04 March 2021

Credible faith

In the sometimes tedious rhetorical duels between liberals and evangelicals, this quotation from a Church of England rector struck me as a dose of welcome sanity:

It has never been cool to go to church, but now it isn’t even really respectable. There is simply no market for a church which doesn’t really believe in God. If you’re going to take the social hit of admitting to being a Christian, you might as well actually be a Christian.

(Marcus Walker, "God's Comeback," in The Critic.)

It was Jessica Hoff's blog post "How Unbelievable?" that pointed me toward Marcus Walker's essay. Hoff and (indirectly) Walker are addressing assertions by a retired Anglican parson, David John Keighley, that the main reason for the church's decline is its hopelessly outdated theology.

“Traditional faith is dying,” he [Keighley] said. “Traditional supernatural theism is dead. A belief system that is unbelievable to a scientifically educated population, and is based on ancient, unintelligible creeds and outdated concepts, cannot remain the foundation of Christianity in the changed and developed culture of today.

Hoff observes that the generation of leaders (and maybe the attitudes?) represented by Keighley might in fact have something to do with this decline. I remember visiting a meeting in Britain Yearly Meeting during which an elderly Friend got up and preached along these same lines. I wondered, what was he thinking we would hear in his message? -- that every person of more or less orthodox faith was a plodding idiot?

I believed then, and still believe now, that whatever decline the church is suffering (and it certainly is!), this decline does not come from some stubborn church-wide insistence on superstition. There are very lively conversations going on among theologians and scientists, many of whom in the 21st century are drawing on insights ranging from biology to cosmology and quantum mechanics, all challenging the conventional boundaries between theology and science. Biblical scholars have equally fertile dialogues on the composition and ratification of the Scriptures, and sometimes even deign to tell the rest of us what they're talking about in language we can understand. Eastern and Western Christianity challenge each other's conceits, while both learn how to relate with the rest of the world's faiths, and with the atheists whom God loves as much as any of us.

The scandal that repels and expels people from the church is not its ability to express mystery and hope, nor its claim that we can have a meaningful relationship with the Creator who desired us into existence. It is our willingness to hide all that amazing stuff in the background in favor of our cutting and one-upping each other, cruelly exiling those we don't approve of, and straining all that is holy to ingratiate ourselves with the powers that be.

As I was writing this post, the case of Bethany Christian Services, the largest evangelical adoption and foster-care agency in the USA, is riling the gatekeepers. Bethany has decided that their services will be available to gay and lesbian families, to the outrage of certain self-important leaders. I would go on about the predictable rhetoric of Albert Mohler and his allies, but you can probably already guess where I'm headed. What are those families and their extended social networks to make of Mohler's unstated implication? -- namely that these very people and the rights they've won are evidence of the nation's revolutionary choice to turn away from God.

Given this wicked, anti-evangelistic, and totally unnecessary (but utterly routine) insult to LGBTQ Christians and non-Christians alike, it's so interesting to read this observation from Marcus Walker's article:

And of the younger priests, it’s the gay ones who are often at the forefront of the battle to defend the creeds and Christian orthodoxy (if my more traditional readers can park, for a moment, their disbelief in the separation of questions of sexuality from orthodoxy). A study by the Dean of Virginia Theological Seminary showed that, across the American church, “our LGBT seminarians are not interested in a vacuous liberal theology that has no authority, no God, no Christ, and no sacraments”.

I've spent my whole adult life as a small-e evangelical Quaker. In some Quaker settings, such as Canadian Yearly Meeting, that put me in a small theological minority. Since I loved those people who, without fail, encouraged and affirmed me along the way despite our differences, I had to think a lot about why those differences might exist.

I slowly realized that doctrines are not accepted or rejected solely on people's personal preferences or inclinations, nor yet on their having encountered, or not encountered, one or another persuasive Christian mentor, celebrity, or book. So much depends on temperament, worldview, historical accident, and countless other factors -- rendering any sort of arrogant assumption about someone else's beliefs completely out of order. What my faith told me that I owed others was a simple and honest account of what I found true about Jesus, and its ethical consequences, and about the community that gathered around him. Their response was their business; I could not hold them as an emotional hostage.

These words from Hans Küng in On Being a Christian, which I first read forty-some years ago, gave me comfort, and still do:

If someone still has no idea or very little idea of what to make of the miracle of the resurrection, of the new life, but regards this Jesus as the ultimate criterion of his mortal life and finite death and thus as living, then it cannot be denied that he [sic] is a Christian. And he is different from that other person who regards Jesus' resurrection as a great miracle, but draws no conclusions from it for his own life and death.

Rachel Havrelock revisits Jericho and offers a biblical exegesis of violence in Israel and America.

The push toward Jericho culminated on January 6 in Washington, D.C. where blasts of the ram’s horn signaled their preparation “to take back America.” The night before, I recognized the battle plan to overtake the Capitol and perhaps the government, yet I could not think of whom to call with the claim that, as an expert on the book of Joshua, I knew there would be violence.

Perpetual War Department: William Astore on the U.S. military's cancel culture, or lack thereof.

No matter how poorly a major weapons system performs, no matter how much it goes over budget, no matter how long it takes to field, it almost never gets canceled. As a corollary to this, no matter how poorly a general performs in one of our twenty-first-century wars, no matter his lack of victories or failure to achieve mission objectives, he almost never gets cashiered, demoted, or even criticized. A similar thing could be said of America’s twenty-first-century wars themselves. They are disasters that simply never get canceled. They just go on and on and on.

Hello Frances Perkins. (This day in labor history.)

The Russian government's ongoing clampdown on political speech reaches Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. (In all fairness, the previous threat to RFE/RL came from the Trump administration.) Meanwhile, here's RFE/RL's update on Navalny's location.

The last idiot standing: A dream job at Mad magazine.

Shannon Brink, the reluctant missionary.

