Foundation, NJ U. S. A
the Message Continues ... 4/91
Newsletter for March 2009
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Rabbi Lerner's Report on the Inauguration Experience in D.C.
Posted Sunday January 25, 2009
It was amazing.
I wish my father and mother
had been alive to experience the joy and incredible relief that
went through our country as Barack Obama took the oath of
office. I wanted to be able to say to them,”It will be alright
now, things will never be as bad again as they have been in our
country after forty years of imperialist war, undermining of
civil liberties, the penetration of me-firstism and materialism
and selfishness into the very marrows of the bones of our
citizens, the corporate media that bought the lies of the
Republicans while scrutinizing with cynicism the hopes of the
Democrats, the escalating destruction of the life-support
systems of our planet, and the withdrawal of good people into
their own private lives as they despaired about the
possibilities of social change or healing our wounded society.”
But with my father’s death in November, so many years after my
mother had passed, it was no longer possible to take care of my
So my wife Debora and I went to Washington to taste the experience, to be part of it, to celebrate and to reassure ourselves that it was really happening.
And it was a great celebration. On Monday evening the Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP) joined many other religious communities at All Souls Church for an evening of prayer and talks by some of the people (many of them Tikkun authors) who I’ve come to love in the past decades. My friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Mark Johnson of the Fellowship of Reconciliation had worked on the details of the program, and had put together a remarkable crew of speakers that gave living proof that spiritual/religious progressives remain a vibrant and creative force.
There was deep appreciation expressed to me, and through me to you, for the full page ad that had appeared a few days before in the New York Times sponsored by Tikkun and the NSP and calling not only for an immediate cease fire in Gaza and asking Obama to call for an international conference to resolve the larger Israel/Palestine issues. I learned that day that the ad (together with the brief story about it that appeared in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz) had actually caused a flurry of interest inside the Obama circle, had been the subject of discussions at the highest levels, and had succeeded in upping the pressure on Israel, already considerable, for a pre-inauguration cease fire which Israel had indeed proclaimed and to which Hamas had quickly (though indirectly, since Israel still refuses to talk to them directly) acquiesced. So it was wonderful to hear from people from many diverse backgrounds the congratulations for the ad, which for most people was the only public (outside of cyberspace petitions) statement that they had seen of people who were countering the narrow media framing of the issues (who started or who was most responsible for the current round of violence?) and insisting on using this moment to call for a serious attempt to solve the larger Israel/Palestine conflict which would certainly flare up in violence again or else revert to the daily and largely hidden violence of the Occupation. I wanted you to know how much appreciation was experessed through me to you for making that ad possible—not only by many Arabs and Muslims and progressive Jews whose voices have otherwise been ignored by the media, but also by many Christian Americans who have felt horrible to watch as their fellow Americans seemed to line up behind the brutality being inflicted upon the Palestinian people. Many people noted with deep appreciation the fact that our ad had not engaged in blaming, but only in putting out a forward-looking strategy for how to end the conflict. I don’t think I would have known how grateful people were for this ad had I not been in D.C.—because people who tend to write to us usually do so only when they have a complaint).
Later that night we went to a dinner-party sponsored by Tikkun publishers Trish and George Vradenburg, a fund-raising event in which people had paid lots of money to support a feeding-the-
We had tickets and good seats for the Inauguration and were surrounded by two million people, many of them as excited as we to be tere. There was much to be appreciated in Obama’s Inaugural Speech. After 8 years of systematic undermining of the basic civil liberties and human rights that the American revolution had sought to guarantee against the tyranny of another George (III), the reaffirmation of the Constitutional tradition felt like a major accomplishment. That that was followed up in subsequent days by a set of Presidential directives insisting upon transparency in the Obama Administration, forbidding the CIA and others from using torture, setting the path toward closing Guantanamo’s torture house, lifting the ban on discussion of birth control for US funded health care projects, made me feel so elated that I nearly forgot that these accomplishments were really only a return to that which Americans had fought for 240 years ago.
And there were many other good aspects of Obama’s speech. For the first time ever, a President acknowledged that we are a country of “Christian and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.” This was an important formulation, both in affirming Muslims, who have been subject to harassment ever since 9/11, but also and equally important in affirming the legitimacy of non-believers. Our Network of Spiritual Progressives has gone out of its way to affirm “spiritual but NOT religious” people as being equally welcome. We believe that one of the perversions of religion occurs when it defacto becomes part of what is required of citizens—it’s bad for the society and its bad for religions which then get filled up with people who are there more out of civic obligation or political opportunism than out of spiritual encounter with the mystery and magnificence of all that is.
Finally, there was in this speech a reaffirmation of the importance of judging outcomes in term of “the common good.” However little he failed to explain what it would mean to really consider that seriously, articulating the notion of “the common good” could provide a leverage for future policy directions.
