In our secularized and technological society, religion is seen by some as superstitious nonsense, something people made up to explain natural phenomena and conquer their fears of the unknown. By others it is seen as the opiate of the masses, used to subjugate the lower classes with promises of eternal life. And still others use it to demonize those who do not believe as they do, as in the political Right’s attacks on Islam, abortion and LGBTQ rights, or Islamic fundamentalists’ attacks on the West. For centuries, millions of people have been slaughtered and ghastly acts of cruelty committed in the name of God. No wonder that religion is regarded as a reactionary force with no place in progressive circles.
A view based on love and justice
But that isn’t the only story. There is a view of a world based on love and justice that finds direct expression in the Bible. The Hebrew prophets, Jesus, St. Francis and Rumi speak of a world based on love, compassion and justice. Their words inspired the Abolition movement, Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King, as today they inspire Rabbi Michael Lerner, founder of Tikkun and the Network for Spiritual Progressives, and Dr. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign.
Perhaps the most eloquent spokesman for the rational necessity for religion was Leo Tolstoy. Best known for his novels, in his later years Tolstoy turned to the Christian Gospels and found there truths that people could live by.
Tolstoy’s work exposes the fallacy of violence as a motivation
Similar to the makeup of our country, Tolstoy’s Russia consisted of a very small wealthy class, an educated elite and the masses of peasants and working class people. In the last chapter of his book, The Kingdom of God is Within You—which was the inspiration for Gandhi in his non-violent independence movement—Tolstoy describes a scene in which government officials conscript peasants. The officials rip the peasants of one town to send them to a neighboring town to kill and torture peasants who are resisting the rich landowner’s effort to divert water from the fields on which their lives depend.
Complicity in these immoral actions is rational in a world where people identify with their social position of governor, policeman, official, soldier, and feel themselves bound to obey not their conscience or human duties, but their social duties. Tolstoy exposes how the entire society, the Church and State, is based on violence or the threat of violence.
identifying as an individual naturally pits us against other individuals to satisfy our narrow self-interest
This law of violence, what Rabbi Lerner would call the worldview of fear and domination, causes us to divide the world into “us” and “them” where we need protection from “them” because they will try to take advantage of “us.” Tolstoy saw that violence for any reason, whether by the ruling class or the revolutionaries, could never unify people or lead to peace, and only persists because it profits some and deceives the rest.
The worldview of love
The way out of this world, writes Tolstoy, is through the law of love as expressed in the Gospels. He saw religion as the relationship of man to the universe, and morality as the guide to life that follows from this relationship. As all persons are equal in the eyes of the Infinite, our conduct towards each other necessarily follows the Golden Rule—“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Rabbi Lerner would call this the worldview of love, caring and generosity, with God the force that makes possible the transformation of “that which is” to “that which can and ought to be”—the force of possibility.
The flaw in identifying as an individual
This understanding of religion gives a meaning to life that transcends the individual and the group. It asks us to embody love in the world as fully as possible, recognizing that God (the force of possibility and transformation) is love and that we all are sisters and brothers. When rooted in this understanding, one has a reverence for life in all its forms, and learns to recognize oneself as a manifestation of this force, as are all other beings. By contrast, identifying as an individual naturally pits us against other individuals to satisfy our narrow self-interest, and identifying as a member of a group creates a wider version of the “us” and “them” mentality that leads nations and different belief systems to conflict.
Resources to guide your thinking
This isn’t easy, especially in our society where TV and computers peddle sadistic violence, egotistical posturing and a barrage of consumer appeals to greed, selfishness, pride, gluttony and vanity. Yet there are plenty of examples of the law of love and generosity in the political arena. Check out the Network for Spiritual Progressives. Look up ideas for a Global Marshall Plan (www.tikkun.org/gmp) as a path to homeland security, and the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the US Constitution (www.tikkun.org/esra) to insist that corporate power be subject to democratic restraints.
Locally, there are several groups working in our community on issues motivated by the progressive spiritual worldview.
Spiritual progressives at work in our area
Interfaith Works consists of 32 faith communities who are politically active in social justice and peace issues in our community, such as homelessness, hunger, immigration, refugee advocacy, environmental stewardship and improving relations with local Native tribes. They introduced and got the City of Olympia to adopt the Charter for Compassion to “recognize the inherent worth and dignity of all persons.” Through the statewide Faith Action Network, they lobby the legislature to pass bills that support education, poverty reduction, voting rights, criminal justice and gun control. This year they will advocate a tax on capital gains.
A yearning we all may share
Interfaith members include Temple Beth Hatfiloh, which voted to become a sanctuary for immigrants. The Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation is working on climate change issues. South Sound Buddhist Fellowship members hook up with Olympia Indivisible, Thurston County Progressives and the Green Party in actions. Farther from home, local faith communities also support non-profit charities like Friendly Water for the World that provides access to low-cost clean water technologies in rural areas of Africa and India. There’s a reason why we are moved by the speeches of Martin Luther King. He expressed the yearning for a world of love and justice that is shared by everyone on the planet.
Don’t give in to the “reality police” and think this is the way it has to be.
As John Lennon sang,
Imagine all the people living life
You may say I’m a dreamer, but
I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us, and the world will be as One.
Esther Kronenberg is a member of the League of Women Voters and the Faith Action Network