We grieve T. Vail Palmer, biblical scholar, Friends minister, and faithful student of the connections between faith and practice. To register for his memorial meeting on March 13, follow this link.

"Good Morning Little Schoolboy" ... Tamara Zaritskaya and Ilya Giverts.

25 February 2021

So Peter wants to build dwellings?

Preobrazhenie (Novgorod School), source.

Who can blame him? There he is on the Mount of Transfiguration, along with James and John, watching Jesus in conversation with Moses and Elijah. [Context.] In Mark's telling of the same event, the three observers are frightened; it's no wonder that Peter impulsively blurted out something ("Why don't I put up booths for each of you?") that he could do to honor and preserve this amazing moment.

If you are intrigued by this whole incident as much as I am, and want to consider what transfiguration means for your community and yourself, I highly recommend this recent sermon by the pastor of our Friends meeting, Matt Boswell. I'm about to go off on a tangent that Matt is not responsible for, so feel free to follow that link instead of reading on!

My tangent is simply this: when we are feeling overwhelmed by a blazing experience of standing on Holy ground, when we're knocked off our feet and are honestly terrified, how do we respond? Isn't it awfully tempting to reduce the experience to something a bit more structured, a bit more normal? 

Yes, our intentions are the highest: to memorialize the experience. (Peter spontaneously offers to build things that other translators call "dwellings" or "booths," but Eugene Peterson translates them as "memorials.") Maybe I'm completely off track, but this impulse seems linked to an almost universal aspect of organized religion: after the initial blaze has cooled off, we build churches, temples, cathedrals, and other impressive edifices which command and maybe even demand our admiration.

On the other hand, the design and construction of these buildings and grounds might better be seen as expressions of their designers' and builders' devotion. They labored over these projects because they had those kinds of gifts -- to work with their eyes and hands rather than with words and voices. Decades of devoted work might go into a cathedral, and the austere Quakers among us might do well to regard such devotion with a bit of humility. Another thing: the longer the building has been around, serving the community that built it, the more it might seem to become saturated by a spirit of constant prayer.

Every element of a sacred building is part of a vocabulary. This is obviously true of things like altars and icons and stained glass windows, but even the layout and orientation of a typical church expresses theology. When an anti-faith dictatorship takes over the government in that location, and prohibits evangelism and religious education, as happened in Soviet times, this visual vocabulary may have to carry much of the load of communicating faith to new generations.

None of this is simple! Once something is built, it has to be maintained and guarded. The more elaborate the facility, the more maintaining, the more guarding. In Richmond, Indiana, a few years before our historic meetinghouse was demolished, we were in a monthly meeting for business, considering the expensive prospect of putting on a new roof. At that point someone said, "This is the last time I'm approving re-roofing this museum." The first time I visited the offices of the Andrei Rublyov Church in Elektrostal, Russia, I marveled at the elaborate security technology in place, including video cameras and a direct link to the police station. In contrast, Jesus came down from the Transfiguration mountain to face an apparently bleak future: arrest and execution at the hands of the authorities.

D. Elton Trueblood and Martin Luther King in the
Quakerly plain Stout Meetinghouse, Earlham College.
In that Transfiguration encounter, nobody seemed to be reading from a script, least of all the future bishop Peter. As the edifices get built, the scripts are also composed and elaborated. With all our vaunted simplicity, we Quakers have our own versions of the same phenomena -- meetinghouses with their own quiet elegance, some of them three centuries old as we're informed by suitably dignified plaques. Their architecture and seating arrangements suit the changing theology. Their congregations maintain subtle expectations of behavior and decorum that touch on what sorts of Bible readings and sermons are acceptable, how much enthusiasm we can tolerate, how long the silence must be maintained before anyone speaks, how much silence between speakers, and how often any one person can speak (ONCE!). What a difference from the improvised settings (taverns, even) where many early Quakers met ... and sometimes actually quaked.

In choosing what kinds of booths, dwellings, monuments to build in honor of our encounters with God, how do we distinguish what GOD wants? Isaiah (66:1-4; context) cautions us on concealing our own plans behind our piety:

This is what the Lord says:

“Heaven is my throne,
     and the earth is my footstool.
Where is the house you will build for me?
     Where will my resting place be?
Has not my hand made all these things,
     and so they came into being?”
declares the Lord.

“These are the ones I look on with favor:
     those who are humble and contrite in spirit,
     and who tremble at my word.
But whoever sacrifices a bull
     is like one who kills a person,
and whoever offers a lamb
     is like one who breaks a dog’s neck;
whoever makes a grain offering
     is like one who presents pig’s blood,
and whoever burns memorial incense
     is like one who worships an idol.
They have chosen their own ways,
     and they delight in their abominations;
so I also will choose harsh treatment for them
     and will bring on them what they dread.
For when I called, no one answered,
     when I spoke, no one listened.
They did evil in my sight
     and chose what displeases me.”

When it is God who is the initiator and designer, things are a bit different. Moses supervised the building of a portable temple, and Solomon supervised the first attempt at a permanent temple, both following God's instructions, according to the Bible. In both cases, nobody claimed that God was really confined to those places; they were a way of providing the people (Hebrews and strangers alike) safe access to God. As God says to Solomon in 2 Chronicles 7:15 (context), "Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place."

The tabernacle and temple were built and maintained in the context of a near-total enmeshment of religion and state. There was a remnant of this arrangement in Jesus' time, but the Jewish authorities always had to keep an eye on the Roman occupiers, who mainly saw religious enthusiasm as a nuisance.

In our own time, a vision of church-state enmeshment is often associated with authoritarian states and demagogues. This danger of co-optation makes it especially important for us to keep open a space -- more than that, a hope and expectation -- that God may still come and knock us off our feet.

When that happens, we may be as shaken up as Peter, James, and John on the Transfiguration mountain, but instead of building monuments, let's encourage others to try going up the same mountain. In order to make that path and expectation ever more accessible, we may ask God's permission to build whatever facilities will help us keep the invitation alive, but without allowing those facilities to smother our vision or our capacity for surprise.

