“Politics with Spirit”
Rev. Julie Kain
Today as we count ourselves among the people of faith who gather regularly as a community on Sunday morning, there are Muslims around the world who are concluding a month long commitment of fasting and spiritual discipline required by their faith and known as Ramadan.
We happen to live in a part of the world where our understanding and even our very awareness of practicing Muslims is largely, conspicuously absent from our thoughts and conversation. This reflects a longstanding tension and deep seated mistrust between what we know as the West and the parts of the world that have been historically Islamic nations. Especially for those of us who have not had the privilege of experiencing Islamic culture and religion firsthand, we are faced with a very limited perception of Muslims that is largely veiled in a shroud of mystery but accentuated by our constant reminder of extremist activities through the news media.
Now it would simply be impossible for me to attempt to rectify in a few minutes the absence of the Islamic faith on our Western mental radar screens, but today we can take a few steps toward recognizing the powerful faith held by one out of every 5 or 6 people on our planet, and grow a little bit in our understanding of it.
To include a brief excursion into the world of Islam is also fitting to our main topic today: Politics with Spirit. I will begin to explore with you the connection between personal values, sometimes considered religious values, and people’s motivations and actions in the public square.
Isn’t it interesting that those two words are basically interchangeable but they describe radically different shapes?!
The lunar month of the Islamic calendar known as Ramadan commemorates two significant events in the life of Muhammad. One is the only miracle attributed to the prophet. Ramadan falls at the beginning of the 23 years in which Muhammad received the elaborate and poetic messages from God that he recorded and is recognized as sacred text, the “Koran”, which literally means “recitation”.
Ramadan also commemorates Muhammad’s accompanied exodus from the city of Mecca ten years after the beginning of his receiving the Koranic messages and his establishment of a new social order based on Islamic tenets in the city of Medina, renamed to this, meaning the “City of the Prophet”.
Practicing Muslims honor and celebrate the holy month of Ramadan by fasting from dawn to sunset. The spiritual discipline of fasting reminds them of important events in their religious history and fosters compassion and gratitude for one’s life and blessings. Only the hungry really know what hunger means.
Ramadan is the fourth in the Five Pillars of Islam. These are the guiding principles of a Muslim’s personal life. The first pillar is the repeated recognition and recitation that “there is no god by God and Muhammad is his prophet”. The second is a commitment to regular prayer. The third is the religious practice of charity, and the fifth is for all who are able to make the pilgrimage once in their lives to the city of Mecca. Once there pilgrims gather with other Muslims from other lands and develop international appreciation for their faith. And every pilgrim, regardless of their homeland or economic status, exchanges their own clothes for simple garments that unify them with others of their faith.
In addition to the guidelines for Muslims in their personal lives (which induced more than what I’ve just mentioned) there are the social teachings of Islam. They are elaborate and have components with fundamental differences from what is familiar to us as Westerners. This helps to explain the deep historical divide between our cultures.
Just as Jewish and Christian values have helped to shape and inform the social institutions of the West, the Koran has served to help shape Islamic society. The Koran is more explicitly a guidebook for Islamic society than the Bible has been where politics, religion and social institutions are intentionally blended.
Despite its real shortcomings and it’s susceptibility to fundamentalism and fanaticism which exists in all religions, Islamic history demonstrated a moral advance in a large portion of our world in a shorter amount of time than any other religion has been able to achieve.
Although the Koran does not promote the pacifism of turning the other cheek, its image of being a militant religion is largely a prejudice resulting from 1300 years in which Islam and Europe have shared common borders and fought over them. The Holy War referred to in the Koran is basically identical with the Just War of the Catholic canon. And if we look at the full view of religious history, the Koran’s verse of “let there be no compulsion in religion” can be considered the first core mandate for religious tolerance in history. The Islamic culture has actually demonstrated far more racial equality and religious tolerance than have the cultures of the world’s other religions. And furthermore the violence of the crusades and the Inquisition perpetuated by the hands of Christians is seen as a darker time in world history than the violent episodes present in the Islamic world. During Europe’s Dark Ages, Islamic culture with its philosophers and scientists enjoyed a rise of literature, science, medicine, art and architecture.
Today Islamic people have been facing some deep challenges of living in a post-colonial time. Much of the unrest and violence we are familiar with as Westerners results from the tension between the move toward modernization and industrialization but the rejection of Westernization. There are also the strong forces of nationalism that compromise the religious unity of Islamic peoples. The religious and racial tolerance that has been practiced in Muslim countries in prior times is much more difficult in the current climate of charged political conflict over Muslim identity.
