Creating a New Prophetic Agenda

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 2/22/2005

Rabbi Arthur Waskow *


Almost everyone now agrees that a major factor in American political and cultural life of the early 21st century is the impulse toward Religious Restoration - seeking a return to the real or imagined stability and certitude of the pre-Modern religious past.

Many secular progressives have seen this thirst for Restoration as simply an outburst of hatred, fear, and ignorance. It often, though not always, is. Fewer recognize that it is an authentic and understandable response to the world-wide earthquake in economics, politics, technology, sexuality that has been stirred by Hyper-Modernity in the last half-century. To the extent we can see it in that way, we may have more possibility of identifying what aspects of its criticism of Modernity are shared by progressive critics, and to draw toward us some who till now have seemed only threatening.

Perhaps especially out of fear of this Restorationist religious movement, many secular liberals and progressives have been slow to recognize or honor another authentic response: the emergence of a prophetic religious and spiritual movement oriented not to Restoration but to Religious Renewal.

In the wake of the 2004 election and the aluespanic, however, some previously secular Democrats have urgently sought connections to these ropheticenergies:

oThe Center for American Progress, headed by a former chief of staff to President Clinton, hosted a gathering of religious activists considerably to its own left, and listened carefully.

oCongresswoman Nancy Pelosi, leader of the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives, set up a Committee on Religious Values within the House Democratic Caucus.

oSome Deaniacs, even before their flagbearer was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee, began urging the DNC to set up a center for religious concerns.

oThe Progressive Democrats of America, newly formed by Kucinich and Dean campaign workers, invited a panel of religious and cultural leaders to speak at its founding convention.

oJim Wallis of Sojourners and Call to Renewal was invited to work closely with Democratic leaders on how to redefine the Federal budget as a oral document— in Bush's case, an immoral one because of its unbiblical callousness toward the poor and its rapturous relationship to the rich and the military.

Almost as intense as the politicos' pursuit of prophetic energy were their attempts to persuade the proponents of Religious Renewal to connect themselves with party politics. But the prophetic urge is not easily contained within political parties. From the religious grass-roots came other prophetic challenges to official power:

oA call for synagogues, mosques, and churches to mourn the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq on the weekend of March 18-20. (For some churches, this may mean connections with Palm Sunday. For some, the holy day can be seen as directly related to our own situation, commemorating an ancient Jewish protest against the Roman Empire and its local viceroys, led by a radical rabbi from the Galilee and mounted on Passover, when Jews gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the overthrow of Pharaoh.)

oA major gathering of antiwar clergy and laity at Riverside Church in New York on April 4. That was the place and the day in 1967 — exactly a year before he was killed — that Martin Luther King gave his most profound speech, calling for resistance to the Vietnam War and naming racism, militarism, and materialism as the ripletsthreatening American democracy.

oMobilizations by liberal and progressive clergy to affirm gay marriage on religious grounds and to support the right of women to make their own ethical choices, drawing on their own spiritual and religious experience, about how to deal with pregnancy.

oThe gathering of Jews, Christians and Muslims into a ent of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarahthat published as a full-page ad in the New York Times a call for major changes in US policy so as to seek peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in Iraq. The entalso began work toward multireligious and activist observances of unusually intertwined sacred time in October that includes Ramadan, the Jewish High Holy Days, the saint's day of Francis of Assisi, Gandhi's birthday, and the (Protestant) Worldwide Yearly Communion.

And it is no accident that these energies of renewal have begun to describe themselves as ropheticrather than using such secular words as 'progressive.

What echoes from the ancient Prophets are aroused by the use of this word? They criticized both the immoral misuse of public power and the immoral misbehaviors of rivatelife. They especially opposed the top-down unaccountable power of a Pharaoh, of the Israelite kings, and of Caesar. For such despotism made individuals and institutions into idols — gave them the glory owed only to the One Living Spirit that embraced all life. And they also opposed the internalized pharaohs and idols of overconsumption, overwork, and addictions.

The reappropriation of the word is connected with the realization that US military and political domination, harm in harm with corporate globalization, has frozen into a centralized pharaonic power. The call for a new prophetic agenda recognizes that some elements of the religious challenge to this entrenched and rigidified power are quite different from pre-Modern religion, even at its best.

