See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of your God that I am commanding you today, by loving God, walking in God’s ways, and observing God’s commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. [Deuteronomy 30:15-16, NRSV, my italics.]
Sounds simple enough, right? Love God, follow all the rules, and God will rain abundant blessings on you and your family: lots of healthy children, fertile soil, plenty of food, growing herds, and so on. It sounds as if we are in control of our fate, and God will follow this simple formula. The corollary is that, if your life is all messed up—if your children are dying, your crops failing, your herds wandering away and falling off a cliff—it must therefore be because you didn’t follow all of God’s rules. It’s your fault. Bad things only happen to bad people.
This worldview of God has a kernel of truth in it. If you center your life in God and do all you can to live according to God’s love and justice, chances are good that there will be many blessings. But it’s not a guarantee, which is what this text seems to be promising. Bad things do happen to good people; read the Book of Job for just one example. This if/then worldview can also steer us astray, if we’re so caught up in trying to follow all the 600-plus rules and commandments and decrees that we no longer see the call for love and compassion in our midst. Look at the priest and the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan.
As you recall, a man is walking down the road when he is set on by thieves, beaten, robbed, and left for dead at the side of the road. A priest walks by. Now according to the commandments of the Holiness Code in Leviticus, if a priest touches blood or death—touches anyone who is unclean—that priest is also unclean for the rest of the day. He cannot touch others, cannot do his job, cannot be in the temple, and so on. So in order to follow the rules that keep him pure and supposedly closer to God, he cannot touch this fellow who is surely in need. Same with the Levite. Trying to stay pure for God, so he’s no help either.
But then comes the Samaritan, the supposed uncouth, unchurched commoner who is not obliged to follow the holiness code or the other hundreds of laws that the Jews were trying to follow. The Samaritans were supposed to be the bad guys, the “other.” And in this story, Jesus makes the Samaritan the hero. He stops, puts alcohol and oil on the man’s wounds, sets him on his animal, takes him to an inn, and gives the innkeeper two days’ worth of wages to cover the man’s medical expenses. All of us recognize that the Samaritan is the good neighbor, the one who is actually following one of God’s most important commandments, which is to love each other.
What we’re seeing here are two different worldviews, two different theologies about what it means to follow God. Do you keep yourself pure and holier than thou, steering clear of the messy people on the side of the road? Or do you stop to share God’s love and healing power with all who need it?
This split in theology continues today. As part of our summer worship series on how to find a moral compass in these troubled times, I want to explore with you some of the ideas found in Rabbi Michael Lerner’s 2006 book, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right. Here’s how Lerner defines the left and right hands of God.
People feel a near-desperate desire to reconnect to the sacred, to find some way to unite their lives with a higher meaning and purpose and in particular to that aspect of the sacred that is built upon the loving, kind, and generous energy in the universe that I describe as the “Left Hand of God.” The Left Hand of God view encourages us to be like this loving God. As the Talmud teaches, “Just as [God] is filled with mercy, compassion, and loving-kindness, so should you live your life manifesting mercy, compassion, and loving-kindness to all whom you encounter.” . . .
“The Right Hand of God” . . . sees the universe as a fundamentally scary place filled with evil forces. In this view God is the avenger, the big man in heaven who can be invoked to use violence to overcome those evil forces, either right now or in some future ultimate reckoning. Seen through the frame of the Right Hand of God, the world is filled with constant dangers and the rational way to live is to dominate and control others before they dominate and control us. [Michael Lerner, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 2-3.]
So, to oversimplify, the Left Hand of God is based in love and hope, and the Right Hand of God is based in fear. And a worldview based in fear is going to generate greed, selfishness, materialism, and militarism. Lerner maps these views in a broad way in alignment with the Democrats and the Republicans—the Democrats being in general more interested in social justice, social safety nets such as healthcare for all, women’s rights, marriage equality, environmental justice, racial justice; the Republicans being more interested in taking those things away, making government small, and telling people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
Lerner finesses his thesis with more nuance. He’s not saying that the Democrats have it all together and the Republicans are all evil. In fact, he specifically refutes both of those suggestions. He wishes the Democrats had more spine and dared to talk more openly about compassion and social justice rather than just reacting to whatever latest things the Republicans are trying to take away. In our moment, for example: women’s reproductive rights, voting rights, voting access, free and fair elections, funding for public education, including college, healthcare for all, an objective Supreme Court. Lerner wishes that Democrats dared to do more than play whack-a-mole in response to specific crises and could step back to take on the big issues. So instead of just feeding these hungry people, for instance, think big about ending hunger, ending poverty.
People on the left and the right are yearning for greater meaning in their lives, for community and purpose and the chance to serve the greater good. We have very different ideas of what that all looks like.
