Embracing the Left Hand of God

If we look closely at the dynamics of the struggle underlying the politics of the contemporary world, we can see a contest between two spiritual worldviews that has been going on for thousands of years in the West: the struggle between a worldview of domination and a worldview of generosity, openheartedness, forgiveness, and love.

Understanding this struggle, which saturates the consciousness of almost everyone, is key to understanding not only Israel/Palestine, but also the politics of most of the world’s advanced industrial countries and those in the underdeveloped world whose cultures have been penetrated by the culture of the West. These two conflicting worldviews stem from two different conceptions of the nature of human beings that have been in contention for thousands of years – conceptions that I call the Left Hand of God and the Right Hand of God. Here is a quick summary of the dueling worldviews: The Right Hand of God is a perspective of fear and domination. In this view, humans are thrown into the world alone. Narrowly self-interested others surround us and are waiting to manipulate, control, and dominate us to achieve their own goals of power, success, sexual conquest, and material wealth. Faced with such a world, the rational strategy for each of us is to maximize advantage by learning how to be effective in dominating, manipulating, and controlling others. In fact, the world around us judges us to be rational, efficient, productive, and savvy precisely to the extent that we excel at the skills of domination, manipulation, and control. In this worldview, to be rational is to maximize one’s self-interest. And to achieve security, we must learn how to dominate others. This wisdom not only constitutes the shared wisdom of daily life but also serves as a foundational principle of the capitalist economy and of national strategies for “homeland security.”

The Left Hand of God is a perspective of love and generosity. In this view, human beings do not come into the world alone but through a mother and father; our capacity to survive and thrive in the first years of our lives is dependent on “nurturing others” who have given us loving care without a reasonable expectation of a good return on their investments of time and emotional energy. This experience indelibly sticks in our minds and leads some contemporary theorists to argue that human beings are hardwired to be empathic, compassionate, and loving. To the extent that we’ve had this experience as children (and nearly everyone has had it to some extent), we begin to be moved by theories, often articulated through one religious and spiritual tradition or another, that the way to a good life is through building cooperative, caring, and loving relationships, first in personal life, but then also in our broader communities. In this view, “homeland security” can best be achieved through generosity and caring toward others – behavior that in many if not all situations will elicit a similar response. Most people alive today have been exposed to both of these worldviews, and most are somewhere on the continuum between the worldview of fear and domination and the worldview of love and generosity. Where we are exactly at any given moment is a product of:

1. Our actual childhood experiences (How much loving did our parents communicate? Did the kids and teachers we encountered at school and in the rest of our lives communicate love to us too?)

2. Our adult life experiences (How much did we encounter people who treated us like embodiments of the sacred rather than instruments to fulfill their own needs, desires, and goals?)

3. Our society’s predominant worldviews, religious systems, and ideologies (These are communicated through the media, the educational system, and the religious, spiritual, political, civic, and professional organizations to which we are exposed, not to mention the workplaces in which we spend much of our waking lives.)

4. The continuous moving of social energy toward fear or hope (When the societal energy moves toward fear, as it has in the past few decades, the worldview of fear sounds more profound and obvious, and its articulators sound smart and prophetic. When social energy moves toward hope and generosity, then those who articulate an ethos of generosity and openheartedness begin to sound more wise and prophetic.)

In class-dominated societies in which the wealthy and powerful shape the educational systems, the media, and much of what happens in the political arena, it is no surprise that the worldview of fear and domination becomes the most widely accepted perspective. Given that people spend all day in a world of work based on competition, they come to believe that the status quo is all that is possible in “the real world.” They may hate this reality and seek solace by attaching themselves to a religious or spiritual community with a worldview of love and generosity, but in daily life most people today tend to have the skeptical or even cynical perspective generated by the worldview of fear and domination. Often people are encouraged to displace the anger they feel at being in this kind of world onto some Other, who then becomes for them the symbolic representation of the hurts they feel but dare not attribute to the social and economic order in which they live – lest they be inclined to express their outrage against the powerful, who could punish them severely for having such disloyal thoughts. It’s far easier, then, to simply believe that they are stuck in a world in which domination and power over others is the only possible reality and their best hope is to ally with the most powerful forces rather than resist those forces. Nevertheless, the other voice is there, still part of our hardwiring and always ready to burst forth. That is why ruling elites invest so much money and energy in trying to rein doctrinate us. Once we believe the worldview of fear, the notion of trying to build a different kind of society seems utopian and childish, if not irresponsible. We base this on the theory that fighting for “the best” could be destructive in achieving “the good enough.”