I wished that Barack Obama had spent some time acknowledging the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement that had made his candidacy possible in the first place, rather than using the occasion to insist that “we will not apologize for our way of life” ( why not? a way of life in which the U.S. with 5% of the world’s population consumes 25% of the world’s resources and produces a majority of the world’s weapons and is responsible for a war in Iraq that has caused the death of hundreds of thousands and the wounding/maiming of millions plus 3 million refugees—there is plenty to apologize for). I wished he had used the occasion to question the wisdom of an economic system that rewards selfishness and materialism rather than, as he did, merely mention that there was a problem about greed and irresponsibility that had weakened our economy and then hasten to add that it was really “our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age” (I couldn’t help wondering how anyone I knew had participated in this collective failure). I wish he had not committed himself to “forging a hard earned peace in Afghanistan” since that can only be a way of saying that he really intends to escalate the war there (despite the many who had assumed that he was just talking about Afghanistan during the campaign as a way of sounding tough to win votes, hopeful that he would not commit new troops to a guerilla war that could not be won). I wished that when talking about the sacrifices made by people in the past so that we could have the America of the present he had not listed, along with those who had immigrated here, and “ toiled in sweatshops and settled the West” those who “endured the lash of the whip” as though that too had been a voluntary sacrifice when in fact it was a manifestation of an as-yet-unrepented-
I hope that years from now, looking backward, I’ll be able to say that these were minor quibbles, that Obama was deciding not to use this moment to educate but to reassure Americans that he was not to be feared but to be supported, and that his subsequent policies achieved in practice the transformation of consciousness that could have begun at this moment.
The ceremony itself seemed a bit stiff (it was no pleasure to see Senator Diane Feinstein chairing the event—the memory of her congratulating Bush for his fine accomplishment of “shock and awe” after the first night of the Iraq war and her vote to support Bush appointees to the Supreme Court and for Attorneys General reminded me how slippery the category “moderate Democrat” has become in the past forty years and sounded the alarm for me when I heard that Gov. Patterson has chosen a “moderate Democrat” to replace in the U.S. Senate Hillary Clinton while the impeached governor of Illinois had chosen a “moderate Democrat” to replace in the U.S. Senate Barack Obama from Illinois).
I wasn’t moved by the poetry or by the music, and would have preferred if at least at one point the crowd had been asked to stand and sing “We Shall Overcome” or “Imagine” or in some other way been given a chance to acknowledge that the cultural milieu was not being set by homophobic pastor Rick Warren’s recitation of The Lord’s Prayer (something that we Jews,and many of our non-Jewish civil libertarian allies, had fought to get out of the public sphere in the 1950s when it was imposed upon us in public schools as a daily requirement until the Warren Court had rightly ruled that this was not appropriate for our collective public space). Mostly, people around us were rolling their eyes, not wanting to get upset about Warren or why Obama had chosen him to speak. And he would later be balanced by Joseph Lowery whose civil rights years flowed through his fiery talk.
The details of the speech and the culture of the event were mostly overshadowed by the fact standing before us—an African American man in a country that had for hundreds of years enslaved, murdered, raped and exploited African Americans. For me, as for so many around me, that single fact overwhelmed us. I had given up my path to a comfortable career in the 1960s by engaging in civil disobedience that had led to my arrest and imprisonment. I, like millions of others like me, had been filled with rage at the oppression of Blacks, and had put my body and my life on the line to stop it. I had met with Martin Luther King, Jr. to encourage him to run for President. I had worked with the Black Panther Party in an attempt to form an alliance in which whites and Blacks could struggle together for a change in the defacto segregation and economic exploitation that persisted even after Civil Rights legislation had passed. I had later written a book with African American intellectual Cornel West called Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin (Putnam, 1995) and we had traveled around the U.S. in our attempt to model the healing we sought. So, yes, tears welled up in my eyes and prayers of thanksgiving to the God of the universe at this most moving moment when suddenly it seemed as if decades of effort had not been in vain.
I don’t know who Barack Obama will turn out to be as President. Will he be the Obama who asked to speak at our Tikkun conference in Chicago in 1996 and who assured me that he embraced the politics of meaning that we were then calling our spiritual progressive worldview and the Obama who, when we spent time with each other in 2006, assured me that he was reading my book The Left Hand of God. the young Senator who assured me that we shared much in our worldviews? I can’t be sure. But that there is even such a possibility gives me great hope. And yet, as I stated in the Jan/Feb 2009 editorial inTikkun, who he will be depends in part on who we will be—whether we can create a powerful voice to support Obama to be the best possible Obama he could be, or whether the forces of fear will reassert themselves so powerfully that the message of loving community and generosity will seem too utopian to Obama to fight for them. I hope you’ll re-read that editorial (it’s at www.tikkun.org)
In any event, back to Washington, D.C. where my wife and I then spent the next four hours after the inauguration walking in freezing weather because we could not get a cab nor find a way to get through the hundreds of thousands of people flooding the subway system. And…we survived. We managed to change our clothes and make it to the inaugural Peace Ball put on by Andy Shallal for progressives. a spirit-lifting event that was all the things that we had hoped for: Joan Baez singing Imagine, Harry Belafonte, Holly Near, and two floors of elegance at the National Postal Museum filled with people who have been giving their life energies to the movements for social change. And almost every few minutes we’d be stopped by people who wanted to thank us for what Tikkun, the Tikkun Community, and the Network of Spiritual Progressives have been doing these many years.
Everyone in that room knew that our work is still ahead of us, that the outcome of the years ahead is not predetermined, that Obama is not our savior and he is not even a man blessed with the vision and courage of a Martin Luther King, Jr. or a Gandhi. He is a politician, and a good one, and he can do a lot of good, and a lot more good if we can find the right ways to support what is best in him. But for an evening, and perhaps for many of us for longer than that, we allowed ourselves to just enjoy and celebrate the victory that we had won.
And the joy and hope of these moments remains with me to this moment.
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