12 July 2018

Stepping out of the boat

Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends, May 18, 2018, opening session.
Immediately [after feeding the multitudes; context] Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
When Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends opened its very first annual sessions as an established body, about two months ago in Canby, Oregon, USA, I was practically holding my breath with excitement and anticipation. During our opening worship, Matthew's account of Jesus, the disciples, and the water came to my mind. I quickly realized why: we were Peter, stepping out of the boat. Would we have the necessary faith?

The parallels with Matthew's gospel aren't perfect. We weren't simply on our way to the next stop; our boat was more like a lifeboat dropped from the shifting deck of Northwest Yearly Meeting. (Nautical metaphors might be a bit risky; some would say we were forced to walk the plank!) One thing we had in common with Peter: We had asked Jesus to command us, and he did.

Here we're among those receiving
certificates as recorded ministers.
Step one, conducting business as disciples who love each other: We were a completely new yearly meeting, a new association of Quakers, with only a few quarterly rehearsals under our belts, but I was impressed to see how well we worked together. Important decisions were discussed and approved. (You're invited to access minutes through this page.) We named committees and officers. We received a treasurer's report and approved a budget. We recognized ministers. We received visitors from other parts of the Quaker world.

It seemed to me that we took that first step without sinking. Much of the practical credit goes to clerk Cherice Bock, who led us with grace and patience and sensitivity.

Step two, building our identity: Here we really had to decide whether we as a body were in fact walking toward Jesus. Some of our churches are uncomplicatedly and unaffectedly Christian, culturally indistinguishable from other evangelical Friends congregations, except for the refusal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. None of our meetings identify as non-Christian, but some have more experience providing spiritual hospitality to people who have survived encounters with authoritarian religiosity. Those churches are particularly careful not to use Christian language in ways that could come across as glib and domineering. At our Canby sessions, this issue came up in considering what to require of applicants for membership. Rather than asking applicants to use specific language about themselves, we agreed to describe who we are -- a Christ-centered community -- and leave it up to applicants to decide whether this kind of community was something they wanted to join.

Once again, we grappled with a complex issue ... and did not sink.

We're not out of the water yet, so to speak. We have more decisions to make, including the adoption of a book of discipline. Beyond these important identity-and-boundary concerns ... and intimately related to them ... are the questions that all we Quakers are bound to ask ourselves at all times: what does God want to say and do through us? Given our legacy of Quaker discipleship, what will be the shape of our peace witness, our evangelism, our Lamb's War against racism and elitism, our care for God's creation? What wider associations of Friends might help us in being faithful to God's leadings?

Beyond what is required to protect children and vulnerable members and attenders, we do not claim top-down authority over individual churches, but we will be free to develop shared services and ministries. What might those be? Will we collaborate on Christian education for children? Will we consider joining wider associations of Friends?

Referring to William Barber's message to Friends General Conference (see next item below), we're living in a time where there's just a lot of meanness. There will certainly be temptations to look down at the water, to fear the wind, to fall back on the tired answers of the past. To be honest, I feel those temptations multiple times a day. I want to keep going step by step toward Jesus, knowing that even if I slip, I can still say, with Peter, "Lord, save me!"

FGC plenary session with Rev. Barber
About a week ago, William Barber II, a minister from Goldsboro, NC, and founder of Repairers of the Breach, addressed the annual gathering of Friends General Conference. Basing his message on Ezekiel 22:23-31, Barber traced four enmeshed sins (meanness in politics; misuse of the courts; misdirection of the masses; and theological malpractice) from Ezekiel's time, through the era of Lucretia Mott and Levi Coffin, right up to today.

At 47:40 he says,
And we ended up in America with a president steeped in racism, narcissism, economic isolationism, and we ended up with a majority Congress so paid off by the corporate backers that they would sell their own children's future out to get a tax cut to the wealthy, guns to the NRA, freedom to the insurance companies, deregulation to the polluters, and the right to oppress workers to the corporations, and more money, more money, more money to the military defense contractors and the war economy. That's where we are, that's the analysis.

And here we are, at a time -- we are saying in the Poor People's Campaign -- where once again, like Dr. King said, we have to address systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy, and militarism, and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism, if we're going to turn this country around. And you can't separate any one of those from the others.

