Everything That Rises Must Converge: Integrating spirituality, law, and politics

by Hon. Bruce Peterson and Stu Webb

The Project for Integrating Spirituality, Law, and Politics (PISLAP)—a 20-year-old
informal coalition of reform-minded lawyers and law teachers—is at the forefront of
what is being called the “integrative law” movement. The group met in Minneapolis
this year to plan a major national conference, which will be held in Washington
D.C. in October 2018.

Spirituality. Law. Politics. Three of the most important spheres in our society, but very different. How can they be better integrated? How can the universal truths about human existence taught in all the major spiritual traditions be reflected in our legal and political systems? One Saturday this past June, at the Minneapolis Friends (Quaker) Meeting House, this question was explored by a group of law professors, public and private lawyers, and restorative justice professionals from around the country called the Project for Integrating Spirituality, Law, and Politics, or PISLAP (pronounced “pie-slap”).

PISLAP is at the forefront of what is being called the “integrative law” movement, which is flowering in Minnesota, the birthplace of collaborative law and home to a growing network of restorative justice programs, a statewide array of therapeutic or “problem-solving” courts, and excellent mindfulness programs for lawyers. PISLAP seeks to develop the unifying theme behind these and other legal reforms that emphasize respectful and healing legal processes.

The problem is not hard to state and not easy to solve. Science is increasingly clear that human health depends on strong social connections. New brain-scanning technologies reveal that contributions stimulate the same area of the brain as rewards. Frequency of use of the words ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine’ is a stronger predictor of mortality from heart disease than blood pressure or cholesterol level.1 New York Times columnist David Brooks has written that joining a group that meets even just once a month produces the same happiness gain as doubling your income.2

In effect, modern science is rediscovering ancient spiritual wisdom. Paramahansa Yogananda, an Indian yogi who taught and preached in this country in the first half of the last century, put it this way:

“There is one Link, one Life eternal, which unites everything in the universe—animate and inanimate—one wave of Life flowing through everything.”

This fundamental spiritual truth can be traced back through time. Luther Standing Bear, a Sioux chief in the late 1800s, said it like this:

“From Wankan Tanka, the Great Spirit, there came a great unifying life force that flowed in and through all things—the flowers of the plains, blowing winds, rocks, trees, birds, animals—and was the same force that had been breathed into the first man. Thus all things were kindred, and were brought together by the same Great Mystery.”

Kabir, a Sufi poet who wrote in the 15th century, used these words:

“In your veins, and in mine, there is only one blood, the same life that animates us all! Since one unique mother earth begat us all, where did we learn to divide ourselves?”

Jesus, of course, said simply,

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

And from the Buddha:

“He who experiences the unity of life sees his own Self in all beings, and all beings in his own Self, and looks on everything with an impartial eye.”

Now fast forward. The American legal system was a wonderfully creative and brave response to the feudal, theocratic, and other dictatorial authorities that had subjugated the individual for thousands of years. The concept of individual rights, and the legal structures needed to protect them, liberated the individual and promoted unprecedented personal freedom and prosperity.


Let’s acknowledge, however, that embedded within that legal system is a view of the individual very different from the one science and spirituality describe: We are at least competitors and often enemies of each other, we pose danger to each other, and we must be protected from each other. Peter Gabel, editor-at-large of Tikkun Magazine and a founder of PISLAP who has written extensively about this topic, calls the individual in our legal system a “disconnected monad,” an atom floating around in space alone. The law protects the monads but does not connect them.

A quick review of some of the principal areas of law demonstrates the law’s worldview. The law of torts is based on a duty of care, but that really does not mean people are expected to care for each other. Coming upon seven-year-old Sherrice Iverson being raped and eventually killed in a Nevada casino restroom, a man can legally turn around and walk away.3

The entire economy that sustains us all is constructed from contract and corporation law. Yet contract and corporation law emphasize the self-interested gains of bargains and investments while attending very little to the well-being of the wider community or the accomplishment of shared social purposes.

The law of property keeps outsiders out, but does not require any stewardship of that unique piece of the Earth for the common welfare or for future generations.

