Monday, May 29, 2006

The Left Hand of God

I recently finished reading Michael Lerner’s intriguing book, The Left Hand of God, (2006, Harper Collins) in which he calls for the formation of a movement of spiritual progressives. The heart of the book is what he calls “The Spiritual Covenant With America,” a series of broad proposals for social reform which seek to wed generally progressive political values to a loosely defined spiritual foundation. His assumption is that the political left has ceded spirituality to the political right thereby losing touch with the broad base of the American public, who he believes share the political values but not the spiritual agnosticism. The purpose of the Covenant is to challenge the Christian Right’s exclusive claim to spiritually motivated political values.

At one point he makes a fascinating point in which he describes how the religious right decries materialism, selfishness, and greed, while allying itself with the forces of big business that aggressively market those values. However, because the liberals work so hard to keep religious values out of the public sphere, the right can blames the left for the secularism that is sweeping our society. It’s a neat little trick that reveals the complete vacuity of vision in the Democratic Party and the duplicity of the religious right.

Lerner seems to pin his hopes and direct his thoughts toward a spiritual openness in the Democratic Party; this is where he loses me. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no Republican. Rather, I am more in sympathy with Jim Wallis (God's Poltitics) when he writes “The Right is wrong and the Left doesn’t get it.” I am enthused overall with Lerner’s Covenant, and I am hopeful that spiritually-minded progressive folks can get together, but I must confess I have no faith in the future of the Democratic Party. Seeking to align ourselves with Democrats or revive that party seems to be a dead end. The Democrats are too busy trying to criticize the Republicans that they have no vision of their own.

Furthermore, labeling the spiritual progressive movement a leftist or liberal movement is not only a dead end, at least for me it is inaccurate. Personally, I think the Right is correct on some issues, such as a concern for the family and an opposition to abortion. Their views on family are too narrow, so as not to include single parents, the poor, and gays/lesbians, but they are right when they say the family is in need of support. They are right on abortion too; but again they see “pro-life” as only one issue rather than a theme running through a number of issues such as opposition to the death penalty, the need for gun control, and the need for a health care system that provides for all. By limiting his appeal to so-called “liberal causes,” Lerner makes the same mistake as the Democrats.

Spiritual progressives must do more than simply harp on the old liberal agenda; they must forge a new vision with a new set of alliances. Jim Wallis is closer to the issue when he calls for the creation of a “radical middle,” a group of spiritually minded people who will call both the Republicans and Democrats to task for their lack of values and life-giving vision.

Personally, I would love to see the formation of a third party. In a recent issue of Tikkun, (May/June 2006), a journal which Lerner edits, historian Howard Zinn, a favorite of many progressives was asked about his opinion about “The Spiritual Covenant with America.” He said,
“My differences with Lerner though, reside in the proportion of attention he pays to spiritual values. These are important, but they are not the critical issue. The issue is living and dying…For those who find a special inspiration in Judaism or Christianity or Buddhism or whatever, fine. If that inspiration leads them to work or justice, that is what matters.” (“An Interview with Howard Zinn”, Tikkun May/June 2006, p.28).

In other words, Zinn could care less about spiritual values, what matters to him is a commitment to progressive causes. Interestingly, his opinion of the Democrats is similar to mine. He says:
“The Democratic Party is pitiful. Not only are they not articulating a spiritual vision, as Lerner says, they don’t even have a political message.” (p. 27)

On this we agree. A new political movement outside the Democratic Party is needed.

The Left Hand of God is a provocative read. Lerner raises our consciousness about the relationship between our spiritual and political values. His proposals are bold. My concern is that he is barking up the wrong tree.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Tacit Knowledge – Knowing More Than We Realize

Recently, I have been reading excerpts from the writings Michael Polanyi, a scientist turned philosopher. Polanyi was interested to understand how scientists would “know” when they had hit upon a significant discovery, or when the findings of another scientists were truly valid and significant. Polanyi challenged the scientific assumption that all true knowledge was empirical, that is, it could be “proven.” Polanyi said there was another kind of knowledge that came from one’s culture, one’s experience and one’s community called tacit knowledge. He defined tacit knowledge as knowing something beyond our ability to explain it.

He gave the example of recognizing a friend’s face in a crowd. We might be able to describe the features of a person’s face. By themselves, those features could describe a million different people, but when we saw those features on one particular person, we “knew” it was the face of our friend. How did we know that configuration of features was our friend? Tacit knowledge. We can’t explain why, we just know that is him.

As I have gotten older, I have learned to listen to those aspects of my being that seem beyond words. I sit in a meeting and I get a “gut feeling, an intuition about how a decision will go down. It may be minutes, hours or even days before I can articulate the reasons behind my “hunch,” and in the world of academia, as well as in the world of business, hunches and gut feelings don’t get you much of a hearing ---unless over time they have proven to be right. Nonetheless, I have learned to follow my intuitions to the point of trying to put words to the feeling; but it’s the tacit knowing, the knowing beyond words, that gets me started.

