Friday, December 4, 2009

Humanity, Flawed and Faithful

Warrior religions fail the spirit

The creative moment loses its uplifting, transcendent power the instant one becomes aware of its occurrence. In that moment we are human and flawed, again. But in so far as we are capable of another flash of creativity and another, we may continue the hunt.

Most often, I do this only half-heartedly. But I am occasionally moved to try harder by the thought passed on to me a couple of years ago by a child who quoted Picasso: “Inspiration does exist, but it must find you working.”

Uninspired and unheroic struggle with my own very human flaws has become, very nearly, my home address. When I leave home, and return there, I generally travel secular pathways, but it’s clear that there are myriad ways to and from the hard truth that each of us can find the roots of our individual undoing in our own selves.

The Catholic Church, for instance, calls that understanding ‘original sin’—a suitable, if also fraught, metaphor. The church teaches believers to respond to this incompleteness with prayer, communion and a variety of other ritual practices, which can and do move some believers to an ecstatic experience of the presence of god, or wholeness. But the church has long gone wrong in creating, developing and maintaining the institutionalization of a set of responses that are, in practice, anything but metaphorical (e.g., confession, priestly dispensations, withholding of communion).

Writer Karen Armstrong, once a Catholic nun, regards theology as a creative art, on a par with, say, poetry. Without Armstrong’s help this comparison would never occur to me, but when I read her book, The History of God, I grasp, incompletely and perhaps incoherently, the joy that others have found in contemplating god. In her memoir, The Spiral Staircase, Armstrong describes her intellectual and spiritual development from the time she left the convent to the period, about 15 years later, in which she researched and wrote The History of God.

In The Spiral Staircase, Armstrong writes about the delight she extracts from the wisdom of prophets, mystics and theologians working in the Islamic, Christian and Jewish faith traditions. Her experience may seem unremarkable, but the way she writes about the spiritual inquiries of these Muslim, Christian and Jewish thinkers is so compelling and illuminating that I can feel what she means.

“The myth of the Holy Grail was a watershed in the spiritual development of the West. It turned the crusading ethos on its head. Instead of marching to their adventure in the huge, massed armies of the Crusades, the Grail knights embarked on a solitary quest, riding into the forest alone,” she writes.

“The destination of the Grail knights is not the earthly city of Jerusalem but the heavenly city of Saras, which has no place in this world. The forest represents the interior realm of the psyche, and the Grail itself becomes a symbol of a mystical encounter with God. By the thirteenth century, when the Grail legend began to take root in Europe, the people of the West were finally ready to develop a more spiritualized form of Christianity. And when I started work on A History of God, I too began to focus on my inner life (pg. 269).”

It’s probably stating the obvious for me to observe that I couldn’t arrive at the understanding of the Grail legend that Armstrong does without her help. Further, it wouldn’t occur to me to leap from that understanding to the far more mystical perception that all wanderers are seeking something, frequently a something that makes individual humans into unique beings. That, she says, is one of the goals of every religion.

But she also writes, later on, that the highest goal of “all the great faiths” is to teach compassion because “it dethrones the ego from the center of our lives and puts others there, breaking down the carapace of selfishness that holds us back from an experience of the sacred.” (pg. 296)

Any approach to life that tries to teach us how to achieve an understanding of ourselves that becomes complete when we can let go of that self is wrestling with some very basic human contradictions. It seems reasonable to think a theology so open to such a journey is a form of art, and to believe that the seers and theologians engaged in such faith practices are artists. It therefore makes practical sense to think that the great faith traditions offer effective ways to deal with the moments in the lives of individuals when hope, optimism and confidence have given way to apathy, defeatism and despair.

But for many this option does not exist, precisely because organized religions of all sorts have sometimes positioned themselves on the side of power, exclusivity and harsh judgment. Ultimately, the great faiths, all of them, probably, but the three Abrahamic faiths, certainly, have histories and institutional realities that are anything but poetic, and far from compassionate. Though the histories of the three, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, vary greatly in their details, their core ethical traditions have sometimes been undermined by the political roles they have played in the world.

The Catholic Church has been a political power dating back to the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in 312 CE, on the eve of the battle that would make him emperor in Rome. The date marks the historical moment “when the power of the empire became joined to the ideology of the Church,” wrote James Carroll in Constantine’s Sword. In the 1,700 years since, the Church has done some very bad things—the Crusades, forced conversions of nonbelievers, the Inquisition, periodic calls for holy war, a near blind eye to the Holocaust, the subordination of women, to name just a few.

Islam has also been at times, a triumphal, warrior religion, the nearly exact opposite of a compassionate faith, but as an American taught about Islam through the casual use of myth and insult, I must assume that most anything I have to say about the history of Islam has a very good chance of adding to the insults. Regardless, Islam has also, in many places become an institutionalized partner of and collaborator with the wealthy and powerful, though in most instances, the excesses of the institutionalized faith have been orders of magnitude lower than the excesses of Christianity. Nevertheless, in many places Islam has been a tool for concentrating power in authoritarian hands, persecuting nonbelievers, subordinating women and rationalizing terrorist attacks on civilian targets.

As the faith of a scattered and powerless people for most of the last two millennia, Judaism has less to apologize for. But over the last half of the 20th century through to the present, Judaism, and the Jewish experience of the Holocaust, in particular, has provided rationale and cover for the institutionalization and expansion of Israel, a colonial, apartheid and garrison state that has dispossessed the Palestinian people and appropriated their land in clear and constant violation of international law.

That Judaism, like the other Abrahamic religions, has become in some way a mere nationalist ideology matters greatly to Palestinians, Israelis, American Jews and a good portion of the rest of the world, especially those people and groups who feel strongly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though I was raised in an at least minimally observant Jewish family, I reached adulthood with a pronounced disinterest in Judaism. But Jewishness was something different; I believed that being raised in a Jewish family living in a largely Jewish neighborhood had defined me, marked me in some ways as an outsider in a Christian country, but also given me the tools and attitudes with which to make my way in that space. In my mid-30s, I made my way to a staff position with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).

At the time, I considered myself an entirely secular peace and justice activist, but one who had encountered and admired other activists whose moral concerns were rooted in the ethical concepts of their faith. These were largely Christian activists, whose Christian beliefs were frequently evident, but never oppressive to me.

But with AFSC, I encountered many more people whose activism was rooted in their Quaker background. These Quakers, also called Friends, were the inheritors of their coreligionists who founded AFSC in 1917 as a way for Quaker youth in the United States to perform alternative service during World War I. The experience of working with so many activists at AFSC whose motivation grew out of their Christian beliefs moved me greatly, encouraging me to seek in Jewish beliefs one of the ethical wellsprings of my own activism.

Of course, one never knows how much self-deception or self-congratulation is involved in defining the shape of one’s own conscience. But allowing for ego and for my failures as a peace and justice activist, there seems to be quite a lot in the history of Judaism that might motivate activism. Such Jewish understandings as the commandment to remember when we were slaves in Egypt or the rabbinic teaching from the time of Jesus, himself, that to save or preserve a single life is to save an entire universe seem a quite sufficient foundation for standing for peace and justice in the modern world.

But the late-20th century history of mainstream American Judaism, following Israel’s victory in the June 1967 war against Syria and Egypt is largely the story of a transformed faith. Synagogue-based Judaism became Zionist, became a religion with a political focus on Israel. Writer Norman Finkelstein, a child of Holocaust survivors, observes that after the ’67 war, “American Jewish elites suddenly discovered Israel…for American Jewry, as well as the United States, Israel became a strategic asset (Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry, pg. 21).”

In his book, Finkelstein describes the sudden conversion of faith experienced by prominent American Jews after Israel’s stunning military victory. “Lucy Dawidowicz, the doyenne of Holocaust literature, had once been a ‘sharp critic of Israel.’ Israel could not demand reparations from Germany, she railed in 1953, while evading responsibility for displaced Palestinians: ‘Morality cannot be that flexible.’ Yet almost immediately after the June war, Dawidowicz became a ‘fervent supporter of Israel,’ acclaiming it as ‘the corporate paradigm for the ideal image of the Jew in the modern world’ (pg. 22).”

Before 1967, Diaspora Jews would sometimes pray to return to Jerusalem and the land of Israel. But such prayers were far from universal among Jews and frequently reflected a longing to be anywhere but where they lived, most particularly in the 19th Century Jewish settlements of eastern Europe and western Russia. But if one accepts that the history of the Jewish people began some 3800 years ago with Abraham, Jerusalem plays only a small part, and frequently a merely symbolic part, in overall Jewish history. Jewish faith practices, religious beliefs and rituals, and intellectual history developed fully and completely outside of Jerusalem and, for the most part, in homes and synagogues, with no need for a temple or a holy city. In point of fact, Jerusalem’s evolved status as a holy city was far more dependent on Christian theology and Christian warriors, like the Crusaders, whose triumphant entry into Jerusalem in the summer of 1099 included a massacre of Jewish and Muslim residents of the city.

In the same spirit, these Christian warriors had begun their crusade “by slaughtering the Jewish communities along the Rhine valley (Armstrong, A History of God, pg. 197).” Jewish residents of the Holy Roman Empire might well have longed to be somewhere other than the Rhine alley, but knowing where the crusaders were headed, it’s highly unlikely that they would have wished to be in Jerusalem.

But after 1967, “next year in Jerusalem,” became a central concept in the order of Jewish Passover seders in the United States, superseding the more empathic stance of remembering when we were slaves in Egypt. And the universal moral lesson of the experience of the Holocaust, “never again,” morphed to the more particular understanding that Jews, themselves, would never be safe without the security of a nation-state. That state, frequently celebrated by Jews and (primarily apocalyptic) Christians as the only democratic state in the Middle East is more precisely the only Jewish theocratic state in the world.

Perhaps none of this should matter to a nonobservant Jew, but somehow it does. I am, despite everything a Jew. But I cannot embrace the mainstream version of Zionist Judaism, which refuses to identify with the suffering of the displaced Palestinian people. In establishing a theocratic Jewish state in Palestine and asserting an exclusive right to portions of that land, Judaism has become a warrior faith in exactly the same way that Christianity became a warrior faith so long ago. If I embrace such a Judaism, I cannot comfort myself or others with the compassion and empathy that marked rabbinic Judaism for two millennia. I’ve tried many times to define the Judaism that I can embrace. I do not feel particularly successful in that effort, but my poem, “Always Jewish, Lately Palestinian,” tries to outline a Jewishness that is not triumphalist.

Always Jewish, Lately Palestinian

I am Jewish because the love of others made me so.
I am Jewish because I grew up on the south side of Chicago; there even my public school was Jewish.
I am Jewish because my grandfather was oh, so Jewish, and I felt it then and feel it now.
I am Jewish because angry Irish boys felt my Jewish nose at the end of their Catholic fist.
I am Jewish because we are commanded to remember when we were slaves in Egypt and I do.
I am Jewish because dissent is my faith and my chosen fate.
I am Jewish because in my grandmother's kitchen nothing would rise, but of everything there was plenty.
I am Jewish because the South Shore Country Club was founded by people who would not let us in.
I am Jewish because my Dad once slugged a guy at Comiskey Park who cussed a Jewish pitcher for the White Sox.
I am Jewish because the Jewish god is not diminished by my disbelief.
I am Jewish because Emma Goldman was Jewish, and so was Karl Marx and so was Groucho Marx and Jesus, too, for that matter.
I am Jewish because of the Maccabees and Masada and crusader violence and Spanish inquisitors and Cossack pogroms and the ghetto and the death camps and because I also planted trees in Israel.
I am Jewish because Jewish workers fight in labor struggles and because Jewish people resist racism and because, like all the world’s poor, poor Jews endure.
I am Jewish because being Jewish means never using violence against another except when life, itself, is directly threatened, and that principle must never be compromised.

With these declarations I begin a path to other truths:
I am Palestinian because we are all children of Abraham.
I am Palestinian because I, too, have been homeless.
I am Palestinian because we have a future together or none, at all.
I am Palestinian because Palestinian yearning is so like Jewish yearning.
I am Palestinian because I have been uplifted by the love of Palestinians.
I am Palestinian because peace in Arabic and in Hebrew bestows the same gift.
Although Sarah and Hagar are our separate birth mothers, I am Palestinian because we all live in the embrace of one mother, and will return to her.

If you summon one of us for cruel judgment, there will be no telling us apart.

November 13, 2009

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