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A Note on Politics and Spirituality

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My remarks here as we engage a new year are inspired by your recent pieces debating spirituality in the military and by the work of Rabbi Michael Lerner and others; and are meant to broaden the discussion to society as a whole. I begin with the premise that we humans are born with an innate need for positive recognition and connection to our fellow humans every bit as fundamental to human life as the need for food and water. In fact, as psychologists who study early childhood teach us, we will not become fully human unless this need is met. We are born needing to care and be cared for. I further believe, with all the major world religions as well as aboriginal spiritual traditions, that this innate need for recognition and connection to others has an intrinsic spiritual wellspring to which we must return.

This need is systematically frustrated and retarded by our capitialist market society that encourages individualistic competition and self interest at the expense of all else. Growing economic fears in the midst of market society's failure certainly are central to the insecurity and pain people feel. But this hardship is also connected to the widely shared belief that we cannot count on each other to stand up to corporate or governmental power or to provide adequate care for those of us who have been hurt when corporations downsize and outsource our jobs to the Third World. We are taught that we live in a meritocracy where people wind up in whatever positions we hold in society either through our own talents if positive or our own fault if negative. Many of us learn to become highly cynical and to watch out for number one because we cannot trust anybody to be there for us if we stumble and fall. Such cynicism is rooted in in a deep belief that nothing about our social world can be fundamentally transformed and in the fear we will be stigmatized as naive fools if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to try. The result is that many of us are caught in a thick web of pessimism and cynicism that leads us to question any higher purpose in life beyond materialistic self interest, and centrally involves using other people from the standpoint of what we can get from them. We are often rewarded for the degree to which we are willing and able to put our own interests above those of our friends and neighbors.

But human beings hunger to be recognized by others and cherished for our own sakes, not valued only for our achievements and possessions. We yearn for communities of meaning, whether religious-based or secular, that transcend competitive individualism and materialistic consumerism. The economic crisis and the crisis of meaning are two sides of the same crisis. Most of all, we want an ethical and spiritual framework that gives our lives higher purpose.

The Bible has over 3,000 verses on the poor and on the obligation to fight poverty and to stand with the least among us. There are no verses telling us to serve those who already have the most with policies ensuring that they get even more. The Bible never tells us to value wealth over work, the rich over the poor--or that war is the first and not the last resort. Jesus would tell the rich, as in the 25th chapter of Matthew: "I was hungry. I was thirsty. I was naked. I was sick. I was a stranger. I was in prison. And you didn't come to see me. You didn't minister to me. As you've done to the least of these, you've done to me." I am not a devotee of any Western faith, but I do understand the core ethic of Christianity and all the other great world religions as teaching us that our deepest moral commitment is to each other--that we are all in this life together. And this ethic is of course also central to all varieties of secular liberal philosophies.

My approach to politics endeavors to address our need for meaning and higher purpose in the context of class-based oppression with its roots in the injustice of our economic system. But this oppression cannot be overcome only by providing adequate economic resources and health, education, and welfare services--as crucially important as these material resources are to human well being. Rather, we must also strive to frame every social issue in terms of the infinite preciousness of every human being as inherently deserving of compassionate care and respect; and encourage the middle class and poor alike to become allies who understand that all of us are the miraculous embodiments of spiritual energy. It is most important to understand social policies in terms of the fundamental unity and oneness of all life in the universe, and to work to build a society of greater equity and personal liberty on this basis.

Politics is not at bottom about the struggle for power, but rather calls for an international social movement whose goal is to nurture our souls. As Rabbi Lerner astutely frames the heart of the matter, politics is above all else a manifestation of the spiritual and ethical consciousness of humanity. Accordingly, every major reform movement in America--from the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, child labor reform to civil rights--has been motivated by this core insight and ethical compass that insists on human equality and individual liberty.

And so I call on all people of good will--people of faith and the secular-minded alike--to challenge the rich and the powerful to change their ways and policies to include all of humanity in sharing the bounty of the creativity and productivity of all the world's people. I call on all of us to stand together to serve the common good--to do the best we can on behalf of the least of us, which, in accord with the core vision of all the world's major faith traditions, turns out to be on behalf of all of us. There are no divisions.

 

See faculty of School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Mar

Resident sociologist at Marist College in Poughkeepsie New York since 1993, and co-director of Public Praxis Project since 1996. Author of numerous articles, op-ed pieces, and (1990)book, Mirrors of Madness;currently working on, Entering the Light: (more...)
 

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