23 September 2021

Politics on Sunday

Wentworth Street, London (where we're staying at the moment)

About seventeen years ago, I presented a week-long course on politics and Christian faith at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Center. It was part of a project I was conducting during the 2003-2004 academic year at Woodbrooke on evangelism and the Quaker testimonies.

For one of the sessions, I invited Michael Taylor, a Baptist theologian who had headed the organization Christian Aid for twelve years. He was a superb guest speaker; he had clearly done his thinking on faith and economic justice. For some reason, the subject of party affiliation came up, and he told us that he was, by deliberate principle, not a member of a political party. Some of us were a bit surprised because he was clearly committed to economic justice on a practical as well as philosophical level. His explanation (if my memory does him justice): he was, above all, a Baptist minister, accountable to congregations with diverse political identities, and every single member of his congregation needed to know that he was as much their pastor as anyone else's.

One theme I wish we had pursued after listening to Michael Taylor: how would we Friends (with our more diffuse concept of pastoral leadership) apply his principle? Woodbrooke would have been a great venue for this discussion; among the Quakers in the course, I was the only one from the pastoral Friends tradition. 

The question still seems important to me. Obviously, political themes are going to rise in the life of a Friends community. My favorite definition of politics is "the art and practice of allocating scarce resources." This deceptively simple definition raises all sorts of theological and biblical issues: who allocates whose resources and by what standards of individual and corporate justice? What is our understanding of "individual" and "corporate" responsibility for justice? What is "scarcity"? Do we Friends tend to address these issues as if poverty, however deplorable, is someone else's situation, or something we experience within our community? Insights concerning these issues might erupt at the hour of our maximum attention to the Holy Spirit, not just at a committee meeting or adult forum.

Even so, Michael Taylor's caution has a place in our community. We Friends (especially in Europe and North America) sometimes have a tendency to overemphasize how special Quakers are, a temptation that can degenerate into isolation, conformity, and elitism. If we forget to regard people as we regard Jesus, and lose our precious testimony of radical hospitality, all our correct political theorizing will just be "notions." How can we leave the space open for the fertile conversations that happen when we are genuinely and lovingly curious about the person we disagree with?

Is there such a thing as ministry during worship that is too political? The marks of spiritual authenticity in an outwardly political message, and among the hearers, might be these: 

1. Does the ministry arise from prayer and a sense of leading? If there is advocacy, is it expressed with humility and direct references to the tests of discernment which the speaker applied -- in other words, expressed in a way that shows the speaker is wrestling with the challenge of being misunderstood as overtly political rather than Spirit-guided? 

2. Does it arise from an obviously sincere attempt to interpret the Bible, using tools and references that give evidence of that attempt, rather than just beating the others over the head with biblical billy clubs? 

3. Does it arise from prophetic sources, clearly responding in God's power to the central Quaker query, "What does God want to say or do through us in this time and place?" Not what do we want to do, or how do we want to change those other people, but how does God want to use us for God's purposes?

4. Does the community take into account diversities of culture and temperament when tempted to judge ministry as "political"? Sometimes we assume that the ideal Quaker voice is low and grave and without obvious passion, which may be a symptom of isolation and elitism rather than evidence of deep spiritual maturity.

5. Do we take sufficient account of the gift-based "division of labor" that can unite radically different temperaments in a Friends community? -- Some of us are gifted to speak politically, while others are gifted to pray for them, to elder them, and to do the biblical teaching that establishes context-- but all are called to love.

This list is incomplete; what can you add?

Related posts:

"Our life is politics..."

Prayer and politics

Worship and protest

Why evangelicals should like critical race theory

William Barr, Max Boot, and "the vapor trails of Christianity"

George Fox on overcoming corruption

A case study: First Friends Richmond and war tax refusal

What might it mean to take aliens more seriously?

Pandemic, Zoom, and a quiet life.

Petting the lion, and fearing the right things.

At the top level of British blues royalty: Joanne Shaw Taylor.

16 September 2021

Sitting in the Russian section: a guest post

We knew something big had happened. She sat down during our student tea, looked at us to be sure she had our attention, and then said in a serious tone, “No one has died….”

We’d been teaching English outside of Moscow, Russia for a few years by then, without benefit of long-term work visas, hopping in and out of the country every three months when our visas ended. It was nice at first to hop into Latvia or Ukraine or whatever handy European country to renew our visas, but then we tired of all the times we had to miss birthday parties, anniversaries, special celebrations because our visas had run out.

Every Friday that we weren’t out of the country hunting visas, we held a tea for students. We taught words like “muffin” or “cookie” by the things I brought for them. Our students didn’t realize that they served as a testing ground for me. I’d consider what flavors Russians would probably like of what I knew to cook, and brought them to the teas. The students, traditional college age, had more adventurous tastes than our teaching colleagues, so I’d try out various recipes and bring the results along to the weekly teas. Lemon muffins, reduced sugar to bring out the tartness, were a hit, and so were chocolate cherry cookies. Girl scout cookies, thin mints to be precise, were not. Johan and I faced the terrible prospect of eating all three packages of thin mints I had brought in my carry-on from Oregon, until I discovered one Friend who loved them. She giggled happily as I handed over one full box.

On the day of that student tea we were within sight of a yearly renewable work visa instead of those three-month visas. The paperwork was vast and the bureaucracy arbitrary, with no appeal but bribery, and even that was uncertain. But we all had chugged our way through the process, and just maybe….

