[The following is a translation of an article that I wrote in Hebrew for the Israeli monthly magazine Chayim Acherim. Published on June 1 2019. The entire issue was dedicated so politics and spirituality. A PDF of the original Hebrew article can be viewed here.]
For many spiritual and religious leaders in America, including Rev. William Barber II and renowned spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson, the presidency of Donald Trump represents the climax of a decades-long process of spiritual degradation. They are fighting back.
Traditionally, the American political scene is divided into two main camps – Democrats and Republicans. In broad strokes, Democrats embrace progressive and liberal values and believe in separating Church and State. Republicans support conservative values, and many of them believe that the post-modern liberal values and the alienation that the secular leadership feels towards religious values (by which they mainly mean fundamentalist Protestant values) cause a decline in society and the country.
The recent presidential elections were a good demonstration. The liberal leanings of the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and her uncompromising support of equal rights to same-sex couples and abortion, as well as her refusal to be interviewed by fundamentalist religious magazines, were used against her by the Republicans, and were some of the factors that encouraged religious Christians to vote for Donald Trump, even when they disapproved of his lifestyle and found his personality objectionable. At the same time, progressive religious leaders who supported Clinton did so mostly unenthusiastically, for a variety of reasons. As a result, the field was left for the fundamentalist dogmatic positions, and the public was not exposed to a different mode of religiosity (such as, for example, Hillary Clinton’s).
This was not always the case. The two great social justice struggles that took place in the United States in the 20th Century – the civil rights movement and the struggle to end the war in Vietnam – were headed by progressive religious leaders. They fought injustice grounded in their hope for a compassionate world where each human being has a place irrespective of who they are, a world which has room for compassion and for the Transcendent. The African American preacher Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who spearheaded the first struggle, was helped by a coalition of leaders of all faiths; one of the most prominent among them was Abraham Joshua Heschel, whom he called “my Rabbi.” Both shared a vision of a righteous word in which “the Earth shall be full of the knowledge of God as the water covers the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9). King’s famous sermon, I Have a Dream, was influenced, to a great extent, by Heschel’s messianic fervor and by the end-of-days prophecies of Isaiah.
Another leader who had much influence on both struggles, but especially against the war in Vietnam, was Thomas Merton. Merton, a Trappist monk, was a charismatic mystic and the author of dozens of books. He promoted inter-religious dialogue and supported the effort to separate the religious impulse from any of the official religious boundaries, stressing its universality. As monk, he avoided participating in the demonstrations himself, but supplied them with inspiration and spiritual resources for the continuation of the struggle, so long as it remained non-violent. Some say that his untimely death, while he was taking part in a Catholic retreat in Thailand, was orchestrated by the CIA, because of his great influence on the younger generation and what the administration saw as fermenting a resistance to the war in Vietnam.
All this happened during an age of cultural fermentation in America. The Boomers came of age; the pill arrived, feminism arrived, drugs and rock-n-roll arrived. The senseless killing in Vietnam turned the natural youth rebellion into an existential one. Religion was not exempt from the rebellious critique: in contrast to the priests and rabbis, many of whom were perceived as boring, inauthentic and irrelevant, and worse yet: part of the establishment, popped up new charismatic teachers from the East, with their colorful, exotic robes. They provided alternatives ways for channeling the religious/spiritual drive, which were free from the burden of do’s and don’ts and whose practices were not laden with guilt about enjoyment of the flesh. This was an ideal climate for the flowering of post-modern, pluralistic perspectives which, among other things, challenged the existence of absolute truths: “I have my truth and you have your truth and both are equally valid.” In this manner, the authority of the traditional religious was challenged.
