07/21/2010 01:54 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Religion's Power: Hunker Down or Dance Toward the Future?

We are living in God's earthquake. Politics, economics, science, technology, military power, sexual ethics, the family, even the web of life on earth -- all are in turmoil. Modern civilization is devouring itself, turning its towering control of the of the earth itself into self-destruction. The certainties of modern life are quaking, and many of our societies do not know what to do.

Some of us seek to hang on to certainties from the past: women in their place, happily birthing, no choice about it. The earth in its place, subject to corporate subjugation, dominated by Towers of Babel that rise to scrape the sky, built from the profits made from upside-down Towers that go underground and underwater to rape and gush for oil. Other countries in their place, doing God's bidding -- the bidding, that is, of a new American empire. If not Iraq, then Afghanistan. If not Afghanistan, then Iran. If not Iran, then Central America, Colombia, Venezuela.

And many religious communities -- not all -- are following a similar path.

Some are trying to meet the needs of those most vulnerable -- the poor, gay people, victims of bombs, endangered species and the planet.

Others move constantly to dominate -- imposing and proselytizing within the US military, insisting that marriage can be only what some churches selectively recall from the past, covering up the sexual abuse of children, squashing efforts to draw deeply on the liberation politics of Jesus, denouncing Islam and unleashing violence against Muslim countries, threatening to imprison women if they freely choose to wear traditional Muslim clothing (but of course not nuns if they choose analogous garb), killing physicians and bombing Federal office buildings in the name of Christ. (But who in America says the words "Christian terrorists"?)

Some Muslims, frantic to take revenge against humiliation and despair, turn to terrorism. Others try to recover and use the strand of nonviolent struggle in Islam, the struggle of Badshah Khan alongside Gandhi, the struggle of the Palestinian town of Bilin against the destructive "Separation Wall" that divides the town from its farms and its graveyards. Still others, again and again, offer to make peace with Israel if Israel will make peace with the Palestinians.

Even Judaism, in the one small enclave where it holds state power, uses its power not only to occupy Palestinian lands and blockade Palestinian economies and demolish Palestinian houses, and not only to promote to chief rabbi of the Army (a man who says that mercy for "enemy children" is a perversion of Torah), but also to arrest a woman for carrying a Torah Scroll near the Western Wall, where its own mystics say the Shekhinah, the feminine Indwelling Presence of God, hovers.

Why arrest her? She might start praying! In a sacred site, with a Torah in her arms! She might start reading aloud the Torah in her arms! Of course they were right to arrest her. Let her pray there and the whole male-hierarchical fabric of Orthodox Judaism might unravel -- and maybe the whole worsening military-domineering bent of the State itself.

And at the same time, this is the Judaism of rabbis who get arrested and beaten for interposing their bodies against the demolition of homes and the uprooting of olive trees; of Holocaust survivors who join the Freedom Flotilla to break the blockade of Gaza; of American Jews who boycott Hyatt Hotels because it busts unions and oppresses workers; of Jews who learn and teach the Torah of the Earth, in words and in organic vegetable farms and in eco-kosher practice; of Jews who fuse the rituals of festival and life-cycle with public nonviolent action to heal the world.

So two currents of change exist: In one, what is allegedly secular and what is allegedly religious unite to dominate, each supporting the domineering efforts of the other. In the other, what is religious challenges the secular authorities, and what is freshly and creatively religious challenges the encrusted forms.

To restore the old "certainties" takes even more coercion, more violence, than enforcing them did in the first place. For once a genie is out of the bottle, it takes far more coercion to stuff it back in than it took to keep it in the bottle in the first place. A century ago, no one would have had to arrest or beat up women who came to pray aloud at the Western Wall; they just did not come. The genie was still in the bottle. But women are out of the bottle now. Vietnam, Iraq, Iran, the Jews, gay people, gushers and geysers of oil -- out of the bottle. The earth and its allies, these "wimpy" environmentalists -- out of the bottle. Only force of arms can stuff them back. Maybe only the Lord of Hosts can do it.

To renew the ancient bubblings of Truth and Transformation takes even more courage than in the past, for it means jumping off into a world we cannot remember. It means shaping new communities we have to imagine, not repeat:

  • Women have moral agency of their own and must be free to decide even the harsh ethical questions of sharing one body with two beings.
  • The earth is part of us and we of it, and even entities like the proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere become life forms, part of our new community.

  • Other nations, other peoples, must be heard, listened to, negotiated with. They, too, are bearers of truth, justice, and God's way, even when their path is different from our own. They are not always right, and their needs are not always God's will, but neither are ours.

  • To shape these new communities, broader and deeper than we have known, will take not force of arms but hearing of the heart. Maybe not "the Lord" but only "YHWH," the Interbreathing of all life that appears in every human language and in the lives of every life-form, can do it.

God's great dance is between Control and Community. A great leap forward in Control -- In-Breath -- must be followed by a great, deep warming of Community -- Out-Breath.

That is what happened when the West Semitic tribes faced the power of Imperial Egypt and Imperial Sumeria: they went deep into the Spirit and arose with the Torah, a new form of community.

That is what happened when the conquered Jews faced Imperial Rome: they went deep into the Spirit, and some arose with the Talmud, others with the New Testament, two new forms of community.

That is what happened when the people of Arabia faced corrupt and tyrannical rulers: they went deep into the Spirit and arose with the Quran, a new form of community.

And that is where we ourselves are caught today: in God's great dance, which in our lives is embodied in an earthquake, the Breath of Life become the winds of change, a hurricane of change.

One way "out" is to take a death-grip (and I do mean death-grip) on the old certainties. The other way is to learn to dance in God's earthquake. Dance our way into new forms of community.

That is why the Shalom Center is trying to shape a Judaism that is not only internally transformed (by feminism, ecology, meditation) but is also transformative beyond itself -- not by domination but by example and by comradeship with other spiritual, religious, and ethical communities, trying together to transform the world, to learn and to share in the dance of life renewed.

And that is why I end these letters:

With blessings of shalom, salaam, shantih -- peace.
Namaste: I see the God within you, within us.