I have also started to listen to my body. There are days I can just “feel” a cold coming on or “feel” that I need to get to bed early. There may be no tell tale signs that I need to change my routine, but my body is giving me signals. Another example: I have muscle in my chest that tells me when I am overstressing myself. Several years ago I went to the doctor because I thought I might have a heart problem. After stress tests, and all sorts of scans, nothing showed. My heart was perfectly healthy and functioning fine. The pain came and went. So, I listened to my inner voice –it’s your body telling you to slow down. Now I listen. Why that muscle? Why that message? I can’t explain it except to say its tacit knowledge.

This whole idea of tacit knowledge leads me to think that there is a whole lot more knowledge and understanding in our bodies, in our intuitions, and in our souls than we give credence to. We need to learn how to listen and then respect the tacit knowledge that is there. Today so many people seem to be drowning out the world with noise. Perhaps we ought to turn off the TVs, radios, Ipods, computers and cell phones, and cultivate an awareness of the knowledge we have beyond words. We may find we know a whole lot more than we realize.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Theological Reflections on the Immigration debate

The United States prides itself as a being a “nation of immigrants. The Statue of Liberty stands as a symbol of America’s openness bidding, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” However, recent events in the U.S. Congress suggest that we as a people do not really mean what we say.

In December, the House of Representatives passed the Border Protection, Anti Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act (H.R. 4437). Major provisions of this bill include making illegal immigration a felony, criminalizing church workers and social service providers assisting illegal immigrants, constructing a 700 mile fence along the U.S.- Mexican Border, and requiring employers to verify their workers’ status though a massive immigrant database. Since there are approximately 11-12 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the U.S., enforcing these provisions are not only vindictive, but highly unenforceable. Currently the U.S. Senate is working on its version of the bill which is seeking to develop a process whereby undocumented immigrants can become permanent guest workers over a period of several years.

One of the arguments for stricter controls is the supposed negative effect that undocumented immigrants have on the U.S. economy, public services, and social welfare system. As the argument goes, immigrants take jobs that other Americans won’t take, because the wages given them are so low. Despite the rhetoric, it is ludicrous to think that 12 million people could slip into the country undetected without the assistance of some powerful interest groups or that those interests are truly chagrined by having to pay such low wages. The fact is such as construction, food service, agriculture and meatpacking depend heavily on immigrant (much of undocumented) labor and we who purchase their products or services are the beneficiary with lower prices.

While the socio-economic and political issues are complex, there are Biblical and theological issues that we as Christians must consider as we listen to and engage in this discussion. For our first allegiance as Christians must be to the principles of compassion and justice laid out for us in Scripture.

Scripture clearly compels us to “welcome the stranger in our midst (Leviticus 19-33-34). Jesus goes so far as to say that welcoming the stranger is equivalent to welcoming him (Matthew 35.35). If the provision in HR 4437 making it a crime to assist or help undocumented immigrants, many Christian workers will be confronted with a choice as to whether to follow the law or the Biblical imperative. Simply allowing someone to attend church or get help at a food pantry could be grounds for arrest. Will we as Christians choose obedience to an unjust law?

However, beyond our concern for the stranger is the Biblical mandate to care for the poor in general. Surveys of undocumented immigrants clearly indicate that they come here seeking work in order to pull themselves and their families out of poverty. Jesus places no boundaries of nationality or ethnicity on his call upon us to show compassion and seek justice for the poor. In fact it was the Good Samaritan’s willingness to transcend ethnic and national strictures that made his act of compassion so commendable (Luke 10). In the words of Liberation theologians God has exercised a “preferential option for the poor” and thus who seek to follow God’s ways must stand against the powers of exclusion and oppression on behalf of those most vulnerable. Arguments that justify tighter immigration measures on the basis of helping America’s poor are not only specious, but present a false dichotomy. Our commitment to seeking justice for the poor must transcend boundaries or race and nation.

For at the heart of this issue is a global economic system that disproportionately benefits the wealthy and powerful and disadvantages the worker and peasant classes regardless of their nationality. Douglas Massey, the president of Princeton University has said, “At the heart of NAFTA lies a contradiction we move to promote the freer cross-border movement of goods, services, capital and commodities, we simultaneously seek to prevent the movmeent6 of labor…To maintain the illusion that we can somehow integrate while remaining separate, we have militarized our border.”

One has to ask why undocumented immigrants are leaving their country to work in low wage U.S. jobs. Obviously it is because the opportunities for good-paying jobs are not present in the home country. If U.S. corporations have the freedom to move to other coutnries in search of cheaplabor and higher profits, why is it wrong for workers to go to other countries seeking work that pays a more decent wage. What is good for the goose, is good for the gander. We must ask ourselves if the capitalistic system is actually making wealth avaialbe to greater numbers of people ( as proponents say) or simply amassing wealth in the hands of the already wealthy few?
Before we middle Christian Christians shake our heads in disgust, we must realize that as consumers of the lower costs provided by cheap labors, we are unconscious collaborators in an economic system that denigrates the poor. Thus, as compassionate Christians we are confronted with the question: At what price, justice? Not only should we contact our elective representatives to inform them of our views, we also must be willing to literally pay the price for changing an economic system that benefits the few, at the expense of the many.

The current immigration reform debate confronts us with a question of our values and priorities. Andrew Grove, the former chairperson of Intel Corporation and a Jewish holocaust survivor has written that the immigration debate confronts us with questions about our basic values as Americans. I suggest that for the Christians this debate goes event deeper to question the ultimate sincerity and validity of the faith we profess.