Coming Home, O Lord, I’m Coming Home
Since marrying a New Zealander four years ago this Independence Day, I’ve been living between two hemispheres, two cultures and two religions. Though my husband is technically an Anglican, he only went to church on Christmas and Easter and considered those holidays to be ecumenical celebrations of food and family. I am a first generation child of Holocaust survivors raised in Brooklyn and Long Island. Though our holiday fetes also revolved around food and family, I was raised in a kosher home by a bubbah who took over all maternal chores from my sick mother, spat in corners, pulled my ear if I spoke the name of a dead person while sneezing, and prayed even while she was sleeping.
However, my father, from the industrial city of Lodz, Poland, was a spiritually secular Jew who believed the survival of his heritage was as political as it was religious. The lesson he learned from his experience in the ghetto, Auschwitz, and slave labor camp was that no one could be trusted to defend the Jewish people but themselves. The faithful were the first to die in the gas chambers, he would recount to me over and over, affirming his belief that Orthodox devotion preserved religious tenets but could not keep his family alive. He extolled the virtues of American political and economic freedom for guaranteeing free religious expression through the constitutional virtue of separating church and state.
Ultimately, however, he believed that religion was the axle on which the wheel turned but also the nail that punctured the wheel’s tire. He loved America for its faith in the God who blessed the free economy and let Jews prosper and live in peace; yet within the first years of his political asylum, he went to trial in Brooklyn for punching a police officer whom he’d overheard say that Hitler had the right idea by exterminating six million Jews. Some civil rights advocates would say that the officer was only exercising his God-given freedom of expression, but my father would respond that he was only acting out of love and respect for his entire family massacred in the gas chambers.
Perhaps because of my father’s example, I have always viewed politics and religion as inextricably intertwined. I minored in religion and majored in government in college, and as a young idealist wanted to immigrate to Israel and run for office in the Knesset. But life intervened, and I found my strength and passion as a writer. Still I have maintained a keen interest in politics — especially after I moved with my husband to his home in New Zealand. Watching American political press conferences from my perch in Dunedin, I was struck by the close relationship most American politicians have with their God, their Jesus, and their Lord. Though I’d known that my ecumenical home country vowed in its Bill of Rights, Constitution, and subsequent amendments to grant equal rights to all of its citizens UNDER GOD, I always thought that God was a universal chaplain of moral virtue like Mel Hawthorne, the Baptist minister who is the chaplain of the United Nations and who performed my ecumenical wedding as a spiritual rite of unity, embracing our distinctive heritages as a source of hope and not fractious division. In my mind, the God who blessed America seemed to be blessing its unique heterogeneity. After all, wasn’t it the poetry of Emma Lazarus, a young Jewish idealist, that graced the Statue of Liberty? Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Her words did not specify the poor and tired by religion, race, or creed; they were universal, and the American God seemed to bless them all.
My agnostic husband also comes from families fleeing different kinds of religious persecution. His mother’s family belonged to the original settlers of New Zealand who fled Scotland in search of farmland, freedom, and opportunity. My father-in-law is a Protestant from Northern Ireland. The only child of a late marriage, he left Derry in the late 1950s on a twenty-pound scheme to get to Australia after his father died and his mother sued him for his inheritance. He only returned to Derry after his mother’s death, when the Troubles were already subsiding and Belfast’s Hotel Europa began removing its concrete balustrades, redecorating its interior to transform its image as the most bullet-ridden hostelry in Western Europe into one of a safe urban travelers refuge.
Though both our countries were founded on the constitutional credo of separation of church and state, I was startled by the evolved presence of God in American politics upon my return to New York this past December. Suddenly, the strongest political supporters of Israel were not lifelong members of the Anti-Defamation League, but members of the Christian religious right who see their evangelical principles as born in Judaism. If my father was alive, his eyes would roll backwards in his head. What would he think of a president who prefaces military councils with prayer meetings?