A Russian case study of politics and sacred space: Is Christianity under attack?

Is there a relationship between the compulsion to contain and institutionalize revelation (to build those booths), and the fear-and-militancy compromises we see in white American evangelicalism? I thought about this question as I listened to this podcast, which starts by interviewing Kristin Kobes Du Mez about her book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, and continues with a good panel discussion about the book.

At the beginning of this year, Helena Cobban began her Project 500 Years. After her first fifty entries, she reviews what she's learned to date, and how she plans to continue. (At the bottom of the page, you can find the links to go to the previous year, Key Developments of 1571, or forward, Key Developments of 1572.)

In 2021 USA: Republican senators, Merrick Garland, and an alternative universe.

Aleksei Navalny's nationalist past -- and what it means for Amnesty International. Also: Ukrainian views of Navalny are a "very complicated cocktail."

Update on Jim Kovpak's Russia Without BS: see A Serious Message. Note his Facebook page.

Esther O'Reilley looks Ravi Zacharias and Rich Mullins, and the very different ways they coped with becoming Christian celebrities.

Beth Woolsey is moving into yoga positions "with ease."

Four decades ago I was listening to Albert King play this song. Now it's Christone "Kingfish" Ingram's turn.

18 February 2021

Time travel

Jennifer Trosper, 2004
Jennifer Trosper, 2021, at JPL during landing
Very first images from Perseverance

Space exploration is not for the impatient!

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people in the late boomer years held an average of 12.3 jobs in the 37-year period of the survey. Consider then the career of aerospace engineer Jennifer Trosper, who has worked on every NASA Mars rover project, from the first one, Pathfinder/Sojourner (launched 1996, landed 1997) to Mars 2020/Perseverance (launched last year, landed today).

As deputy project manager of NASA's Mars exploration program, her work on Perseverance is far from over. However, at today's post-arrival briefing, she pointed out that Perseverance's longest-term project, collecting and packaging samples for a Mars sample return mission (likely to be completed no earlier than 2031!), will be in the hands of a new generation.

I've mentioned before (2005; 20122014) that the my favorite form of reality television is live coverage of space exploration milestones -- such as this afternoon's arrival on Mars. Today's high-stakes mission, landing on the irregular surface of an ancient lake bed, seemed like an amazing risk to take with taxpayers' money, but to the unrestrained joy of all those scientists and engineers on camera, they succeeded. Of course it wasn't just our money hanging in the balance -- many of the people we saw in the television coverage of the landing had devoted years, even decades, to this effort.

It's interesting and sobering to line up space exploration chronology with my own life chronology. I remember the launches of Voyager 2 and Voyager 1 in August and September 1977 respectively; the news coverage at the time included fascinating details of the golden phonograph records attached to both spacecraft, addressed to any cohabitants of our universe who might catch and decode them in 40,000-plus years.

August 1977 ... that was the very month Judy and I met, joining our histories together. It really doesn't seem long ago at all, even if photos and videos from that era look strangely low-tech!

Judy told me about an incident in one of her business school classes, when her class was shown a film entitled The Second Battle of Britain. One of the students asked, "What was the first 'battle of Britain'?" I choose not to laugh at this student, who asked the question about forty years after that first Battle of Britain -- it was simply evidence that, at least among Americans, history seems to be a weak point in our education. I had the advantage (?) of being from a family that was totally formed by World War II.

I remembered this incident the other day as I was reading a thread on the Russian social network Vkontakte. In commenting on the official responses to Navalny-linked protests, someone said "It's 1937 all over again." Someone else protested that 1937 was not at all an appropriate comparison. Then another person chimed in: "What was so special about the year 1937?" An answer soon came: "You really don't know about the 'Great Terror'?"

Victory Day, Elektrostal, May 9, 2010
In the first years of our service in Russia, those among our students who knew about Joseph Stalin's purges seemed to have heard about them from their own grandparents. However, we also saw various attempts to rehabilitate Stalin himself. For example, every time we attended Victory Day events, there were at least a few participants holding up portraits of Stalin.

In any case, some young people would listen carefully to their grandparents, even as they might say (as I read on one social network thread), "Granny, stop telling those horror stories!" Of course, as the years go on, that living memory weakens.

Even so, more than a few people in the Russian Internet have noted that years 1937 and 2021 have coinciding calendars.

I just finished reading Mockingbird, by Walter Tevis, better known for his novel The Queen's Gambit.

Mockingbird is a clear, sparely written dystopian novel about life in the 25th century. Robots rule, though the vast majority of those robots are so moronic that the only reason that they can rule is that humans have been rendered stupid by drugs, pornography, indoctrination, the prohibition of all social contact beyond "quick sex," and the wall-sized televisions that dominate their home lives.

The humans do not know that those drugs they're encouraged to take at any hint of anxiety contain anti-fertility chemicals, guaranteeing an eventual end to the human race. In the meantime, reading and writing are long-forgotten skills, until our modest hero-rebels, Mary Lou and Paul, decide to begin decoding the ancient remains of prior civilizations they've found in their terminally shabby New York City.

Robert Spofforth, the last remaining intelligent robot-ruler, is sick and tired of his eternal and unrewarding life, and utterly frustrated by being unable to catch more than fleeting dream-glimpses of the mostly scrubbed memories that came with his programming, which was based on neurological data downloaded from a real human being. His contact with Mary Lou and Paul gives him some new material to work with -- but I should stop there!

Just one more point. During his travels, Paul finds temporary refuge with a little community of separatist Christians who have succeeded in expelling robots from their midst, and whose church turns out to be an ancient Sears store. He finds rigidity and kindness in equal measure in these people. He finds that their Jesus does not exactly line up with the appealing figure that Paul has read about in the Bible. (He, although agnostic, has actually read this book, while they haven't.) It is fascinating to see how Tevis imagines 25th-century Christianity surviving, or not, among people who have been so damaged by the society they are attempting to resist.

Mockingbird was published in 1980. There's some of George Orwell in Tevis's writing, and a bit of Philip K. Dick, but his deadpan delivery has a charm of its own. His descriptions of the effects of television could reasonably be extended to the Internet, and the ever-available tranquilizing drugs and intoxicants of Mockingbird's world are also not exactly unrealistic projections. In the novel, Paul guesses that there had been some massive global catastrophes in the preceding centuries, but he doesn't know the details; humans had long since lost interest in keeping historical records.

In our own time, we face converging dangers of creeping fascism, environmental decline, and the prospect of new pandemics. (A few of us are also warning of the hazards supposedly inherent in artificial intelligence.) What role should the church play in keeping us aware, resilient, and resistant to the twin anti-human temptations of violence and escapism? Might we do better than Walter Tevis suggests?

Here's a link to Public Broadcasting's capture of today's streaming coverage of Perseverance's landing. (Here's a version of the link which takes you to the point where the spacecraft is about to meet the atmosphere of Mars.)

Two Quaker Web sites have refreshed their designs: the Quaker Religious Education Collaborative, and our own Camas Friends Church.

A statement to read and consider signing: Christians Against Christian Nationalism.

Also well worth our attention: a podcast in the Christianity Today series "Quick to Listen," How American Christianity Lost Credibility with the Global Church. Morgan Lee and Ted Olsen interview René Breuel, the Brazilian pastor of an evangelical church in Rome, Italy. Breuel manages to be both charitable and unsparing.

The video time machine takes us back to Buddy Guy in the year 1969.

11 February 2021

Digesting 2008

It's humbling to look back on earlier years of this blog. As time has gone by, links have expired, I can see my inadequate photo handling (I can no longer recommend Photobucket), formatting and style decisions have been inconsistent, videos constantly need to be replaced ... and that's not even counting my miscalibrated analyses and outright ignorance! I hope I've chosen my samples carefully to conceal the worst.

The New Times, 22 December 2008:
2009: In expectation of a thaw
Even so, today, as I compiled this post, I found it interesting to see what the world looked like to me back in 2008, a year dominated for me by my hopes and concerns around the Obama-McCain presidential contest in the USA, and by the practicalities of settling in our new home in Elektrostal, Russia. I hope at least a few of these sample articles from 2008 might have at least some antiquarian interest for you, too.

Just as background: Starting in 2010, I began marking the end of each year by selecting monthly samples for a year-end digest. Last year, I also added a page of monthly samples for 2009. Today I decided to tackle 2008, thereby allowing me to avoid saying anything about the impeachment trial taking place in the U.S. Senate for at least another week -- in other words, this housekeeping task seemed like a valid escape. The next times I'm trying to avoid a subject, I'll add 2007 ... 2006 ... then 2005 ....

Back to 2008: I've tried cleaning up most of the dead links and videos, but I apologize for the inevitable loose ends. Let me know whether anything stands out, either helpful or just plain dumb.

January: Vanity of vanities (Quakers and class)

I do have a hypothesis: a group that has integrity and spiritual power can attract people from any race and social class. (Unfortunately, so can groups that fake it well: there's never a time when discernment isn't required.) I remember one very dear Friends fellowship that was pretty homogenous but yearned for diversity; half a block away was an Elim Fellowship pentecostal church where there was ACTUAL diversity--racial, social, class, temperament, language. Spiritual power does NOT necessarily mean emotional contortions, but it does mean crossing a threshold of conversion and self-abandonment not typically found among the self-satisfied or terminally autonomous.

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February: Remember what you know

These words came to me several times in the past few days: Remember what you know.
They came to me first as I was listening to a story about a church which was experiencing conflict between some church members and the pastor. Members were being drawn into pro-pastor and anti-pastor factions; I imagined some were feeling the temptation to resort to worldly tactics for the upcoming monthly meeting.
Although there were allegations about the pastor that needed to be taken seriously, I wasn't happy with the possibility of a struggle for or against an individual, a struggle that ignored the systemic "Lamb's war" dimension of the problem. I wanted to say to everyone, Don't get knocked off center; remember what you already know....

March: Conversion is just the beginning

After years of our son's influence, and after considering the persuasive arguments of a certain Northwest Yearly Meeting pastor, I've converted. My new Sony laptop is using Linux as its operating system, specifically Ubuntu 7.10.
It was not an easy conversion. First of all, who wants to live a clean, calm, pious life after you've seen the glamour and glitter of Windows Vista (which came with the Vaio)? Not only is Windows Vista attractive, with its soft, translucent, animated windows, but it works so hard to lure you further into its world. Most of the buttons on its opening desktop lead you straight into offers for even more delicious e-treats. It even comes pre-loaded with TWO Spiderman films ready to enliven your workspace, just waiting for your input of a credit card number.
But it was all those encumbrances that really put me over the edge. 

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(My first Ubuntu update made things better)

April: Eisenhower blues

So that is what is missing from this enmeshment of wealth, influence and deadly force: an ethical and moral center, pointing out the pervasive influence of this enmeshment ("economic, political, even spiritual"); arguing persistently and persuasively for a true balance of power, backed by a vigilant and informed citizenry. As Why We Fight noted, the American empire has no guarantee of immortality; therefore, sounding an alarm about the untenable corners into which our military-industrial complex has backed us seems like a highly patriotic calling.
... Although Eisenhower's warning rings true to me, I'm not personally interested in defining how much military power and war industry are too much, or not too much. The armed nation-state is a relic of an unredeemed world. The patriot in me wants to know how we'll implement his call for an informed, vigilant citizenry. But the evangelist in me wants to go further.

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(Honorable mention for April *blush*: Jeremiah Wright and cynics gone wild)

May: Does God hate divorce?

