Dan Hamburg is a former member of the U.S. Congress, where he authored the Headwaters Forest Act, a bill that passed the House overwhelmingly. In 1998, he was the Green Party candidate for Governor of California. He is currently the Executive Director of VOTE (Voice of The Environment), a foundation dedicated to creating a progressive political coalition that can challenge the current two-party "duopoly."
Dan posted this article on his VOTE website on August 18, 2001.
Politics and Spirituality:
A Personal Journey
by Dan Hamburg
August 18, 2001
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You must understand the time you are in. It is not like it was in the eighties,
seventies, sixties, or the fifties. This is a very, very dark and difficult time.
And people are being murdered by the thousands every week. The situation on earth must change or you and future generations are not even going to get a chance at God-Realization.
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1992 was an exciting year for me. In June, I received a master's degree in philosophy and religion from the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). The subject of my thesis was Kairos as in the biblical words of Jesus, "The Kairos (time) is at hand." By the end of the year, I was a congressman-elect, ready to join a new administration and an invigorated Congress in doing the work that I felt had been neglected during "the 12 dark years" of Reagan-Bush.
I suppose the understanding that politics must be imbued with spirituality began when I was very young. One of my earliest memories, growing up in St. Louis, was of my aunt purposefully taking me for a ride in her big white Buick Roadmaster through the slums of south St. Louis. Without understanding anything about how things came to be as they were, I knew things were wrong. As I grew older, I looked for answers to my questions within the reform Jewish congregation of my parents. I even studied Hebrew, learned to read Torah, and spoke several times with our rabbi about my increasing anxiety. I felt there had to be some connection between the injustice I saw around me and all the talk about God. But I couldn't find it.
My parents were liberal Democrats. The only thing my dad loved more than politics was the St. Louis Cardinals. He and my mom worked in both the Adlai Stevenson campaigns in the 1950s. John F. Kennedy was a huge hero in our family and when he was assassinated, there were not a dry eye in our home. When Lyndon Johnson ran for president in 1964, I participated in my first demonstration. Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate for president, was speaking in St. Louis and a group of us from the high school Democratic Club picketed the speech. I was a political activist at fifteen.
When I entered Stanford in 1966, I had no idea of a career. To my surprise and delight, handling the academic part was challenging but manageable. I still had time to follow the more interesting activities on campus, especially the antiwar movement. About a month after I started school, student body president David Harris was accosted during an evening walk on campus. Several students held him down while another shaved off his long hair. This was done in retribution for Harris's stand against the participation of Stanford in the US war machine. I was appalled and disgusted. My childhood assumptions were being shaken to the core.
Midway through my freshman year, I had decided to major in religious studies. I was also strongly drawn to politics on campus, and began participating regularly in demonstrations, but my heart was in trying to understand what people believe and how that drives their actions. I remember being very attracted to the idea, as described by Paul Tillich, that religion is about "ultimate concern." I wanted to know what it was that moves people at their deepest level. What I really wanted to know, of course, is what moved me.
One fine spring day that year I was lounging in the California sun when I learned that my favorite professor, Presbyterian theologian Robert McAfee Brown, had been arrested and jailed for blocking the entry doors at the Alameda County induction center. I immediately understood what had been missing in the adults I had met to that time in my life — the willingness to risk, the willingness to put one's own person in danger for the sake of those who are suffering pain and injustice.
I became progressively more active in radical politics during my undergraduate years. I got to the point where I loved standing at the microphone, exhorting my fellow students to ever greater acts of defiance and anger. At one point, in the heat of a demonstration, I joined a friend in ransacking the campus ROTC building. As I became more of a radical, my interest in religious matters waned. It seemed too painfully slow to explore religion while the whole world was on fire. My last gasp at completing a degree in religious studies was a rejected proposal to write my senior thesis on the subject of Jesus as a political revolutionary.
When the 60s revolution failed to materialize, I felt devastated and deeply confused. Luckily, a group of friends from Stanford were starting an alternative school in Mendocino County and invited me to join as a teacher and community member. There I met my soon-to-be wife Carrie and three children. For the first time in my life, I learned practical skills like car repair, carpentry, and gardening. It seemed to me that with this small, cooperative community we were creating a model that was, if less dramatic, at least more attainable than the sweeping revolution of my dreams.
