THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Friday, January 29, 2010

An E-mail Exchange with Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun Magazine

Last week's Friday news report related that President Obama has decided to come down hard on the financial institutions that have taken extreme advantage of the government's efforts to save the economy. We made it clear we believed that, while regulation is clearly necessary, it must be the right sort of regulation, something that affects the basic institution and thus makes regulation part of the system itself, not something imposed from the outside, from the top down.

We were unaware that the noted magazine Tikkun, run by Rabbi Michael Lerner, had weighed in on its website a day earlier on this issue. Noting President Obama's reference to big banks as "fat cats," the article performed an important service in underscoring the need for reform. Writer Lauren Reichelt described the president's efforts as "forcing savings and loans to divest themselves of the investment banks that gambled away taxpayers' savings, and forcing the largest banks to be broken up. . . . It is probably not coincidental that these are the same banks that caused the near collapse of our financial institutions, sucked up billions in tax funds and then planned to hand the same amount out to top execs as bonuses."

Tikkun appeared to support President Obama's proposal not for the presumed salutary effects that the increased regulations would bring to a sorely beset American people and a badly crippled productive economy, but for the political benefits that would flow to the Democratic Party and the poke in the eye it would deal to the opposition. As the writer claimed, "Congressional Republicans obstruct this bill at their own peril."

In other words, the emphasis appeared to be on revenge, not justice. This was apparently with an eye toward increasing the rate of redistribution of a rapidly shrinking pool of wealth from a devastated tax base at a time when the productive sector is imploding. The report mentioned that "It is probably very significant that Obama made this announce[ment] flanked by Paul Volcker. Neither Geithner nor Summers were present, nor were they mentioned by name in the press release. Some of you may recall that Volcker, who advocated for increased regulation of banks and a large jobs bill, was frozen out of the administration at the outset by Geithner and Summers." It concluded by exulting, "We lost a seat in MA, but we may have won the war. Certainly, we have won the right to engage in battle."

In our opinion, despite the evident good will toward and concern for the little guy displayed by Rabbi Lerner's staff, their belief that the State can solve the current economic disaster by fiat and with an increase in spending and redistribution of that which has been accumulated by others is wrongheaded. You can't redistribute wealth that isn't being produced forever, nor can you hold producers' feet to the fire with threats, veiled or otherwise, in an effort to disgorge their presumably ill-gotten gains, or force them to produce when there is no incentive to do so, such as a just rate of return determined by the free market. They simply stop producing and move to a more conducive climate with less regulation and cheaper labor. Nothing is more easily exported in today's global economy than capital, leaving the country without the means to generate sufficient production to sustain itself.

Although such thoughts were running through my mind, at least in germ, I sent a link to the article to the Just Third Way network. Whatever I felt to be the defects in the article, admitting the need for reform of any kind is a major advance. Identifying the problem and having the right orientation to a viable solution is half the job. Specifics can come later.