That stormy period deepened the chasm between the camps. The Christian, conservative circles embraced in traditional family and religious values, a world view of good and bad (“We, Americans, are good; the Communists are bad”), a strong military and the right of each person to bear arms. They were scared by the tolerance that the liberal circles showed toward homosexuals and minorities, abortions and sexual freedom. They interpreted the resistance to the Vietnam War as a non-patriotic stance. Many, especially in the South, held racist views (and still do) towards blacks. When the dust of the stormy sixties and seventies started to settle, the Democratic party found itself more secular than ever, and the default choice of minorities (including religious minorities), while the conservatives, most of them white Christians, found themselves increasingly in the Republican party. Republican candidates, even those who were completely secular, understood the voting power of this section of the population and managed to harness it, sometimes cynically.
The Democratic party did not manage to offer a proper religious or spiritual alternative; on the contrary, it turned the separation of Church and State into an almost religious value, and thereby further pushed away religious moderates. As the volume of the religious Right kept increasing and its appropriation of religious values became more blatant, the moderate religious voices did not feel at home there either. They did not feel comfortable with the religious Right’s propaganda focusing exclusively on making abortions illegal an de-legitimizing same-sex relationships. Moderate religious leaders preferred quiet work in their communities over engaging in politics.
One cannot end this very short historical review without writing a few words about the Watergate affair, which rocked America between 1972 and 1974. A very thorough investigative journalistic work by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein from the important liberal daily Washington Post revealed that members of the administration of the then Republican president Richard Nixon were involved, with Nixon’s knowledge, in a series of illegal spying activities against the Democratic party. These actions were financed by funds that had been donated to his election campaign. The scandal, which eventually led to Nixon’s resignation, had another effect: it demonstrated the power of the media to install kings and dethrone them.
Rupert Murdoch, the international media magnate, took note. He emigrated from Australia to the United States, became a naturalized American citizen and established the Fox News network, expanding it and acquiring more newspapers, radio and TV stations, and print magazines throughout the country. It was not long before the network became the almostofficial news outlet of the Right. We, Israelis, know it mainly for its unbridled support of Israel, and many of us have therefore become fans. But old-school conservative leaders, including the well-known journalist George Will, recoil from the network because of its reliance on “fake news,” bordering on incitement, with a marginal commitment to the truth.
Religious Moderates Wake Up
Fast forward to the present. When Donald Trump got elected, partly due to the support of Fox News, progressive religious leaders of all hues understood that they had fallen asleep. In June 2017, a few months after Trump entered the White House, a major article appeared in the weekend edition of the New York Times, entitled: “Religious Liberals Sat Out of Politics for 40 Years. Now they Want in the Game.” Among other things, the article said: “The last time the religious left made this much noise was in protesting the Vietnam War, when the members of the clergy were mostly white men. Now, those in the forefront include blacks and Latinos, women and gays, along with a new wave of activist Catholics inspired by Pope Francis. And they include large contingents of Jews, Muslims and also Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists in some cities — a reflection of the country’s religious diversity.”
Moderate religious leaders woke up to a new reality where their president mocks the disabled, boasts of unethical and illegal actions, as well as illicit sexual exploits and sexist attitudes, demands personal loyalty from the head of the FBI and fires him when he refuses, refuses to condemn neo-Nazis and uses racist tropes himself, expresses unconditional support for dictators, rudely intervenes in the internal politics of countries that are traditional allies of the United States, treats leaders of other nations rudely, tweets insults at heads of state that host him, encourages racism, violence and hatred and, above all, lying incessantly (The Washington Post research team, that attempts to validate every statement made by Trump, have so far counted more than 10,000 falsehoods). Since becoming president, racially motivated violent attack are on the increase. Immigrants live in fear, as do non-white Americans. Anti-Semitic sentiments are openly fanned; Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated and synagogues now have to hire armed guards following the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. The socio-economic policies of the present government puts extra pressure on low-income families and the budget for aid programs to help them is shrinking. The president’s statements – in his speeches, his tweets and his actions – continually widen the divide between the different parts of the United States and increase the chances for the escalation of international conflicts.