After four years at Mariposa School, we decided to move our family to the nearby town of Ukiah. With quite a bit of prodding from Carrie, I submitted the necessary papers to run for City Council. Though new in town, I did very well with a platform of responsible growth, affordable housing, small business, and environmental protection. My slogan, borrowed from the dollar bill, was "Out of Many One" (e pluribus unum) which was also a takeoff on the large number of candidates in the race (14 for 3 seats). But the meaning of the slogan had its spiritual dimension — that from the separate citizens that make up the body politic, a unity can emerge that is greater than the parts.
Although I did well, I didn't win a council seat. A few months later, however, I was nominated for a seat on the city Planning Commission where I served for four years. I took the work very seriously and became quite interested in how good land-use planning could help to shape a good community. By 1980, I was ready for a run for the Board of Supervisors, a race I won in a squeaker over a very appealing, articulate, and well-entrenched woman who was chairperson of the county Republican party. The first question I took after the returns came in was from a right-wing radio station owner named Ted Storck. He stuck a mike in my face and asked with a smirk, "Dan, how does it feel to be elected supervisor on the same day Ronald Reagan is elected president?" It felt awful. I remembered how I had vowed to leave the country if Reagan ever made it to the White House.
Shortly after I was elected, the opposition, which had painted me as some bizarre representative of the "alternate life-style" movement and "anti-growth" attempted to recall me from office. It was a time of real trial for me. I was 33 years old, with a wife and four children, and a mortgage. But beyond that, to be recalled from office would likely be the end of my political career.
It was a truly inspired campaign, even better than the one that had resulted in my first winning the seat. The recall election became the dominant issue in the county and people from all over the county responded. This was a battle for our ideals, political and even spiritual. We were trying to create a more inclusive, more idealistic politics and the "good old boys" were miffed. We raised more money, all in small donations, than we could figure out how to use. In the end, the recall attempt failed by a large margin, leaving me, and our ideas for change, much stronger than before.
As a supervisor, I was one of five elected officials responsible for the governance of a large (the size of Delaware), sparsely populated (roughly 75,000) county. I took advantage of my "bully pulpit" to speak and write about the kind of county I envisioned. Economic self-reliance, communities where no one is allowed to go without basic necessities, stewardship of the environment — these things seemed so basic and obvious to me but my positions were often not in synch with the board majority. I knew that I could run unopposed for a second term but also knew that I would likely remain in a minority position, unable to implement the programs I had been advocating. So, after four years in office, with Carrie's urging, I decided to make a move.
We moved to rural south China, where we co-founded a cultural study program in the town of Taishan in the Pearl River delta. Over the next six years, we hosted groups from the US, Germany, Switzerland and New Zealand who wanted to have a "real" experience of China. We lived simply in a traditionally built inn amidst tea, bamboo and lychee groves. The south China climate grew enormous plants and flowers of all kinds, with insects and butterflies to match. The monsoons of late summer brought wind and rain so intense that we would listen to it and think the world was being washed away.
Once we had settled in, I began to get ideas of bringing our friends over. I wanted my carpenter friend Billy to come over and help with expanding our inn for the increasing numbers of students we anticipated. I wanted my dentist friend Jack, who visited our site, to stay and help out at one of the local clinics. I had visions of founding a permanent cross-cultural community in Taishan that would create a model and might help lead the way to greater understanding between our countries.
I paid scant attention to American politics during those years. It was a huge relief to be out of the US while Reagan was in office. Whenever I picked up an Asian edition of Time magazine, or listened to the news on short-wave, I felt deeply angered by what was going on — the huge military buildup, tax breaks for the rich, and what seemed to be the complicity of the Democrats in allowing the Republicans to have their way. Reagan's popularity seemed to me based on the sublime ignorance of the American people, on an amazing capacity to be deluded by a cue-card reading charlatan.
By late 1986, we had decided it was time to head back home and confine our subsequent trips to summers. I took a job as director of a bicounty community action agency which acted as an umbrella for programs to assist low-income folks and their children. It was a good job with a fine group of employees, but I quickly became dissatisfied with the demands of administration. I wasn't particularly good at it either. Again, I had that confused "What am I doing with my life?" feeling. I began to feel depressed and began psychotherapy just so I could hang on at work and home.
