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1 Jul, 2011

American Awakening Grows: A 4th of July Message from Rabbi Michael Lerner

Rabbi Michael Lerner

Rabbi Michael Lerner heads the Network of Spiritual Progressives based in Berkeley, California. See his websites here and here.

Faced with July 4th celebrations that are focused on militarism, ultra-nationalism, and “bombs bursting in air,” many American families who do not share those values turn July 4th into another summer holiday focused on picnics, sports, and fireworks, while doing their best to avoid the dominant rhetoric and bombast.

This year that kind of celebration is particularly difficult when many of us are in mourning as we watch our government commit to keep fighting the trillion dollar a year war in Afghanistan while cutting social programs for the poor, the elderly, schools, environment, and other pressing human needs.

That’s why we’ve developed a program that you can draw from (and songs–see the bottom of this note) to create for yourself and your friends and/or family a celebration that will have meaning to you, and that can affirm what is good in America without ignoring its problems. [If you happen to live or be visiting the San Francisco Bay Area, you can also come to the NSP/Tikkun/Beyt Tikkun veggie pot-luck picnic–info at www.tikkun.org]

We in the Network of Spiritual Progressives believe that avoiding July 4 or turning it into nothing more than a picnic with friends is a mistake for progressives. There is much worth celebrating in American history that deserves attention on July 4th, despite the current depravity of those who lead this country, though the celebration-worthy aspects of our society are rarely the focus of the public events.

We also acknowledge that in the twenty-first century there is a pressing need to develop a new kind of consciousness — a recognition of the interdependence of everyone on the planet. A new revolution is necessary — one in which our actions reflect a realization that our well-being depends on the well-being of everyone else on the planet and of the planet itself.

We’ve designed the following material as a possible guide for individual families or for public celebrations that share the values we hold. We hope that families will reflect on the themes raised in this holiday guide at their celebrations, and that churches, synagogues, unions, community organizations, and neighborhood associations will incorporate this material into their public celebrations of July 4th.

This is the equivalent of a Passover Haggadah, the guide to doing a Passover Seder, only designed for an interfaith and secular humanist community like the Network of Spiritual Progressives. Please feel free to use any part of it or all of it–but also please urge your friends and family to join our Network of Spiritual Progressives at www.spiritualprogressives.org so we can afford to keep doing this kind of work!!!

Guide to a Communal or Family Celebration of July 4 Inter-Dependence Day

Celebrating What Is Good about the United States of America

Today hundreds of millions of Americans will celebrate all that is good in the history of the United States of America. Even though we know there is much to criticize about America (including the use of the word “America” as synonymous with the United States, thereby ignoring Canada, Mexico, and Central and South America) there is also much to celebrate.

Today we mark the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a document that still inspires many Americans today. We’re going to read the declaration aloud. As we do, listen for those ideas that you find inspiring or resonant or in some other way pertinent for our lives in twenty-first-century America.

Unfortunately, the high ideals expressed in the Declaration, “that all men are created equal and endowed with their creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were not actually put into practice when the Constitution was created and the United States came into existence. The word “men” was applied not in a general sense to include women, but rather to only include men. And, in fact, for the first decades of our country, the only people who could vote were white men who owned property. Worse, slavery was permitted and African Americans were counted as 3/5 of a European American in the census, which determined how many people lived in a given area who deserved representation in the Congress. Native Americans — those who had survived the near genocide of European settlement — did not figure at all in these equations.

Some of these distortions got rectified through the democratic process that had been set up by the founders of our country. History books focus on the people who were in power as if all change comes from those in positions of authority. The truth is, though, that much of what we love about America was created by ordinary citizens. Often they encountered resistance from those in power; sometimes they found allies in power who joined in the struggle.

At this celebration, let’s give thanks for the ordinary and extraordinary Americans whose struggles brought about those changes. As I read each of the following, let’s enjoy a bite of food, raising our forks each time in celebration of their achievements!

