A Hate Crime with a Religious Motive

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday May 04, 2010 - 12:21:00 PM

The email from the Tikkun organization which the Planet received yesterday with the news that vandals had pasted up threatening messages at the home of founder Rabbi Michael Lerner said this: “The police say that this is not a "hate crime" because the attackers were not attacking Rabbi Lerner for his religion, but for his politics.” With all due respect, the police have it exactly backwards. It’s his religion, not just his politics, that infuriates the crazies. 

What the good people at Tikkun have been trying to do is to persuade religious people of all denominations to live up to their religious aspirations. This, of course, is asking for trouble.  

Peter Maurin, the original ideologue of the radical Catholic Worker movement (which is still alive and well and living in Berkeley) spoke of “blowing the dynamite of the Church.” All religions, especially but not exclusively the prophetic ones which sprang from the deserts of the Middle East, have at their core revolutionary injunctions to pursue virtue by living in dramatically counter-intuitive ways.  

Sell all our possessions and give the proceeds to the poor? Live peaceably with one another? You’ve got to be kidding! 

Lerner and his colleagues at Tikkun are attempting to document and strengthen the best aspects of the religious impulse with what they call the Network of Spiritual Progressives. The magazine (both print and online) has contributions from all kinds of people from all sorts of backgrounds.  

From its statement of core principles: “Tikkun Magazine was started as ‘the liberal and progressives alternative to the voices of Jewish conservatism and the neo-cons’ but it has become much more—a voice for a spiritual politics of meaning, and while it maintains its strong position as the most widely read and respected explicitly progressive Jewish magazine in the world, it also is a place where you can read some of the most creative Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist spiritual progressives as we together think out how to apply a spiritual progressive consciousness to the realities of the contemporary 21st century world.” The common thread is the idea that “people want their lives to have some higher meaning and purpose than simply accumulating money, power, sexual gratification and fame-they want their lives to be connected to something about which they can feel that it has transcendent value.”  

But Tikkun doesn’t duck controversy in the name of some amorphous view of spirituality. A provocative sample, an article in the May-June issue: Are Israeli Policies Entrenching Anti-Semitism Worldwide? It’s a really excellent exploration of what the writer thinks has gone wrong in his beloved country, and the consequences. 

In the last few months an explosion of shocking incidents and revelations has prompted people from all religious backgrounds to question the traditions in which they grew up. A Catholic friend, an academic by training, is working on a serious letter to the Pope explaining exactly what he must do to extricate the church from the sexual scandals of the last 20 years—good luck. Many Jews around the world and even in Berkeley have become critical of events in Israel/Palestine, saying that religion is being used as the excuse for actions which they believe are contrary to their traditional moral values. In this issue we have a commentary from a local resident raised in the Islamic tradition speculating about why the peaceful and intellectual community of his childhood has been displaced by militancy and violence. 

The problem is that religion is a two-edged sword. For every Dorothy Day there’s a Father Coughlin, for every Richard Goldstone a Benjamin Netanyahu, for every Desmond Tutu a Jerry Falwell. Moral certainty too often translates into intolerance of differing concepts of morality or of those who practice a different religion.  

Seeing this, many of us are inclined to dump the whole thing: baby, bathwater and all. Many if not most of us around here are at least post-religious if not anti-religious. And yet more often than not it’s the still-religious who keep speaking up when needed for the homeless and the undocumented in our midst. Father Bill O’Donnell still lives in the memory of everyone whose cause he championed. If it wasn’t for the U-Us (Unitarian-Universalists) and their endless forums many serious problems would never be noticed, let alone corrected.  

And even the self-described non-religious citizens among us covertly adhere to the best principles of their birth religions. Many proprietors of small local groceries who were raised as Muslims sell the forbidden beer and wine out the front door, but they feed hungry poor folks out the back door consistent with their tradition. Proudly secular Jews still insist on trying to achieve justice in the world in the spirit of Tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase that means "repairing the world" which is the inspiration for the magazine title. 

So it’s a mistake to say that the misguided idiots who vandalized Rabbi Lerner’s home didn’t commit a hate crime, where a hate crime (admittedly a slippery concept) is defined as one with motivation prompted by religious prejudice among other categories. It’s exactly Michael Lerner’s dogged insistence that religion should mean what it says that infuriates a few wicked people who like to wrap themselves in the cloak of religion to disguise their bad behavior. This vicious intolerance, this kind of hate, should have no place in Berkeley.