One thing that we've found from listening to so many stories of heartbreak and hope: domestic abuse is not confined to any social class or status, nor excluded from any. Domestic abuse occurs in every class, every income group, every level of supposed "sophistication." Despite my special scrutiny of the situation among evangelical church families, abuse occurs just as often among liberal or secular people. Two decades ago, Judy Brutz's research revealed that violence happens in liberal Quaker households--certainly a culture that honors equality and nonviolence. I don't suppose that even readers and writers of Quaker blogs are immune!

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June: Rolling and reading 

In Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction, [Rodney] Clapp is, in part, measuring Johnny Cash's stature by showing how the great country musician both embodied and deliberately defied the contradictions inherent in being a Christian performer, a Southerner and a patriot. But Clapp's primary purpose is not to cause us to admire Johnny Cash, although he succeeded in that (for me, anyway); it is to ask us as Christians to consider the hard intellectual and spiritual work inherent in advancing "democracy for grown-ups." If we can see "contradictions" as occasions for dialogue rather than for distress that we can't impose unity, then Clapp's book provides a whole series of interrelated dialogues, perhaps especially between the "democracy of the parade" that characterizes the U.S. North and the "democracy of the revival" in the South. An earthier formulation for dialogue is suggested by Rodney Clapp's first sentence of Chapter 3: "In country music, holiness is the pork to hedonism's beans."

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July: "Support our troops" and other incomplete sentiments

Two days ago I sat on a bench outside Aubuchon Hardware, Raymond, Maine, looking at the cars parked in front of me. A fair proportion of them had "Support our troops" stickers. I used to have a "Support our troops--bring them home" sticker on our car until someone pried it off.
In this USA election season, and in particular on this Independence Day weekend, it would be great to add more content to these laudable sentiments. Just as there is "cheap grace," there is "cheap support," and I suppose the "Support" sticker itself is the cheapest.
So here is the American Christian pacifist's manual on supporting our troops, version one:...

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August: To see light more clearly

As we shuffled forward, I lost track of distances altogether, but eventually we came to a widening of the path--the location of a cell where a monk once lived with his Bible and prayer book. We saw two or three such cells. We found a branch path where excavation was just starting, and returned to the main passageway. Just when were were becoming overwhelmed by the depth of the darkness, we saw the vertical shaft leading up to another exit, located inside the church on the hill above the entrance.
When we had retraced our steps back out to that first entrance, we blinked at each other and asked why monks had wanted to spend much of their lives in deep underground chambers. Nikolai, who had brought us, said that there was an ascetic belief that in total darkness you could see light more clearly.

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September: Baptism

...About seven years ago I sat in a Sunday school class studying Friends distinctives, and the subject of baptism came up. One participant, also from a Lutheran background, challenged us on the subject--specifically, what kind of threshold do Friends recognize between NOT being in the household of faith and BEING in the household of faith? What emotional cost is there in not recognizing or providing such a threshold?
One thing I love about Friends theology is its functional nature. We're not likely to agree on how baptism affects our eternal destiny, but may well be able to talk about whether and how we express repentance, convincement, and commitment to God, each other, and the world. I hope we do so, because for some Friends, our casual and tacit approach isn't adequate. (And it doesn't seem fair for those who are satisfied to impose a conversational embargo on those who aren't.)

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October: Faith and certainty

...[Chris] Hedges fears the sinful power of certainty in the social arena. And it's a legitimate fear. The inward certainty of a powerful intellectual or emotional conversion, presumably, is one thing. Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, among many others, both tell stories of having to come to grips with doubts before being able to move forward with courage; they reached a measure of certainty that empowered them for their public ministries. I had to make a decision to trust Jesus without reservation before I could overcome the principal block to faith, which was my deep and angry suspicion of all authority. However, that inward certainty may or may not lead to certainty of action--particularly of categorical and coercive action in the social arena.
Certainty is a slippery quality. In my experience, it comes and goes--and returns. More importantly, it is relational rather than operational: I can be certain that God wants the best for you and me, and that God will be with you and me as we work for that best, but I'm hardly ever certain about what concrete steps to take next. For that decision, I need a mix of intuition, prayer, plain secular fact-checking, the wisdom of others, and a willingness to risk being wrong.

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November: The Gift of the Stranger

[This turned out to be the most important book I read in my preparations for teaching in Russia.]
[The authors] root their vision in an interpretation of the Babel story in Genesis, the story of Pentecost in Acts, and other Biblical passages, that emphasizes God's delight in diversity and God's sovereign disapproval of imperial arrogance (as demonstrated, for example, by Babel's builders). With special attention to a 17th-century educational reformer I'd barely heard of, Comenius, Smith and Carvill show that a humane and God-centered understanding of foreign language instruction has deep roots in Christian intellectual tradition.
They go on to apply their three assumptions and three assumptions in a review of the various reasons currently used to sell foreign language learning--appealing to "The Entrepreneur," "The Persuader," "The Connoisseur," "The Tourist," "The Escapologist," "The Revolutionary." There are redemptive aspects to all of these motivations, but mostly they are oriented around "profit, pleasure, and power" for the learner, rather than developing the capacity to offer healthy hospitality and to be a sensitive stranger.

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December: Are you adequately ashamed?

Every country probably has its share of mindless pseudo-patriots, who display no capacity for reflection and regret. In the long run, no country is well served by ignorance, but politicians observably find it expedient to make appeals to this constituency--yes, even in the USA, where our recent political season featured flattering references to the "real America" where doubters are scorned and where people know better than to share the wealth. Those who do have a calling to be more reflective and prophetic about national traumas will probably always face an uphill battle. There's nothing wrong with Americans who love Russia to support transparency and healing, but only if it doesn't strengthen the impression that all we want to do is ignorantly pour salt into old Russian wounds for the sake of American political agendas or simply to reinforce our own prejudices.