  • To the waves of immigrants from all parts of the world who struggled to accept each other and find a place in this country.
  • To the escaped slaves and their allies — particularly Quakers, evangelical Christians, and freedom-loving secularists — who built the underground railroad and helped countless people to freedom.
  • To the coalitions of religious and secular people — women and men, black and white — who built popular support for the emancipation of the slaves.
  • To the African Americans and allies who went to prison, lost their livelihoods, and were savagely beaten in the struggle for civil rights.
  • To the working people who championed protections like the eight-hour day, minimum wage, workers’ compensation, and the right to organize, often at great personal cost to them.
  • To the immigrants who fought against “nativist” tendencies and refused to close the borders of this country to new groups of immigrants, and who continue to support a policy of “welcoming the stranger” just as this country opened its gates to their ancestors when they were the immigrants and strangers, and to all who fight for the safety and decent treatment of immigrants.
  • To the women who risked family, job security, and their own constructed identities to shift our collective consciousness about men and women and raise awareness of the effects of patriarchy.
  • To all of those who risk scorn and violence and often lose their families to lead the struggle against homophobia and for the acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and queer people.
  • To those who continue to work for equal access for people with disabilities.
  • To those who advocate for sensitivity to animals and to the earth itself.
  • To all of the innovators and artists who have brought so much beauty and usefulness into our lives.
  • To those who fought to extend democratic principles not only in politics but also in the workplace and in the economy.
  • To those who developed innovations in science and technology, in literature and art, in music and dance, in film and in computer science, in medical and communication technologies, and in methods to protect ourselves from the destructive impacts of some of these new technologies.
  • To those who developed psychological insights and increased our ability to be sensitive to our impact on others.
  • To those who developed ecological awareness.
  • To those who brought the insights of their own particular religious or spiritual traditions that emphasized love and caring for others and generosity toward those who had been impoverished and sought to turn those ideas not only into a call for personal charity but also into a mission to transform our economic and political systems in ways that would reflect those values.
  • To those who fought for peace and nonviolence, and who helped stop many wars.

All of that we celebrate in America involved hard-won struggles to overcome entrenched ways of thinking. Adding to the difficulty of the struggle were the struggles among groups of people working for liberation. Sometimes people in oppressed groups would say, “My suffering is more intense or more important than your suffering” to each other, undermining rather than building solidarity.

Sometimes one oppressed group was used by the people with power to fight against another oppressed group. Some people in each previously oppressed group would seize their hard-won power and turn their backs on the needs of others, even discriminating against or looking down on others whose struggles had not yet been won. It was sad and shocking when people struggling for peace found that some of their allies were racist or sexist or homophobic or anti-Semitic or anti-Islamic or anti-Christian or held hateful views about all religious people or about all secular people or about all white people or about all men. Sometimes that would lead people to give up. Luckily, many others did not give up, and so the struggles for human freedom dignity, human rights, economic security, and civil liberties were not abandoned.

Those struggles continue today, and it could easily take many more decades before they are fully realized.

But the good news is that many people have retained their basic decency and caring for others. We are surrounded by people who care. True, it’s often hard to show that. When first approached, many people express indifference to the well-being of others.

Our economic system encourages selfishness, me-first-ism, “looking out for number one,” and indifference to the ecological and ethical impacts of our activities, and acting counter to those attitudes feels not only unfamiliar but also risky.

Yet underneath all that, most people yearn for a different kind of world, but they think it is “unrealistic” to struggle for what they really believe in, since they are convinced that nobody else shares that desire with them. They momentarily overcame that fear in 2008 by giving a strong majority vote for Obama — allowing themselves to believe that a Democrat who promised “change we can believe in” and told people “yes, we can [build a very different kind of world]” could himself make the difference. What we’ve learned subsequently is that no candidate within this current system is likely to stick to any transformative goals in the face of overwhelming corporate power and the power of the corporate-subservient media unless we can build a powerful movement of us ordinary people to change our system.

This is part of the reason we’ve created a Network of Spiritual Progressives to support each other in building a world that really does reflect our highest values. If peace, social justice, ecological sensitivity, full implementation of human rights, and the creation of a society based on love is “unrealistic,” then we say “screw realism.” Being realistic in a deeper sense is not accepting “reality” as it is presently presented to us.