We knew by then that the director never swept students away from us, whether in class or in hallway conversations, unless it was absolutely necessary. So the evidence that something had gone very wrong was before she said, “no one has died.” I knew something was up because she dismissed the students. The tea was over.

We stared as she explained that one of her employees had filed the wrong paperwork for our temp visas, and the college faced a $20,000 fine. The immigration official who gave her that news had an offer -- if we could be out of the country by midnight that night, and that we arrived back in with a new, fresh clean entry on our passport -- and the correct paperwork --  by 9:00 am Monday morning at her office, she would process the paperwork without the fine, on the basis of the new entry stamp.

It was 4:00 pm Friday afternoon. She wanted us to go to the airport and take whatever flight would get us out of Moscow by midnight. But I was leary of last-minute plane delays. I had also noticed that Russian immigration officials on trains seemed in better moods than the ones having to do entire shifts inside the cubes/kiosks in airports. Because of the snafu, our paperwork even for exiting Russia would not be perfect. Curiously, Russian immigration officials often wouldn’t let foreigners even leave without perfect paperwork. If not deemed perfect, your paper and your person has to stick around Russia for a few days until you can present again, without flaw. So I suggested a train to Kyiv, Ukraine, instead.

The director agreed, put our passports on the table, spread out the paperwork and said, “don’t lose this piece of paper. It will show them that...” well, I don’t remember what it would have shown them. I can’t stand to think of it now.

A train out of Moscow to Kyiv that evening would cross the Ukrainian border by 11:00 pm or so. We could still catch it. Johan took a cab to the Elektrostal train station to get tickets for us; I subbed for him in his classroom. He bought us a ticket overnight to Kyiv that Friday night, and overnight back to Moscow on Saturday night. It would be a weekend of trains, ending up back where we started.

On the commuter train into Moscow, we discovered we had lost that piece of paper. It had probably been left in the Elektrostal train station ticket booth. Terror surrounded us. We had one job that evening -- to get out of Russia -- and would we be able to do it? It didn’t seem likely.

We lost valuable time in the train station in Moscow trying to find the missing document, calling the director to see if she had a copy, calling the Elektrostal ticket office to see if they would fax it to Moscow. Finally we had to give up. We lost a few extra minutes finding the train, and by the time we found it the final call was sounding. I could barely breathe from running with a suitcase, but we had to run to find our car. A kind conductor yelled, “Come in here. You’ll miss it if you don’t!” We threw ourselves and our suitcases in, and the train began to roll.

But we were still in Russia. Friends of ours had still been stranded at rural outposts, left at the last station in Russia because their documents weren’t in order. And we didn't have that piece of paper. We decided to play it cool. The immigration officer came in just before the border. He reminded me of the Nazi boyfriend in The Sound of Music who turned out to be a snitch. I tried hard to act unconcerned, like it was a routine thing for us, just another trip to Kyiv. He took our passports, looked carefully at each page, one by one, asked a question, and without moving a muscle on his face, stamped the exit stamp in our passports. One more station stop, and then the Russian forests would yield to Ukrainian wheatfields.

At Kyiv Station
It took a long time for me to relax enough to sleep. I was groggy when the train pulled in to Kyiv.

Then we had nothing to do until the train took us back to Moscow that night. Breakfast is my favorite meal to eat out, so we celebrated achieving our exit from Russia by having breakfast in a restaurant near the station. Its decor intermingled old Soviet-style posters and propaganda with Madison Avenue poster ads from the 1950’s. Each booth had its own wallpaper from the Soviet Union or the US in 1950. Soviet leadership and Madison Ave had curiously similar styles at the time -- The New Soviet Man and the ideal 1950’s American housewife looked like a perfect match.

And after breakfast, then what? What to do in Kyiv with no planning and not much sleep? We went to the parking lot where city tour buses gathered. We chose one randomly and paid for a three-hour tour.

I learned Spanish in Spain in high school; Russian never came so well to me, having put off learning until my mid-fifties. Tracking a lecture or tour guide required intense concentration, if it was possible at all, and that day, with no sleep, a warm bus and a down coat, I didn’t have any concentration left to spend. So I wasn’t paying the tour guide any mind as she prattled on, I thought. We were on a serpentine road going up a steep hill.

“Hey, listen to that!” Johan elbowed my side to get me out of my reverie. “She’s using new-age words to reach non-believers about prayer!” Then he began interpreting, “There’s a spot at the convent --  people come for it as a zone of healing with cosmic forces. When you’re there, be sure to feel it for yourself. And think about the people you care about, and what you wish for them.” She probably described where it was, but my Russian failed me and Johan didn’t interpret. I mulled over her words reaching out to new agers about prayer, but that was all. The bus stopped at the convent and she told us in no uncertain terms to be back at the bus in 45 minutes.

We walked around the convent, mostly outside. There was a wide walkway up a short slope, with large concrete landings instead of steps. A little chapel that looked more like a greenhouse, some shrubs and greenery. Then I felt it -- a sensation I can only describe as more real than real -- not in this world, but in the next; a sense of looking into that world, but more like feeling into that world. As if all my senses were attuned, sharp, and showing me a look into the next world. But it wasn’t sight; it was sensation. A sense of contentment beyond contentment, a sense of real beyond real. I stopped short.

“Where did she say that spot was?” I asked Johan.

He looked around, considered for a moment, and said, “right here” I sat down. I never wanted to leave. Ever again.

St. Helen's grave is in the green chapel. Kyiv, Ukraine. Source.
The little greenhouse looking chapel held a plaque. It said that in the 1830’s, a nun would sit there and a line would form and she would pray for healing, and people were indeed healed. She would sit in that exact spot where I had sensed it. Later, this little chapel was built around her grave.