The picture on top of the New York Times article was that of the Rev. William J. Barber II, one of the most impressive black leaders of our time. Barber (55), a tall, large man with a deep voice, lives and works in North Carolina, where he casts a giant shadow among both whites and blacks. The historian Prof. Timothy Tyson called him” the most important progressive political leader in [North Carolina] in generations.”
Barber does not want to be called “leftist” or even “liberal.” His political activity does not derive its strength from this or that political ideology, but rather from the Bible. “We use the words that progressives have thrown away — morality, welfare, poor, faith — because those are soul words,” he said in the Times article.
Although he is a religious person through and through, he stresses that defending the impoverished is by far more important to him than dealing with abortion and same-sex marriage. “How do you take two or three Scriptures and make a theology out of it, and claim it is the moral perspective, and leave 2,000 on the table?” he was quoted as saying in the NY Times article. “That is a form of theological malpractice.”
In 2013, Barber initiated and led a long-term public protest in North Carolina in response to the actions of the newly elected State government. This was the first time in more than 100 years that both the legislative branch and the executive branch of the government were conservative, and they did not waste any time trying to enforce an aggressive political agenda. Among other things, they took steps that were meant to limit the participation of black voters in the elections; passed laws that damaged the environment and cut budgets for programs meant to reduce pollution; cut budgets for programs supporting people of low means; and scrapped laws that were meant to protect African Americans, who constitute 20% of the State’s population.
The demonstrations, which started in 2013 and went on for three years, included assembling regularly at the state legislature and entering it peacefully in order to be arrested. Once a week, on Mondays, thousands would come to demonstrate, and more than 900 were arrested. The largest of these demonstrations took place on August 19, 2013 where 80,000 marched in the streets. Television stationed covered the event widely and Moral Mondays – that’s how Barber referred to those demonstrations – inspired citizens of other states as well. Barber, the source of the inspiration, traveled far and wide to offer guidance. In the 2016 elections, the Democratic candidate defeated the Republican governor of North Carolina, thus changing the political situation in the state. Many believe that Moral Mondays contributed to this outcome.
Barber now focuses on the national front. His organization, Repairers of the Breach, recently initiated a demonstration in Washington D.C., to which leaders of all religious were invited. “Moral Witnessing Wednesday” is the name he gave this new movement. 300 religious leaders responded on short notice on June 12, each wearing their own religious garb. The Secret Service prevented them from gathering in a park next to the White House, so they just pinned a message to the fence, quoting Jeremiah 22:
Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. For if you will indeed obey this word, then through the gates of this house shall enter kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they, and their servants, and their people. But if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the Lord, that this house shall become a desolation.
This was the first gathering, but the second is already planned. It’s easy to doubt the effectiveness of such a symbolic act, and it’s hard to believe that it would make a dent in the administration’s actions or attitudes. The media almost ignored the event, even though Pete Buttigieg, one of the leading candidates in the race to become the Democratic nominee for president, who is a believing Christian, was present, as a witness.
Personally, I’m reminded of a similar event that took place 3,500 years ago, when a stuttering old shepherd, who was also an outlaw, accompanied by his brother, an even older slave, came to Pharaoh and asked him to respond to God’s demand that their people should be allowed to go. Pharaoh chased them away, as a result of which the Nile became polluted, the plague hit all the animals and various other natural disasters quickly followed. Are we currently at a similar period?
Oprah’s Spiritual Advisor is Running for President
The New York Times article mentioned religious leaders, but not spiritual leaders who are not associated to any particular religion, although they are also called nowadays to respond to the challenge of the moment. One of them is Marianne Williamson, one of the most well-known spiritual teachers in America, partly because she is known as the spiritual advisor of the “Media Queen,” Oprah Winfrey, one of the most influential women in the world.
Williamson’s influence extends far beyond the US. Nelson Mandela, in his inaugural speech as the president of South Africa, quoted from her book, Return to Love: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.”
For some time now, Williamson has felt that it’s time to bring her message into the field of politics. In 2014 she tried, unsuccessfully, to be elected to Congress. After Trump’s victory she decided to aim much higher: at the end of January of this year she announced her candidacy to become the Democratic nominee for the presidency of the United States in the 2020 race.
Marianne Williamson was born to a Jewish family in Houston, Texas. As a child, she says, she used to accompany her grandfather to the synagogue on Shabbat. Whenever the ark would open, he used to cry, and she would cry with him, although she did not understand exactly why. She remembers the synagogue’s rabbi, William Maley, who impressed her with his sermons against the war in Vietnam which was then at its peak. She was 13 when her father took an unusual educational step: in order to ensure that his children would always opt for peace, he took his young family to Saigon, the then-capital of South Vietnam (today it’s called Ho Chi Minh City), so that they see with their own eyes how terrible the war is. Following this visit, a question arose in her young mind: what sort of God is this, who allows such wars to occur and who does not prevent the murder of innocent children? This question, and similar ones, eventually made her distance herself from religion.
In 1976, after she stumbled upon a book, A Course in Miracles, her life changed. The book was written by an American psychologist, Ellen Schucman, who claimed that it was dictated to her by no other than Jesus. Williamson was first taken aback by the Christian language of the course and decided that it was not for her. A few months later, when her boyfriend gave her a copy, she started reading the book, studying its tenets and practicing its exercises—and she was won over. “[The book] uses Christian terminology,” she said recently in an interview with the Jewish Telegraph Agency, “but there’s no dogma, there’s no doctrine. It’s not a religion. And the ‘Course in Miracles’ is based on universal spiritual themes that are at the heart of all the great religious teachings of the world. I think if anything it’s made me a better Jew.”
She returned to Texas, got a job at a bookstore and, asked by her boss, started to lecture on The Course in Miracles. She later did the same in a bookstore in San Francisco. This was at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and San Francisco’s large gay community, which was losing more members each day, was hungry for her messages. Soon she started filling up large halls and harnessed her popularity by starting a charity organization that delivered food to the terminally ill – mostly AIDS victims – who were not care for by anyone else.
It was then that Williamson wrote her first book, A Return to Love, a summary of sorts of The Course in Miracles: a message of love, light, forgiveness and openness. Oprah Winfrey read the book, bought 1,000 copies to give away and invited Williamson to be a guest on her show. She was made a celebrity overnight. Seven of her 13 book made it to the New York Times bestseller list.
When the house is in flames, you need to scream “Fire!”
A few weeks ago I spoke to Williamson by phone and I reminded her, that while running for Congress she said that her positions were similar to those of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. “If so,” I asked her, “Why are you running? What added value do you bring that others are not bringing already?”
“My positions on economics are very similar to theirs,” she said, “but something much larger than economics is happening here. I am calling for a spiritual and moral renewal of America; this is vital at this time. So why not elect someone who has devoted her life to helping people renew spiritually and morally?”
This is how such renewal will take form in her vision: “For example,” she says, “there are millions of school children who go to school daily lacking the most basic educational equipment that is needed to teach a child to read and write, and if a child cannot read or write by the time they are eight years old, their chances of graduating from high school are much lower and their chances of being incarcerated are much higher. I want a massive realignment of our investment in children ten years old and younger. And I want a department for children’s welfare on the cabinet level, because I feel that the need to save these children is not different from the need to save victims of natural disasters.”
Also, for years she has been calling for the fulfillment of the moral debt that the white population of the United States owes to the African-Americans and native Americans. She strongly believes that the United States will not be able to move towards a better future as long as it is not ready to “clean up the results of our past actions. So although my economic policy is similar to that of other candidates,” she says, “I feel that I am bringing a much more holistic and comprehensive conversation than that which I hear from my colleagues.”
There is something contagious about Williamson’s passion, her commitment, and her razor sharp thinking. It is easy to trust her and believe her sincerity. It is also clear that she has done her homework and that she is very well versed in the various political issues of the day and has devised plans to address them. But that is not where I want to go with her. I am more interested to know what added value she brings to politics. I ask her: “In your books, you write that we have not come here in order to blame others or correct them. How does this square with your need, as a politician and a candidate for nomination, to point out all the things that require improvement?”
“When the house is burning, it is important to scream ‘Fire!’ as loudly as you can” she answers, almost scolding me. “Any parent who sees their toddler playing with scissors would run and tell her, ‘No, you cannot play with this.’ Especially among us, Jews, it is very important to take a stand against evil. This is part of tikkun olam, repairing the world,” she says.
We see the rise of populist, anti-democratic leaders everywhere around the world. Spiritual teachers tell us that every distress is also an opportunity to learn something and grow. How, in this context, do you understand this present moment in politics, both in the USA and in other parts of the world? Where is our opportunity for growth here?
“As Martin Luther King said: we must learn to live together as brothers or die as fools. In the 21st century we must learn, at a deeper level than we can imagine, that we are all united and that ultimately, whatever we do to others, we do to ourselves. We must establish a society based on infinite compassion and empathy for the other. Some believe that it is naïve to say that love must be the organizing principle of life in society. I believe that it is naïve to think that we would survive on our planet more than 100 years from today if we don’t do this.”
She claims that love exposes all that stands in opposition to it. Humanity, she believes, is on the verge of a new age, a new alignment: on the verge of comprehending the unity of all human beings wherever they are. This love, this light, she explains, is what summons the great fear, because those of us who are invested in division, in fear, and in taking advantage of the weak among us see it as a threat to their world. “There are those among us who are excited about the possibility of life in a world of profound fraternity and righteousness and believe that it is the fulfillment of God’s will on earth, while others feel deeply threatened. In the end, what is happening in the world right now is a struggle between these two worldviews.”
Even Williamson’s closest advisors admit that her chances of winning the race are slim. At the same time, she has managed to jump over a number of obstacles and fulfil the conditions needed to take part in the first Democratic presidential debate (which will take place when this issue will go to press), and miracles do happen. I believe that a voice such as Williamson’s should be heard, even if it does not translate into a victory. Maybe it would serve as a homeopathic dose of compassion at a time where it is so sorely needed.
When protest dissolves
In some, engaging with spirituality awakens the need to engage in social action; in others, it happens the other way around. Eight years ago Dr. Micah White initiated one of the most well-known international demonstrations: the Occupy World Street movement, an international version of the Israeli Tent Demonstration. Much has been written about that movement: the number of people that joined the streets—first in New York, then in various cities in the United States and soon in various cities around the Western world—was larger than any other demonstration in history. It also received more media coverage than any demonstration or social movement before it.
And then, as if by magic, it all dissolved. The police dismantled the first New York encampment, and almost immediately, like dominoes, all the encampments around the world were dismantled. In the end, judging by measurable results, Occupy Wall Street was a failure.
Traumatized by both the whirlwind success of the initiative, on one hand, and its overnight dissolution, on the other, White moved with his wife to rural Oregon, to take a breath and try and understand what had happened, how does social change actually take place, what are the factors that create a social movement and what brings about its success or failure. This period of contemplation gave rise to his book The End of Protest. He now divides his time between public lectures and teaching at a program for training social activists “of a different kind,” he says.
White’s first social protest was at age 13, when he refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at school. He followed that by establishing an underground newspaper, constantly looking for issues to protest against. “I don’t know why I was drawn to that,” he told me. “Maybe it’s my biography. My father is black, my mother is white. They were the first generation of interracial couples to marry after the Supreme Court decreed it legal in all fifty states (in 1967). When I was growing up, there were no mixed-race kids in the area; it is much more common nowadays. As a boy, I felt neither black nor white. I did not know what my place was. Maybe that was the reason?”
He hopes that this passion can be passed on, but is not sure. “I have children, and I would like them to be social activists. But I am not sure this can be learned. When I meet other activists who started social movements, and I ask them how it happened and why, they are not able to explain. They shrug their shoulders and say, ‘I don’t know. I was just attracted to it.’ Maybe it’s an inborn intuition.”