I then received the following e-mail from an Islamic natural law scholar who supports the Just Third Way. It's a little pessimistic and down on Mr. Obama, but it does express — qualified — optimism. At this point, any optimism is a breath of fresh air and a sign of hope.
Will President Obama go beyond regulating the current system and dare actually to change the institutions? Opportunities usually come from crises, but unfortunately crisis managers rarely see them and merely seek to maintain the status quo under the appearance of change. Obama has lost the trust of his followers, but it may not be too late, so we shall see. It is hard to turn a failed State around when the leaders don't have a clue about whether and why it failed. Does Obama know something that we don't? Hope springs eternal, but one cannot live on hope and love.
To encourage more positive responses, I immediately posted the following e-mail on the Tikkun website, and copied the Islamic scholar.
This is a great opportunity for Tikkun to join the radical middle. While the Tea Partiers are advocating "End the Fed" and the worshippers of the State are calling for imposing top-down control of the Federal Reserve by the U.S. Treasury Department, why not support the Coalition for Capital Homesteading's "Own the Fed" rally? The goal is to put money power in the hands of the citizens of each of the twelve Federal Reserve districts? Plan to join us on Thursday, April 15th at the Federal Reserve in Washington, DC, to neutralize the poison of the million or so angry people coming in that day to protest at the White House. For our long-term plan for democratizing the economy by 2012, the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's Homestead Act, follow this link Anyone interested can make contact via the information on the CESJ website. I hope Rabbi Lerner can be moved to the radical center. Then we'll offer him a chance to speak at our rally. Own or Be Owned, Norm
The response from the Islamic scholar was thought provoking:
Norm, you and Rabbi Lerner represent the two wings of the Just Third Way strategic bomber. In the Second World War we had the song about "Coming home on a wing and a prayer," about the crews coming back to Britain after a run over Nazi Germany, but they were lucky. We need both wings, and then God as the co-pilot to help with the steering. Peace through compassionate justice.
I admit I was somewhat puzzled. It seemed to me that the Islamic scholar had unintentionally belittled the Just Third Way and CESJ's efforts to promote peace through the establishment of justice inspired and then fulfilled by charity. Instead, he, in common with Rabbi Lerner, appeared to want to base everything on the presumed necessity of first establishing perfect charity as a precondition of justice. This, of course, is impossible, for as philosophers and religious teachers through the ages have reminded us, we must establish justice inspired by charity as a precondition of charity. In the words of Pope Pius XI, "Charity will never be true charity unless it takes justice into constant account." (Divini Redemptoris, § 49) To do otherwise is to put the cart before the horse. Charity fulfills justice, and logically cannot fulfill that which does not exist, or which is a necessary precondition.

Nevertheless, this issue was developing into a discussion that could prove very useful in clarifying how people are thinking about these issues, and thus the appropriate actions to take to solve the present set of problems. The heart of the issue seems to be that there is a difference of opinion not only between those of us who promote the Just Third Way and those who promote other systems, but even among those of us whom I thought understood the basic principles of social and economic justice underlying the Just Third Way. Many intelligent people continue to insist that charity must come before justice, whereas common sense tells us that justice must come before charity.

This is because justice does not fulfill the demands of charity. Instead, charity fulfills the demands of justice. As Pope John Paul I said in the General Audience of September 6, 1978, "Charity is the soul of justice." Thus, because charity is the higher virtue, it cannot exist except on a foundation of justice. In practical terms, if we must put one before the other, justice takes precedence because it is lower, and thus more readily attainable by human beings in their imperfect state.

This is because the virtue of justice — rendering to each what each is due — has natural limits, that is, boundaries within which it functions or it cannot be called justice. Rendering to each more or less than what each is due is unjust. What is rendered must be what each is due, no more, no less. The application of justice is therefore attainable by purely human means and through the use of reason simply by acting in accordance with human nature, which the great religions agree is consistent with divine Nature.

It is different with charity, the supreme virtue with no limits, and therefore impossible for humanity to attain, despite the paradox that we must work for nothing else. You cannot love too much. You can love the wrong things, such as money, status, even yourself in certain circumstances, but of properly oriented and directed love, as the Great Commandment implies, there can never be enough: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind: and thy neighbor as thyself." As the Christian Evangelist John expressed it, "God is Love," that is, perfect love is attainable only by God.

To argue that we must, therefore, first perfectly fulfill the demands of charity in order to establish justice is to demand something impossible, even blasphemous — that we become God — as a precondition of establishing justice, something that is within the power of every human being by nature itself. To me, this is getting everything backwards — but that is what people seem to insist on doing. It does have the advantage of excusing our ineffectiveness in bringing about just social change, but it does nothing to establish the reign of peace and love. It only succeeds in frustrating everybody.

