Network of Spiritual Progressives offers ‘a new bottom line’
Having never visited U.C. Berkeley, as I approached College Avenue in Oakland in the early light, I almost expected a gilded glow over the campus.
What I found were rather ordinary buildings on a tree-lined street, across from a lineup of tiny shops on the south side of Bancroft Avenue. Except for the massive white columns and steps nearby where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once spoke, this corner of the campus was decidedly “state university plain.”
I had come for the first Network of Spiritual Progressives conference, an interfaith gathering of progressive people who were ready to take their spirituality into politics. Unfortunately, my first words about God that morning were muttered over a broken parking meter—the last open space for blocks.
“You’ll have to pay for that,” said a gaunt, shabby man who walked by as I pounded the meter when my quarters didn’t budge the red “Expired” sign.
I wasn’t sure what he meant.
“The city said if they don’t work, you have to pay,” he called over his shoulder. A street prophet was warning me that my wasted coins wouldn’t save me from a fine. Already late, I shrugged and re-parked.
When I got to the glass doors of the Student Union, a hand-written sign read: “Spiritual Activism Conference.” No budget for the event, I recalled from the welcome letter. None of the speakers were being paid, not even for travel expenses. Among them were best-selling authors Jim Wallis (God’s Politics) and George Lakoff (Don’t Think of An Elephant) as well as many more leaders and experts in their fields. I gained a deeper understanding of “grass roots.”
I had stumbled onto the conference while reading a ZH article (June/July ’05, “The Rise of the Spiritual Left” by Dave Belden) three weeks before. Having never heard of Tikkun, the lead sponsor, or its leader Rabbi Michael Lerner, I read their website (www.tikkun.org). Including an even mix of Jewish and non-Jewish members, the purpose of the group was tucked into its title, tikkun, the Hebrew word for “healing.” Their mission? To heal the world.
Right, I thought. Idealistic is an understatement. But after five years of the fingernails-on-chalkboard sound of leaders voicing Christian words followed by violent foreign aggression and social neglect, I needed some healing myself. As a Christian, I couldn’t go along with this version of spiritual politics, but the Left offered no indication that my spirituality mattered. My leaders were going empire, but I couldn’t go with them. It felt like I had no place to stand.
So I took this dangling bait of hope called progressive spiritual activism, and here I was.
A spiritual crisis
I wasn’t alone. The organizers expected 400 people, and 1300 registered with scores more turned away the last few days. When the opening plenary began in Pauley Ballroom, the atmosphere was electric. Folks from New York, Florida and Pennsylvania sat around me. I heard that nine others from Texas were crammed in here somewhere.
The first speaker, Michael Nagler, U.C. Berkeley professor emeritus of classics and comparative literature, described his own history of non-violent activism alongside the great names. Thunderous applause repeatedly interrupted this quiet man. The packed ballroom of pilgrims couldn’t wait to celebrate ideas they all shared.
More than thirty speakers discussed topics ranging from war and peace to reproductive issues, the economy, science and health care. Names such as Arun Gandhi, Dr. Susan Linn, Van Jones, Esq., Dave Robinson, Ahrar Ahmad and John Shelby Spong. They spoke of spiritual values that spawned their hopes and dreams for a better future, the abandoned values that several said had sparked a spiritual crisis.
From the podium to the back corner chair were Buddhists, Muslims, Sufis, Sikhs, members of a dozen Christian denominations, humanist organizations and Jewish groups from the Tikkun community. Work groups met daily, composed of attendees whose job it was to craft the first draft of a platform plank for their respective policy areas. These included the economy and jobs, materialism and meaning, the environment, non-violent resistance, sexuality, women’s issues and more.
The goal, according to Rabbi Lerner in his opening address, was not to provide Bible verses or God-words for pre-existing liberal/progressive policy, but to demand a radically different view of life. “We’re proposing a whole new way of determining what is efficient, rational and productive,” he said.
“We must challenge the Right and its misuse of God and religion,” Lerner said. “And we must challenge many on the Left who have demeaned and ignored religion and spirituality.” To loud applause, he offered a campaign theme calling for “a new bottom line of love and caring to counter the old bottom line of greed, materialism and power that dominates our society.”
‘Pep rally atmosphere’
Plenary sessions held every morning and evening had a pep rally atmosphere. And the only reason I avoided the mountain-top feeling was due to my encounters with our daunting diversity and collective human flaws.
The diversity sprang up during the first work group I attended on sexuality. With eighty-plus there, we eventually broke into groups of five for discussion. Even in this tiny huddle, we encountered vast differences. The man to my right said that his organization wouldn’t approve same-sex marriage “in our lifetimes” because it was contrary to “divine law.” A woman across from me expressed discomfort with upholding monogamy as a standard of sexual conduct because consenting, non-exploitative adults could make different choices.
Why was I surprised? I celebrate diversity, and here it was staring me in the face. So, we had the opportunity to “come and reason together.” Vive a difference!
I confess: I bailed.
I went to another work group the next day. Not because I wasn’t up to defending my views, mind you, but because of the group’s size, and there were other gays and lesbians there who could stand up for our concerns. They didn’t need me.