I had felt that sensation of real beyond real only once before, when a good friend of mine faced a crisis; her son was about to lose custody of his children to an ex-wife who had been neglectful and physically abusive of her grandchildren. A few close friends were with us, and we prayed like we never had prayed before. I felt something opening; I felt the forces of evil and the forces of good, and I felt something change. I stayed in that feeling for 24 hours or so -- the sense of the spiritual world being more real than real. I knew my boss would have experienced that, too, given her fervent prayers each week in our office.

I described the sensation and she said yes, she knew exactly what I was talking about. She told me of a specific time, too. “If we focused on this, Judy, the truth is that we could heal the dead.” In the years that we worked together we had prayers regularly. These weren’t the “guide the hands of the surgeons” sort of prayer, or “give the doctors wisdom” prayers. They were out and out prayers for healing, intercession of the Holy Spirit and Jesus kind of healing.

I was stunned at how many people we prayed for who had remarkable recoveries. They went to the doctors, took medication prescribed, etc etc -- and yet often the results were far better than I had ever expected. It wasn’t that no one died, or became chronically ill, but that I heard news of healing well beyond medical expectations, on a regular basis.

And yet she thought we were not being intense enough about our prayers.

During my years in Russia, I realized that generally, we in the West are trained to believe that good people are rational, analytical people. Good, reliable people only know what they should know, and that knowledge comes from a place or practice that they know and can name. If we have knowledge that is good and useful, then we know how we came by that information. Even with dis-information being rampant, we know where disinformation comes from, or is alleged to come from.

Mystery makes us uncomfortable. Mystery, unexplainable, is an ant at a picnic -- snuffed out or about to be, undesirable. Mystery, unexplained, is failure.

I agree with the scientific approach. I am fully vaccinated against covid-19, and against every other disease on the CDC plan for my age group. I am not anti-science! I believe that covid-19 is NOT a hoax, I believe that ivermectin is good only to treat parasites, etc, etc. I just don’t believe that science is the only important way of understanding the universe.

It’s as if we are in the audience in a play. It’s a long, long play, and we discuss it with each other and with each passing year, we understand more of it. However, some of us hear bumps and noises or smell things that contradict what we perceive is happening on the stage, but we assume those noises aren’t not important because, well, what we don’t understand doesn’t really exist. Or that in the decades to come, science will be able to explain all that is important. If anyone in our little discussion groups in the audience focuses on those bumps and noises and smells then we say that these people are nutcases. We can’t even prove they are hearing those things! So they must not exist. Oh, if you want to believe they are real noises, go ahead, it won’t do any harm, pat-pat-pat on the head but don’t expect those noises to explain anything about the play or have any substantial impact on life.

We in this audience, especially those sitting in the west side of the theatre, want to think of ourselves as rational and analytical. We are confident that the only way to understand more about this play is to test and observe, to collect data and analyze it. If it's not testable and observable, then it’s not happening, or at least is not very important to the play.

And I’m here to whisper to my audience members, “you forget that you are seeing this play with your limited human mind. We have to test and observe with our limited human minds. Maybe there is a whole different way of knowing that is not limited by a human mind. Maybe we should just sit with the great unknowables and admit we can not now, and probably never will be able to, explain them. And let us enjoy the mystery, enter into it, let it inform our beings, our lives.”

After a few years of adjusting, and getting to know Russians, I found myself sitting in the Russian section of that audience. Russia and its section is somewhere between East and West, not fully either but fully itself.

Russians tend to be comfortable with the unknown and the unknowable. For them, all the bumps and smells and noises we can sorta see and feel but can’t possibly understand are an integral part of the play. Science is also considered an excellent way of understanding the play. I once gave what I thought was a difficult question on an exam after showing our class a movie on Einstein: “Explain time in the context of the theory of relativity.” Every single student explained it concisely and accurately, in English, a non-native language. I learned that while foreign language instruction in Russian public schools is below even the level in the United States, which sets a remarkably low bar, science instruction in Russian schools has historically been excellent. Remember Sputnik, and how in the early years of the space race, the Soviet Union pulled way out ahead of the US?

But, the western reader protests, I believe in God! I can’t prove God exists, but I believe! The problem is that many of us believe with our Western, only-what-can-be-measured-is-real minds. We miss so much! For example, consider the feeding of the 5,000, in which Jesus has compassion on the crowds that have followed him out into a desolate land. He takes a boy’s lunch of five small loaves and two small fish, blesses it, and it feeds the whole crowd -- of 5,000 men and an uncounted number of women and children.

I’ve often heard argued in progressive circles that Jesus was only encouraging the crowd to share their own lunches. Think about -- in a society in which community is paramount, and hospitality is considered a sacred responsibility, is getting a large crowd to share their lunch really anything to write home about? Much less write in all four gospels? If the crowds had been Americans, with our emphasis on individual rights and lives, then yes, it would have taken a miracle to get us to share. But not a communal society in an arid land.

We westerners like to brush aside the miracle. Instead, let’s descend into the miracle, into the mystery. God is mystery, and what God does is mystery. On this side of heaven, we as humans will never fully grasp God and God’s mystery, but we are given glimpses. Let's admit that what our human minds can not measure, analyze or even confirm can still exist, and be a major part of life and the universe.

Matthew 9:35 says, “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.” Jesus went through Galilea, teaching, preaching and healing. One third of what he did was healing. Are we to deny the reality of a third of what Jesus did?