This now leads us to the second portion of my message this morning where I’d like to introduce you to the work of Rabbi Michael Lerner and his book “The Left Hand of God”.
There is a strong strain of religious triumphalism at work in our world today. We do not only see it in Islam, we also see it in Judaism, right-wing Christianity and other religions, as well. The central stance of religious triumphalism says “Our God will emerge as the one real God at the end of history, and all the rest of you will get the punishment you deserve”.
Doesn’t the refrains of this sound all too familiar?
This is what Michael Lerner refers to as the Right Hand of God.
The Right Hand of God is an image of God with a hand of power and domination. While celebrating a message of love, the Right Hand of God also celebrates the pain inflicted on those who are perceived as evil. This image of God then fits nicely with a politics of militarism and xenophobic nationalism – including our very own American drive toward domination over most all of the other countries in the world.
Lerner asserts that one reason why this way of thinking is so strong and appealing to so many in our world today is because many people simply can’t imagine how a world with so much pain and cruelty can be overcome except through some sort of God as an all powerful savior who provides the single answer to saving us from ourselves.
I had been aware for several years of the magazine, Tikkun, and its editor, Rabbi Michael Lerner, but I did not know about Lerner’s coalition building efforts until a friend who I met in Adult Education class at the Berkeley church started telling me about it. My friend who I will call Sarah had been a member of the Berkeley church for many years along with her longtime partner. They are both attorneys although he had retired after serving in the Navy from his labor law practice representing migrant workers in California and had begun taking classes at the largest seminary in Berkeley, the Pacific School of Religion. Sarah has been working with a firm to help limit the power of California’s public utility market.
While he was taking Old and New Testament classes, Sarah was revisiting her identity as a secular Jew. Her grandmother had come from Russia and her parents had been avid labor activists without any presence of religion in their lives.
Sarah and her husband decided to attend the Jewish services that Rabbi Michael Lerner was leading as a place where they could learn together and share their views with each other. Sarah was unfamiliar with much of the Jewish ritual but she really enjoyed the hearty singing together that the community would do. And before long, Sarah and her husband became very impressed with what Michael Lerner was doing to mobilize social action. Through his magazine, his writing and his public speaking, Michael had been organizing conferences in different parts of the country. He would help to bring in social activist speakers from other faith traditions and regularly the rotation of conference cities would include Washington, D.C., as it was last spring. The participants would alternate attending presentations and workshops with physically lobbying with groups of others at the offices and events of our national legislators.
I am personally very excited about the momentum Lerner has been helping to build in recent years. I will follow today’s introduction to Lerner’s work with a Politics with Spirit, Part Two next month where I will share with you the specific points of mobilization in Lerner’s strategy – as the subtitle to his book “The Left Hand of God” states “taking back our country from the Religious Right”.
Michael Lerner believes and is acting on the belief that a new political alliance can be forged between three fairly large, loose categories of people who are finding it difficult to hold their stand in the public square today.
These groups are 1) militantly secular leftists, 2) those he calls “spiritual but not religious people”. These people are equally uncomfortable with what they see as dogmatism and rigidity in both religious people and the antispiritual biases of secularists.
The third group is progressive people in the multi-faith religious world. People who actively practice their own faith traditions while also striving to fulfill their strong commitments to social justice and peace.
Lerner asserts that another reason why the Right Hand of God mentality is so prevalent today is that there is a marked absence of an articulated, coherent spiritual-political alternative.
Too many Liberals and progressives are afraid to use any religious or spiritual languages and so they are accused of not having any religious or spiritual foundations. Or they are accused of even worse – contributing to the demise of religious and spiritual values in our society. Secular people are attacked for the same reason.
Lerner asserts this is largely unfair. He suggests that no one in America has become materialistic and selfish because there were people in their neighborhood or workplace or school who are liberal or don’t believe in God. He continues to say that this group of Liberals and non-believers are no more materialistic or selfish than those who do believe in God, attend church, or vote conservatively in elections.
Lerner encourages us as people of faith to be “unequivocal rather than apologetic about championing a vision of love and generosity”. We can, and should, claim the values we hold as based in the teaching of the Torah, the Prophets, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha and the wisdom of the world’s traditions that hold in common the belief in a world where love, kindness, peace and social justice is really possible.
Perhaps we can find a way to stand firm and together in coalition, offering a legitimate alternative in the public square.
May it be so.