It was this kind of rhetoric that accompanied the rise of fascism in Germany after the defeat of German troops in World War I, and it is conceivable that the same path might be followed here by people who are unwilling to go down in history as having lost yet another American war.
All the more reason why we should insist that the end of the war happen under Bush’s presidency, rather than under the presidency of a liberal or progressive who succeeds him in office. But to win that battle, the anti-war movement needs to change from a movement that is against the status quo, to a movement that has a positive vision of what it is actually for.
I put that last phrase in bold print, because as faithful Peace Meme readers will know, that's what I've been trying to say all along. The peace movement cannot afford to define itself narrowly as an "anti-war movement." In fact, I don't believe we should frame ourselves as anti-anything. What are we for? What's the alternate vision to this, "if we stop fighting and killing, others will fight and kill us?" Surely at this late date in human evolution we can find better ways of being in the world than this.
I believe the problem lies in our unwillingness to end our collective state of denial about the way our American way of life affects the rest of the world. When it comes right down to it, I believe that's what the war in Iraq is all about. If you read Rebuilding America's Defenses, with all its talk of "global hegemony" and "Pax Americana," that's really what we're fighting for: another source of cheap oil so we don't have to face the hard facts that our way of life isn't sustainable forever. Until each of us, as individuals, takes a good hard look at our own lives to see where they might be out of balance, takes action to correct the imbalances, and then warmly, lovingly, and compassionately invites others to do the same, we are butting our heads against a brick wall. So, where to begin? I'm glad you asked. Rabbi Lerner has a plan, a positive vision of what a more peaceful world could look like:
We must demand of the anti-war movement and of the pro-peace forces inside the Congress that they move beyond “Out Now” and include as equally central to their public discourse the insistence on the Global Marshall Plan (point No. 7 of our Spiritual Covenant with America, detailed in my book The Left Hand of God). Simply stated, our demand is that the U.S. take the lead (by example, actually doing this ourselves) in taking 5 percent of the GDP for each of the next twenty years and dedicate it to a sophisticated plan (i.e. not just dumping the money into dictatorships or give-aways, but a plan that would work to build the capacities of each society) to end global poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, inadequate health care, and repair the damage done to the earth’s environment by 150 years of irresponsible industrialization by both capitalist and socialist nations).
As a first step in bringing this to the attention of the American people, we will be asking people in the spiritual and religious communities to dedicate Saturday, April 28 and Sunday, April 29 to the creation of a Peace Demonstration, Peace Teach-In, or Peace Sabbath dedicated to advocacy for the Global Marshall Plan. We may call it Generosity Sunday. Instead of having demonstrations led by angry people who spew words of hatred against the government, we need to have spiritually infused demonstrations in every community in our country, led by people who say not only Out Now, but Global Marshall Plan Now, that is, who have a positive vision of what we are for rather than a purely negative vision of what we are against.
It is my hope that more folks will take an interest in Rabbi Lerner's ideas, because they resonate with truth and spiritual conviction that I find lacking in many other "progressive" voices. This must be a revolution of spirit, not just economics or politics. This is the only way to lasting peace, the only way to access our higher selves, the only way to change.