-- Judy Maurer

Judy and I taught English, American studies, and mass media in Elektrostal, Russia, for nine years. Judy is a member of Camas Friends Church (Camas, Washington, USA) and Moscow Friends Meeting (Moscow, Russia), and a recorded minister in Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends.

A mental health study of 10,000 young people and climate change: 75% are frightened by the future.  Over half feel that "humanity is doomed."

It's not hard to be labeled a foreign agent in Russia -- especially in election season. (And here are a few voters' voices.)

Can patriotism be reclaimed? Charles Scriven reviews Steven B. Smith's new book.

Diane Randall of the Friends Committee on National Legislation is interviewed by the editor in chief of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Meanwhile, a modest proposal: fire the generals!

After the Pearl Harbor attack of December 7, 1941, the top U.S. commanders in Hawaii — Admiral Husband Kimmel and Lieutenant General Walter Short — were summarily relieved of their posts, reduced in rank, and retired. The action might not have been altogether fair, but it was necessary. Unless failure has consequences, further failures are all but guaranteed — a dictum as true in war as in business or sports or any other competitive enterprise.

Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev: the last Soviet citizen.

Albert Collins!

09 September 2021

How the Grinch Stole 9/11, part two

On September 11, 2001, I was one of about thirty Northwest Yearly Meeting pastors at the yearly meeting's annual Focus Conference at a riverside conference center in Hood River, Oregon.

I got up early that morning, found a bench facing the Columbia River, and opened up a book that was consuming my every free moment: Academician Dmitry Likhachev's Reflections on the Russian Soul: A Memoir. There was nobody else in the courtyard.

That morning, I was reading about Likhachev's experiences as an inmate at the Solovetsky prison camp, where he narrowly escaped execution. Solovetsky was the first prison camp in the GULag system, and was in operation before the death of Lenin. Likhachev's account was riveting.

I paused to check the time and realized I was late for breakfast.

As I approached the entrance to the conference center's dining room, I gradually noticed a puzzling thing: I couldn't hear a sound. When I entered the room, that silence continued, until I heard someone say (recalling from memory), "Let's pray for the Muslims who will be blamed for this."

A big-screen TV in the UNC Student Union was tuned to CNN
for coverage of the 9/11 attacks. Photo by Dan Sears, source.

What "this" was, I soon found out, and the magnitude of the shock and grief in the dining room, and around the country, immediately became apparent as we brought each other up to date, and as we spent several of the next hours in front of television sets.

Out on the streets, that shock and grief, in many cases, quickly turned to anger and threats of revenge. As I coped with this escalating torrent of patriotism and outrage expressed on tee shirts, pickup truck banners, and mass media, it was -- and still is -- a profound consolation that the very first thing I heard on 9/11 was that call to prayer at a breakfast of Quaker pastors.

Millions of Americans reacted to 9/11 with shock and understandable anger. I'm sure many Quakers realized that our Christian testimony of nonviolence was in for a period of great turbulence. However, as we eventually found out, in Washington a different calculation was going on.

Here's how many of us USA citizens seemed to find our consolation: as journalist Robert Draper (quoted here) said,

In the after-shocks of 9/11, a reeling America found itself steadied by blunt-talking alpha males whose unflappable, crinkly-eyed certitude seemed the only antidote to nationwide panic.

What were those alpha males cooking up for us? Here's Matthew Warshauer's brief review:

That the U.S. treated September 11 as a Pearl Harbor-like moment to rally a nation for war was the essential problem. Japan’s attack was an act of war. Bin Laden’s was a terrorist act treated by President Bush and his advisors as war. It wasn't. 9/11 was a criminal justice issue that required a military component. Al Qaeda represented no nation state, no definable military that could be vanquished unconditionally. Nor did it pose an existential threat to the homeland or American power abroad. Bin Laden couldn’t touch, as President Bush put it, "the foundation of America," unless we blundered; unless we decided that 9/11 was the new Pearl Harbor and carried that comparison for all it was worth.

How else could the Bush administration invade Iraq and expand its military footprint into the Middle East? How else could the administration secure unquestioned funding for the Pentagon and military industrial complex? Treating bin Laden as a criminal wouldn't suffice. Equating him with an attack on freedom, an existential threat to American society, would. 9/11 had to be Pearl Harbor. ...

Just hours after the attacks, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld handed one of his aides a hasty note for General Richard Meyers: "judge whether good enough hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein]@ same time—Not just UBL [Usama bin Laden]…go massive—sweep it all up—Things related and not." The note didn’t insinuate that Saddam was in any way responsible for 9/11. Those arguments came later. Rumsfeld and other Republicans simply asked whether the U.S. could utilize the attacks for larger purposes.

Karl Rove, Bush's ever-present campaign guru, said later, "Sometimes history sends you things, and 9/11 came our way." The President and his advisors wouldn't allow this "Pearl Harbor" moment to be wasted.

About fifteen years ago I wrote a blog post, How the Grinch Stole 9/11, in which I mentioned how urgent I felt it was to expose the cult of American self-pity that 9/11 threatened to become. The phenomenon was still strong at that point, five years after the attacks. Now we are at the twenty-year mark, and the specific power of that wave of outrage seems to have been dissipated somewhat, in favor of a new wave of recriminations related to the Taliban and the seemingly shambolic end to the American war in Afghanistan.

Back in 2006, I was concerned that the 9/11 attacks and the USA's responses fit a pattern described in Tom Engelhardt's book The End of Victory Culture-- a pattern that goes more or less like this:

Once again Americans have been ambushed, once again we are utterly innocent, and once again no response is too cruel, too wasteful, too outright racist. No snide remark about "appeasement" or "defeatism" is too crass to aim at anyone yearning for some ethics, some wisdom, some ... Christian moral values, strangely enough.

After another fifteen years since that post, I'm thinking less about that cultural pattern and more about how it was blatantly exploited by the USA's leaders. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Roosevelt could argue that nothing short of war was appropriate from the range of actions open to him. (Since I'm a pacifist, I'm parenthetically noting that, from our viewpoint, that range of actions is limited by the prevailing assumptions of power politics.) Furthermore, Roosevelt already realized that racist totalitarianism was on the march in Europe and the Middle East as well as Asia, so the picture was indeed grim.

As Warshauer points out, the 9/11 attacks had nothing of the same scale. The Pearl Harbor comparison was simply a manipulative device to convert the righteous rage of the American public into support for what the New American Century advocates had already been pushing when 9/11 came along: wholesale rearmament and the USA's permanent dominance of the planet.

Forward to 2021. Many of our fellow citizens in the USA are deeply skeptical about COVID vaccinations. Although I understand some of the history behind this stand, I can't approve of it -- after all, the effects of widespread vaccination refusal are deadly. But I'm intrigued by that capacity for skepticism. Can we cultivate a capacity for skepticism when it could save lives?

How do we inoculate ourselves and each other to refuse to hate and bomb and kill when that very same national government that now (correctly) wants to get us vaccinated, might later want to exploit a new "emergency" to ignite another round of deadly and expensive military adventures? What is the role of the Christian evangelist, the Christian prophet, and the Christian prayer leader in providing that crucial inoculation?

Among the features of this year's media coverage of the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, I've seen several moving articles about those who suffered and died in the attacks, and their families. Nothing I say about the exploitation of Bush's "'Pearl Harbor' moment" is meant to downplay the grief of survivors and the need for genuine justice. Here's what I wrote on the fourth anniversary, 2005:

I no longer have conflicting feelings about anniversary observances of the attacks and deaths associated with September 11, 2001. In a spirit of bearing one another's burdens, I am totally willing to participate in genuine mourning of the deaths that took place on that date, and comfort for the consequent wounds carried by the survivors. I am no longer willing to do anything to encourage the cult of pseudo-patriotic self-pity that was born a few terrible hours after those attacks.

The USA suffered that day in a way that many other countries have, far more often and at proportionally a larger scale—even at times because of our government's indifference or outright connivance. The suffering of our citizens, residents, and visitors on September 11 should help sensitize us to the the violence that is so constant in many other places. (I'm not even addressing the issue of the violence in Afghanistan and Iraq that our self-pity is directly linked to.) Instead, nearly four years of ugly chest-thumping and Patriot Acting have threatened to make the USA smaller, meaner, greyer, certainly more fractured.

Greg Morgan on compassion for the unvaccinated.

Samuel Cohen: What's wrong with calling 9/11 "Patriot Day"?

W.J. Astore's ten reasons the war in Afghanistan lasted so long and ended so disastrously.

Is the USA's age of global privilege really over? Andrew Bacevich thinks so.

Donald W. McCormick, in Friends Journal, on taking the mystical experience seriously.

This year, World Quaker Day is October 3. Meetings and churches in Friends World Committee's Section of the Americas are being encouraged to record interviews with their oldest members.

Steve Guyger and the Excellos at an appearance in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. "When You Have These Blues." (If you like it, listen to the whole concert.)

02 September 2021

Collateral damage, part three: shock and awe in Ezekiel

part one, part two

We ran the late Joel Kauffmann's Pontius' Puddle (including this strip) regularly during my time at Quaker Life.

I've spoken twice recently at Spokane Friends Meeting on the prophet Ezekiel. He's endlessly fascinating to me. My university education was in political science (specializing in the USSR), and I like to think that Ezekiel was a fellow political scientist. (See, for example, his analysis of leadership in Ezekiel 34, where the numerous references to us as sheep reminded me of Joel Kauffmann's Pontius strip above.) The following thoughts are drawn from the second of my two visits to Spokane.

So what kind of politics was Ezekiel dealing with? Among other things, he addressed Babylon's conquest of Judah, the spiritual and ethical compromises that led to Israel's miseries, the conspiracies between Judah's renegade politicians and Egypt, and God's promise to restore Israel and punish Israel's tormenters. These are all part of the political background for Ezekiel's ministry. Located with the exiles somewhere between Babylon and the Persian Gulf, he was acutely aware of what was going on in Jerusalem. As a prophet, Ezekiel didn't confine himself to commentary -- God commissioned him to be a watchman for the Israelites, and he was going to do whatever it took to get God's warnings across.

Speaking in God's name, those warnings had one constant refrain:

Then they (or you) shall know that I am the LORD.

The complete list, with links, is here.
By my count, this line or some close variation of it occurs 58 times in the book of Ezekiel. Of those 58 occurrences, 48 of them follow a prophecy of doom. Ten times this formula is linked with God's plans to restore Israel. The rest of the time, it caps a recitation of what will happen to Israel as a result of its departure from God's law or its anti-Babylonian plotting with Egypt, or (especially later) what will happen to Israel's neighbors for mocking and oppressing and exploiting the Israelites.

The theme of God's blanket condemnations, as when God decides to drown Pharaoh's army, or (for that matter) the whole world except for the passengers on Noah's ark, has always been a difficult one for me. Even Ezekiel reports God saying "As sure as I am the living God, I take no pleasure from the death of the wicked." What am I to make of these threats of mass extinction -- especially when their apparent stated purpose is to restore God's reputation among those who seem to have forgotten?

The first time I tackled this puzzle, I asked the reader to consider three possibilities.

  1. These people's sufferings, past or future, were inconsequential to God in comparison to the value of teaching the rest of us a lesson.
  2. These events did not happen exactly as they're depicted in the Bible; in reality, no innocent people suffered just for the sake of shock and awe.
  3. God's biblical chroniclers did not understand God well enough at that point in history to record God's provisions of care to those whose death appears cruel to us.

The second and third options seem most helpful to me. God's biblical chroniclers were focused on the specific challenges of their situations and did not (or could not) describe the fullness of God's intention for all humanity, and therefore did not record God's actual care for those whose suffering and death appears cruel to us, if such things happened. (And we know from history that millions of innocent people, of all faiths and none, have suffered or are suffering now -- it's no use pretending otherwise.) 

Along with witnesses to the loving Creator who (as Anthony Bloom put it) desired each one of us into being, there's a residue of the tribal God, the warrior God of the Israelites, whose prominence as champion of a small, specific set of tribes seems to vary dramatically from one biblical writer to another. What’s really interesting to me is that the biblical editors, both at the time the words were set down, and during the centuries when the full Bible was being put together by church committees, did not think this variety should be concealed from us, and trusted that the Holy Spirit would help us discern what we need to know about God’s character.

Having established (I hope!) Ezekiel's credentials as both a prophet and a political scientist, I can't help wondering how to apply Ezekiel, particularly that ominous "They shall know that I am the LORD," to our own overheated politics of today. In his Interpreters commentary on Ezekiel, Joseph Blenkinsopp cautions us, "It is important to bear in mind that the prophet, unlike the mystic, is addressing a quite specific historical situation, generally a situation of crisis. To approach a prophetic book with the idea that it will impart 'timeless truths' is to risk serious misunderstanding." But I have a couple of tentative thoughts.

The biblical prophets focus mostly on three themes: first, the worship of God and the need to keep God at the center, no matter what. Often this theme is linked with their personal stories of how God commissioned them as prophets. Second, they point to corruption and its consequences, no matter whose ox is gored. The third theme: what will happen to Israel’s neighbors as a result of their cruel treatment of the Hebrew people.

Ezekiel hit all of those themes hard, addressing very specific situations both before and after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BC.To risk extracting "timeless truths" from all of this passionate prophecy, here’s what I propose for us today:

1. With or without the temple, God is among the worshippers. Ezekiel wants you and me to know that God can be worshipped even in exile, even when we don’t have a temple to resort to. No matter what crisis we might be facing -- hurricanes, pandemics, displacements of all kinds, blowback in our nation’s foreign adventures -- God can be among us in our worship. 

"Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations." (From Psalm 90.)

2. God will not be mocked.

Ezekiel's message is an equal opportunity warning: God will not be mocked neither by our friends and allies, nor by our so-called enemies. 

What constitutes mocking God in our own time? Here is a brief list, but you might think of more… 

Christians mock God when we treat anyone as worth less than the full image and likeness of God. In the USA, for example, the Church has yet to take full account of the demonic stronghold of racism, a stronghold which Christians helped build.

Christians mock God when we violate the commandment against bearing false witness -- maybe the most political and most prevalent violation of our times. God knows the truth, and will not be mocked.

Christians mock God when we use manipulative God-language to further our own agendas, sometimes coming dangerously close to committing the one unforgivable sin: attributing to the Holy Spirit our own sinful intentions or prejudices.

Am I implying that only Christians mock God? Not exactly, although, parenthetically, I'm convinced that a thoughtful, honest atheist, however mistaken in other ways, cannot be charged with mocking God. My priority here is to plead with us to keep our own behavior clean and sober, because of the next point....

3. God will keep God's promises.

Ezekiel wants us to know that God will, one way or another, keep the promises God has made to us, never to forsake us, to lead us to the Peaceable Kingdom, and to make us a blessing to all nations. Drawing on 2 Corinthians 1:20, here’s another way to put it: Jesus is the "yes" to all of God’s promises

In all this, I'd like to suggest that Ezekiel has a charge for us Quakers: 

  • as members of the Body of Christ, to discern how to express God's promises to our community and our world today, and 
  • to discern what our individual roles are, and what our meetings' roles are, in keeping those promises. 
As we pray and get to work, maybe we'll hear an encouraging echo of Ezekiel's voice of prophecy: Then they shall know that I am the LORD.

Speaking of temples, COVID-19 has had an enormous impact on England's 42 Anglican cathedrals. (Thanks to fulcrum-anglican.org.uk for the link.)

Russian historian Yuri Dmitriev's case is going to Russia's Supreme Court. Meet some of his supporters.

Meanwhile, the repression of Russia's independent media voices continues, including one of my favorite television outlets in all the world, tvrain.ru.

Is it true that Russian has no word for "privacy"?

Was there dishonesty in a famous study of dishonesty? It was a study that I read when preparing my own study of academic cheating. (Here's my article as published.)

John Primer at Don Odells Legends:

26 August 2021

The agony of Afghanistan, part two: the myth of control

Source: Facebook memes, 2015  

(Part one, last week.)

Of all the explanations and excuses I've heard in the last few hours concerning the Kabul airport tragedy, two comments ring out to me with special clarity.

Veteran Democratic Party strategist James Carville (video): "... There's no elegant way to lose a war. We lost this war fifteen years ago; all Joe Biden was doing was telling us what time it is. ... When you lose a war you don't look good."

U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (Twitter): "It took me a few years in Washington to understand how much of this town runs on war. Some of this is driven by raw profit motive, but much of it is simply due to the laudable but fatally faulty belief that there is no problem in the world that American intervention can’t solve."

There is a particular form of pseudo-patriotic American self-deception that seems to dominate commentary about the situation, including today's terrorist bombings near the airport.

To sum up: We must be in control.

And here's today's Republican corollary: if we, the USA, are not in control, it's the president's fault!

Politicians and pundits continue to trumpet the myth of American dominance, despite evidence that very little has gone the USA's way militarily on the international stage in the last three decades. Our military and intelligence budgets amount to roughly 50% of the whole world's military spending, so you'd think that (by the world's logic) we could actually get something done somewhere.

When it turns out that we cannot control the situation, according to this myth, it must be a failure at the top. It's all the fault of weak politicians. None of these rhetorical Rambos can seem to understand that actual control (that is, any control that is sustainable and worth having) can never be obtained by the well-financed and technologically impressive capacity to blow people up at any point on the globe. "The illusion of control," said therapist Mary Grunte, "is the carrot from hell."

Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have been blamed for what is supposedly a basic strategic error: announcing our Afghan end date in advance. But how is it even possible to end a war and withdraw one's army, contractors, and local allies by surprise, at a moment's notice? For example, critics point to the overnight withdrawal of soldiers and contractors from Bagram air base without advance notice; does anyone really think that those soldiers and contractors would have been safer if their enemies around that indefensible perimeter knew what their plans were ahead of time -- or that some kind of magical secrecy was ever possible?

But what might be possible for just one location -- an overnight departure, with practically no advance notice -- would be impossible on a larger scale. In any case, critics will criticize: instant departure, wrong! Advance notice, wrong!

Maybe the argument against an agreement with the Taliban on a departure date is actually an argument that the USA should stay there until Afghanistan could be perfectly tamed to our specifications -- in other words, more or less forever. But was that ever really true? Did the USA's voters, whose early enthusiasm for the war in Afghanistan waned just a few years in, ever show any sign that they would tolerate this war indefinitely? In any case, both Trump and Biden were determined not to stay.

The anti-date argument says that the USA lost its bargaining leverage when it agreed to a date. No! The U.S. lost its leverage when its mission morphed into an unwise and unsustainable nation-building project! At that point, or soon after, the Taliban had all the chips: they could either wait for the USA to recognize that unsustainability, as Biden did ten years ago, or they could continue bleeding the USA indefinitely while chipping away at a corrupt and unpopular Afghan central government.

So then, if a permanent occupation or garrison is not an option, the argument against the departure date basically depends on bluffing the Taliban, pretending that the USA might stay after all, when we know (and any Taliban commander who can read also knows) that it will not. How many soldiers and civilians would the U.S. be willing to sacrifice for the sake of a bluff? 

As soon as the USA decided not to pretend to stay, then a departure was inevitable, and setting the date ahead of time was the only practical way of organizing the complex logistics. Now, before our very eyes, we see the logistical and security issues that are involved with relocating a hundred thousand people -- some of whom are not sure until the very end that they even want to depart.

The last gasp of the control myth, as the scene shrinks to Kabul airport and its surrounding area, is expressed in the Republican talking point that the relocation of USA citizens and allies has been hopelessly mismanaged. "Biden is letting the Taliban dictate U.S. foreign policy." Not exactly. The Taliban is simply asserting the authority that it gained by being the victorious side, and the USA is in the uncomfortable but unavoidable position of needing to negotiate the zones of safety it requires for the delicate operation of keeping evacuation paths open. To bully and shoot our way out would guarantee the loss of innocent lives, so the USA authorities prudently ignore the control freaks while carrying out their mission. Lives will most likely be saved by diplomacy -- including offers of future recognition, aid, financial ties, if the withdrawal goes well -- not by swagger.

And: the more the USA chooses diplomacy over swagger at various other trouble spots on the world stage, the more likely the USA will continue to be able to dictate a viable foreign policy rather than being backed into Kabul-like corners.

None of this is to say that the actions of the Pentagon and the U.S. administration in this current operation are above examination and reproach. Failures in intelligence and execution should be identified, with consequences imposed regardless of political interests. But total control of the situation was never an option.

Acknowledging the end of this godforsaken project may be far from a total loss for the USA. In the best case, we might kill the imperial myth of control.

Now would be a good time to read (or re-read) Tom Engelhardt's book The End of Victory Culture. Engelhardt describes and illustrates how citizens of the USA have tended to see any national enemy as subhuman, victory as inevitable, and defeat (when it comes, as in Viet Nam) as an occasion for vindictive retaliation.

Heather Cox Richardson sums up this difficult day.

Shadi Hamid on what we in the USA did not understand about Afghanistan -- and the Taliban did.

Afghanistan and the "digital Dunkirk."

Now John Fea finally understands what happened to Jim Bakker: he got canceled.

Talking about COVID-19 and vaccines theologically: Roger E. Olson. Ron Selleck. And ... looking forward to the end, eventually, of the pandemic.

Empathy in Minnesota: a case study in Christian community breakdown.

What in the world (or not) is an Einstein ring?

Philip Jenkins guesses that the late Andrew Walls is the most important scholar you didn't know. (Judy and I had the good fortune to meet Andrew Walls and hear him lecture at the International Baptist Theological Seminary back in 2009.) 