Why do I say that? Because systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy, and militarism, and the false moral narrative of Christian nationalism, has created a kind of meanness in politics, like in Ezekiel's day, like in Lucretia Mott's. There's a meanness in politics, a meanness we haven't seen as overt for a long time.
Early on, Barber refers to Ezekiel's indictment of false prophets. Toward the end, he returns to this theme: "...What we see now is a boldness of the false prophets, this kind of covering up and being puppets to the Empire rather than being prophets to the Empire." His call to Quakers: be still and quiet long enough to know we're called by God and not by ego and arrogance, and then speak out, act out, as true prophets -- as the moral witness of our time. (I recommend not skipping anything, but to hear his charge to Friends, go to 1:03:09.)

Timing is everything, it seems. Pension reform in Russia. (And related longevity charts.)

Shaun Walker wonders whether the World Cup will change how Russia is covered by foreign press.

Frederica Mathewes-Green's tattoo and related thoughts on faith, visible and persistent.

Sarah Kaplan on ghostly neutrinos from a distant galaxy.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe with Walter Horton

05 July 2018


From Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations Hokkaido episode: a screenshot from the visit to Shiraoi.
Mary Dyer's memorial at the Massachusetts State House, Boston. Source.
I've always been fascinated by "dignity" and "reverence." Dignity describes our behavior when we restrain our own actions and reactions in favor of a quiet expression of respect for the others around us, maybe for our own inner audience, and for some event or observance we're all experiencing together. The inward attitude of deep faith and respect that is often linked with this behavior is what I mean by "reverence." Although you can have dignity without reverence, and maybe even reverence without dignity, the two things seem to go together. (Please argue!)

Ever since Anthony Bourdain's suicide, I've been watching reruns of his television programs. Although I wince occasionally at the cross-cultural risks he takes, mostly I appreciate his boisterous curiosity. In Bourdain's program on the island of Hokkaido, Japan, one image that arrested me was the Ainu elder caught by the camera in an apparent ceremonial chant. Without any knowledge of the context of that brief segment, I was struck by how universal our need is to have such occasions of particular dignity.

It also reminded me that, whatever special claims on truth we might have in the Christian family, we cannot legitimately prove nor reinforce those claims with the costumes and rites our several branches have set up for occasions of public dignity. We have no monopoly on powerful symbolism, nor on impressive ceremony.

The Quaker legacy is an unusual variation on this theme. Although contemporary Quakers draw, almost at will, on a variety of ceremonial elements, mostly Protestant, our classical practice is unadorned silence. We sit, either in ranks of benches (with "facing benches" for ministers, elders, and visiting ministers), or on chairs or benches arranged in hollow squares or circles. If no benches are available, we can use logs or just sit on the ground.

Usually there's no altar, although tables (in unprogrammed meetings) and lecterns are popular. In place of the physical altar, all of us participants can mentally approach the Presence of God in the silence. Out of that experience can come something that we may feel convicted to say to the others in that place and time. In any case, I believe there's an innate dignity and reverence that pervades such a group exercise, whether or not everyone is at the same level of reverent attentiveness at any given moment.

The Quaker approach to ceremony does have its advantages. When you don't have architecture, furniture, and expensive special clothing and hats to reinforce dignity, you may be less tempted to enlist the forces of political and social control to guard the stuff and maintain order. Furthermore, you might be able to reduce church politics because you don't need all the licensing and quality control mechanisms that are the delight of the church bureaucrat.

On the other hand ... in many traditions, the tension between social control (dignity and the mechanisms that reinforce it, such as disciplined ceremony, ancient symbols, a spiritual aristocracy of one kind or another) and powerful spiritual content is a drama all its own. That was part of what made Michael Curry's sermon at Meghan's and Harry's royal wedding so fascinating. All the scripts and trappings of tradition cannot contain the revolutionary potential of love. When we Quakers minimize the container, do we risk dissipating the content?

I really don't think so, but here I want to recall some observations from another viewpoint. In the fall of 1995, Friends United Meeting invited Kenyan Friends Meshack Mudamba and Eileen Malova to travel among American Friends to conduct revival meetings. (We explicitly called them that.) At the FUM board meeting following their extensive itinerary of visits, they made several observations, which I summarized in a blog post about ten years ago, and which I'm about to repeat now:

(From 2007.) Reporting to the board of Friends United Meeting, [Eileen Malova and Meshack Mudamba] observed, among other things, two disconnects between faith and practice that deeply concerned them: the lack of racial diversity among Friends and the lack of reverence.