We want a different kind of world, and we have to engage in nonviolent struggles to build it. And that has always been the way we have won the battles for precisely the things that make us proud of the victories of the American people: it was always people who were told that what they wanted was “unrealistic” and who essentially said “screw realism — we’re going to fight for what is right” who became the real heroes of the American story. Of course, the powerful often obscure that history, and teach us to think that all the human rights and liberties and freedoms were “given to us,” but actually it was precisely the little people like us who made the big changes that have made this country worthy of celebration.

So the NSP is putting forward the ESRA — the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. If passed, the ESRA would prohibit the use of private monies in national elections, hence removing the need of candidates to raise money from the wealthy and the corporate elites – and have elections publicly financed, but with much less money spent, because ESRA would also prohibit media advertisements in the last three months before an election and require those media to give free and equal time to all major candidates. It would also require corporate social and environmental responsibility by requiring that every large corporation get a new corporate charter once every five years, which would only be granted to those corporations that could prove a satisfactory history ofenvironmental and social responsibility to a jury of ordinary citizens. And we, the communities who were affected by the operations of that corporation, including its workers, but including anyone whose environment had been shaped by that corporation’s activities, would be able to provide testimony to that jury about how environmentally and socially responsible that corporation had been. So when we at the NSP say that we want to fight for the survival of the planet, we go to the core of contemporary selfishness – the way our economic system encourages the pursuit of profit as the highest goal, and we challenge that way of thinking and that way of organizing a society.

Today we celebrate the moments when the U.S. and the American people have acted not only from self-interest but also from genuine caring. The people of this country have a huge amount of goodness in them, and they’ve shown that side to the world as well. They showed it when they supported the World War II efforts to stop Hitler and the fascists. They showed it when they stopped the war in Vietnam. They showed it when they reacted with revulsion at the torture being done in our name at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. The majority of Americans today disagree with the war policies of our government, but after the failure of the Obama administration to live up to the peace promises that most Americans thought would be the essence of this administration’s foreign policies, many have given up in despair. That sense of powerlessness must be overcome — but don’t confuse powerlessness with evil intent, because when people felt there was hope, they voted for it, and thought they were going to get a very different kind of world. If in the next elections they allow the country to move to the right, it is more out of despair than out of commitment to an agenda of power and hate. We insist that there is much to be proud of about being an American.

Now let’s take a moment to each share own story about times when we’ve felt proud of the United States or of Americans. [If there is a large group, break it into smaller groups of four or five people. If the group is small, just go around to everyone in the circle. After allocating at least three minutes for each person, resume the larger group conversation.]

We are proud of our country. We love its physical beauty. Many of us come from immigrant families who found refuge here when there were few other societies on the planet that would welcome our ancestors. Let us once again commit to overcoming the fear of the other and cultivating a spirit of generosity and love toward the stranger.

We are proud of the people of this country in many of the same ways that we are proud of our own families — not by denying that there are problems, sometimes even overwhelming problems, but that we are still proud and care very deeply about them, and are committed to working through the problems.

Celebrating Global Interdependence

Part of the cherished myth of this country is the notion of the rugged individualist who makes his own way (the rugged individualist is almost always male in this myth) without anyone else’s help. This image was never true. Even on the frontier, people relied on their neighbors, on the animals that provided their food, and later on those who built and operated the railroads, bringing supplies to frontier towns.

Today it is even less possible to be a rugged individualist. We can’t drive on a road, operate an appliance, run water, or make a phone call without benefiting from the work of countless other human beings, some here in the United States and some in other parts of the world.

With the advent of a deeper understanding of how our global environment works, and with the increasing integration of the economies of all countries into a global economy, we’ve come to see that our well-being is linked to the well-being of everyone else on the planet.

Our well-being depends on their well-being, and their well-being depends on our well-being. We are all fundamentally interdependent. And we’ve learned the same thing about Nature — when we pour poisons into the air, the ground, or the oceans, those toxics eventually come back to hurt us and other people around the world, just as when they do the same it ends up hurting us and not just people who live near them. Yet the ideal of individualism persists, and we’re encouraged to act as if we need no one else, no community support.