The next day, our collective human flaws reared their ugly heads. During the afternoon, I heard whispers of an uprising in the women’s workshop the previous day. Reportedly, a number were angry that women hadn’t been more involved in the planning of the conference, with the result that the vast majority of the plenary speakers were men. So angry were these women, according to first-hand reports, that they continued their venting into the second day, after they’d received “work group” status. Due to the limited time, they were late getting to the business of drafting their statement.
So it is when we stumble. Old wounds reopen quickly. Despite the regret and explanations offered for the gender inequality, some of the women were reportedly disaffected enough to resist cooperation.
At least we won’t have any delusions about the difficulty of the mission.
The second day, I attended the Politics of Meaning work group. Peter Gabel, president emeritus of New College of California and director of the school’s Institute for Spirituality and Politics, facilitated a slightly smaller group. We were instructed to pair off and ask one another, “What keeps you from being present?”
I was paired with a young Asian American man who had as much difficulty as I with answering the same question repeated to him for three minutes. But the exercise certainly made us present to each other. I wanted to go have coffee with him, but there wasn’t time. One frustration of the conference: all these amazing people in one place and I don’t have time to hear their stories.
Anticipating this frustration, the conference arranged for small groups to meet daily. Our group of ten bonded immediately, despite the noisy restaurant on Telegraph where we first met over lunch. The next three days, sharing our heart-level responses to the conference, the group developed authentic relationships that continue.
Politics of the heart
And that’s where true spiritual progressivism starts, according to Lerner, with the heart. We’re afraid to talk about love and caring in the same breath with politics, he said, because we’ve all been disappointed or humiliated in the past when we dared to hope for the best in others. That’s why the network encourages small groups at the local level, because people need the safety and support of authentic relationships. Especially people who want to change the world.
This heart-centeredness lent me hope that maybe this movement would be different. With patience for our diversity and human flaws, maybe we could build loving bonds among us and actually birth creative, transformative solutions to age-old controversies.
The next day, we heard what I believe was an example of that hope.
On Thursday afternoon, Rev. Ama Zenya, senior pastor at UCC’s First Congregational Church of Oakland, spoke about her ministry and her views on the abortion issue. Before this crowd of liberals, feminists and Planned Parenthood leaders, she spoke of her support for women’s reproductive rights.
But you could have heard a feather land when she asked those of us who believe in the sacredness of the environment and the preservation of the smallest animal species, “does our honoring of the sacredness of all life begin only after birth?”
Not a sound.
In the stillness, the young pastor went on to suggest a commitment to both the legal right of women to make their own reproductive choices and the encouragement of women to “choose life.” We could have vigorous programs for the woman who gives birth and faces the choices that follow, she said, and for support and grief counseling for women who make the difficult choice to end their pregnancies. Rev. Zenya then told her own story, voice trembling, of choosing abortion for herself before finding out that her own mother had been trying to conceive and had failed. Her mom would have gladly raised the child.
I was exhilarated. Here was a model of what many hoped would come from this effort: discussion around creative, spiritual alternatives to the polarized, liberal-conservative standoff.
But no new idea goes unchallenged. Later that evening on the steps outside, I overheard a middle-aged woman emphatically explaining to her friend that Rev. Zenya was speaking from guilt and grief and didn’t know how much she was endangering women and the pro-choice position.
Certainly, these arguments must be addressed, but at least someone had had the courage to speak her truth even when it didn’t conform to the old liberal (and failing) formula. Perhaps now, embracing uncertainty and love in a world that includes faith, we can find our way to transformation.
By the third afternoon, I was bleary-eyed from fatigue, so I let myself drift into the music of Holly Near and Peter Kater, two of the many live performances between speakers each day. And helping us not to take ourselves too seriously, comedians also performed—a Muslim and a Palestinian. Both let laughter form another bridge between cultures.
Living our politics
On Friday, pastor and journalist Byron Williams spoke a spirited blessing that roused even this somber, white Protestant. In his Oakland Tribune column afterward (July 24), he wrote that spiritual progressives need more diversity of color and ethnicity to become a vital political influence. While praising the event, he noted that only a handful of African Americans and other ethnicities attended, hardly enough to become the movement we envision.
In the words of Rima Vesely-Flad in the July/Aug. issue of ZH, “We must learn how to live our politics on a deeper, more intimate level.” That includes living in deeper relationships that embrace more and more diversity.
Now that I’m home in East Texas, I plan to ask questions of two of my African American friends—good friends—and deeply listen to their answers. Why have they not been interested in our peace and justice group? Is there something we can do to make it more worthwhile? Might the spiritual progressive small group offer more of what they’re looking for? Would they be willing to at least give it a try, because we need them? Not only to succeed politically, but to become whole people.
We will grow from the answers. More important, we’ll build more intimate relationships. From there, maybe we will heal the world. Maybe we’ll find the homeless man who warned me that my donation wouldn’t save me from a broken meter. I had to find a new one.
And maybe, just maybe, I’ve found a new place to stand.