[2021 PS: In the 12 years since I wrote this piece, I have the unscientific impression that younger people have become less aware of the full depth of Stalinist terror. On the one hand, this may be the costly loss of a history that touched practically every family; on the other hand, it may help to explain why some of them face a new season of repression with less fear than I might have expected.]

(Full post)

I cannot entirely neglect what's going on in Washington, DC. Here's the Washington Post's inventory of evidence in the trial of Donald Trump. I cannot express my own distress at the prospect of an acquittal in this matter in calm and moderate tones. Too many Republicans have tacitly discounted Trump as a one-of-a-kind embarrassment whose legacy can somehow be managed without political risk to them or the country. However, the whole point is that the Trump personality cult made no such discount; they took him at his word. Meanwhile, the next demagogue is taking notes.

In the meantime, Heather Cox Richardson sums up the day.

Sydney Blumenthal on the martyrdom of Mike Pence.

QuakerSpring is holding an online gathering on March 6. 

In music news, Derek Lamson has revamped his Web site, including free tracks; Shemekia Copeland wants to fuse politics with the blues.

The feline-filtered jurist goes global.

One of my favorite blues videos from 2008: Albert Collins, "If Money Was Trouble, I'd Be a Millionaire."

04 February 2021

How to write about Russia, part two

It's been just over nine years since the first mass demonstrations of the Putin era took place, in the wake of the December 2011 elections to the Duma (lower house of the legislature). Tens of thousands participated in a call for honest elections. Several demonstrations of similar scale followed, until someone at the top decided enough was enough.

Those demonstrations of 2011 and 2012 were either explicitly permitted or tolerated, and featured banners and platforms with speakers -- among whom Aleksei Navalny was prominent, but by no means the only star of the show. The contrast with these last weeks' events couldn't be more glaring. Navalny himself was nowhere to be seen -- but his voluntary return to Russia from the safety of Germany, and the way he was greeted by the authorities, were clearly the triggers for all these events: 

  • the gathering at Vnukovo Airport to greet Navalny's return from Germany 
  • the demonstrations of January 23 and 31 in over 100 cities and towns, and the 10,000 or more arrests during those events
  • the disturbances and mass arrests on February 2, the day Navalny appeared in court to hear that his suspended sentence from December 2014 was to become two years and eight months of actual prison.

Brothers Yuri (left) and Aleksei Navalny, December 2014
The tolerance that the government displayed back in 2011 (and up to the notorious Bolotnoe delo in May 2012) was nowhere to be seen now -- particularly four days ago, on January 31, when, as one Russian commentator put it, "The order went out: don't spare the nightsticks!"

During the February 2 disturbances, while I was watching the streaming coverage from several Internet channels, my Facebook Messenger chimed. It was an old friend of mine from Elektrostal, who wanted to chat and who (to my surprise) sent me a link that turned out to be one of those streaming channels with reporters on the streets, capturing the events with their cameras and microphones.

During our years in Elektrostal, during all our visits and meals together, my friend and I practically never talked about politics. But as we watched the stream together on Tuesday, exchanging observations as we did so, his despair and disillusionment was clear.

Cities with significant numbers of arrests on January 31
What was equally clear: Navalny himself may have been the catalyst for this mass discontent, but his own fate was not the main focus. Navalny's own supporters, of course, want him free, and many others inside and outside Russia admire his courage, even if they don't see him as Russia's future. However, my friend hardly named Navalny at all -- in fact, just once.  

"You know, mostly people were on the streets not because of Navalny, but because we are tired so much of that 'life' we have had lately... I even cannot name it 'life' coz it's not a life in the normal meaning of this word. We are living in a huge prison that called Russia. We are living under state terror. If you look back on Russian history -- the tsarist time, the Soviet time and modern Russia time -- ordinary Russian people never lived well. Unfortunately we have no culture and traditions of following the law, human rights, democracy, respecting other people's opinion, charity. and so on, that make a human being human. We have no traditions to respect other people's labor and pay them adequately.... " After we watched another series of vicious arrests, he continued: "A human life is nothing in Russia (all times, not only now) -- the proof of my words you can see now watching this channel."

My purpose in reporting my friend's words is not to assert that his cry of despair at this moment in history is, as a sample of one, an accurate and adequate overview of all that Russia offers its people and the rest of the world. For all the years I've been writing this blog, I have striven for balance, opposed Russophobia, and indulged in my share of compensatory "whataboutism" with respect to my own country's failures and blind spots. I have pointed out when I thought Vladimir Putin was operating from weakness rather than the ruthless strength Westerners sometimes credit him with. I have harshly judged commentary about Russia that struck me as cold, professional one-upmanship rather than being grounded in love and respect for the people of Russia.

It's an order, Mama! / My dear son, why?!!
Above all, I have sought to document that Russians don't need to be told by the West what is wrong with their country. There are Russians who already know! They employ anger and humor (sometimes simultaneously) and great passion, in the service of self-diagnosis. I've shared examples of this, despite my misgivings that Russians might resent having these conflicts exposed (Pushkin said "I despise my country from head to toe, but it really gets on my nerves when a foreigner shares these views"), because it testifies to an important capacity for self-correction.

But ... if I claim to base my descriptions of Russia on a genuine regard for the country and people, who have been at or near the center of my attention for my whole adult life, then I cannot pretend not to notice this moment of disillusionment. I can't un-hear what one young woman said on camera, on the street near the courthouse on Tuesday: "Look at what kind of a country we're in. But I just want to love my country." ("Хочется любить свою страну.") It's not everything to know about today's Russia, but it is something. There is nothing to be gained from withholding human solidarity from a people who seem to be sliding, however incrementally, into a new era of repression, with no pretense, no apologies, no mercy, from the authorities. After all, we Americans have just had a narrow (and by no means permanently guaranteed) escape from our own version of the same.