What distinguishes these Renewal efforts from prophetic energies of the past and from Religious Restoration is that proponents of Renewal see some aspects of Modernity as bearing sacred value: the equality of women; the realization that many traditions, not only one's own, bear truth-value; the realization that one's own tradition, as well as others, carry dangerous and hostile threads that can explode into bloodshed; the extension of a sense of sacred community not only to other human cultures but to other species and the earth as a living unity. These changes share one characteristic: they define the community as more inclusive.

The Restorationist energies tend to tighten the circle of community: to one's own culture and tradition only, to men only, to heterosexuals only, to the human race alone.

Thirty-five years ago, the leading religious persons in public action included Pope John XXIII, Martin Luther King, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Malcolm X - all involved in the prophetic process of renewing, not restoring, their religious traditions. So far in this generation, the impulse for religious Restoration has won greater support than the impulse for more inclusive religious Renewal.

One of the reasons for the recent success of the Restoration impulse has been the walled-off attitude of many secular liberals and progressives and even of some religious progressives themselves, to the possibility of a serious prophetic religious movement.

We religious progressives often hide our light under a bushel.

Indeed, we have rarely shared our light even with those with who agree with us on many issue

What I am calling eligious Restoration,for example, has within it many critiques of Modernity with which those committed to Renewal agree. For example —

oThe defining characteristic of prophetic religion is its readiness to challenge top-down unaccountable power. Many in the Restorationist camp have allied themselves with powerful institutions. But Renewal folk have done little to explore alternative alliances.

oWe have often not explored whether the restoration-oriented oppose such extreme forms of governmental violence as torture, assassination, and aggressive first-strike war.

oWe have often not made clear that we share great sadness over the weakening of families, face-to-face communities, and neighborhoods in the face of the mass media and consumerism.

oWe have not sufficiently pursued areas where agreement may be broad that Modernity's ruthless corporate treatment of workers and of the environment violate crucial religious precepts of honoring work, caring for the poor, and healing the earth.

oWe have often not taken seriously the different concerns of those who argue the government should meet these obligations and those who argue communities should. Some of us assume that those who prefer governmental action have no interest in compassion; others of us assume that those who prefer communal action have no interest in inclusiveness, and are willing to leave out some members of society. The point may be that sometimes the government gives broader and more compassionate caring; sometimes, the community. We need discernment, not hostility.

oThe issues involving sexuality, gender, and the family are those that most often divide proponents of religious renewal from proponents of religious restoration.

The Renewal-oriented and the Restoration-oriented both believe that sexuality is sacred. But for Renewal, living in a social system where individual identities are formed slowly and change swiftly, it seems destructive to encourage early marriage and destructive to forbid unmarried sexuality. Caught in this dilemma, Renewal has rarely sought to infuse unmarried sexual relationships with holiness.

There is at least one religious text that could encourage this — the Song of Songs, perhaps even more radical and prophetic than the Prophets. But we have rarely invoked it, either by name or by shaping unmarried sexuality into holy love. As a result, we have let ourselves be defined as living only by the most secular, unloving forms of the Playboy Philosophy.

We have also not made clear that we see the family as a sacred vessel deserving of social support. Certainly we disagree with eligious restorationon how to define he family.Many of us see the family strengthened, not weakened, by the desire of gay people to affirm their bonds as sacred. But from the point we do share — the desire to affirm the sacredness of the family — we might learn to move forward.

oBoth religious orientations could probably agree on a question we have not vigorously explored: the importance of free time for family, neighborhood, grass-roots political and charitable involvement, and the Spirit. So both might agree on the importance of release from overwork, and the necessity of social action as well as spiritual change in achieving that.

oPerhaps most basic and most important of all, we have not made clear to religious conservatives or to secular liberals that a society does not need to choose between personal responsibility and social responsibility: that an authentic and prophetic religious outlook must affirm both.

All this suggests that while there are real differences between the effort to restore and the effort to renew religious traditions, there may be more common ground than we have yet explored.


The Prophetic practice has famously been defined as speaking truth to power. But that is only one aspect of it: The Renewal religious community must also speak truth to the powerless.

How might we give new form to that crucial aspect of making real a New Prophetic Agenda?

Imagine creating a "Council for a New Prophetic Agenda," made up of Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, and First Nations sages - say 36 people, four times our constitutional "Supreme Court." They come together every alternate month in Washington DC. They come as individuals, not organizational delegates — though with strong caring for their communities and institutions of faith.