The lack of diversity is something I've discussed before and will again, but just now I was thinking about the lack of reverence. Is this observation a temperamental bias, perhaps a cultural filter that says as much about the observer as the observed? Maybe there's some of that; and I think I'd get a little defensive if some authority said that Quaker piety had to include some prescribed ideal level of gravitas. Even though everyone knows how well I maintain dignity and decorum at all times, I wonder whether I would make the cutoff. We Friends were born with an elemental resistance to the religion industry, with all its curlicues, folkways, special voices, and the power structures that are required to keep all those things up to standard.

But the slappy casualness and the boozy conviviality that has sprung up in some quarters among us, perhaps especially in Europe [I was in Russia when I wrote this], cannot be what the Valiant Sixty put their lives on the line for either. Once you have put your life in the hands of the Eternal One, can you (I) be so glib about holy things, holy topics? Can you settle for what seems almost a purely social quakerism whose spiritual temperature is firmly limited by the most skeptical participants?

I doubt that anyone ever made a deliberate decision to abandon old-time reverence. More likely it was drift. In the quietist generations of Friends, we substituted formula phrases for the names of God and Christ and the Holy Spirit, and I suspect that the reason was not theological vagueness but reverence -- not wanting to trifle with these precious references. However, several generations later, the "Inward Light" became less a metaphor than a license to relativize the faith. Is a similar drift occurring with our sense of awe before God? Having become skeptical of canned piety, have some of us lost all sense of piety altogether?

I'm sure there's really no simple answer to this question. But the issue is important--particularly when we communicate across cultural lines. I think people in many cultures intuitively understand (however they personally relate to God) that this relationship should be treated with depth and respect and not made the subject of purely cerebral speculation, still less of new forms of intellectual self-gratification. I know that over the years some of us have shocked Russians with our casual individualism, just as some of us shocked Malova and Mudamba.

Since I first wrote those words, we've had the Pussy Riot controversy in Russia, and the more recent Pokémon Go scandal, both of which touch on another aspect of reverence: the outrage (genuine or false/manipulative) generated by aggressive irreverence in holy places, and authorities' choice to respond with severity rather than humor or some other mild option. On a Russian-language talk show, I tried to argue that compulsory reverence is a spiritual contradiction and an abuse of power.

Dignity, on the other hand, is a reasonable expectation ... isn't it?

Related posts:

Pussy Riot,
part one, it is impossible that no offenses should arise;
part two, prayer and place;
part three, is Christianity under attack?

Pokémon GO to church!

Worship seeking understanding. (Four parts altogether.)

A post-Quaker take: Alan Rutherford on evangelism and worship.

Do we need Advent?

Gathering to meet with God.

Photo essay on Quaker places in North Carolina. (So we do have some physical evidences of concern for dignity and reverence....) Thanks to Margaret Fraser for the link.

How we treat immigrants, refugees and their families defines us as Americans. If you agree, follow the link and sign.

Rebecca Florence Miller on July 4 in the USA: ... I plan to celebrate with a bit of sobriety in my heart.

More research on why Russians are so stingy with their smiles. (Some earlier observations here; scroll down....)

Junior Wells could have had religion.
I don't want to fight because I'm black.
I don't want to fight because you're white.
I just want to do one thing, baby,
Just fight for just a little bit of love.

Sixthman Sessions at Pilgrimage - Larkin Poe - "Preachin' Blues" from Sixthman TV on Vimeo.

29 June 2018

Sowing in tears, part two: Red Hens, resistance, and love

BI's paper clip monument (now in Oslo). Source.
Wearing paper clips was a symbol of resistance
in German-occupied Norway.
(Part one.)

Lili Loofbourow writes,

...Confused by the fever that’s seized it, the country has spent days debating the “civility” of a restaurant [Red Hen, Lexington, Virginia] owner  who asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave, after she had defended the president’s policy of putting children in cages as a “deterrent” to other migrants. He called sitting members of Congress “crazy” and pettily insulted that same restaurant’s cleanliness. But Trump’s own discourse somehow doesn’t factor into this earnest discussion of civility.