What Russophobia is NOT: It is not Russophobic to study the centuries-old patterns of oppression imposed on ordinary Russians by successive waves of corrupt and exploitive ruling classes. Furthermore, it is not Russophobic to describe how Russia's exploiters 

  • try to shape the international order to make themselves safer, or to make cynical comparisons that "our corruption is no worse than over there"; 
  • take advantage of other countries' banks and real estate markets to safeguard their profits;
  • speak eloquently about the superiority of Russia while educating their children in the "rotting" West; 
  • claim to be the last refuge of Christianity while practicing systematic cruelty. 

It would be an example of Russophobia to treat Russians as categorically deficient in the capacities needed for self-government. It is not Russophobic to examine the specific tricks used by politicians (in any country, for that matter) to sabotage self-government, to make themselves indispensable, to undercut any rivals and then claim that no credible rivals exist, and to argue that the times are too challenging to risk being distracted by a change in leadership. (This last argument, proposed by Putin himself, is as blatant a play for permanent rule as I've heard in any country claiming to be a democracy.)

Russia's own prophets are exposing all of these realities, despite the risks, and we ought to support them.

Of course we also ought to hold our own countries to account -- examining our own national performance in light of the ideals we claim to hold, not comparing our best with another country's worst. Even so, one country's sins do not require us to avert our eyes from injustice elsewhere. We ought to care about the victims and survivors of oppression everywhere -- and work for justice together in worldwide solidarity, according to our own gifts, talents, and opportunities in a division of labor that avoids both hypocrisy and misdirection.

In my first post on "how to write about Russia," from December 2011, I sought to ground my own idealism in a context of sober reality:

In some ways, the present arrangement ("the government's job is to build fences--our job is to find the holes") reflects an ancient equilibrium. It's an equilibrium that might drive a Western idealist nuts (although I'd argue we have our equivalents!), and we might even argue that it reinforces a fatal self-enslavement that could keep civic reform movements in a permanently marginal status. But up to this point it seems to be working for the powerful and powerless alike.

It's not wrong for idealists, including outsiders, to imagine something different. But let's understand whose future is at stake and whether our fantasies are ultimately rooted in our own intellectual fascinations, in the calculations of empire, or in love.

A couple of weeks earlier, I was experiencing the exhilaration of the first large-scale demonstration, but I realized that, living in Russia, I sometimes felt as if I was in a "hall of mirrors," and couldn't always trust my own perceptions.

The mirrors we prefer to look in flatter ourselves and exaggerate the distortions in the other. The mirror I look into is sentimental about the Russian opposition because they look more like me, but is this a sound basis for choosing what to believe or ignore about Russia? For the foreseeable future, the wiggly mirror and the absolutely normal mirror will be right next to each other here, and sometimes I'll still have no idea which one I'm looking into. But last Saturday, with anarchists and liberals and communists and nationalists walking together with dignity, assembling with great civility for hours, and dispersing without incident, the "normal" mirror seems suddenly to have gotten a lot bigger.

In "Are you adequately ashamed?" I touched on the sensitive subject of the Soviet Union's history of industrial-scale cruelty, and how to try to understand contemporary Russians' attitudes to that history. The conflict between those who try to preserve the memory of those years, and those who either look for silver linings in those trials or forget them altogether, has sharpened.

Every country probably has its share of mindless pseudo-patriots, who display no capacity for reflection and regret. In the long run, no country is well served by ignorance, but politicians observably find it expedient to make appeals to this constituency -- yes, even in the USA, where our recent political season [2008] featured flattering references to the "real America" where doubters are scorned and where people know better than to share the wealth. Those who do have a calling to be more reflective and prophetic about national traumas will probably always face an uphill battle. There's nothing wrong with Americans who love Russia to support transparency and healing, but only if it doesn't strengthen the impression that all we want to do is ignorantly pour salt into old Russian wounds for the sake of American political agendas or simply to reinforce our own prejudices.

Finally, two posts that sample Russian humor: Russian humor as testimony; to Russia with love.

If you've stuck with me all the way to this last paragraph, thanks for indulging me in this review, as I try to honor the genuine despair that I heard in that chat with my friend two days ago. I still believe it is possible to regard Russia through eyes of love, not trapped into a binary choice between romanticism and cynicism. In any case, for me, indifference is apparently not an option.

Nanna Heitmann, A Moscow clown had no place to perform....

Navalny and the Kremlin's disinformation campaigns.

Lynn Stuart Parramore: Is alcohol having a #MeToo moment?

Michael Centore: The Christian poet and the "realm of the unsayable" ... in light of Thomas Merton's experience. (With thanks to Jonathan Montaldo for the link.)

Denis Mazhukov's boogie-woogie for the quarantine.

28 January 2021

Elusive unity

Font: Davalign Gridshift  

A headline on the Washington Post Web site today: "Biden struggles to define his ‘unity’ promise for a divided nation."

As evidence of "struggle," the authors of this article cite these various clippings:

“I do think it means a lot of different things,” said John Anzalone, a top Biden adviser and campaign pollster. “When we would ask people in polls what was Joe Biden’s message, they understood it was unity. They would say ‘bringing people together’ or ‘unity.’ ”

“It may have meant different things to them,” Anzalone added. “Maybe it was bringing the different parties together. Or healing the country by using a different tone and demeanor.”

Republicans — citing various Democratic initiatives that Biden is putting forth — have already sounded anti-unity alarms, claiming that the fact Biden is governing as a Democrat means he is not committed to his campaign mantra. And Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) defined “unity” differently still, arguing Sunday on CNN’s “Inside Politics” that the phrase perhaps should mean Democrats being “unified against insurrection,” a reference to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a mob of angry Trump supporters.


Biden and his aides have offered broad, and sometimes conflicting, definitions of what unity entails.

The president told reporters Monday that it means trying to “eliminate the vitriol,” “trying to reflect what the majority of the American people — Democrat, Republican, independent — think,” and trying to “stay away from the ad hominem attacks on one another.”