I’d like to invite all attendees to take some time now to comment on the ways you see the archetype of the self-sufficient individualist influencing your own lives or the life of our country. [Conduct small group discussions.]

Despite the persistence of this individualist mindset, our impact on others and theirs on us is huge, and manifests not only in personal and cultural terms but also in relationship to economic and political conditions.

Today, close to 3 billion people (half the people in the world) live on less than $2 a day, and close to half of that number live on $1 a day. Huge numbers of people are starving or very hungry, even as we are reading this and preparing for a good meal and playful celebration. Is it any wonder that some of these people, and those who care about them (even if they themselves are not poor), are very angry at the way the world’s politics and economics get set up?

We don’t think it is good or legitimate when anger gets expressed in violent ways. But we also have to take some responsibility for benefiting from a world order that is so unfair and so cruel. According to United Nations figures, somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 children under the age of five will die today, and again tomorrow, and again the next day, because they don’t have the food and basic medical supplies that could have kept them alive. That’s over 12 million children a year — the equivalent of two Holocausts per year!

We in the Network of Spiritual Progressives want to change all this, both by changing the terms of global trade agreements so that they work on behalf of the poor and the hungry, and by establishing (first in the United States, and then in all the advanced industrial societies) a Global Marshall Plan that would allocate between 1 percent and 2 percent of our Gross Domestic Product each year for the next twenty years toward the goal of ending once and for all domestic and global poverty, homelessness, inadequate education, and inadequate health care.

On this celebration of our interdependence, we want to reaffirm our shared commitment to these goals and commit to working with the Network of Spiritual Progressives on best ways to achieve these goals. We are proud that our idea for the Global Marshall Plan was introduced into the House of Representatives as House Resolution 157 by Hon. Keith Ellison (the first Muslim in the House) and was co-sponsored by Hon. Emmanuel Cleaver, Hon. Barbara Lee, Hon. James Moran, Hon. John Conyers, Hon. Dennis Kucinich, and others. The list is growing — ask your represenative in Congress to become a co-sponsor by contacting the office of Keith Ellison.

The key to our alternative, what we call the Strategy of Generosity, is our commitment to re-establish trust and hope among the peoples of the world so that we might begin to reflect and act coherently on ending world poverty in our lifetimes and saving the global environment from the almost certain destruction it faces unless we reverse our policies and give highest priority to protecting the earth. Instead of asking, “What serves the interests of American economic and political geo-power best?” we want a foreign policy that asks, “What best serves all the people on this planet and best serves the survival of the planet itself?”

A world divided by nationalist struggles and vain fantasies of dominating the resources of the earth on behalf of one or a few of the more powerful nations must be recognized as increasingly insane and self-destructive for the human race. Yet very many decent and moral people, having been talked into accepting the current construction of politics as “the given” within which one must work, end up participating in this insanity and calling it “realistic.” We were not made safer by the war in Iraq, we will not be made safer by the war in Afghanistan or by sanctions and military strikes against Iran, and our ally Israel is not made safer by its Occupation of the West Bank or its blockade of Gaza.

It is an urgent necessity to break through that set of assumptions about what is and what is not realistic so that people can look at the Strategy of Generosity not through the frame of existing, inside-the-beltway assumptions or the “common sense” thrown at us daily by a corporate-dominated media, but rather through the frame of what the human race and the planet earth urgently need in order to stop the insane people who have power at the moment from continuing their disastrous path.

It is a huge delusion to imagine that the insanity of framing our foreign policy only in terms of narrowly conceived American interests is somehow confined to one political party or one set of candidates for office — it is a shared insanity that must be challenged in every part of our political thinking, and it is just as likely to be articulated by people with whom we agree on many other issues as by people who are overtly reactionary or overtly ultra-nationalistic.

We are calling for a Strategy of Generosity to replace the Strategy of Domination as the best path to Homeland Security. Building that Strategy of Generosity requires that we reconnect with the human capacity to recognize the other as an embodiment of the sacred, or, in secular language, as fundamentally valuable for who they are and not as only instrumentally valuable for what they can do for us.

