David Roy

Progressive Religion…Is Not an Oxymoron!

How to Ground the Lords and Share the Rings of Power

In my previous column (“The Lords of the Rings, Lording It Over All,” June 2011 California Alliance), I outlined some of the fundamental reasons that most of the followers of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) have failed so miserably in living up to their faith’s highest values of compassion, peace and care for those who exist at the bottom of society.

This failure is important because these three religions account for more than half the world’s population. A change of heart in these 3.5 billion followers would make a huge difference in the struggles for these matters of ultimate concern just listed.

Because of this failure, we have a world that remains strongly divided between the relatively few “Lords” who clutch more fiercely than Tolkien’s Gollum to their Rings of Power and the middle class “Commoners” joined with the impoverished “Serfs” who seldom control any of the Rings of Power for any length of time. I am one of those who believe this dichotomy is more obvious and more dangerous today than ever before in human history.

What Are the Reasons for This Failure?

Why is it that the vast majority of various believers fail to embody and speak out for these highest values? In summary, this is due to unchecked basic human drives that are deeply rooted in our biology and our psychology. At least some of these basic drives have enabled Homo sapiens to survive in the face of great adversity. Now, however, these drives will fuel our destruction if we do not find and act on methods to modify and transform them.

The Biological Drive

The biological drive is what pushes us to create dominance-subordinance groupings. In a small tribe faced with many types of enemies, this form of society undoubtedly aided survival.

Today, by contrast, it leads to many outcomes that are highly destructive: This encompasses power expressed through subjugation, violence as the means of settling differences, greed and an unwillingness to share essential resources, and more.

The Psychological Need

The psychological drive is to meet the need to feel positive about one’s self as a result of being esteemed by others. The countervailing drive is to avoid feeling negative about oneself as the result of being devalued by others. We know the latter as shame.

Although this brief column is not the place to expand on this interactive dynamic of positive and negative esteem, it is important for all of us to recognize it is pervasive and universal in human societies. One of the more insidious ways in which it is expressed is in what I believe to be the initial and immature form: Feeling good about one’s self by seeing and making others to be less worthy. Someone, some group (e.g., race, gender, nationality, religion, age) is described as being stupid, despicable, idiots, evil, incompetent and so on.

Shaky Self-Esteem Needing Continuous Feeding

This produces a shallow and shaky self-esteem that needs to be rekindled often by denigrating and tormenting others on a regular basis. Children, women, the uneducated, the poor and so on need to be reminded of their inferiority as often as possible.

I believe it is also possible to see that this need to be seen as superior, and therefore to feel superior, leads naturally to dominating and controlling others, making it possible to stay in the one-up position.

The Dynamics Behind Hierarchical Power

Biological. Hierarchical, coercive power, then, is the result of several dynamics. On the biological side, survival is enhanced by a) having the strongest and most adept leader possible (who leaves the most offspring) and b) by prevailing over any and all threats, whether other human groups or wild predators.

Psychological. On the psychological side, coercive power is used to maintain a sense of superiority over others, enabling at least the rudiments of self-esteem. It is possible to see this in countless settings. Take, for example, relatively innocuous competitions (“My Grandkids are Cuter than Yours” bumper stickers, regional pro sports teams, the national medal count in the Olympics) to far more insidious issues such as slavery (at least as powerful as the economic advantages of “free” labor), subjugation and diminishment of women, the wholesale condemnation of the LGBT population, the poor, the uneducated, the racially different and so on.

Our Challenge: To Find Ways to Modify These Forces

The challenge we have before us is to find ways to radically modify these human tendencies, these natural human drives, to guide and transform humanity in the direction of non-coercive power, power that is with another and not over another.

Recognition and Acceptance. First, we have to recognize and accept the existence of these biological and psychological forces. This does not equate with approval of continuing to allow these forces to control our behaviors.

But if we try to deny that they exist (and there are many who do), then we will not be prepared for them when they come into play, either with us or with others. Denial contributes to what Carl Jung called the “eruption of the shadow,” where the ugly forces break through fiercely and unexpectedly.

Requires Ongoing Education. There are millions of years of evolutionary history across preceding species that have formed and shaped the biological drive for survival that culminate for our species in the dominance behaviors that now are proving dangerously maladaptive. Although new ways can be learned, thanks to our bulging forebrain, the old ways are hardwired and form our natural tendencies. The incalculable force of our planet’s biological history means we dare not take this drive for dominance lightly and we dare not ever assume we can educate this out of human society once and for all. Any education that works must be done on a regular basis, year in and year out.

