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“Taking Spiritualism To A New Level”: Kazerooni and Prince Among The Unitarians

July 26, 2007


“You raised spiritualism to a new level”.

Someone actually said that to me and I found it a little unsettling.

No better way to undermine the ideas of a secularist with Marxist leanings than to praise him for `raising spiritualism’ to new heights. I think the man was sincere. What a low blow.

The remark came the past Sunday morning at a post service reception at Boulder’s First Unitarian Church. Iman Ibrahim Kazerooni and I had been invited to give the 45 minute sermon and we did so in our usual gentle fashion: the subject – the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.The event was well attended with perhaps 75 people in the audience, most of them, it appeared, members of the congregation. We each had about 20 minutes.

A friend in the audience explained: “Unitarians aren’t quite used to that” [“that” being what I would like to believe was a concrete, factual progressive political analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict]. He went on to add “They’re used to a touchy-feely ,slightly new age service, but the talks were informative and the congregation liked getting your information and opinions…I thought the talk went well.” Yeah. it was ok.

It was our impression that despite our being both very gentle and unthreatening souls, that there was a certain nervousness in the room before our remarks and relief when our talks were over – as if, if they could survive a dose of Kazerooni and Prince, there’s nothing they couldn’t handle.

In the end we made a few points and asked the Unitarians to participate more actively in resolving the issue, that it’s not only an issue for Jews and Moslems, but for everyone.

Ibrahim emphasized the U.S. role as an essentially unfair broker that worked in close cooperation with the Israeli government on everything, including going to war. He cited the example of Condoleezza Rice in last summer’s war on Lebanon. Rice and the Bush Administration behind her, actually encouraged Israel to extend the war even when it appeared Israel was ready to declare a truce.

I spoke about the current Bush Administration call for a peace conference, without a specific date, place or agenda, excluding Hamas, with explicit limitations on Tony Blair not to enter into final status talks with any one. Blair’s mission is not about peace making. His mission is essentially to deepen the riff between Fateh and Hamas, if possible eliminating the latter as a player in the Palestinian movement, at the very least deepening the rift. The result of such a policy: the Palestinians will be too weak to negotiate in their own interest and will accept an imposed solution, a sham state offered up by the US and Israel and rammed down their throats. I’m not sure what’s spiritual about that message. Another framework is needed to get to peace.

Unitarians are, from my experience, great listeners and usually intellectually engaging in discussion and debate. But more frequently than not, their interest stops there. They have a reputation, among certain circles in which I participate, of not combining their moral ardor with action. Not long ago a peace organizer in the mountains expressed her frustration. `They just … sit on their butts and talk’. I answered `yes, they’re Unitarians what do you expect?. They excel at both’. Another friend, someone close to me personally, actually quit the Unitarian Church over their failure to convert words into deeds. He’d had it. It is only lately, four years into the war in Iraq, does one see some of their ministers speaking at rallies, their congregational banners among the marchers. Welcome. Better late than never.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they have been, like many others in the religious community, generally quite silent, worried that if they come out of their political hibernation on the issue `someone’ will, as we used to say, cut their tootsie’s off. It’s not that they do not know the issue. They are as well educated, politically aware as any religious group. More probably, they are caught in a vice:, hesitant to criticize Israel and incur the criticism of the rabbis, but knowing in a general sense, the impact of the occupation on the lives of Palestinians. Most find themselves somewhere in the middle and not certain how to negotiate this dilemma, they do nothing most of the time.

And for good reason. Sticking your nose out to get a whiff of which way the wind is blowing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be challenging. Consider the following:

A few years back a group of Denver Unitarians at the church on Hampden and Colorado Blvd started a Middle East study group. It still exists and, in a very un-Unitarian style, they remain active, mostly doing educational events. A few of them, to their credit, have gotten involved in `Seeking Common Ground’; others have worked to bring different speakers to town. They spent almost a year trying to hash out a political platform. Not sure what happened to that. Then they started a series of educational programs on Sunday mornings at the church. Ibrahim and I have spoken there twice, once several years ago on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, – if I am not mistaken it was the first time we were on the same program together – more recently on why the U.S. shouldn’t bomb or attack Iran.

This educational program proved to be too much for the church authorities, although I am not sure to whom exactly I am referring. But I do know pressure was brought on the group to cease its activities at the church and for a while these friends were/ or seemed to have been persona non grata in their own church. After a few months, that inquisitionary decision was reversed, and the Middle East Study Group continues its activities. By the way, all the players in this little group are eminently moderate.

Prebyterians Try Harder.

The local Presbyterians briefly also tried their hand at evan-handedness.

Several years ago, Montview Presbyterian Church let its facilities be used for a conference sponsored by Friends of Sabeel. The sponsors of that conference received a rather nasty letter from the local Anti-Defamation League office asking them to withdraw political and financial support making the spurious charge that the organization is anti-Israeli and anti-semitic (although the ADL’s international reps meet regularly with Sabeel people in Jerusualem).

Personal pressure – often successful – was also put on several of Montview’s ministers to cancel the event, but that did not work. The conference itself was something of a watershed for the local peace movement on this subject and the members of the church I saw and met with thought it a fine, humane and moderate affair, which it was.

Then last summer the same church was a venue for an event critical of the Israeli war against Lebanon. It was well attended, a representative of Denver’s Jewish Community, Shaul Amir (also an Israeli) was given a chance to speak. This was the high point of Presbyterian activity on this issue (here in Denver anyway) after which they seem to have become somewhat more shy.

It’s not spiritualism so much that I’d like to take to a new level – but the active involvement of these religious communities – from their own understanding of the issue – in broadening the peace movement and helping resolve the conflict.

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