Thus, I felt it was the time for some pointed questions to start laying the groundwork for an approach to the problem that would bring about a viable solution. The Islamic scholar's reference to the bombing missions out of England in World War II seemed an obvious point from which to take off, so to speak. I responded,
As you know, I flew B-47 bombers in Strategic Air Command. One basic rule of navigation is that you need to know where you're going if you want to get where you planned to be at a specific time. The Just Third Way is both a route and a destination. I know where I'm heading. God created us and all of nature, and gave us as part of our unique nature the free will and power to act justly or unjustly or just plain confused on how to cope with life. God's Will does not, in my opinion, determine how we act. That's up to us. (I highly commend to you Michael Greaney's blog discussions of two divergent philosophical views of God's role in influencing human thought and human actions — God's Will or, according to Thomas Aquinas, God's Nature, which includes humans as well as all non-human aspects of the universe. Michael and I agree with Aquinas's school of thought.

Do you really believe that Rabbi Lerner understands the basic principles for navigating toward the same Just Third Way destination as those of us in CESJ? I hate to say it, but you have me confused.

Frankly, I'm getting increasingly frustrated by those who preach prayer, non-violence and peace, but either are silent about the absolute necessity of justice to the establishment of peace, or they preach "justice" with little or no understanding of basic principles of that virtue. My continuing prayer is my work for justice — as the Benedictines, a Catholic religious order, have as their motto, Laborare Orare Est — "To work is to pray." As such I "pray," that is, work for justice, virtually all my waking hours every day since I first became aware of "the Just Third Way" 45 years ago.

Again, are you suggesting that there is no spiritual sensitivity in my work or that of other Servants of Justice in CESJ? What is the "wing" missing from our work?

In Peace through Justice,
The response from the Islamic scholar, while interesting and informative, confirmed my belief that people insist on reversing the proper order of things, and demand that we first be perfect before we can get to work becoming perfect.
I agree with you and Mike about God's Being versus God's Will. This has been probably the biggest issue in the 1400 years of debate among Muslims. This debate led in the second Islamic century [eighth century] to the only Inquisition in the history of Islam, when the Mutazillites went to an extreme in their insistence that God is Being in order to defeat the Salafis (ancestors of the modern Wahhabis) who said that God is all Will and that therefore if He wishes evil, so be it. The battle was waged in the arcane arena of whether the Qur'an is created (the Mutazillite position) and therefore requires reason to apply it, or whether it is uncreated (the Salafi position) and therefore must be followed blindly without the use of reason to understand it. The middle-of-the roaders, the Asharites, said that God is Being and therefore cannot act contrary to his nature, which consists of love and justice, but that God is the ultimate actor in the universe and wills man to choose his own future, even if it be injustice, because without free will there can be neither love nor justice. In other words, the Asharites (like me) say that the universe and even human nature are good, and that evil comes only from their self-worship by humans who think they are God.

This is a short summary of 1400 years of Islamic thought, which is mirrored in every one of the world religions. The language and apparent issues vary from one religion to another, but the substance is identical in them all.

My only difference with you over the decades has been the prioritization of prayer vìs à vìs action as it relates to the balance between changing ourselves and changing our institutions. Rabbi Lerner is right to say that the "capitalists" should be compassionate, etc., but he is hopelessly wrong if he thinks that they ever will. And even if an individual "capitalist" would have a eureka moment and seek justice, he would be hopelessly caught in an unjust system and have no power to make a difference. You are right that manmade institutions must be perfected in order to make it possible for good people to do good. Perhaps the difference between you and Rabbi Lerner is that he thinks that personal change must come first, whereas you say that institutional change must come simultaneously in order for personal change to have any effect. The Communists said that institutional change (the abolition of private property and its related institutions, not the perfection of these institutions, as we contend) must come first, so that personal change would come automatically. The Communists are all wrong, Rabbi Lerner is more than half right, and what you and I are, of course, is obvious. Keep on flying.
What the Islamic scholar states as his only difference with me is the most critical difference of all — the "balance between changing ourselves and changing our institutions." There are enough misunderstandings in the last paragraph to fuel centuries of debate, as, in fact, they have. I think the basic difference has to do with our understanding of "institution," even of society itself. An institution is there to assist us in our human task of working toward a perfection that, paradoxically, we can never reach. It is a tool, a human artifact. As such, we can make it "more perfect" as the Constitution says, so that it can do the job of helping us as human beings to become "more perfect," but, being imperfect ourselves, we can never make an institution perfect.

It seems to me that Rabbi Lerner's frustration is rooted in a belief that people should be perfect but are not, and thus the State must force them to be perfect. The Islamic scholar's position seems to be that people are not going to change, no matter what, that Rabbi Lerner "is hopelessly wrong if he thinks that they ever will [change]"; that certain people are not capable of "pursuing happiness," that is, acquiring and developing virtue, especially justice and charity. The Islamic scholar misstates my position somewhat when he says that I am right that "manmade institutions must be perfected in order to make it possible for good people to do good." No — our institutions must be restructured if they prevent or inhibit us from doing good, but we can never make them perfect. This appears to lead to another minor error, that I believe that it is somehow necessary for people to perfect themselves at the same time they perfect their institutions. On the contrary, we must work to make our institutions more perfect so that we can use these social tools in our efforts to work toward perfection.

Still, these are relatively minor issues, at least in the context of the discussion. There is a fundamental agreement — with the Islamic scholar. Rabbi Lerner is a different case. I told the Islamic scholar that when Rabbi Lerner was an undergraduate at Berkeley during the 1960s, he learned about the Just Third Way from Marty Kelso, Louis Kelso's daughter, but my hunch was that he was troubled by Kelso's use of the word "capitalism" within a community that hated the term. Clearly, his call for a "Global Marshall Plan" to solve the current economic crisis without reference to the democratization of access to capital credit and capital ownership disqualifies him from being a supporter of the "Just Third Way." His way is trickle-down allocation of income and top-down control over money and capital credit. Ours is the reverse. Nevertheless, I concluded that, as the Islamic scholar and other supporters agree, the door remains open for the Rabbi and Tikkun, all well-intentioned advocates for peace and spirituality, to join the true people's revolution.

Unfortunately, Rabbi Lerner disagreed. I received an e-mail from him that led me to believe he had read my comments and those of the Islamic scholar a little too quickly, and missed the point:
I have no idea why you feel it necessary to mis-charaterize my position on these questions, but it leads me to not pay much attention to you or your work at Third Way. That we have not filled in some details is one thing, but that we have a trickle-down allocation of income and top-down control of money and capital credit is a conclusion that we have not come to, but which you project onto us. We do not believe that at this stage of introducing the idea of a Global Marshall Plan those issues need to be resolved, because the idea of a Strategy of Generosity to replace a Strategy of Domination is still so far out of the political mainstream that we have years of work to do before needing to resolve the kind of question you raise.
Rabbi Lerner appears honestly to believe that he is not advocating an unacceptable degree of State control of the economy. That, however, is belied by the unfortunate "triumphalism" of the article in Tikkun. True, Rabbi Lerner did not write the article, but he did publish it, and his reference to "we" would seem to indicate substantial agreement. Whatever Rabbi Lerner believes (and it is clear he holds his opinion honestly, or he would not be so upset), the approach to reform of the banking system that the article supports is necessarily top-down, Statist in its approach, and relies on trickle-down allocation of income.

This is inherent in the system that Rabbi Lerner appears to take for granted. The Rabbi does not appear to support institutional change to make it possible for people who want to do good to be able to do good, but on some unspecified center of power forcing a change from a "Strategy of Domination" to a "Strategy of Generosity." I would agree that a great many details have to be filled in, but the approach and principles have to be much clearer than Rabbi Lerner, for all his evident goodwill, has managed to explain.