Unless or until our brain changes, we will need to engage this issue with everyone in every generation.

Religious Leaders Need to Emphasize Their Values. A second obvious but difficult step is for our religious leaders to focus on the highest values in their preaching, in their teaching, in the total life of the church, temple, synagogue. In some cases, this may be easy to do but in many, this will be a serious, difficult, even dangerous, struggle. Some of the sharpest minds and the most skilled leaders will be needed for this effort.

The Need for Increased Compassion

We also need to work on developing ways to increase the capacity for humans to experience compassion, particularly in response to those who are radically different. There is growing evidence from several sources of research and practice that it is possible to augment individuals’ capacity for and likelihood of a compassionate response toward others.

In psychotherapy, this has been the subject of much teaching and training that centers on a form of meditation called Mindfulness Meditation. These various approaches also have been hailed as Buddhist psychology. (Mindfulness Meditation is a Buddhist approach.)

Mindfulness Meditation. While today there are hundreds of excellent books on this topic, I continue to recommend that people start with Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hahn. This book is simple and clear and quite useful for those new to this form of meditation (and continues to be useful to the more experienced).

The Shamatha Project. A related and quite extensive training program, called the Shamatha Project, has demonstrated a major shift in consciousness in the direction of a compassionate response after several months of extensive teaching and learning. A good place to start gaining information, including the published journal articles, is at https://mindbrain.ucdavis.edu/people/jeremy/shamatha-project.

What to Do Now?

The previous suggestions for actions obviously are long term in their application, but there are some things we can do now to counter the powerful forces of greed, of domination by a few and the selfishness and meanness that I see expressed far and wide in our nation.

Recall that the human need for positive self-esteem depends a great deal on positive feedback from others. (It is important to realize that this need to feel good about one’s self does not come anywhere close to qualifying for the Narcissistic Personality Disorder.)

Shaming by Using Facts Alone May Work

Negative feedback, being shamed, can wound anyone, some more than others. In general, most people work hard, particularly those in the public eye, to avoid being seen or described as flawed. Even a hint of that can be devastating for some, particularly for those used to being seen as somehow more important or better than most others.

Skilled shaming of others actually underlies the great success of many of our so-called pundits, starting with the unsurpassed leader, Rush Limbaugh. His tone of voice so often conveys sneering disgust and disdain.

In the cases of financial manipulation and downright flimflam, the actors and their companies did such shameful things that the facts alone are enough. They have left the rest of us with a huge loss of value across the board (stocks and other investments, real property). The resulting loss of income and homeownership, feeding into large numbers of bankruptcies, has meant that cities, counties and states have lost huge portions of their tax base. This, in turn, causes serious budget reductions resulting in drastic cuts to the social safety nets everywhere.

The facts alone are shameful enough if we could but tie them directly to the people who made all of this happen, any number of whom have walked away with huge fortunes.

Murdoch: Being Brought Down by Shame

As a stunning and surprising example of the power of shame and public disapproval, consider what has happened to Rupert Murdoch. He appears to be receiving some long-overdue shaming, and it is threatening to bring down his entire global empire.

Although the illegality of some of the actions may result in a few criminal convictions, Murdoch and his company are probably safe from total destruction from that quarter. What is providing the potentially mortal blows is the embarrassment of having been associated so closely with this unscrupulous conduct that is repulsive to many. His high-level cohorts were caught doing something that has disgusted and horrified a broad range of people, and this shame is bleeding onto Murdoch himself. And if there are convictions, this will only add to the shame.

Let’s Expose Our Financial “Looters”

In need of much more ongoing exposure are those who helped set up what happened and who make money off the debacle as well. These are the bankers, mortgage executives, Wall Street financial managers. Every time I read a story about budget cuts, I think of these anonymous men (for the most part) and I wish there were an ongoing series of sidebar stories profiling several of these people at a time, including who they are, what they did, what they cost the public, how much money they made from it, and where and what they are doing today.

Given the Internet, it should be possible to track down this information. It also should be possible to compile this on a single Web site (if there is one, I haven’t found it yet).

What Would You Suggest?

What suggestions do you have, what kinds of things could you do? Let me know and we will see if we can create some effective projects to expose those who need the shame. To that end, in addition to the writing I have been doing in the Community Alliance, I have started a blog at www.illuminarias.com. This will include some of what has been published in the Community Alliance, as well as additional items (this is being done with prior permission by the Community Alliance’s gracious editor). Check it out from time to time and see what we can develop in the way of an additional source of information and ideas and hopefully another small source of change itself.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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