Letters for the week of September 7-13, 2005 

Spiritual activism conference attendees respond to Chris Thompson's criticism; Plus skateboard kudos, and a middle finger for Bob Gammon's sideshow story.

"The Covenant with America," Feature, 8/17

I'll stand with Archie
I was at the "Spiritual Activism" conference hosted by Michael Lerner and Tikkun. Chris Thompson's take on the event is accurate, particularly regarding who was left out of that touted "inclusivism." I pray the would-be leaders of a movement to recover a different spiritual voice pay attention. I spent 25 years as a blue-collar worker and am currently a student at the Graduate Theological Union, affiliated with the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.

The opening picture is not Pauley Ballroom, it is the Newman Center, a Catholic ministry for UCB students. But the misidentification is appropriate to the tone of the conference. Those of us who put our religion first rather than our progressive politics were almost an alien presence.

In the economics working group, those of us representing some actual diversity were mostly ignored. I supported the deliberate use of the word "God," [and was] voted down as excluding agnostics and Universal Unitarians. My question was then, to whom are we trying to appeal? Such language excludes the majority of Americans in favor of the maybe 1 percent offended by this religious terminology. But it does make it possible to be comfortable among educated, nonreligious progressives -- the class of people with whom so many of the conference attendees are comfortable.

There was also a day workshop on labor. Someone there actually used the term "Archie Bunker." The one group in this country still the butt of acceptable prejudice, working people have become the silenced majority. Even among the current generation, only 26 percent have four-year college degrees. And how many have them from a top university or in something by which they earn a living? Plus, even in high-tech industries, 80 percent of the jobs are low-tech -- someone has to clean and do the word-processing. Besides, many of us blue-collar people can actually read, write, and think. As Michael Lerner so aptly pointed out, people are not stupid. They voted against their economic interests in favor of something that at least seemed to be a moral stance. Therefore it is critical that if we are to effectively counter the hijacking of religious values by the political right, we must do so sincerely and in language that respects the lived reality of working people, including their specific faith affiliations.

If I have to choose between progressives and those labeled as Archie Bunkers, I'm standing with Archie. As a Catholic and a worker, these are my people and I am committed to them.
Catherine "Rafi" Simonton, Berkeley

Editor's note
The scene described in the intro took place at Pauley Ballroom, but the opening photo was indeed taken in Newman Hall.

Between the lines
Mahatma Gandhi said that every movement, if its cause is right, goes through four stages: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win." Chris Thompson's article should make us rejoice: We have entered the second stage!

As co-convener of the conference (Thompson systematically ignored not only my role but the contributions of the 109 speakers representing, for example, the ideas of some of the leading Protestant and Catholic thinkers in the country, from Jesuit priest John Dear to Protestant theologian John Cobb to evangelical leader Jim Wallis), I took some comfort from this assessment of Gandhi's, though, truth to say, the cynicism and gratuitous sarcasm of the article was saddening.

I understand where Mr. Thompson is coming from. We are trying to break out of old ways of thinking, groping for nothing less than a new conception of who we human beings are and how we are related to one another and the world. Of course we have a hard time communicating just what it is we're after to people who remain -- for now -- firmly in the dominant paradigm.

Thompson quotes one of our participants saying: "I think that when Rabbi Lerner talks about a life of compassion and love and caring about other people, that's how I would put it. And I also have a spiritual practice. I meditate. In my everyday relationships, my clients, my family, I try to think about them, I try to do what's right." Thompson jeers that this isn't very "specific." Give us a break. Christianity wasn't very specific for the first five hundred years of its existence -- in fact, some argue it had margins indistinguishable from Judaism. Besides, meditation is very specific. All things are vague to those unfamiliar with them. What Thompson really means, I suspect, is that the woman he questioned talked about a personal agenda for change, not a political one. That's exactly our point: What's different about spiritual activism is that it grounds social change in that neglected source of change and renewal -- the human person.

Thompson complains that we have created "an interfaith atmosphere that ... stripped religion of its specificity, reducing it to a pantheistic mush of how we're all connected in some ethereal, deep ecology matrix." Well, but we are connected in some ethereal matrix, and deep ecology is one of the better models that explain it. And spirituality is that kind of religious consciousness which doesn't fit into sectarian boxes -- and therefore doesn't lend itself to sectarian violence. Naturally it's going to take some time to familiarize people with these ideas. Getting a grip on them was precisely why we had this conference and are planning further actions like it. I would encourage people to read between the lines: Something is happening, and whether or not Mr. Jones knows what it is -- even if some of us who are doing it aren't yet quite sure -- it has the potential to rescue America from the disastrous slope down which it's sliding.
Michael Nagler, Tomales


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