I want to also note here that whenever we talk about ruling elites, spiritual progressives want to stop the conversation long enough to remind ourselves that these people are also created in the image of God and that they are filled with the same needs as everyone else. While ruling elites may manipulate fear for the sake of strengthening their own power and increasing their wealth, it is also true, as my colleague Peter Gabel points out, that they act this way primarily because they are themselves caught in the same fear as everyone else. They do not believe in the possibility of a loving community of people and are certain that they will never find people whom they can really trust. They hence put their trust in money and power. When those who have money discover movements or communities that do provide some of this caring and mutual recognition, enough so that they can come to believe in the real possibility of a society based on love and generosity, they are often willing to give up part or all of their wealth to help sustain these communities and that dream. In our own historical period, we’ve seen a resurgence of “domination as realism” appearing both in the foreign policy statements of politicians across the political spectrum and in various religious worldviews. This happened in some parts of Judaism in response to the trauma of the Holocaust. Angry and depressed about “the God that didn’t save us in the Holocaust,” too many Jews have embraced a false god, the god of power and financial security, which often translates into a quasi-religious belief that the Israeli army can defend Jews and that the American army can defend everyone else, including Israel, and that financial security is more important than a loving community. These beliefs then take on almost spiritual significance for some Jews, as they already have for tens of millions of right-wing Christians. Not all Jews and not all Christians have fallen into this trap, yet there is no way to deny that the struggle between the Right Hand of God and the Left Hand of God is a major part of the cultural, political, and religious reality of most religions in the contemporary world.

To the extent that Western societies have been increasingly tied to the dynamics of fear and increasingly adopt the logic of capitalism, people turn to contemporary religions in search of higher meaning and purpose. They seek a community in which the old-fashioned values of love, caring for others, solidarity, family, and community are esteemed. Religious communities become one of the last havens in a heartless world; they are a way of escaping and transcending the soullessness of the capitalist marketplace and implicitly criticizing its values. Unfortunately, people are often offered this kind of nurturing community at a price: the need to demean or exclude, from whatever salvation that religious community offers, the Others – those who are seen as “less than” because they are not part of the elect, the saved, the really valuable who are part of that special religious (or national) community.

And yet, the good news is that while the Right Hand of God Predominates in some religious communities, including some Jewish communities, the past sixty years has also seen a growing challenge to the temptation to reject the Other and to dismiss the possibility of fundamental healing and transformation. Starting from a small group of people in the most privileged and powerful countries of the world, entrenched ideas and practices of racism, sexism, and homophobia have gone from being ” just the way things are” to being put on the defensive within our societies’ institutions, including religious institutions. Only a few decades ago, these elements of ordinary consciousness were so pervasive that anyone claiming that they could be overturned was dismissed as someone completely out of touch with reality.

So what makes such a shift possible? Let me describe some of the critical elements of the process, which may be helpful to new activists in Israel and in the United States. Movements often begin with a small, ethically and psycho-spiritually awakened group. This group recognizes the problem and commits to changing society and individual behaviors in ways that might solve it. The group carefully studies the social, psychological, and ideological factors that have created or sustained the problem, and they develop a variety of strategies to tackle it.

This awakened group is usually attacked as elitist, judgmental, and out of touch. In fact, starting with Moses’ fellow Israelites in the Bible, who denounced him as having made matters worse by telling the pharaoh to “let my people go,” it is often the people who are most hurting who are also most angry at anyone who proposes a “solution” – particularly a solution that makes people feel momentarily uncomfortable with the way they have accommodated to their own situation and feelings of powerlessness.

The awakened group begins educational and consciousness raising activities in the larger society, often facing ridicule or overt repression. The awakened group also helps create mass activities to draw in people who may not yet be ready to embrace all parts of the vision of social transformation. These activities spread a new understanding of some of the issues at stake and attract participation from many people who suspect that the vanguard group is onto something. Many who come are conflicted – they both want a change and feel pessimistic and unready for it internally. Those who are conflicted argue against the core vision of the awakened group. New organizations begin to promote a shared vision of a healthier consciousness. Despite having previously been derided in the mass media and by political leaders, these organizations begin to be more proactive. Some of them bring their messages into their jobs. Others run for office, even though they are likely to be defeated at first, and use the democratic process as a way to spread their ideas. Still others begin to preach about these ideas in local churches, synagogues, mosques, and ashrams. While some lose their jobs for doing so, others find receptive audiences in their congregations. Eventually, they develop some social presence, emboldening those who wanted to believe in the new ideas but previously felt too scared. As the movement grows, more people who are not part of the movement begin to question their own thinking.