And similar state-wide Councils would meet in every state capital as well, perhaps once a month for the alternate six months.

At each of its meetings, each of these Councils would first join in common public prayer, held in public space.

Then they would join in prayerful study of religious texts on specific public issues, and in sharing contemporary religious and spiritual insights into them.

And then, at each gathering they would take up - from a profound religious and spiritual perspective - one of a series of public policy issues and questions of personal behavior that affect the public: such issues as global scorching, overwork, the Federal budget, war, terrorism, abortion, same-sex and different-sex marriage, Social Security, health care, mercury poisoning, greed, over-consumption, tax policy.

They would issue opinions on these issues, including diverse views from within their own body when full consensus could not be reached. They might draw on the work of policy wonks and on Constitutional law, but focus especially on religious texts from the past and religious experience from the present. Teachings from the Torah and Prophets and midrash, the New Testament , the Quran and hadith, Gautama's life, the Bhagavad-Gita would be intertwined with teachings from our own lives today, parables and tales with the same power as the ancient ones.

So, issue by issue and month by month, the Councils would recommend to the American people a Yardstick of the Spirit (the prophet Amos called it "God's Plumb-line") to use when assessing policy proposals from any and all officials or the political parties.

And they would also recommend a Yardstick of the Spirit for assessing ersonallife-paths as these touch and change the public sphere.

These need not be yardsticks of humiliation and fear, the kind we often associate with the narrow religious life of our childhoods. How, for instance, do we explicitly celebrate films, books, and art works that enrich and make sacred sexuality and the erotic, distinguishing such works from those that hide it or degrade it? Would our Councils have the gumption to honor as sacred an analogue to the Song of Songs that arose in our own day, as the ancient Sanhedrin did with the Song almost two thousand years ago?

During major election campaigns, the Council for a New Prophetic Agenda would publicize its views both on key issues and on the behavior and process of the candidates and political parties.

These public proclamations might be seen as a new kind of pastoral letter reaching across old religious barricades - and might win a similar kind of broad public respect.

Behind and beneath the public proclamations and in some ways even more important, the Council would be preparing resources for congregational religious study: study guides for adult education in congregations, for exploration by teens, for sermons by clergy and other leaders. These materials could include proposals for taking religious commitments into public life through political action that itself is imbued with a reverent attitude: truth, nonviolence, fairness.

The state-level Councils would make especially close connections with local churches, mosques, synagogues, temples.

And the Councils for a New Prophetic Agenda would encourage (without directly sponsoring) spiritually rooted efforts to change public policy through both electoral action and nonviolent direct action — shaping both a new political context and a new social context. In the one, a Dennis Kucinich, a Barack Obama, a Ruth Messinger, a Barbara Lee, could actually create a winning national constituency. In the other, there could emerge another great burst of independent food coops, health clinics, freedom schools, bicycle networks, wind-power coops, that could meet the direct needs of grass-roots communities and give space to new organizers.

The Councils would not pretend to "own" God, just as no religious tradition "owns" God. So they could absorb and present divergent views, treating them as honorable and worthy of public consideration. In that way they could also absorb groups and individuals who may share a broad progressive religious agenda but have distinctive "minority" views on some issues.

For example: such a report might find broad but not total agreement on how to deal with abortion:

In addressing that question, the New Prophetic Agenda might begin by focusing on agreed commitments to provide serious and accurate sex education; to encourage the use of all forms of conception control; to provide care for prospective mothers and an economic base sufficient to make bearing children feasible; to encourage responsible parenthood, including fatherhood; to encourage limitation of the numbers of children; to make sure adoptions are actually available; to make sure abortions are actually available where the life or health of the prospective mother is endangered by the pregnancy.

And then there might still remain areas in which agreement could not be reached and different participants might lay out different perspectives. The process and attitude might embody the words of the Talmud when the ancient rabbis faced certain dilemmas: "These AND these are the words of the Living God."

Our country needs a New Prophetic Agenda. Let us shed our shame at being archaically religious - and provide one.
* Rabbi Waskow is director of The Shalom Center and the author of GODWRESTLING - ROUND 2 and many other books, monographs, and articles on public policy and religious renewal.

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