Then, as has happened over and over in my life, Carrie came to the rescue by encouraging me to go back to graduate school. I enrolled at CIIS where I felt I could "pick up where I had left off" when I bombed out of the religious studies program at Stanford. I was forty years old. I had tried, in many different ways, to find that confluence of work and spirit that seemed to me to be the only really satisfactory way to live. I didn't feel that I had failed, but only that I had to go deeper.
I studied Tibetan Buddhism, Taoism, hermaneutical phenomenology, and Chinese. I worked as a typesetter while Carrie worked as an accompanist. With that, plus my student loans, we got by. When it came time to write my thesis, I decided it was time to get in touch with my old religious studies professor and mentor, Dr. Robert McAfee Brown.
Brown was editing a book called Kairos: Three Prophetic Challenges to the Church. He explained to me that the ancient Greeks had two words for time — chronos and Kairos. Chronos refers to chronological time, time as measured by our human-made clocks. Kairos, however, refers to a transcendent dimension in which God, in conjunction with human beings who accurately read "the signs of the times," changes the course of history.
When I was elected to Congress in November of 1992, my mind was literally swimming with these ideas. Could this be a Kairos? What would it take to create the critical mass of human energy and consciousness that could transform the world, or at least get that process underway? With great expectations, we packed up our station wagon and headed east to the Capitol.
Part of "freshman orientation" for Democrats in 1992 was a three-day symposium at the JFK School of Government at Harvard. We were flown down to Boston on Air Force planes, then shuttled to the school on plush buses with motorcycle police flanking us. It all seemed pretty overdone. I could imagine the people watching us from the sidewalks or in their cars being irritated by all the hoopla. Had I been elected to the Soviet Politburo or the US Congress?
Most of the workshops at Harvard I found uninspiring. I felt that we were being indoctrinated rather than informed. I was amazed that some of the speakers were people from the outgoing Bush administration. Even the new Clintonites seemed cautious and conservative. One night, however, each of the 63 newly elected Democrats had a chance to stand briefly and tell their story about why they had wanted to run for Congress. I was delighted to hear so many stories about the civil rights and antiwar movements, environmental struggles and the like. Even if the challenges would be great, this seemed to be a group of people that could make positive things happen.
During the two years I served in Congress, I met many people who were hard-working, intelligent, and eager to improve the situation of the country. I was befriended by people like John Lewis, congressman from Georgia, who had marched with Martin Luther King. I sat in Senator Howard Metzenbaum's office and was honored when he told me that he felt all right about retiring since he was leaving things to "young guys like you." I even discussed the fate of old-growth redwoods across the desk from President Clinton while Air Force One took us across the country.
But my two years in Washington also convinced me that the deep changes that the country, and the world, need will not come from government, at least not from the US government which happens to be by far the most powerful on earth. One reason, obvious to most everyone by now, is the fact that the government is increasingly subservient to the corporate and other large financial interests that fund it. That's why we don't have universal health care, a living wage, first-rate education, solar energy and many other things that would serve the public interest.
But perhaps an even more serious problem is the lack of a vision that encompasses the spiritual. There is a chaplain who opens each session with a non-denominational prayer, a rather rote exercise that gets about as much deep attention as the playing of the national anthem at ball games. I joined a group called the Faith and Politics Institute and met weekly with a small group of Democrats who were interested in the faith aspects of their legislative work. While these decent men (there were no women) were almost obsessed with doing good, they were mostly stuck in patterns of patriotism, morality, and the teachings of their various churches.
While many well-intentioned men and women serve in Washington, and in governments across the country, few seem to be willing to consider that our overall direction as a nation and a planet is destructive and even life-threatening. Nor do they begin to consider that we need a radical rethinking of what this human enterprise is really about at its most fundamental level. What is the purpose of human life? Are we basically homo economicus, whose main purpose is to produce and consume, fending off scarcity while attempting to maintain public morality? Or are we more than that — fundamentally spiritual beings living in the physical plane? What should be our relationship with the natural world? Is the natural world more than "resources" to feed the maw of industry and the greed of consumers? Or is the creation itself divinely inspired? What should be our relationship to God, Oneness, Reality, or whatever term best describes for each of us that which is sacred, real, true? Is it enough to put in your time at church or synagogue, or is there something really esoteric going on here, something that we need to consider at the deepest levels of our discriminative intellects and our hearts?