Vann R. Newkirk II comments,

As has so often been the case, the demands for civility function primarily to stifle the frustrations of those currently facing real harm. But protest is not often civil. In fact, in the long tradition of American protest, it’s incivility that has served as an alternative to violent resistance, and it is what has functioned best as an antidote to the violence of oppressors.

For me, it's far too easy to divide the Red Hen debates into pro-civility and pro-rage, and as a white Protestant pacifist, anxiously weigh in on the side of civility.

And while I'm weighing, I notice a couple of things:
  • Observing the mass behavior of the human animal, aggressiveness often begets aggressiveness. The prophet Hosea [8:7; context] warns a corrupt Israel, "They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind." If you mistreat people long enough and badly enough, like it or not, they'll respond with something other than sweet reasonableness. (And thank God for that, if the alternative would be fatal passivity.)
  • Furthermore, to the utter frustration of the civility advocates who warn us to stay calm, some of the original aggressors will welcome those violent responses, because the aggressors include sociopaths, excitement addicts, would-be heroes, egged on by very wealthy backers who are financing their mobilization channels. Expect escalation.
  • There is no such thing as a last laugh, or a last word.
There's a huge difference between mass responses to aggression, one the one hand, and a spontaneous eruption of resistance from a few restaurant workers, or a few passengers glimpsing an EPA chief on an airplane. If I were in a line with the Homeland Security chief, it would be very hard to resist asking "How do you live with yourself?" Isn't there an integrity to a direct confrontation like this?

The same action writ large -- convincing hundreds or thousands of people to confront specific officials -- raises ethical questions that I don't see in these spontaneous encounters. To what extent do the organizers of such resistance resort to authoritarian or manipulative tactics, exaggeration, false witness, objectification of their opponents, for maximum effect -- just as their opponents do? What would the use of such mass tactics do to our souls, our capacity to see our opponents as bearers of the image of God just as we are?

However, passivity may not be an option. Let's look at what hazards we might be facing as a country: a decline in American democracy, and its replacement by authoritarianism, abetted by civil religion, degraded by massive corruption, made ever more poisonous by race-baiting, and all in a context in which labor, trade, and fiscal policies may have disastrous economic consequences. If this might be our near future, it seems beyond foolish to advocate nothing more than spontaneous, individual responses. Our individual targets can usually hide if necessary, and even if they are convinced to resign, they can be replaced. If it's true that the system we confront is driven not just by corrupt actors but by the demons of greed and racism, the Bible explains the stakes involved:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

(Ephesians 6:12, context.)

Rage may have cathartic value ... and (whether we approve of it or not in our calmer moments, or in the security of middle-class privilege) its small-scale or large-scale expression is a risk authoritarians face. But, for disciples of the Prince of Peace who refuse to let rage define our response and mask our values, what are our other options?
  • Demonstrations and mass meetings of all kinds will continue to have a huge benefit: they let us see that we are not alone. And the authorities see that we are not alone. Christians should participate visibly and enthusiastically, to counter the heresies of civil religion and to make evangelistic and pastoral connections with their fellow demonstrators.
  • Tax refusal: it's a time-honored response to military spending, but is it limited to that sphere?
  • Vigils, social exorcisms (example included here), and civil disobedience at the sites linked to injustice, such as detention centers, ICE offices, airports: such actions don't depend on demonizing individuals, they focus on the system.
  • Persistent lobbying, in person as much as possible, demanding accountability.
  • Public celebrations when we make progress, when an unacceptable policy is reversed, when a legislator or bureaucrat makes a humane choice or resigns for conscience' sake, when an ally wins an election.
  • Attending rallies and public-relations exercises of authoritarians and their supporters, with well-focused signs and handouts.
  • Prayer meetings, Bible studies, and nonviolence training as preparation for everything we do. Elders assigned to pray for each action. Each of us participating in risky witness should know who is praying for him or her. This path has direct links to the legacy of the Civil Rights movement.
  • Being always ready to give an account of the hope that is in you. [Context.] Be accessible to news media and inquirers. If it is your gift, become known as a person willing to speak to reporters.
I'm convinced that the USA is in a kind of danger that is new to most of us. But even if our worst fears turn out to be exaggerated, the scale of pain and despair among some (and wicked glee among others) is something that demands a prophetic and pastoral response from all who claim to represent Good News. If the times are as dangerous as we suspect, we could find ourselves tempted to stay in a cycle of sorrow and rage. But one thing I hope we don't neglect: creativity. It's worth putting maximum effort into preparing the messages and organizing the creative divisions of labor that will worthily represent a mobilization of love for our time.