Criminal law holds an individual responsible and imposes consequences. That focused application of blame absolves everyone else from responsibility for the social conditions that predictably generate crime. Except in the very rare cases of actual legal insanity, the growing evidence of the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on adult health and behavior and the fact that a majority of inmates in state and local facilities have mental health problems make little difference to criminal liability.

Even the Constitution itself recognizes monads rather than interconnected humans. Nowhere in the Constitution is there anything resembling John Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Instead, the Constitution establishes carefully limited government powers. It makes clear what the government cannot do to the individual, but says nothing about any obligations that we have toward each other.

The American political system deviates even further from the spiritual model of human interrelatedness. Candidates in the political-party managed election system achieve a majority by mobilizing their base and enticing a relatively small percentage of swing voters. They have found that voters respond most to messages of fear and animosity toward “outsider” groups and the core voters of the other party. They hammer on differences rather than connections. Tax-and-spend liberals. Red-meat conservatives. A flood of illegal immigrants. The 1 percent.There is little incentive or effort to affirm our common humanity. The result is near-hatred for each other by large numbers of opposing voters stoked every few years by the most clever messages money can buy—not to mention some bizarre electoral victories.

The legislative system produced by these kinds of campaigns amplifies disconnection and dissension. Candidates elected by voters hating the other party have a hard time joining together to promote our shared well-being. Their incentive is to repeal and replace much of the other party’s achievements as fast as possible. This produces scenarios as bizarre as a governor attempting to defund the Legislature. This is nothing new, of course. Minnesota’s latest constitutional crisis is the perfect bookend to the one in 1857 that produced the constitution, when opposing parties refused to meet together to work on a joint draft and former territorial governor Willis Gorman struck a blow with his cane to the head of conference committee member Thomas Wilson.


Where to start to try to achieve better integration of these disparate spheres? PISLAP has existed for about 20 years as a loose coalition of reform-minded lawyers and law teachers, and it has sponsored periodic conference calls, retreats, and small conferences. The growth of the integrative law movement has given the group new prominence. In Minneapolis, the PISLAP planning committee met to develop the content and format for a major national conference next year, to be held October 11-14, 2018 in Washington D.C.

With such a broad scope of inquiry before it, the committee chose four basic questions in promising areas. First, the burgeoning mindfulness movement has resulted in many lawyers adopting a variety of contemplative practices for better health and effectiveness. The question at the PISLAP meeting involved the next step—how do contemplative practices by lawyers promote justice and social change? One common answer is that meditation and related practices awaken the individual to deep connections with other people, leading naturally to professional actions that promote justice for everyone. Several PISLAP members teach contemplative practices, and the 2018 conference will likely include examples and instruction in the most effective practices for lawyers.

One of the best ways to reform a system is to introduce a new vision to the young people who will eventually manage it. Many law schools now offer classes in contemplative practices, therapeutic jurisprudence, and well-being as well as clinics promoting holistic representation of clients.

The second question at the PISLAP meeting was how to transform legal education to introduce the integration of spirituality, law, and politics into the teaching of traditional substantive law classes and clinical training. Some of the PISLAP teachers are doing this now. For example, a contracts professor described how, with every case developing a principle of contract law, he asks his students to describe the human story behind the contract dispute and evaluate how that ought to affect the result. A torts professor explores what it would mean for the “general duty of care” to be recast as a “duty of concern, compassion, and public care.” The 2018 conference is likely to include “live” law school classes taught from a perspective that acknowledges the spiritual dimension to every human interaction.

The third question before the PISLAP committee was how lawyers can transform their practices to enhance the spiritual dimension of their work. One common answer was holistic practice—responding to the client as a fellow human with strengths and weaknesses rather than a legal problem to be solved. For example, one PISLAP member manages a public interest criminal defense practice. Recognizing that legal problems are likely to be only the latest challenge for their clients, the firm assigns a social worker as well as a lawyer to each client. And recognizing that many more of their clients will be convicted than exonerated, the firm makes every client a client for life and sticks with them during imprisonment or another criminal sanction, helping the client maintain contact with family and re-enter the community following incarceration. For many years the firm operated a landscaping company to provide employment for clients leaving jail and prison.

Current plans for the 2018 conference call for role plays through the life cycle of actual cases employing a holistic perspective.

Even the design of physical space can enhance the spiritual dimension. The 2018 conference is likely to include a photo gallery of the many creative ways lawyers are using pictures, colors, furniture, plants, and water to bring a sense of peace, harmony, and openness to their offices. For example, at the offices of Collaborative Practice in Edina, the first thing clients see is a meditation room.

Restorative practices have become commonplace and respected in the criminal justice system. Thirty states now include restorative justice principles in the mission statements for their juvenile justice systems.

The fourth question for the PISLAP group was how this promising integration of spiritual principles with the criminal justice system can be expanded to the political system and lead to social transformations. Some of the most important work on this topic around the country appears to be in healing the wounds of slavery and racism. For example, truth proceedings, state pardons, memorialization activities, and institutional apologies in cold civil rights-era cases are being arranged by Northeastern University Law School’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Institute. A racial reconciliation initiative at Eastern Mennonite University brings together descendants of slaves and slave owners, as well as organizing other dialogues, apologies, and ceremonies. PISLAP members described their work to develop a national network of locally organized truth and reconciliation processes.

Another example of an expanded role for restorative practices comes from Minnesota. A facilitator employing Marshall Rosenberg’s compassionate communication principles led a group of 20 deeply divided stakeholders through a three-year process to resolve a decade-long legislative stalemate over a presumption of joint legal custody in divorce cases. The group jointly produced a package of family law reform bills that passed nearly unanimously in 2015 and was quickly signed by the governor.

The 2018 PISLAP conference will likely include “live” examples, or at least videos, of these kinds of policy-oriented restorative justice procedures, perhaps involving voters for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.


Although PISLAP has a website, www.spiritlawpolitics.org, the creative thinking of its many activist members has never been collected in one place. Until now. On June 26, Carolina Academic Press released Transforming Justice, Lawyers, and the Practice of Law, a book edited by Touro Law Professor Marjorie Silver. The book contains 13 chapters by PISLAP authors on how they are opening up a spiritual dimension in criminal and juvenile law, civil conflicts and dispute resolution, legal education, the court system, community lawyering, and environmental law. Particularly instructive are the authors’ personal stories about how they developed a spiritual perspective toward the law, often the result of personal challenges or struggles with the existing system. Suffice it to say that while the coherent vision presented by these lawyers may not fully integrate spirituality, law, and politics, the book is a roadmap of how activities underway right now are getting us headed in that direction.

One of the beauties of the American legal system has been its adaptability to meet the needs of a changing society. Human rights laws, social safety net legislation, environmental protections, and public defenders were unheard of 100 years ago. The new challenges involve enhancing human connections. These days, with the proliferation of smartphones and social media, it seems like our children and grandchildren are almost literally in each other’s heads most of the time. And how long could any one of us survive disconnected from the food, water, energy, and information grids?

In a society of unprecedented interdependence, where the frequency and complexity of human interactions increase with every technological advancement and step toward globalization, it may be that relying more on what the spiritual masters have been telling us for thousands of years about how to fully appreciate each other will be smart legal strategy. Watch for more from the Project for Integrating Spirituality, Law, and Politics on how that might be done.

BRUCE PETERSON is a Hennepin County judge who has worked in several problem-solving courts.  He is a member of the Planning Committee of the Project for Integrating Spirituality, Law, and Politics (PISLAP).

STU WEBB is the founder of Collaborative Law. He is a member of the Planning Committee of the Project for Integrating Spirituality, Law, and Politics (PISLAP).


1 Lynne McTaggart, The Bond: Connecting Through the Space Between Us, (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2011) at 81.

2 David Brooks, “The Sandra Bullock Trade,” New York Times 3/30/2010 www.nytimes.com/

3 “7-year-old girl’s murder at Nevada casino still haunts 20 years later,” Las Vegas Review-Journal 5/19/2017 www.reviewjournal.com/crime/homicides/7-year-old-girls-murder-at-nevada-casino-still-haunts-20-years-later/