In the election of 1994, I lost my congressional seat in a bitter election. It was a horrible campaign, filled with lies and attacks. I remember one day I was holding a forum on health care in Santa Rosa when a reporter asked my reaction to the fact that several high-ranking Republican leaders were in the southern part of my district assaulting my record and character. While I knew this kind of thing went on, I was still appalled. "What ever happened to professional courtesy?" I ventured rather weakly. I had pledged to myself, after a nasty 1992 campaign, to refuse to play gutter politics. I would disagree with my opponent's positions but I would not attack his beliefs or his person. This did not turn out to be a winning strategy in a year in which Democrats across the country were in retreat from Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America."
Reeling from the loss, having seen my personal dreams and my hopes for the country so quickly dissipated, I took a job working as a political consultant to the new provincial governments of South Africa. At first, South African politics were a fascinating diversion. The real power of newly elected president Nelson Mandela dwarfed anything I had seen in Washington, DC. Mandela embodies the dignity, humor, courage, and intellect that is very rare in the world today.
I will never forget a day that we decided to attend a concert in the township of Soweto, just outside Johannesburg. There had been rumors that civil disturbances might occur because of tensions between the supporters of Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Mandela. When we arrived and looked up at the stage where the musicians were to perform, there was the president, sitting calmly in a folding chair. At one point, he got up and briefly addressed the crowd of nearly 50,000. Then he went back to his chair and sat down. He remained there throughout the concert, enjoying the great music, without bodyguards. No violence erupted.
The politics of South Africa were as alive as US politics seemed dead. The people were awakening to issues that had been squashed during five decades of official apartheid. Capital punishment was abolished. Women's reproductive rights were affirmed. Programs were put into place to integrate schools and give preferences to minority groups whose economic rights had been denied for so long. There was a broad awakening to environmental problems and the need to more closely examine new industrial facilities and other developments. Military spending was being sharply scrutinized. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to bring to the light of day the atrocities of the past, while leaving open the opportunity for contrition.
But by the time we left South Africa at the end of 1995, I again felt that I was at a dead end. The overwhelming poverty suffered by the vast majority of South Africans had deadened my spirits. The lingering racism, the crises in drugs, AIDs, street crime, organized crime, depressed me. I couldn't stop thinking that the only way South Africa would be allowed to come into "the modern world" was to sell itself out even further to multinational corporate interests (who were staying out of the country for reasons including the prevalence of unionized labor). And I couldn't make myself stop thinking about the lost opportunities of my experience in Congress.
We returned home. I got a job managing the campaign of a friend who was running for county supervisor in neighboring Sonoma County. My family, and especially my four children and grandchild helped me to get back on a better emotional keel. I began to feel optimistic again, for the first time in several years.
By 1996, the political campaign I'd worked on was won and I was hired to be executive director of a nonprofit called Voice of the Environment. We helped to lead the fight to save ancient redwoods of Headwaters Forest, to end commercial logging on public lands, to save the Mojave Desert from having radioactive waste dumped on ground sacred to the native Americans who still live there. During this same period of time, I left the Democratic Party and became a Green.
The four ideological pillars of the Green Party — social justice, environmental wisdom, nonviolence, and grassroots democracy — are rooted in a spiritual understanding of our purpose here on the planet. The party advocates smaller-scale, community-based economics, the ascendance of feminine qualities like cooperation and nurturance over the patriarchal values that tend to dominate our current society, and respect for diversity in both the human and the non-human world. Greens have also adopted the ancient wisdom of the indigenous people of this continent, the wisdom that decisions should always be made with "the seventh generation" in mind. This ethic would rule out our perilous experiments in nuclear power, genetic modification of organisms, proliferation of toxics, and many other things that exemplify our death-inviting hubris.
In 1998, I ran for governor of California as a Green candidate in 1998. It was one of the more invigorating experiences in my life. I felt totally and completely free to state my case for major reprioritization in a state that builds prisons instead of universities, where a quarter of our children grow up in poverty, where our rivers are polluted and without fish and our forests are severely overcut. I'm now working with the Ralph Nader for president campaign, hoping that this effort will shake up the two-party corporate-controlled "duopoly" and present a new and whole electoral alternative to the American people.