In 1934, Henry Cadbury, Quaker scholar, advocated a civil response to Hitler's anti-Jewish policies.

Benjamin Corey says that the person you'd be in Nazi Germany is the person you actually are now.

Margaret M. Mitchell on the apostle and the attorney general.

What Adria Gulizia learned from Weinstein.

Thank God for Paul McCartney's boyhood choir...

Oleg Navalny is released from prison after completing his sentence.

"I'm going to keep on walking 'til I find my way back home."

21 June 2018

Sowing in tears

Skripachka suspects her world is about to change. (Photo from last October, as we prepared to leave Elektrostal.)

This past week, evidence that we're essentially being governed at the national level by a crime family has continued to accumulate. For the first time, I began to feel like I'm living in an occupied country. What do you do when your country is occupied? You resist. Nonviolently, ethically, prayerfully, but also persistently. The trouble is, persistence is exhausting.

Faith Marsalli, pastor of Klamath Falls Friends Church, invited us to speak there last Sunday. She wondered whether we might consider the question, "What gives you hope these days?" Given that almost everyone I know reports being overwhelmed at least some of the time, I was eager to take up the invitation.

For some reason, when I read her suggestions, my mind went back immediately to 1976, to an auditorium at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. The occasion was a Triennial session of Friends World Committee for Consultation, and I was there to cover the event for the Quaker bimonthly The Canadian Friend. The evening's speaker was T. Canby Jones, who began his talk on "Signs of Hope" with these words:
Those who sow with tears
    will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
    carrying sheaves with them.
(Psalm 126:5-6, context.)
Canby, who was born in Japan to Quaker missionaries, went on to recount his then-recent visit to Hiroshima, site of humanity's first experience of nuclear warfare. The spiritual renaissance of Japanese and Korean Quakers were among the signs of hope he reported, along with the faithfulness of Friends pastors in Cuba and the growth of the Quaker movement in Bolivia. With obvious delight (those who remember Canby will know what I mean!) he also reported on developments in cross-Quaker influences, the sort of thing that we have since come to know as the "convergent" movement.

Last Sunday at Klamath Falls, I read this psalm, and then began considering those who are now sowing in tears. Despite my life-long status as a registered optimist, I've found, sometimes to my horror, that my tears are never far from the surface. (That's one reason I'm so mystified about my inability thus far to grieve my parents.) Back when I was working for the Anglican Book Society in Ottawa, I was grateful to discover Catherine de Hueck Doherty's book Poustinia. She gave me a label for my affliction: the gift of tears. During my sermon at Klamath Falls, I read briefly from her book:
Clarity of soul is different from clarity of mind. I can see my sins clearly with my mind. I can use the methods recommended by ascetical theology (which is based on reason) to overcome my sins.

But clarity of soul is acquired by the gift of tears. I weep, and the gift of tears wash wash away my sins and the sins of others. My mind is serene and unaffected, because I know that the grace of tears is not from my mind but proceeds from the heart of God. It comes to my heart, and I weep. My mind now is clear and my heart is clear -- I am clear....

... We should distinguish between depression and a state of sorrow. [I'd add distinguish, but don't rank! -jm] Sorrow is a state of union with God in the pain of [humanity].
When our political life is at such a low point that children are treated as bargaining chips, it is entirely Godly that tears flow. Be comforted that your sorrow translates as solidarity. You and I are doing the work of disciples.

Turning to the theme of hope, I tried to sketch a few thoughts on the Psalm's promise that we'll "reap with songs of joy," but I was not in a mood to indulge in glib certainty. As Canby Jones said the last time I heard him speak, "This irrepressible conflict on every level of human community will continue until God in his judgment brings an end to history through our victory with the conquering Lamb as our leader. The earth will then be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea!" But when?!

In the meantime, we may weep but we still do the work. We sow, knowing that every seed (every work of kindness, of faithfulness, of persistence, of honest testimony) bursts with the potential of life and resurrection. At a Baptist seminary in central Europe, Judy and I met a young Russian pastor whose grandfather had become a Christian while in German captivity after World War I. German Baptists had ministered to this former enemy soldier, who was eventually repatriated and formed a church back in Russia. Exiled to the western border of Siberia by the new Communist government, he formed another church in Chelyabinsk. When he was cruelly killed (sprayed with water in midwinter), his wife became pastor and continued the work. The kind and dedicated man we met would not be serving now if they had not kept sowing.

