Rabbi Lerner: Save the Pope’s Radical Prophetic Message from Media Trivialization

The depth of the Pope’s environmental critique stand in stark contrast not only to the Republican parties denial of global warming, but also to the shallow environmentalism that pervades much of the liberal and progressive culture.   

By Rabbi Michael Lerner  Tikkun  September 23, 2015

The recent national conference of the Religion Newswriters Association in Philadelphia focused on preparing the several hundred media attendees for how to cover the Pope’s visit to the U.S. this week. But in panel after panel, we were presented with leaders of the Catholic Church who were unsympathetic to the Pope’s message. Too smart to directly critique the Pope, in session after session they presented a single message: the “real story” about Pope Francis is what a great guy he is, how caring he is personally for the poor and the downtrodden. The Pope, they insisted, has no politics—he’s above politics and only a humble servant of Jesus.

Apparently the right-wingers in the Church hope that the media doesn’t know that Jesus himself was a revolutionary with a powerful call to challenge the way official Judaism at that time, represented by the priests of the Temple, had become assimilated to the values of the Roman occupiers of Judea rather than articulators of the prophetic message of the Torah to “love the stranger” and pursue justice and caring for all. And for an America’s corporate media, which often obscures the environmental destructiveness and human suffering that global capitalism has wrought  for the contemporary world, the path to turn attention away from the Pope’s  critique of capitalism is to lionize him in precisely the trivializing way that his detractors in the Church recommend.

Few Americans realize that the Pope’s recent encyclical on the environment is one of the most articulate and accessible presentations of why there is scant chance to avoid environmental disaster unless we radically transform our global economic and political order.

Technological products are not morally neutral, the Pope tells us, “for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions that may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.”

The Pope insists that the worldview popularized by global capitalism is deeply misguided. It is not only that our global economy has produced a huge gap between the wealth of the few and the well-being of many, but that its promotion of endless growth, and the consumption of more and more of the earth’s resources to satisfy advertising-generated consumer desires, is a major element in the deepening environmental crisis. This economy is, as Pope Francis says in his encyclical letter “Laudato Si,” based “on the lie that there is an infinite supply in the earth’s goods and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.”


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An ethical standard must be introduced into the way we organize our economy. Technological products are not morally neutral, the Pope tells us, “for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possiblities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions that may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.”

The depth of the Pope’s environmental critique stand in stark contrast not only to the Republican parties denial of global warming, but also to the shallow environmentalism that pervades much of the liberal and progressive culture. Many well-intentioned Americans who care deeply about the Earth channel that caring into small acts in their personal lives like recycling, installing solar panels, eating organic food, and challenging local manifestations of corporate irresponsibility like fracking in their neighborhoods, yet give little attention to demanding a comprehensive transformation of the larger economic forces that are destroying the planet. National environmental organizations mostly avoid any mention of the way the environmental crisis disproportionately impacts on the global poor and powerless, much less challenging the shared rhetoric of both major political parties that “growth” is progress and that being the most economically and militarily powerful force in the world should be the goal of public policy, rather than the most caring society in the world—caring for everyone on the planet and caring for the Earth.

Environmentalists instead ought to be embracing the Pope’s message and endorsing the ESRA—the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The ESRA not only calls for public financing of all elections and banning all other monies (not just corporate, but anyone’s money) from elections, but also requires the major corporations (any whose income is above $50 million a year) to get a new corporate charter once every five years which would only be granted to those that can prove a satisfactory history of environmental and social responsibility to a jury of ordinary citizens who would hear testimony on that corporation’s environmental and social responsibility from people around the globe who have been impacted by its products, services, employment and investment practices.

This is only a first step in what if would mean to take the Pope seriously. While he himself may wish to not appear too confrontational (he already reportedly told reporters that he was not a left-winger), he probably also meant what we at our Network of Spiritual Progressives mean with similar points—that the Left has historically been so religio-phobic and unwilling to talk about love of the stranger and “awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe” (supposedly too flaky) that it’s hard for spiritual people to feel that they are welcome in the Left. And then there is the tendency of many on the Left to focus on the 5% they disagree with in others’ perspectives, rather than the 95% they agree with. But our task is to not let that obscure the radical message that the Pope has sent out to the world.

Recognizing the Pope’s prophetic role at this historical moment doesn’t mean that we can’t also urge him to rethink the Church’s stance on women, on homosexuals, on abortion, and on birth control. We at Tikkun have gently rebuked him on these issues. The contradiction between his message for social justice and saving the planet and his refusal to change the Vatican’s persistent attempts to prevent governments from funding birth control is something he could change without abandoning the notion that the fetus is sacred. Those who believe themselves to be without contradictions in their own practices and belief systems can throw the first criticisms. We at Tikkun are a bit more humble than that. Yes, there are parts of what he supports that I think need to be changed. But we also  recognize  the context of his situation–dealing with a Church of a billion people who have been for centuries stuck in these patriarchal directions and worldviews.

dont-trust-the-corporate-mediaWe don’t have to stop critiquing those aspects of the Church in order to embrace this Pope as one of the most significant prophetic spiritual progressives alive on the planet, a true brother and amazingly influential ally,  if slightly flawed (like all of us are in various ways).

So we at Tikkun magazine cheer on his important thinking on the environment, poverty and the need to overcome the dynamics of global capitalism and the culture it has promoted,  and do what we can to bring his radical message to the attention of a society whose media are already hearing a trivialization of the Pope’s message (with the exception of the NY Times and a very few other sources) as they try to transform him into the world’s latest momentary celebrity.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine which won, for the second time in a row, the “Best Magazine of the Year” Award from the mainstream media’s Religion Newswriters Association in August 2015. The ESRA he mentions can be read at www.tikkun.org/esra.  Lerner is rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in Berkeley, Ca. and author of the national best seller The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right (HarperCollins, 2006). He welcomes contact with potential allies:RabbiLerner.tikkun@gmail.com

Copyright 2015 Tikkun Magazine

You can read this on line at: http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/challenge-the-media-trivialization-of-the-popes-radical-message . It also appeared on Rabbi Lerner’s column on the home page of The Huffington Post yesterday, September 23.

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