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The true change that you must create is not principally in the "system" itself
(or in the parentlike world of competitive egos) but in the ordinary, daily associa-
tions between yourself and other human beings.
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Despite my strong support for Nader and the Greens, and my enthusiasm about the new wave of social and environmental activism evidenced in Seattle and elsewhere, I no longer believe that politics can ever lead us to any degree of a utopia. It is not as if politics and spirituality stand shoulder to shoulder, like a team of horses pulling the wagon of the world ever upward and onward. At its best, politics is a tool which can make it possible for human beings to achieve a reasonable degree of physical health and security. With these matters out of the way, each individual can utilize her talents and intuitions to find peace, and perhaps to experience the Divine Reality of Oneness that spiritual leaders from Lao Tzu to Jesus to Adi Da Samraj have taught.
Our current politics bring us little satisfaction. While politics may attempt to ameliorate a few of the worst horrors, it simultaneously creates others. For example, every politician extols the benefits of economic growth. Yet we know that such growth has much to do with destroying our environment. Politics has proven itself to be woefully inadequate in the advancement of even the most basic forms of justice or the maintainence of peace domestically and globally. The solution to this problem is not simply better politics, it is a different politics, a far more "radical" politics than any that has been advanced for hundreds of years.
Politics as we know it is the necessary creation of bureaucratic, industrial civilization. This politics is based on the fulfillment of the individual ego through the exercise of various "rights" which are "protected" by the State. A new politics, in contrast, must be based on the transcendence of egoity through "intelligent consciousness." This can occur best in the context of intimate, cooperative community with other human beings. As for the role of the State,
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Once its negative and parentlike powers become obsolete through non-use,
[it] will be obliged to beome the simple instrument of the responsible agreements of the people.
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The human enterprise is a difficult one. Even those of us fortunate enough to be materially secure know that life is not easy. We may have times when "things are going well" and we feel rather satisfied. But there is always that fear lurking in our minds. Fear that our good fortune may end. Fear that something can always go wrong. Ultimately, fear that no matter how good we might feel in any particular moment, it is impermanent. Each of us will die.
These things are "built in" to our existence on this material plane. Other than a few Spiritual Adepts who can help guide us to a deeper consideration of the Divine, most of us cannot experience sustained bliss or even sustained peace of mind. But we can use politics to advance the great cause of human justice and thereby take a huge load off our minds and hearts, and allow ourselves the space for more creative, or deeper pursuits.
Spiritual leaders throughout history have taught that within the heart of every living being is the Divine. If this is true, then our most important work must be turning toward the Divine, toward "non-conditional Reality." The causes of global peace, human freedom, and human well-being depend on an individual and a collective movement in this direction. As the Spiritual Teacher Adi Da points out,
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It is a matter of converting the mind and the life and the entire human collective
to a right understanding of conditionally manifested reality (which is a great unity) and to a right (and truly religious, and truly Spiritual) submission to Ultimate Reality (Which Is One).
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The new politics that grows out of this conversion will be radical in the best sense of the word. It will be a politics based upon intimate, cooperative association among human beings. It will be a politics based on the integrity of the individual, then extends outward to the community and even the State. It will be a politics that recognizes as its first priority spiritual realization rather material aggrandizement. It will be a politics based not on scarcity (fear) but on plenty (love). In the words of Adi Da Samraj,
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Love is the key to this necessary change. Love is self-surrendering, self-forgetting, and, ultimately, self-transcending participation in the Indivisible Oneness and Wholeness and Singleness That Is Real God, and Real Truth,
and Reality Itself.
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I'm not giving up on my political work. In fact, I'm looking forward to standing in for Ralph Nader in a couple of debates this fall. I enjoy working with my colleagues on issues ranging from preserving old-growth forests to ending the inane and destructive "war on drugs." But I now realize that there is a truer politics that portends a new world that is trying to come into being. This politics, in which "the individual's voice and experience can be directly heard and sympathetically felt," must be experienced on a daily basis in intimate, cooperative community. This is the radical politics of true freedom. This is the politics that will reshape the world.