Unfortunately, the Islamic scholar, whom I had thought to be in substantial agreement with my position — justice inspired by charity first — decided to weigh in on the discussion and support Rabbi Lerner's position, which seems to be along the lines of charity first, but since people won't be charitable, there is no hope . . . unless the State forces people to do the right thing. As the Islamic scholar wrote, apparently defining "charity" as forced almsgiving, that is, redistribution (which is not true charity),
The difference between you and Rabbi Lerner seems to be that the Rabbi emphasizes charity, whereas you emphasize justice. Charity is praiseworthy but can do no more than merely alleviate the suffering from a faulty economic system, because it can solve problems only on an individual basis, even though it may help millions of people. Its necessarily limited scope thereby leaves billions of people to suffer from poverty and all its associated problems.

On the other hand, the economic institutions of the modern world, which have been structured to concentrate wealth and thereby maintain concentrated political power, will never be changed until both the educated public and the legislators adopt a charitable mentality and exercise their charity by organizing to reform the institutions. This solidarity in action is what Father Ferree called social justice.

Social justice is impossible until the charitably-minded know how to perfect the institutions of money and credit so that they will no longer concentrate ownership of wealth-producing assets. Until this knowledge is understood, which is simple in theory but requires highly sophisticated know-how, we will have to rely on charity as the redistribution of wealth. Even the most ambitious charity can never do more than help the marginalized in the world barely enough to prevent revolutions and terrorism from threatening the unjust institutions that cause most of the injustices and suffering in the first place.

The goal of economic justice, according to the Just Third Way, is to broaden capital ownership to everyone in society so that economic power and therefore necessarily also political power will flow from the bottom upward rather than from the top down. The goal of justice is to remove the need to institutionalize charity as the re-distribution of wealth, which serves only to concentrate power at the top.

The Just Third Way would largely remove the need for charity except as a mindset to prevent the re-corruption of the institutions that made institutionalized charity necessary.

Rabbi Lerner is absolutely correct that the bottom line must always be faith-based, compassionate justice, which seeks to protect human dignity by recognizing human responsibilities and the resulting human rights as the ultimate ends of all public policy. In all of the world religions, the intent and motivations are the key to justice, and the motivation can come only from love. Without that, there will be no sustained action. The Just Third Way motto is "persistence, persistence, persistence," but this is impossible without charitable love as the bottom line.

Thomas Jefferson said it all when he warned that free people can remain free only if they are properly educated, that proper education consists of education in the virtues (which nowadays mean human responsibilities and rights), and that no people can remain virtuous unless their lives are infused with awareness and love of God. This assures that one's motivation will not be based on the quicksand of institutional change as a polytheistic panacea whereby the goal of changing institutions can itself become a false god and replace charity as the bottom line.

Charity comes first, always,
Social justice is not "solidarity in action." Father Ferree was clear on that point, as he explained in The Act of Social Justice (1943). That mis-definition is not, however, the main problem with the above e-mail. It is the statement that "Charity comes first, always" (with "charity" vaguely defined as institutionalized redistribution, which is neither justice nor charity), with the implication that we cannot even proceed with establishing a just social order until and unless we have all perfected ourselves in charity.

At this point, the sequence of the discussion becomes a little mixed up. I wrote the following e-mail to Rabbi Lerner before I received the Islamic scholar's note above. As I said, "Before seeing your message, I just sent out my response to Rabbi Lerner. As you will see I recognize the complementarity between charity and justice, as best expressed in 1978 by Pope John Paul I: "Charity is the soul of justice." He died after a little over a month in office and was succeeded by John Paul II, who blessed our work for justice when we met with him twice. Thanks for your supportive statements and solid understanding of the Just Third Way, a movement that will not only advance religious freedom but will create a higher level of solidarity between Jews, Christians, Muslims and followers of all other faiths and spiritual belief systems. Someday I hope Rabbi Lerner will come to appreciate our work, which I consider my living prayer and thanks to the Creator."

