Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Christian Left and the Jewish Left

Last night I had the privilege of attending a book signing sponsored by San Diego’s Christian Left. Not all Christians are like the radio preachers who spew hate. From 1880 onward America has had a Christian Left with leaders like Eugene Debs, Edward Bellamy, George Howard Gibson, Jane Addams and Norman Thomas. The Christian Left had its origins in the Populist movement of the agrarian South and Midwest; when the People’s Party disbanded, many on the Left embraced Christian socialism.

The American Socialist Party flourished from 1900 to 1920. In America socialists had their roots in Christianity and Judaism as Michael Kazin illustrates brilliantly in his seminal work, American Dreamers. Differences in the party were geographical as well as religious: in the Midwest Christians of European descent thrived and Jewish Socialists flourished on the East Coast and in large urban area. Christians in the political Left like those on the right tended to be xenophobic. Consequently Christian and Jewish socialists didn’t always work well together. Because of the power of nativists the socialist party in America never had a Jewish leader. After the death of Eugene Debs, the Socialist presidential candidate from 1900-1920, the banner was taken up by Norman Thomas, a Presbyterian minister. Since Michael Harrington’s untimely death the party has had no figurehead.

Jews arguably suffered more in the government’s illegal persecution of the Left. Emma Goldman, an American citizen, was deported during J. Edgar Hoover’s Palmer Raids and Jewish intellectuals were targeted by McCarthy.

Despite constant violation of the Christian Left’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech and political affiliation, the movement never died. It can still be found in the denominations that historically dissented from American imperialism: Quakers, Mennonite churches including the Amish, Church of the Brethren and Unitarians. This isn’t to discount individual members of churches that try to steer their denominations in a liberal direction.

In San Diego, one of the epicenters of the military industrial complex, (drones are built here), the Peace Resource Center has organized the anti-war Left for 30 years. While not an expressly Christian agency, PRCSD, the Peace Resource Center of San Diego is supported by the Friends, or Quakers, and Church of the Bethren. In addition to a commitment to pacifism the PRCSD has championed economic fairness by providing meals and support to Occupy Wall Street.

Every anti-war rally in San Diego in recent memory has been sponsored at least in part by PRCSD. This has occasioned some tension between the local Christian and Jewish Left. The Christian Left, like the non-Christian non-Jewish Left, is almost obsessed with Israel’s foreign policy. Jimmy Carter is an emblem of this tension; he’s a liberal who constantly criticizes Israel. Much of what Israel does is heavy handed and wrong, but at some events anti-Semitism is simmering just below the surface. I’ve heard many remarks about “those people,” the Jews.

At the onset of the second war with Iraq, peace rallies in San Diego became contentious because some held signs that read “Israel Out of Palestine,” and “Stop the Slaughter of Palestinians.” Jews and those of Jewish ancestry, myself included, who opposed the war were offended by those banners and stopped marching.

My father was a Presbyterian clergyman who became increasingly involved with political pacifism and served as interim pastor at the Church of the Brethren. His mother was Presbyterian; his father was Jewish. Dad’s dad’s family came to Texas in what’s called the Galveston Movement (Bernard Marinbach’s book by that same title is the definitive source on the movement). Dad’s grandfather had been a cantor at a temple in Frankfurt; ironic considering Dad became a Presbyterian minister. Though he was half-Jewish, Judaism wasn’t a large part of my father’s life.

My father began his career as a fairly traditional pastor. Over the years, disillusion with conservative politics and his experiences as a hospital chaplain changed him. Having a gay son may have challenged him as well. Dad was always growing and maturing.

Dad died in 2004 just before Bush was re-elected; at least he was spared that. Sometimes when I go to a peace rally I think of him. I wonder how he handled insensitive remarks about Jews, considering his own ancestry. Did my father feel the conflict between Christian and Jewish Left the way I do? Was he able to put the differences out of his mind in service of the greater good? If the Left wants to transform the world it’s going to have to work together.

Though I’ve said this elsewhere, Jews aren't unreasonable to expect sensitivity from Christian groups. The Church has an 1,800 year history of anti-Semitism; books like the Gospel of John portray Jews in the worst possible light--- though Jesus was a Jew and a Pharisee. As David Nirenberg has masterfully demonstrated in Anti-Judaism, the church has used Judaism as a foil, an emblem of stubborn materialism. Use of Judaism as a trope for all that is evil has had disastrous consequence for Jews.

Christians should understand that it seems inconsistent to highlight the barbarous foreign policy of Israel while France and Romania’s treatment of the Roma isn’t noted. The Christian Left never criticizes Saudi Arabia for its treatment of women. Why is Israel singled out for special opprobrium?