As we sow, we confront the weeds, the dangerous practices that rise up and spread in times of conflict ... mocking, objectifying, fake outrage, unfair comparisons, bearing false witness.

As we sow, we confess our sorrow to each other; we cry and let others cry. We listen and comfort without rushing to fix things.

As we keep sowing, we divide the labor according to our gifts. For every radical prophet who risks everything to speak the truth, we hope some conservative is doing a good job of guarding the money that will pay the prophet's bail. We make space for the pastor who cherishes our community, and we make space for the outward-facing evangelist, who understands when the moment is ripe to intervene in our culture.

(Have you noticed, by the way, how many times non-Christians, upset by the spectacle of the Bible being cited in the service of oppression, are asking Christians to step up and make ourselves heard? And, thank God, it's actually happening!)

As we keep sowing, we spell each other. Not everyone has to cover every base every day. Not everyone even has to be hopeful every day! In the days following my beloved cousin Axel Heyerdahl's death, I went to Ottawa to be with his family and attend the funeral. One evening I took a break and went to a blues club. One of Canada's most famous blues bands played a set that was a complete dud, but the evening was far from lost: the unknown band that opened for them was so good that I left totally satisfied. I guess the famous guys needed to be spelled.

As we keep sowing, we don't just pray, work, and testify together; we eat and play together. (I'm remembering the first time I ever heard the Quaker economist Kenneth Boulding. He gave a lecture at my school, Carleton University. I didn't know anything then about his spiritual affiliation, but I was so intrigued by his theme, the importance of play.)

Maybe it would be nice if some impressive Johnny Appleseed figure would rise up and take the load off us. But the truth is that we are the ones we've been waiting for. "There's just you and me, kid." As William Barber said to Dahlia Lithwick in a recent Amicus podcast interview, "All of our heroes and sheroes are not getting up out of the grave. But they are cheering us from the balconies of heaven, I believe."

(Sowing in tears, part two: Red Hens, resistance, and love.)

Resources for sustaining hope include Lorraine Watson's wonderful series of sermons on confronting the darkness. Download them from the messages page of North Seattle Friends Church's Web site. The series starts October 22.

Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today: Loving our neighbors knows no borders -- even political ones.

Galli's editorial implies that yesterday's executive order ends the controversy. Actually, there is still much work to do.

Carrie Cordero on legal considerations for separating families at the border.

Kevin Jennings: in the good old days (before a century ago), all immigration was legal....

In Russia for the World Cup? In her Book clinic, Phoebe Taplin suggests some modern fiction from the host nation. The books on her list that I've read all deserve their inclusion here.

Meanwhile, Russia's Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights suggests that the campaign against Jehovah's Witnesses has gone too far. (Declaration in support of JWs. Russian-language original.)

And Ilya Matveev says that the proposal to raise Russia's pension age (during the World Cup excitement) marks the last stage in Russia's transition from a socially oriented budget to a military/bureaucratic budget.

"Oh my dear sister, am I not a brother to you?"

14 June 2018

Children in the hands of an angry politician

Sign at today's "Families Belong Together" rally.
Today's debates about separating children from parents at the U.S. border reminded me of a particularly sad moment of our time in Russia. In December 2012, Russians were debating a proposed ban on American adoptions of Russian orphans. This ban was supposedly a righteous slap in the USA's face in return for the hated Magnitsky Act.

Some of the most passionate opponents of the proposed adoption ban were outraged that political considerations would trump children's welfare. See my blog post, "Don't sign this bill," for some samples of their arguments. In following the family-separation debate in the USA, it was this aspect -- putting children at risk for the morally dubious sake of political messaging ("a tough deterrent," in John Kelly's words) -- that felt so painfully familiar to me after living through those awful Russian debates. Despite my usual resistance to comparing countries on some kind of a moral scale, I truly had felt that the USA would never do something remotely comparable.