On the other hand, some of the movement’s activists feel uncertain that the deepest goals of the movement can be reached. Fearing that the moment of growth will lead nowhere unless the movement becomes more “practical,” they start to frame the issues very narrowly, seeking to translate the movement’s central ideas into “winnable” demands within the current system. These new pragmatists often avoid highlighting the most transformative ideas of the movement’s original vision. They develop legislative agendas that avoid incorporating elements seen as “too utopian” or “too idealistic.” Struggles break out within the movement about what is central and what is peripheral. Splits and divisiveness may occur, and if the movement itself is seen as a potentially serious threat to the existing social order, undercover agents may join the movement and encourage those splits, attack the most effective leaders or spread rumors and lies about them, and encourage people to act out their frustrations through actions that discredit the movement.

When conducted in a respectful way, these internal struggles can strengthen a movement. When conducted in a disrespectful way, they usually tear a movement apart. But if the more idealistic leaders are able to convince movement activists to stay with the deepest goals, there is a good chance that the movement will make a significant impact on mass consciousness.

If the movement’s ideas make sense and correspond to most people’s inner ethical intuitions; if a sizeable portion of the public can see past the movement’s own distortions; and if the movement doesn’t suffer too much violence or economic intimidation from those in power – then eventually the ideas become accepted as mainstream. At that point, at least some of the journalists, academics, and politicians who opposed the ideas at the beginning begin to talk as though these ideas are nothing new and everyone has always supported them. They say that the success of the movements that advocated these ideas can be explained by sociological or psychological factors that had always guaranteed such success.

Frustrating as that often is for those who risked life, limb, job opportunities, and financial security or endangered their own close relationships for the sake of the cause, we should rejoice when previously “outrageous ideas” are talked about as ordinary and obvious.

That is precisely what will one day happen for those who are currently engaged in trying to build peace, reconciliation, and healing between Israel and Palestine. Those of us who are attempting to build a movement to reconcile hearts are motivated in large part by our concern to reduce the amount of suffering on both sides. We hence look at a twenty-to-thirty-year horizon rather than a fifty-to-sixty-year horizon within which reconciliation will take place.

As much as I wish to see the fulfillment of the prediction that “from out of Zion will come Torah, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem,” I believe that the psychological and spiritual traumas of both Israelis and Palestinians make it harder for many of them to tap into the deepest ethical and spiritual intuition of the human race expressed most explicitly in the wise command of Torah: “Thou shalt love the stranger.” The fear that leads so many religious Jews and Muslims away from their own historical attraction to the caring attributes of God – in addition to the deep cynicism held in secular Israeli and Palestinian circles about everything except the individualist global capitalist system – makes these countries less likely places for the worldview of generosity to first become public policy.

For this reason, healing and peace depend on the ascendency, within each religious and national grouping, of a worldview that unequivocally affirms the possibility of changing our world so that love, generosity, and compassion become the new common sense of all peoples. The conflict in Israel/Palestine has put in sharp relief a larger struggle for the heart of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. In my view, every major religious denomination or community is struggling over whether to align with the Left Hand of God or the Right Hand of God. Most people are capable of gravitating toward both of these conflicting perspectives. For example, those who are momentarily locked into the worldview of the Right Hand of God tend to be most responsive to the harsh, punitive, and judgmental parts of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, or the Koran – the parts that call for suspicion and the rejection of those who are not 100 percent committed to the path being advocated. Conversely, those who are attracted to the Left Hand of God are more responsive to the vision of God as compassionate and generous and to the teachings that manifest that love oriented sensibility.

Both sensibilities are there in the holy texts of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Bahai, Taoists, and most other of the world’s religious communities – just as they are in the central texts of Marxism, contemporary psychology, feminism, etc. There is an obvious reason for this: both sensibilities exist in every human being. Those who are reporting how they heard God’s voice or who are designing revolutionary secular transformations are naturally going to express themselves in these fundamental frameworks.

It is this inner struggle that manifests in how one interprets the struggle in Israel/ Palestine and evaluates what interventions seem to make sense. The solutions proposed in this book will seem silly, naive, or even ridiculous to those who are trapped in the worldview of fear but will seem hopeful to those who embrace the worldview of generosity and love. Most people, however, alternate between these two views; so at moments my interpretation of the conflict and my strategy to resolve it will have appeal and at other moments it will be summarily dismissed. The religious and spiritual communities that do in fact embrace the Left Hand of God could stop being so modest about it and instead start to champion those ideas with a level of enthusiasm and commitment that has too often been expressed only by those who embrace the Right Hand of God. To do this, however, we need to rethink our own religious traditions and find a way to disassociate ourselves from the parts that have disempowered the Left Hand of God.

Excerpted from Embracing Israel/Palestine: A Strategy to Heal and Transform the Middle East with permission from the author.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine, chairman of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in Berkeley, Calif. and author of 11 books, most recently Embracing Israel/Palestine, published in January 2012 and available through Amazon.com and Kindle. After you’ve finished reading the book, Rabbi Lerner invites your responses to it: RabbiLerner@Tikkun.org.

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