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The Left Hand of God

<i>The Left Hand of God</i>. By Michael Lerner. <i>HarperSanFrancisco. 416 pages. $24.95</i>.

| Fri Mar. 24, 2006 3:00 AM EST

I first met Michael Lerner in Jerusalem fifteen years ago. It was during the first (and sadly, so far only) conference organized in Israel by the magazine he founded, Tikkun, which I had scraped together the money to attend. The mood was electric. Hundreds of Israelis, American Jews, and more than a few Palestinians engaged in detailed and often heated discussions about how to solve a conflict that then, as today, seemed all but impossible to bring to a just and peaceful denouement.

There was something both utopian and pragmatic about the conference: utopian because even in the wake of the first Gulf War, the idea that Jews and Palestinians could sit down and rationally hash out their differences seemed far-fetched; yet pragmatic because the conference was willing to tackle head on such "core problems" as as Jerusalem and the status of Palestinian refugees, issues that most liberal Israelis and American Jews refused even to touch.

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That combination of idealism and hard-headedness—sorely lacking in American political discourse no less than in the Middle East—so enthralled me that I wound up working for Tikkun for much of the next decade (I'm still on the magazine's editorial board). During this time I was witness to the evolution of what for lack of a better term can be termed a "progressive spiritual politics" in the United States. The most basic goal of this enterprise was to reinvigorate a moribund Left (and with it, though not exclusively, the Democratic Party) by helping it recapture the energy and mobilizing spirit of the religiously inspired civil rights and anti-war movements. That such a process was vital for the long-term health of the Party was obvious to keen political observers, such as Hilary Clinton, who—so the story goes—bestowed a "guru"-like status on Lerner and his "politics of meaning" philosophy at the start of the first Clinton administration—until the press distorted his message and the Clintons, true to form, ran away from him like he was a piece of overpriced Arkansas real estate.

This was the story of the religiously inspired Left in the decade since. On the grass-roots level more and more people, liberals as well as conservatives, secular as well as religious (or at least spiritual), began to grasp the potential of a spiritually reinvigorated progressive movement. In official Democratic circles, however, religion was deemed a card to play, a token to throw to the Midwestern middle class, not the basis, connected to a deep human and social need, of a political platform.

Six years of George W. Bush have yet to spark the soul of the Democratic Party; but they have given plenty of time to "spiritual progressives" like Lerner and Jim Wallis, Sojourners' editor and best-selling author of God's Politics, to refine the sales pitch they first delivered together to almost 2,000 people at the first "National Summit on Ethics and Meaning" in 1996. The huge response to Wallis' book demonstrated that there is an audience willing to hear the argument for a progressively based spiritual politics.

The Left Hand of God book cover

If Wallis' book helped people understand that one could be an Evangelical Christian and coherently support social justice and many core progressive programs, The Left Hand of God helps us understand the psychological underpinnings of religious conservatism and the theological justifications for critiquing it head on. Most important, offers a host of concrete actions that, Lerner argues, can help bring into the mainstream a progressive vision that, correctly understood, has always been at the core of the Judeo-Christian heritage, even if that heritage has lately been hijacked by the Right.

The Left Hand of God has several basic arguments. The first is that the Democratic Party has given into the "ethos of selfishness and materialism" that dominates America's hyperconsumerist culture. As a consequence, it has lost most of its moral authority to critique the Right, despite the fact that conservative policies are often selfish, materialist and even ruthless. At the same time, the party moved away from speaking precisely the kind of religious or spiritual language that the Right has deployed so effectively—and duplicitously—to advance its agenda, promoting policies that place people and families under increasing psychological, social, and economic stress, even as it embraces many of the victims of its policies and wins them over to its side.

Lerner's big insight here, and one of the most important developments since his earlier work, concerns the way the Right uses religion. He argues is that conservatives focus on the "Right Hand of God," the conception of the deity associated with vengeance, justice, violence, and power, traits deployed against God's—and thus believers'—immoral enemies. Crucially, he explains how these images are legitimate representations of the God of the Bible (as of the Qur'an). God is a vengeful God, and does exact terrible punishment against those who disobey "His" commands.

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