The current outrage over border separations does not lend itself to nuances. Neither did the Russian debate. Setting the Magnitsky connection aside for a moment, there truly had been abuses of Russian orphans in the USA. In one case, a Quaker pastor sexually abused an adopted girl. The case that may have inflamed Russian anger the most involved Dima Yakovlev, an adopted child who died after being left in a car in nearly 90-degree weather for nine hours. Another notorious case involved a boy sent back unaccompanied to Russia by his adopted mother, with a note: "I no longer wish to parent this child." Some of the more serious and systemic criticisms of foreign adoptions of Russians were summarized in this post from Global Voices. These arguments and scandals need to be weighed against the tens of thousands of apparently routine adoptions.

The American border situation is also more complex than the slogans we carried today at Eugene's "Families Belong Together" demonstration. For example, it's interesting to consider some of the details in Jeff Sessions's speech at Fort Wayne, which the Department of Justice Web site entitled "Attorney General Sessions Addresses Recent Criticisms of Zero Tolerance By Church Leaders." Among other statistics, Sessions cites these:
... [I]n 2009, the Department of Homeland Security reviewed more than 5,000 initial asylum screenings. By 2016, only seven years later, that number had increased to 94,000. The number of these aliens placed in immigration court proceedings went from fewer than 4,000 to more than 73,000 by 2016—nearly a 19-fold increase.
If these statistics are true, this increase in scale is a genuine problem. I would totally agree that such a major increase merits a worthy response. What is NOT a worthy response, given the human stakes involved, is the shortcut rhetoric of Sessions's next sentence: "This cannot continue."

Exactly what cannot continue? Why can't it continue? The whole tenor of this speech is that a permissive Obama regime essentially invited a flood of fake refugees and asylum seekers, but Sessions does not respect either those "aliens" or his audience enough to persuade us that the dramatic increases are all based on fraud. Nor does he offer such alternatives as opening more processing locations (I'd bet they would be a lot cheaper than a full-on wall), increasing the role of nonprofits and church organizations, improved services at U.S. consulates in the originating countries, and so on. No, we are supposed to be so alarmed by the increase that we suspend our critical faculties.

To be fair to the Justice Department, it is the Congress that  has failed repeatedly to enact immigration reform, forcing the executive branch to cope with the resulting confusion and logjams, and making the whole system incredibly vulnerable to alarmist politicians, even as farmers and other employers beg for more workers. But there is no emergency at the border, nor will there ever be one, that requires treating families with cruelty. That is a policy choice, and no biblical admonition from Sessions to obey the authorities "because God has ordained them for the purpose of order" can cover this wicked and disorderly reality.

The Russian prohibition of American adoptions gave a chilling insight into the souls of Russian power politicians. Now it's our turn.

"Families Belong Together" demonstration earlier today.
Eugene's 3-term former mayor Kitty Piercy speaks.

In that Fort Wayne speech, Jeff Sessions acknowledges his religious critics. He says, "I have given the idea of immigration much thought and have considered the arguments of our Church leaders. I do not believe scripture or church history or reason condemns a secular nation state for having reasonable immigration laws." Notice the complete disconnection between the two sentences. Church leaders, including some usually associated with the evangelical right wing, are not condemning a secular state or its "reasonable" immigration laws, they are taking very specific aim at the Justice Department's enforcement practices.

Have you sensed an unusually high public resonance with this issue? I wonder what it would take for Jeff Sessions or Donald Trump to wake up to the possibility, however unlikely it might seem to them, that for once they have completely misjudged the spirit of the times.

In any case, whether or not they ever catch on, it is more important than ever "not to become weary in doing good" (Galatians 6:9) . As Dahlia Lithwick says, "It's all too much, and we still have to care."

Vox.com's summary of the family separation controversy.

Perpetual war watch: A rising generation of Americans has never known peace.

Ilya Budraitskis on 1968: a revolution too early to judge.
It has been cultural distinctions, amplified by the microdosed spirit of 1968, that have enabled today’s European right-wing populists to attack multiculturalism and political correctness on behalf of the common people, for these notions now stand for nothing except justification of the status quo, thus causing growing dissatisfaction at the grassroots.
Once found innocent, historian Yuri Dmitriev is ordered to be retried.

Heidi Haverkamp: Church is the perfect place to cry. (Someday I will write my own post on the "gift of tears," and how I learned to embrace this gift by reading Catherine de Hueck Doherty's book Poustinia.)

This isn't the first time I've ended with an Otis Spann video. I learned about him when I was a teenager, hiding my blues addiction from my parents. Sadly, I got to know his music only a short time before he died. Never had a chance to see him live, even though I lived in Chicago.