The voice of hope and the voice of fear are present in all religions, and followers hear both voices in their heads [Lerner, 32].
One response that helps us step away from a culture of greed and selfishness: Shabbat, or Sabbath. “[O]ne day a week . . . the entire time is dedicated to celebration of the grandeur of the universe, community prayer and sharing of meals, sexual pleasure, communion with nature, singing, dancing, storytelling, reading, study (but with no goal other than the joy of the study), and rest. . . . [S]uch time apart provides a powerful countermessage to the constant “getting and spending” of the capitalist market.” [Lerner, 35.]
[T]he Right has embraced the Right Hand of God, a way of understanding the sacred that emphasizes the need to wipe out the evil forces in the world through war, domination, and the control of evil impulses. This is a view of God that has roots in the Bible and gains plausibility whenever people face an overwhelmingly oppressive reality—as did the Jews held as slaves in ancient Egypt or Jesus and his disciples under Roman imperialism—and can see no way to transform that reality short of a divine intervention to overpower the evil force.
But when the Right Hand of God is embraced by the powerful, it has a whole different meaning. In contemporary America, the most militarily and economically powerful force the world has ever known, the embrace of the Right Hand of God has been used to provide legitimacy to an American empire and a competitive and unjust economic marketplace. [Lerner, 358.]
In our reading from Deuteronomy, we see God saying to the Israelites that God will give them a land to live in, and if they follow all of God’s rules and commandments and remain steadfast in their love of God, they will live long and prosper in this new land. What we don’t see in this passage but do see elsewhere is that, in order for the Israelites to live in this land, they first have to wipe out the people already living there. In this Right Hand of God approach to settlement, we see justification for the Doctrine of Discovery thinking that lay behind European explorers landing on shores hitherto unknown to them, planting a flag, and claiming that land in the name of some European country, much to the astonishment of the people already living there. We see a justification for Manifest Destiny, for wiping out countless Native Americans because they stood in the way of this vision, of this “right” to the land. This is our legacy as conquering Christians.
The Left Hand of God emphasizes the need to build a world based on love, kindness, compassion, generosity, mutual cooperation, recognition of the spirit of God in every other human being and an awareness of our interdependence with others, responsibility to the well-being of the planet, and a powerful sense of awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation. [Lerner, 358.]
So what do we do? How do we follow a theology that gives us a moral compass in these days?
Lerner provides some hands-on, practical ideas.
He proposes a detailed Spiritual Covenant with America [pp. 228ff] that would reorient our goals and values away from money and power. “Instead,” he writes,
economic and political institutions, social practices, legislation, and corporations will be judged by a new standard. They should be considered efficient, rational, and productive not only to the extent that they maximize money or power, but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity, peace and social justice, ethically and ecologically responsible behavior, and to the extent that they enhance our capacities to transcend a manipulative, technocratic and utilitarian way of treating others so that we can respond to other people as embodiments of the sacred and enhance our capacities to respond to the universe with awe and wonder. [229.]
This Spiritual Covenant with America includes a covenant with American families, a covenant of personal responsibility, a covenant of social responsibility, a covenant for a values-based education, a covenant for health care, a covenant of environmental stewardship, and more. This would redefine how we as a nation live together, not in fear, but in hope and love.
And here are some of his suggestions for practical steps to take.
Organize a movement, a spiritual caucus “within the Democratic Party, the Greens, or any other political party with which you are affiliated.”
Create a new bottom line in your workplace.
Train others on spiritual politics and the common good.
Develop a spiritual politics agenda for your local school board.
Create an ethical consumption project in your area that looks at how goods are produced and steers clear of those that hurt the environment or the people making them.
Challenge the cynicism of the media.
Develop rituals to put progressive meaning back into America’s most significant holidays.
Build a spiritual progessives caucus in your church, synagogue, mosque, or temple.
Develop “We Care” support groups and activities in your community.
Use nonviolent direct action to challenge the institutions of social injustice, militarism, and environmental destructiveness.
Share your ideas with his organization, the Tikkun think tank.
Reach out to people who disagree with our ideas, listen to their concerns, and engage in respectful dialogue.
Develop your own inner life. [pp. 366ff.]
This may all sound hopelessly idealistic, not based in the realities of our cynical, selfish, materialistic world. Sure. Following our moral compass is not about doing what is easy or simple or quick. It’s about living out of a place of love, a centeredness in God, and using the gift of our lives, our time, our talents, our treasures to make a difference. We can’t do everything. But God calls us to do what we can. We can choose the Right Hand of God—dominion, militarism, fear. Or we can choose the Left hand of God—love and hope. God says in Deuteronomy, I’m giving you the choice. Choose life. Choose love. Choose hope. Amen.