Recognizing the other as sacred reflects a pre-reflective, pre-nationalist connection between people — and that must become the center of our campaign for peace and environmental sanity. The bonds of caring among human beings can and must be fostered by our policies.

So although we can emphasize that it is in our own interests as humans to recognize that our individual and societal well-being depends on the well-being of everyone else on the planet, and sometimes will frame part of the argument for the Global Marshall Plan in those terms, we have to emphasize as well that our commitment to the Global Marshall Plan is not only because it could save the planet from nuclear and conventional wars and jumpstart the process of global environmental planning, but also because it reflects our deepest truth: the Unity of All Being and our commitment to care for each other as momentary embodiments of the God energy (or in secular terms, the goodness and love and generosity) of the Universe at its current stage of evolutionary development.

We wish to foster an ethos of caring and love for others because it is ethically and spiritually right to do so, not only because it is instrumentally the only sane policy for saving the planet and saving the lives of our children and grandchildren.

The Global Marshall Plan is the first step toward providing the sense of mutual trust that will allow for the next step needed by humanity in the twenty-first century: a global plan for how to allocate the world’s resources and regulate what is put into the environment by individuals and corporations. We cannot save the planet from ecological destruction if we are not willing to develop a coherent rational plan and then use it to guide our use of the resources of the planet. Such a global plan will not be workable until the peoples of the world truly understand their interdependence.

Our celebration of Interdepedence Day is an important part of the process of building a new consciousness. For that reason, we need to ask each other now to make a pledge to spend some time this summer taking around our petition of support for the Global Marshall Plan and for the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. We ask you to spend time collecting signatures of endorsement, getting your congressional representatives and U.S. senators to back these measures (they are around now for a week), plus getting everyone you know to sign the Global Marshall Plan and the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment petition.

Our interdependence with the world goes is deep and dramatic. Every human being on the planet is valuable, created in the image of God, fundamentally deserving of love, caring, kindness and generosity.

We know that there is a huge cultural and intellectual richness in the variety of cultures, religions, spiritual practices, music, literature, and shared wisdom of the societies that make up our world. On this Interdependence Day, we not only commit to helping improve the material conditions of the rest of the world, but also to learning from the rest of the world. We approach this task in a spirit of humility, aware that we in the United States have sometimes appeared to the rest of the world as a big bully and not as a society genuinely interested in sharing its cultural and intellectual and material gifts or in learning from others about their own particular cultural and spiritual heritages.

The impression of arrogance is particularly intense at this historical moment when the war in Iraq and the attempts by the U.S. to manipulate other countries is so visible to many of the people on our planet, but it will be a problem even after we stop the war in Iraq.

We want to communicate to the peoples of the world our own deep sorrow and repentance at the ways that our wonderful country has taken wrong turns in its foreign policy, and the ways that it has acted with arrogance and insensitivity to the needs of others, and supported an economic system whose insensitivity to the needs of the environment and its preaching of “me-first-ism” and looking at everyone with a “what’s in it for me?” consciousness has already done immense damage.

We are happy to celebrate this Interdependence Day on Independence Day for the United States.

Some of us wish to invoke God’s blessing on our country and will do so now. But before we go there, we also wish to invoke God’s blessings on all people on our planet and on the planet itself. We know that nationalist chauvinism, thinking that we are or can be better than everyone else, and the manic need to be “number one” can lead us into wars and destructive behavior. Instead, we want to bless everyone on the planet, to celebrate with everyone. So we rejoice in the people of this country; we rejoice with them as we celebrate all that is beautiful and good in this country, and at the same time we affirm our deep connection to all people on this planet and invoke God’s blessing on all of us, together, and pray that we soon will see a triumph of a new spirit of kindness, generosity, love, caring for others, ecological sensitivity, and celebration with joy, awe, and wonder at all the good that surrounds us in this amazing universe.

If you choose to model a July 4 celebration on this holiday guide, we invite you also to incorporate songs from the NSP July 4 song sheet, which includes alternative lyrics for songs such as “America the Beautiful” and “Imagine.”