You can continue to pray and preach your Strategy of Generosity. It will not replace the Strategy of Domination. It never has and never will. Only a Strategy based on Justice will end Systems of Domination. Yes, I'll admit that a spirit of generosity is vital for those working for Justice, the kind of spiritual height reflected in Maimonides' eighth and highest order of Charity, a level of Charity where Justice and Generosity intersect. But it isn't sufficient to try to change the hearts and minds of the greedy, as you are attempting to do. Those of us who worked in Mississippi in the early 1960s (and I don't believe you were there) for overcoming the segregationist system and breaking the barriers to the political ballot for black citizens did not spend much time trying to win the hearts and minds of those who dominated the "White Supremacy" culture then pervasive throughout Mississippi. We followed a strategy based on Justice, as evidenced by the attached Medgar Evers' letter to me before he was killed. By 1964 the Civil Rights Act was passed and by 1965 the Voting Rights Act passed the Congress.

If you don't think that "at this stage . . . issues [involving changes aimed at lifting unjust legal and institutional barriers to economic empowerment for the poor] need to be resolved," then it's time you deepened your understanding of "the virtue of Social Justice" as articulated by Pope Pius XI in his 1931 encyclical on "The Restructuring of the Social Order" and by our co-founder the late Marianist leader William Ferree. (See the latter's Introduction to Social Justice) Acts of Social Justice are aimed at organizing people with good hearts and a strong sense of Justice to work together in well-conceived and principled "Strategies of Justice" aimed at restructuring systems to end Cultures of Greed and Domination. That's how civilization (as in the founding of this country) has evolved throughout history to advance Generosity, Peace, Prosperity and Freedom for all. When you take the time to appreciate how laws and systems affect human behavior and thought, posively as well as negatively, you will begin working on Strategies of Justice. Our door will always remain open to you.

By the way, I do not work "at Third Way." I proudly work with other true revolutionaries of all faiths for the Just Third Way, with heavy emphasis on the word "Just." Your attempt at belittling our work forces me as a Jew who takes seriously the mandate of Deuteronomy 16:20 to ask you as a Rabbi, "Where today are the Jews for Justice?" I know you are a compassionate person. We need more like you in our revolution.

In the Pursuit of Truth, Love and Justice,
Norm Kurland
To this, Rabbi Lerner responded,

Since you ask, you obviously don't know about the outstanding work for justice done by the Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement, the work of the Jewish Fund for Justice, or the work of Progressive Jewish Alliance. And you seem determined to ignore Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives' campaign for a Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution or the rest of our Spiritual Covenant with America which you can read at www.spiritualprogressives dot org. And in light of the Supreme Court decision last week to extend the same rights of individuals to corporations (building on a similar ruling in the 1870s), we will be discussing the launching of a campaign for a constitutional amendment to restrict the power of corporations at our Tikkun conference in D.C. June 11-14. If I'm really lucky, I'll even convince David Saperstein to speak at this gathering and maybe even William Greider if he is willing!

You just don't know what you are talking about when you describe Tikkun or NSP or my positions on this and other matters, and you do that by trying to drive a wedge between spiritual concerns or compassionate orientations on the one hand, and justice on the other. But as our Torah and Jewish tradition makes clear, these can go hand in hand. And what you leave out of your discussion is the strategy for transformation of consciousness, as though one could simply articulate some good ideas and then promote them, without paying attention to all the unconscious blocks that make people resistant to even listening to those ideas in the first place. I strongly urge you to read my books on this, particularly Surplus Powerlessness, The Politics of Meaning, Spirit Matters, and The Left Hand of God.
For my part, I pledge myself to read Rabbi Lerner's books . . . if he will read ours (Curing World Poverty, Capital Homesteading for Every Citizen, Introduction to Social Justice, and In Defense of Human Dignity . . . among others, including the new release by Dr. Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir, Notes from a Prison: Bangladesh), and put reviews in Tikkun, as we would put reviews of his efforts on this blog. Stay tuned to this blog for any further developments.