White reached different conclusions about why Occupy ended in failure than many of his colleagues. Many social activists claimed, that the failure was caused by strategic and tactical mistakes that were made. Had the strategy and tactics been different, they believe, the results would have been different. White, on the other hand, believes that “most social activists are too secular and too materialistic in their understanding of what brings about change. It seems obvious to them that a massive demonstration will have a much more powerful effect in bringing about social change than a massive prayer or meditation. That is a materialistic viewpoint that we have inherited from the Marxists. But is it true?”
The basic axiom of a demonstration, explains White, is that the government must listen to the people it represents (at least in a democratic society); so all that is needed is for people go out into the streets and demonstrate peacefully, and the government will respond by making changes. “But the manner in which governments ignored the cry of these demonstrations and dismantled them indicates that it’s time to leave this assumption behind,” he says. “It is an incorrect assumption that does not work anymore. Still, many social activists invest many resources in getting people to go out and demonstrate, because they don’t know another way.”
In spite of Occupy Wall Street’s failure, White did not become a cynic. “One reason that I did not lose hope is that revolutions emerge suddenly. Moreover, they occur at low points. When Arab Spring emerged, they were at a low point. When Occupy Wall Street emerged, we were at a low point of social activism in America. The Russian revolution also happened at a low point. So the worse the situation becomes, the more convinced I am that such a movement will spontaneously happen.”
I tell him that this kind of understanding is found in religious scriptures. For example, the Bible tells us that God turned to help their Israelites in Egypt when their suffering became so much that “their cry went up to heaven.” In the Hindu tradition, God Vishnu incarnates when the suffering becomes unbearable. White agrees: “There is something miraculous, supernatural, about the way these movements emerge. It’s something out of the ordinary. They emerge suddenly and surprise everybody—no one expected the Arab Spring in Tahrir Square in Cairo, no one expected the Tent Demonstration in Tel Aviv, no one expected Occupy Wall Street.”
My talk with White occurred exactly 30 years after the student protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, which ended up in a massacre. While I am writing this article, millions of demonstrators are flooding the streets of Hong Kong, protesting a legislation that was meant to tighten the control of China over the colony and seriously threaten democracy there. So far China has contained the demonstrations, but the last word has not yet been said. While I did not discuss these demonstrations with White, if he is right, their chances for success are not high. The authorities do not feel obligated to listen to the will of the people.
White is reading a book now about a social activist he admires, Joan of Arc. Responding to messages that she received from angels at the beginning of the 15th century, she changed the course of the Hundred Years’ War between France and England. “She was just 17!” he says with admiration.
Sometimes a crisis is needed for new, radical solutions to emerge. The awakening of people with spiritual depth to the need for them to influence the political life, from within or from without, as well as the awakening of social activists to the need to bring spiritual depth to their activism, are important, positive developments.
In many respects, Trump’s presidency is terrible news for the United States and the world as a whole. His superficiality, his low moral standards and his unbridled narcissism threaten the economy, the social structures, and environment and the world. Will he wake us up from our complacency? Will he cause sufficient numbers to transcend our natural tendency to be concerned solely with ourselves and harness our energy to change-inducing action? Will it inspire social activists to seek spiritual depth so that their goals can be achieved in a manner that is most conducive to the good of the world? If so, we could come out winners.
While it is hard to believe that Marianne Williamson will win the nomination of the Democratic Party, I hope that just as she inspired Nelson Mandela, she will find enough supporters and will manage to inspire other candidates with her ideas. I hope that other social activists will be inspired by the interest that Micha White takes in deepening his spirituality and will take spiritual practice with the same seriousness that they take mass demonstrations. And I hope that Rev. William Barbers II’s movement of Moral Witnessing Wednesday will gain momentum and become a spiritual force that cannot be ignored. We desperately need such developments.