Early on in the article, the authors give their own rather snarky interpretation of Biden's "unity":

Biden campaigned on — and came to office promising — the ineffable concept of unity, a feel-good catchall that proffered bipartisan bonhomie, but with few tangible specifics.

Already, eight days into the new presidency, I can feel the forces of cynicism and division combining to erode any useful content in this word "unity," which Joe Biden defined in his inaugural address as "that most elusive of things in a democracy." Biden's use of the word "elusive" signals his awareness that unity is not a "feel-good catchall" or a vague "bonhomie," but a goal that requires diligent effort, because democracy is "fragile" and now vividly under attack by forces far and near.

I have no more ability than you do to state exactly what Biden means by "unity," but what do you think of these possible interpretations? --

1. In Biden's own words, "Give me a break." Give him a chance to get his cabinet together. Keep him honest, but give him the benefit of the doubt, at least in his first weeks. In other words, unite around the interest we all have in successfully completing the transfer of power.

2. The only basis for useful unity is the welfare of the nation as a whole. This is central to Biden's promise to be a president who serves those who did not vote for him as well as those who did. The cutting edge of his call to unity, directed at those who use this call against him: "do you in fact share an overriding commitment to the whole country's welfare, or have you already prioritized your success and Biden's failure as the goal?" Biden's gamble is that people of good faith who have prioritized the nation's welfare can differ on specifics, and still roll up their sleeves to negotiate. 

I don't think there is anything wrong with Biden's critics challenging what he means by unity. As the Post article shows, he isn't terribly precise about his definitions. But I'd like to know whether those critics already have their own contradictory definition of unity -- "give us veto power, even if it costs you every promise you made in your successful campaign." To define "unity" as "making your critics happy" (not revealing that definition publicly, of course), and then criticize Biden for his failure to achieve that kind of unity is a classic swapping of definitions to fake a victory over a straw opponent.

3. Those who tried to sabotage the Biden/Harris election victory should not expect to see their criticism of Biden's vision of unity taken seriously. Of course it's not a permanent disqualification; they can publicly renounce their earlier rejection, accept responsibility and consequences, and rejoin the discourse on healing and rebuilding the nation. What cannot be taken seriously is any attempt to define "unity" as needing to approve, overlook, forgive, or continue to tolerate the political (and literal!) sabotage of a nation in crisis.

One specific example: the upcoming U.S. Senate trial of Donald Trump. He is charged with insurrection in full sight and sound of the whole nation. No worthwhile unity would be gained by minimizing this betrayal or pretending it didn't happen, or holding the Biden/Harris agenda hostage to try to get Trump off the hook.

Alfred McCoy on what the USA lost internationally during the four years of Trump's disengagement from the world. Is McCoy's summary fair?

Ten years ago in an essay for TomDispatch entitled “Four Scenarios for the End of the American Century by 2025,” I suggested that U.S. global hegemony would end not with Thomas Cole’s apocalyptic bang, but instead with the whimper of empty populist rhetoric. “Riding a political tide of disillusionment and despair,” I wrote in December 2010, “a far-right patriot captures the presidency with thundering rhetoric, demanding respect for American authority and threatening military retaliation or economic reprisal. The world pays next to no attention as the American Century ends in silence.”

Is male-only military conscription constitutional? The Supreme Court is asked to weigh in. (Thanks to David Finke for the link.)

Some music links: Remembering Mahalia Jackson. (My favorite Mahalia Jackson track.) Suzi Quatro turns seventy. (My favorite Suzi Quatro track.) Aaron Neville turns eighty. (Thanks to WWOZ 90.7 FM New Orleans for that last link.)

(As a teenager growing up in an atheist family in Chicago, how I did I come to know and admire Mahalia Jackson? I can't say. However, I do remember an interview she did on a Chicago radio station, probably Jack Eigen's show on WMAQ-AM or Studs Terkel's on WFMT-FM. Somehow it came up during the show that she was in the Chicago telephone directory. I thought, "A celebrity like her would surely have an unlisted number." But when I got out my Chicago phone book, there she was.)

And more music: In this interview, James Harman tells us the important lesson that B.B. King taught him, leading Harman to change completely his approach to choosing material to perform. "All music is second hand. It's all about the stories. That's all you got."

Updates on Navalny and his team in Russia: Widespread searches and arrests; "all in a day's work."

Unity in a Christian context: could the real obstacle be unacknowledged rivalry? 

My tribute to Halina Stepanovna van de Lagemaat: 

Her Russian language students at Carleton University knew her as Galina Stepanovna. I took her course in my second year at Carleton. She often used songs in her classroom -- something (to my utter shame) I thought was silly, at first: this is supposed to be a serious course in a serious subject!

Whatever my arrogant doubts were about her methods, we were all won over by her kindness and good humor. Sometimes she invited us to her farm in Navan, Ontario, for good Ukrainian and Dutch cooking, conversation, and ... of course ... singing.

It wasn't until years later when I realized that I still knew those songs by heart, and, furthermore, many Russians above a certain age also knew those songs by heart. What a gift she gave me, a gift that took me years to value fully. At one and the same time, she was teaching the language and giving us a way to connect.

A few days ago, I was pursuing some Russian-related rabbit trail on the Internet, and decided to look her up. She died seven years ago this month. Why should I be shocked? -- she was middle-aged 45 years ago when we had her as a professor. However, she had several years yet to live when Judy and I moved to Russia, and I began to encounter people who knew the same songs she taught us. I wish the thought had struck me then to send her a letter.

Thank you, dear Galina Stepanovna!

Here -- as a tribute to her -- is one of my favorites from the songs she taught us. It's not exactly blues, but takes up some of the same emotional territory. (The song is performed by its author and composer, Bulat Okudzhava. English and Russian lyrics here.)

There's another song by Okudzhava on this page.