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Commentary: Spiritual Progressives

By Stephen Phelps

Buffalo, NY – Last July, I was among 1400 people in Berkeley, California for a "spiritual activism" conference, to get involved with the crises this world faces by forming a movement of "spiritual progressives." What's that mean?

"Progressive" means having practical, effective concern for vulnerable people and things that powerful people don't care about. "Spiritual" means knowing that everything is a gift from a source that is both beyond us and within us. Spiritual progressives are "both/and" people who know both that the spirit gives goods no government body can deliver and that the body -- everybody -- needs good government to make peace and to deliver justice, especially for the least and the lost. This insight into the value of both spiritual tradition and the politics of social concern puts spiritual progressives at the center of America's democratic traditions. The calamity of contemporary American politics is that in preparing to fight each other, right and left have shed these core values like cumbersome coats.

The right claims exclusive possession of ultimate truth. Believing their religion makes them innocent and good, they hoard its promises and refuse to rethink how America runs to ruin the wretched of the earth, and even the earth itself New Orleans! just to keep itself fat. The right sacrifices the rights of the powerless, heedless of the damage done to America's foundations when rights are cast beneath the wheels of power for traction.

The left talks as if material inequality is the source of all the world's misery. As if justice awaits only a fair cutting of the pie. As if people would always be good, or feel good, if only they weren't poor . . . or rich. The left dismisses the spiritual dimension as irrelevant to politics, for they believe their sound reason gives them possession of ultimate truth.

The right and left can't see it, but their wings flap alike; they only believe in what they can see. The right will move heaven itself to preserve the present arrangement of things on earth their income, their estates, their power as a class or a nation, even Terry Schiavo's body. The left reasons that since only what's measurable matters, they must shift the present arrangement of things. Stuck seeking power in the world as it is, neither will take part in transformation for new possibilities.

The hope of America's founders was so far higher. They knew the temptation to resist growth within themselves and to serve only oneself and one's clan. By balancing powers, the constitution they wrote put sober restraints on the base motives of men, so that those who aim high for personal and social transformation might lead and thrive. This is what they meant by "the pursuit of happiness," for the founders were spiritual progressives.

But today, money buys power, so most elected leaders focus on external things. They ignore their own inner development. You hear the result in the shallowness of their vapid speech. If this spiritual disintegration of power continues for long, history will record the astounding demise of this great nation. But in the center of the American soul, there is an ear tuned to the founders' spiritual wisdom; listening for the other point of view, even the enemy's; listening for that union which can only arise from the many; listening for the blessing found not in vanquishing but in relinquishing; listening for a government of all the people not this disastrous tyranny of one-party rule. From the desert of materialism where this nation wanders, misled, spiritual progressives are lifting their voices, pioneering into the heart land, centered in reality. Listen, and you'll hear them -- or join them.

Listener-Commentator Stephen Phelps is pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Buffalo.