I only realized the extent to which evangelical Christian maxims infiltrated mainstream American politics when commuting between hemispheres. New Zealand is a nation whose pastoral plains and accessible urban centers are marked by ubiquitous crucifixes. Petite white crosses grace the treacherous bends in the highway’s circuitous roads, cathedral and church spires adorn every town, and great stone crucifixes mark cenotaphs denoting the grievous loss of Anzac war dead for both Australia and New Zealand suffered a disproportionate loss of young men during both World Wars. As an island nation at the bottom of the world, New Zealand has become a haven for the most obscure religious sects, from Baptist ministries to Ba’hai sects to Zoroastrian cults. Though crucifixes are everywhere, religion is left in the houses of worship. The name of God doesn’t appear on the revolutionary elastic paper currency, and the Prime Minister, Helen Clark, doesn’t ask for God’s help whenever she makes a decision to cut financing for the military or inject needed money into the arts. Though parliamentary debate often devolves into infantile name-calling, the name of God is rarely spoken in chambers.
And even though the United Future Party ran on a platform of basic Christian values and shocked the nation in last July’s election by getting more parliamentary seats than the radically liberal Green Party, it has since softened its imperative to bringing common sense back to the political realm. Kiwi Christian society is truly ecumenical, even as it has erected crosses in all its prominent public places, for it also embraced the original Jewish settlers who came from Germany in the mid-nineteenth century to open hotels and sell goods to the prospectors arriving in hordes from Australia during the Gold Rush. In fact, the first Prime Minister of New Zealand was a Jew, Julius Vogel. Larger than life, Vogel transcended his vocation as a journalist, his religion, and his critics, married out of faith, unified the nation, all that without once claiming a divine mandate from God, whether He’s Jewish or Christian.
Returning to my home in America, I’ve been startled by President Bush’s relationship with God. While his personal vituperative is part cowboy, part preacher, he seems to be taking political guidance from the Lord who turned him away from alcohol and showed him the treadmill, while rescuing him from benign dilettantism to travel on the road toward redemptive political entitlement. The America of his conservative incarnation is the church of evangelical democratic values, on a mission to save the heathens who have not found salvation in the ways of democracy. With missionary zeal, he speaks of a post-Saddam Middle East as an Edenic pastoral like the world after the coming of the Messiah.
I moved to New Zealand about the time that my adopted nation was about to send its troops into the fledgling nation of East Timor. There was resolution in the Prime Minister’s vow to send young Kiwi men and women to Dili to protect the lives of that tiny fragile nation, but there was also a sorrowful solemnity. She knew that some of these youths might never come home, victims of war, however virtuous. When President Bush talks of the necessity of “regime change” in Iraq, his voice never seems to bear the weight of what war means; only the conviction that his mission is divinely graced. God will protect our soldiers, he insists, but it is not God but Man, particularly a few Men who share prayer breakfasts, who are responsible for sending hundreds of thousands of American soldiers to war.
Liberating Iraqi and Kurdish people oppressed, tortured, and murdered by a vindictive, twisted dictator is a virtuous mission. I know. I was raised by Holocaust survivors who continued to wonder to the end of their days why the American Air Force didn’t bomb the railway lines leading to the concentration camps. East Timor’s Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta even supported the United States ambition to liberate the oppressed Iraqi people in the op-ed pages of the New York Times, stating that only war could have led his oppressed half-island country to independence and democratic elections. But men make war and its weapons, as well as the decisions to employ them. These decisions must be made through debate and compromise, responsible to the public who endows our leaders with their right to rule.
The evangelical imperative that has crept into the voice of America’s leadership is truly frightening, for it nullifies the social contract upon which our nation is built. Suddenly, our leaders are beholden not to the people who elected them, but to the God who divines their evangelical zeal. Religion and state are once again confused, defying the aspirations of our forefathers who sailed to our shores in search of a new freedom in a land where God was separate from the King who divined his right to rule as primogeniture. They wanted to worship their own gods and elect their own leaders.
In these auspicious days, their aspirations should be recalled. Prayer offers great solace, but keep it out of our government’s chambers, even as you pray for the wisdom of those who choose to go to war or opt for peace, and the soldiers who do their bidding.