Jack Wallen's reflections on the Linux desktop, on the occasion of Linux's thirtieth birthday. (In case you're wondering, I've been a Linux fan for thirteen of those thirty years, now using a version named Pop!_OS on a System 76 laptop.)

Nancy Thomas on Sheena and Sheera, the anomalous women. (Which of them is in the Bible?)

Steve Guyger and the Excellos, "School Is Over." (Part of a streamed concert.)

19 August 2021

The agony of Afghanistan, part one

Craig Whitlock: "Well over 100,00 Afghans also died in the war." Video screenshot. Source.

Stephen Zunes, coordinator of Middle East studies at the University of San Francisco, speaks for many of us in the peace community:

Once again, I'm being criticized for not having good enough answers about what the United States should do in regard to an international crisis that wouldn't have happened if policy makers had listened to people like me in the first place.

Today's heartbreaking scenes in and near Kabul's airport rightly cause us to demand answers. However, the scandalous wastage of human and financial resources over nearly twenty years, the imperial arrogance of the Afghanistan war's initiators (those who claimed the power to "make reality"), the USA public's lack of attention or care, should be even more heartbreaking. Might it be possible for you and me to link those airport scenes, and the flood of fresh news stories about Taliban repressions, with that whole sorry history?

Guns and money, as we know (or should have known) cannot force a happy reality into being, neither in Afghanistan, nor in Iraq, nor anywhere else. Even a competently executed campaign, which Afghanistan was not, cannot guarantee a perfect outcome.

However, maybe you've read some of the same Afghanistan coverage that I have, basically asking, "Was it all in vain?" Paradoxically, while I never really want to be caught arguing for nation-building campaigns, I also feel that it is only fair to count up some of the gains. Much of our nearly trillion-dollar investment was misdirected or misspent, and many of the USA and allied personnel were inadequately prepared for Afghanistan's unfamiliar realities -- but life became better for thousands, perhaps millions, of Afghan people. Life expectancy improved, infrastructure was built, girls and women gained educations and other opportunities. In addition to the refugees fleeing the constant realities of civil war, thousands of other Afghans were able to emigrate to pursue careers or build families in other places, according to their own desires.

The tragedy was that the foreign inputs, in concert with courageous and visionary local activists, that made these lives better were simply unsustainable. For all but the successful emigres, there's now the prospect of very limited choices: slide back into the conditions of Taliban repression, or join the armed opposition that promises to prolong Afghanistan's decades-old civil war, and that is begging the international community for weapons, ammunition, supplies.

Without context, the awful stories and videos from Afghanistan become instant grist for the political-spinners' mill. From my own circle of Facebook friends, I read posts along these lines: "Calls from everywhere for Biden to 'resign in disgrace' over crisis in Afghanistan" and "Biden's Afghanistan catastrophe proves he does not deserve title of 'commander in chief'." Meanwhile, the Washington Post's Aaron Blake reports that former members of the Donald Trump administration are "...seeking not just to bash Biden, but to distance themselves from the Trump administration’s own actions on this front."

Supporters of Joe Biden, of course, have their own biases. They may resort to blaming Trump, or the original neocons, or the inevitability of the current debacle. I guess what's least likely to happen is a dispassionate examination of whether and how the USA's military and intelligence apparatus, whose budget is roughly equal to the rest of the planet's military budgets put together, failed to plan and execute their withdrawal. How, for example, did they actually intend to fulfill their promises of resettlement to all Afghans who stuck their necks out to help this ill-fated effort in remodeling a nation?

A more basic inquiry is just as important, if even less likely: how was the USA public persuaded to approve (by 90% in public polling!) the war in the first place? Specifically, by what rhetorical tricks and faulty logic did the USA's desperate need to respond to the September 11 attacks, and the anger and grief generated by those attacks, become exploited and harnessed to initiate a twenty-year war? After our previous generational disaster in Viet Nam, and after the Soviet Union's own miserable experience in Afghanistan, how did we go that route yet again?

One of the most insidious aspects of the corruption that flowed from the Afghanistan project -- stuffing hundreds of billions of dollars into a small, impoverished country -- is that, whatever happens now, that money has enriched contractors and Pentagon vendors, along with their lobbyists. Nobody can claw those dollars back. Worse than that: we can almost be certain that the next time they come up with an irresistible outrage and a suitable villain, the cycle will start again.

Or will it?

(part two)

"Reality" bites: Michael Tallon puts the whole case a little less politely.

Josh Marshall: Is the mess in Afghanistan really a terminal PR disaster for Biden, or is this the only way the DC-based press knows how to think?

Patterson Deppen looks at the infrastructure of our permanent war footing.

... American military bases overseas are now scattered across 81 countries, colonies, or territories on every continent except Antarctica. And while their total numbers may be down, their reach has only continued to expand. Between 1989 and today, in fact, the military has more than doubled the number of places in which it has bases from 40 to 81.

Rafael Behr looks at Russia thirty years after the Moscow coup.

The only doctrinal contagion from post-Soviet Russia is caustic anti-idealism – a nihilistic, trolling statecraft that treats arguments about universal rights and the moral superiority of democratic systems as pitiably naive or obscenely hypocritical. That case is easily assembled with reference to unsavoury regimes propped up by the Pentagon, corruption scandals and Washington’s hubristic military interventions.

Timothy Snyder translates Paul Celan. (Poetry after Auschwitz.)

Oslo's Deichman Library is a world champion.

Craig Thompson tried to leave the Center of the Earth... (and urges cross-cultural workers to "keep an eye out for each other").

Martin Kelley's latest recommended Quaker links.

Junior Wells pays tribute to Junior Parker.