07 June 2018

Good News and identity politics, part three

I love my Ubuntu t-shirt. I especially like it because it just has the logo, not the name Ubuntu, which is a trademark of the computer company Canonical. I figure that those who recognize my t-shirt will be able to trade smiles with me, knowing as I do what special people we are.

This specialness is the exact opposite of the real meaning of the Zulu and Khosa loanword ubuntu, "humanity," "humaneness," or "human solidarity." My use of Canonical's Ubuntu® logo as an exclusive identity marker is a flat-out contradiction. In my own defense, I can only plead playful intent. (And in Canonical's defense, they explicitly link their Ubuntu open-source operating system, rooted in global community collaboration, with the southern African philosophy of that name, and with its values.) Which does the world need more of, in these times -- cool logos or human solidarity?

What got me thinking about the uses and pitfalls of identity was David Rupert's article, "How Jesus Dealt with Identity Politics." He begins by summarizing all the ways politicians pander to social subgroups, and how those subgroups are tempted to emphasize their specialness and trade on their grievances.

Rupert doesn't build a perfect case, and some of the comments posted by readers cite his overly broad strokes. But I mostly agree with his important overall assertion, "Our identity is in Christ." Touching on Jesus's constant crossing of social boundaries, and Paul's revolutionary manifesto of unity ("There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus," Galatians 3:28; context), Rupert sums up: our identity in Christ is all the identity we need.

Ultimately, I think he's right. Now I know that in the evangelical subculture, to quote Scripture and subordinate everything to Jesus is how you guarantee being right. That behavior is an identity marker! But he's right because Jesus really does reset all distinctions and hierarchies and specialness of all kinds, in favor of the central and precious truth: all of us are created in the image and likeness of God, and (to borrow from Anthony Bloom) were born of God's wish to have our company.

But identity insists on staying in the picture in a big way, for at least two interrelated reasons:

First, we were all born in history, in specific times and places, and in specific families. Those circumstances played a part in forming us. As we grew older, we matured in our relationship with our own origins, and deliberately made changes -- some trivial, and some very substantial. Most of my schoolmates were Chicago Cubs fans, but I held out stubbornly for the White Sox. More importantly, I grew up in an atheist family and became a Christian. I resisted my mother's identification with Germany's militaristic past and became a Quaker ... and was disinherited. There are pleasures and pains connected with all of these details and these choices.

It's completely normal to delight in the places and people we feel closest to. With that delight, with that pride, comes an obligation: to think seriously about whether we let those identifications separate us from others who don't share them. It is that obligation that the church can help us fulfill. When my church loves me for all my inherited and adopted peculiarities (or despite them!), it is then in a good position to show that, through my identity in God, I can delight in others' peculiarities and in the promise that we are all actually in the same blessed family.

Jesus, too, was born in history, in a specific time and place. Being Jewish, he grew up in a people who (our family album, the Bible, tells us) were charged by God to be a channel of blessing to the whole world. By becoming part of the Body of Christ, we now share that charge.

There's another reason we can't neglect identity. We did not grow up in separate silos of identity; our families and communities, ethnic groups and nations, all impacted each other ... and not always for the better. If you grew up in a family whose options were limited by the violence of racial or class oppression or any other systemic evil, and if I grew up in a family that was, at best, oblivious to all that, I do not have the right to tell you to set aside your "identity politics" for the sake of avoiding discomfort on my side. I don't have the right to set abstract piety above the requirements of justice and reconciliation. The very moment we're together in the body of Christ, our love for each other cannot be buffered by denying our very different paths to this one place.

Outside the church, identity politics can degenerate into sad spectacles of people and groups one-upping each other based on conflicting claims of virtue or victimhood. Inside the church, things should be different. We can offer another way: to maintain a diligent, persistent curiosity about each other's varied identities, and the joys and laments that we sang by the rivers of Babylon. There's no contradiction between that honest, loving, sometimes awkward inquiry, and our joy at having found each other in this new place, in Christ.

Good News and identity politics, part one. part two.

Patricia Dallman on Lewis Benson, George Fox, and Christian universalism.

Preparing for World Quaker Day.

Micah Bales: The Sabbath of God is within you.

John Jeremiah Edminster: The meetinghouse library you might not have known about.

The late Eddy Clearwater: