Thursday, August 26, 2010

Presbyterians and Palestinians

I’m not an especially religious man, but there have been times in my life when religion has been a comfort. Social pressures, friends, and a spiritual quest are reasons to attend services, as is family. My father was a Presbyterian minister, and half of my family is Presbyterian. My family is of Jewish descent, but few practiced that religion. Immigration patterns were one reason for this. By 1900, there was so much anti-Semitism in New York that Jews were forced to immigrate through Galveston. The Galveston Movement, as the phenomenon is called, tried to assimilate Jews by sending them to Texas. My ancestors made their way north from Texas to St. Louis, dropping their Judaism somewhere along the way. But while religious practices were neglected, some principles remained. Assimilationist Jews have a strong emphasis on education and ethics, for instance.

My great-great grandmother, living in Poland, found herself in danger from constant war. In the 19th century, Prussia (Germany) was on the move, annexing that poor country. Her family were bakers, and she spent considering time hiding in the huge ovens to escape the clutches of marauding soldiers. She was desperate to flee, and because there were quotas on Jewish immigration by 1880, she forged some Christian documents. Maybe it wasn’t admirable to deny her heritage, but she got away from the fighting.

In the past, my Jewish forebears found the Presbyterian church to be a safe place. Historically, Presbyterians placed emphasis on literacy, education, and ethics. It was a Protestant church that wasn’t too dogmatic. That has changed. In 1980, the northern Presbyterian church and the southern Presbyterian church merged. They had separated during the Civil War; the southern church had the reputation, deserved or not, of being conservative.

The first casualty of this merger was gays. In 1980, Presbyterians stopped ordaining gays and lesbians. Since that time, the Presbyterian church has waged continual war on gays. Currently, a retired Presbyterian minister is on trial by the church for marrying gay couples when it was legal in California. The whole idea of a church trial sounds medieval.

Liberal Presbyterians have found a group they can fight: Israeli Jews. In 2004, the General Assembly came close to recommending divestment from Israel, joining the B-D-S movement (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions). Last week, the church I have sometimes attended held a meeting on divestment. I understand that Palestinians have been horribly treated. A recent U.N. report concludes that Israelis have committed war crimes--- but so have Palestinians. There is enough blame for both sides in the Middle East conflict. This meeting was a gateway for anti-Semites to express their anti-Jewish views.

Being of Jewish descent and going to a church is a tight rope, a balancing act. Last year, I attended a large Methodist church in town where the pastor gave a strange anecdote about helping Jews. The Christian church has a guilty history of anti-Semitism, and it is still there.

Maybe I was a fool to think I could have anything to do with church. As a gay man who is half-Jewish, I feel most comfortable at Reform Jewish services or the Unitarian church. Sometimes I feel a little like Cher singing “Half-breed.” At times of economic distress, demagogues use race and religion to divide. You only have to consider the “show me your papers” law in Arizona, and the Islamophobia we are experiencing. But being on the outside, and being different can be a gift. Edward Said said it best: “Even if one is not an actual immigrant or expatriate, it is still possible to think as one, to imagine, and investigate in spite of barriers, and always to move away from the centralizing authorities towards the margins, where you see things that are usually lost on minds that have never travelled beyond the conventional and comfortable.”


  1. My gracious Douglas, methinks thou art working hard to develop antagonism in your life, creating for yourself the agitation of living in exile. Yea verily and Christ did too, coming down from Mount Olympus to walk amongst the scurrilous human race. You may think that you have evolved beyond the floozy of a community for which I am a sitting elder(maybe more sit-ins would help her?) but I think you are pursued by the Hound of Heaven and unlikely to ever be rid of the hand and foot marks of that boy from Nazareth. Now, I may take such liberties to address thee roughly because I tutor English to the newly arrived and less documented. Or I might take thee on because I regularly attend a Torah study and find it more honest and revealing than any study I've done in a church. But my real aim is to expose your heart, one that bleeds for the lowly, the least and the leper. That heart is the one that burns and yet is not consumed, the very sacred heart of the compassionate universe. Thank you for revealing it with abandon. I need your voice because it helps me know that I am not mad, or at least not alone..................Stanford

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Radmaker. If I was better at technology, I'd send you an e-mail reply. I don't think I can do that, I tried. So maybe I'm sometimes overwrought and verklempt. Good on you for your ESL work, and the Torah study sounds interesting.

  3. I didn't remember your Jewish side at Unitarian Church when I sat with you in the 80s. Palestinians, on the other hand, interestingly enough, happen to be one of the groups I've taken an interest in to a degree. It has nothing to do with who is right and who is wrong in the conflict in Israel and Palestinian Camps, but has to do with the diaspora of the Palestinians. I am drawn strangely almost physically magnetically to their plight. I have these intuitions and empathic bondings, but it probably has to do with beatings I received as a child. If it were you and me, we'd sit down, seriously, and come to a resolution that would end the tension in the Israeli and Palestinian "ongoing war," but that ain't gonna happen. So, I think, I'll tell Douglas that in my semi-religious way, my Zen oriented Christian flavored solitude as a self-directed contemplative I take seriously the notion of contemplatives making a difference in the practices of meditation and prayer, writing, witnessing. I want the Palestinians to live free enjoy the dynamic beauty of their victim-thwarted DNA! So, why this Cajun-like empathy for Palestinians? I think it comes from reading Jean Genet, from seeing thousands of photographs of the dead children, the devastation of a civilian neighborhood after it is shelled and blown up by tanks. I read no history books, and have no Palestinian contacts or friends, none but the images artist friends have made and shared. I only bring them up because I know your heart, how profoundly loving a man you are, and I wanted to join in a sort of hand holding, a partnering so we together now, can be a "duo" who stand for peace between the warring parties in the middle east. I'll recalibrate my prayers and meditations to be more inclusive of your people via grandmother and your Jewish ancestry...and you can also hold my hand and pray not another Palestinian child is blasted away at play. There is no discussion of right or wrong in this warring part of the world, I don't think: It's clear both parties are wrong to be so brutal. I despise war, killing, violence any sort, but then again, I'm a non-Catholic Zen-Christian who prays for the Islamic Palestinians and Catholic Palestinians, and the Jews as well...

    I read in Thomas Merton's words something about the terrible day when war will be so taken for granted as the norm that modern man will become numb and insensitive to the sufferings of war victims, and he says that PEACE will not come to the earth until nations, such as USA or Israel, or any power, not come any peace until these nations experience the profound METANOIA that is a prerequisite to accepting the need for peace and reconciliation. I'm sorta sad about some of our president's performance in the last two years, hopeful for the next six, but I do think he has (and he has been grossly attacked for it) I do think he has tried to set a tone of METANOIA. Forgive us our transgressions, we the transgressors must first say...not that I cast blame, but I think war is stupid and peace is a better way to attain any human or spiritual goal. That's why I live in gratitude in ever have been so honored as having been able to sit at your left, sometimes, and sometimes at the right hand of Douglas Saylor! You are a great man, Douglas Saylor. I thank God every day for you! You know, I also pray for, and look at thousands of photographs of soldiers suffering in the grips of war's monstrous hold upon them...all soldiers, all the men and women...for they are the forgotten victims too. All I am saying, is give peace a chance!