Much more would get done if the Jewish and Christian Left worked together, and heaven knows there is a lot to do. The military complex is always gearing up for the next war; we must commit ourselves to economic justice and helping others, especially the least powerful among us. Maybe by concentrating on that, petty ethnic and tribal differences will seem unimportant. If we want to save the planet, everyone’s going to have to work together.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Problem of Patriarchy

Governmental structure and institutional religion aren’t the problems but the symptoms. The root of our ills is patriarchy, an authoritarian hierarchy that centralizes and co-opts power. To condemn patriarchy is not to bash men since both sexes are complicit in the current structure. The antithesis of the status quo is compassionate consensus.

The media’s fascination with the pope’s election and gridlock in congress obfuscates the fact that our systems themselves are abusive. The government does not do the will of the people as reflected in topical surveys. In this sense democracy is dead, replaced by paternalistic authority that claims to know what is best. Politicians respond to the corporate overlords who fund their campaigns. Our constitution is superannuated, composed before the industrial revolution, and privileges commerce, private property and slavery. Corporate capitalism is the logical outgrowth of patriarchy, accumulating wealth and privilege in the hands of the few.

The ancient Hebrew proscription against graven images was perhaps due to knowledge that images keep us from envisioning alternative power structures. Institutional religion preserves and idolizes patriarchal power. If mainstream Christianity wants to have relevance, it must democratize, copying the Society of Friends, Quakers. The Friends reject top-down authority and discuss the inspiration of the group.

Patriarchy, like any power structure, is reactionary and wants to preserve the status quo. It tends toward rule by dictatorship and secret kabbals. Patriarchy disempowers the “unwashed masses.” The police actions of the Occupy movement show just how afraid of the people governments are. A movement by the people representing the people terrifies the authoritarian regime.

We can do better. We must reject both the internal and external power structures that seek to control. We can exchange patriarchy for genuine democracy. We’ve had three thousand years of rule by paternal authority and it’s brought us monarchy, war, unequal distribution of goods and services. It’s time to change the paradigm and choose the power of the people.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Paper Bag Test

CNN recently aired a series called “Who is black in America?” Soledad O’Brien interviewed a number of African Americans and asked them how they defined themselves. O’Brien noted that in a previous era, if someone was darker than a paper bag they weren’t admitted in certain places. I ran to the kitchen to take the test: I failed. One cousin insists we have African American blood, but I suspect it is a combination of Eastern European and Mediterranean heritage. The CNN show and the paper bag test got me thinking about ethnicity and race.

My abolitionist ancestors would be pleased with the re-election of an African American president. Still, it doesn’t indicate that the country has achieved equality. This president and his family have received more death threats than any other president in history.

While the demographics of the country are changing, economic and social parity seem farther away. The AP noted that the income of a middle-class black family went down compared to white families in the years between 1974 and 2004. In 1974, blacks earned 63% of whites; in 2004 it was just 58%. The Great Recession further eroded the tenuous economic position of black and brown families: according to CNN Money, white Americans have 22 times more wealth than blacks. This gap doubled in recent years.

In southern California, the raw emotion of the Chris Dorner episode reveals how close to the surface racial issues are. Chris Dorner no doubt experienced racism at the LAPD and may have been a victim of negative attitudes in the military. Listening to local radio, the community seems as divided as during the OJ trial and Rodney King.

What can ordinary people of good will do about our highly charged ethnic fault lines? Here are a few ideas.
First, cross the color line. Go to parts of town you don’t normally visit. Here in southern California, neighborhood divisions are sharp because of a nasty history of covenants. Driving a few miles can take you to another world.

Use your wallet wisely. In this era of austerity, with its sharp cuts to social services, consider shopping mindfully. John and Maggie Anderson advocate patronizing minority-owned businesses. These enterprises hire within their communities and tend to help their own.

Urge your local and national politician to end the War on Drugs. Whatever the original purpose of the legislation was, men of color are disproportionately imprisoned for non-violent drug offenses. Michelle Alexander calls the War on Drugs the “New Jim Crow.” Whether or not you believe the policy was instigated to punish young black men, that has been the outcome. It’s ruined many lives and made no one safer.

Socialize with people of a different ethnic background. At a recent event, I was disheartened to see a sea of old white faces. I need to broaden my horizons.

Finally, volunteer. Mentor someone, help someone learn how to read. Volunteering is the most selfish thing you can do: it feels so good.

The country and the world are changing, and we are challenged to change as well. By intentionally acting and choosing to conduct our lives in a broader way, the revolution begins. We must change ourselves before the world can change.

Postscript: If you’re in the area, please come to Dr. Saylor’s lecture, “Abolitionism on the Western Reserve” for the San Diego Civil War Roundtable, Feb. 20 at 7:30 p.m. To be held at Palisades Presbyterian Church, 6301 Birchwood St.