15 March 2018


Mosier, Oregon: Amy H's Pi Day pies. Apple for humans plus three dogfood pies for dogs. (Not connected with Trinity.)
In the time of the earliest Quakers, William Penn considered the charge that we deny the Trinity to be slander. He labeled it a "perversion" and listed it in a series of "perversions" and "principles" in a tract whose title was sort of a tract in itself:
A Key Opening the Way to Every Capacity; How to Distinguish the Religion Professed by the People Called Quakers, from the Perversions and Misrepresentations of their Adversaries; With a Brief Exhortation to All Sorts of People to Examine Their Ways, and Their Hearts, and Turn Speedily to the Lord.

Perversion 9: The Quakers deny the Trinity.

Principle: Nothing less. They believe in the holy three, or Trinity of Father, Word, and Spirit, according to Scripture. And that these things are truly and properly one; of one nature as well as will. But they are tender of quitting Scripture terms and phrases for schoolmen’s, such as distinct and separate Persons or substances are, from whence people are apt to entertain gross ideas and notions of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. And they judge that a curious inquiry into those high and divine revelations, or into speculative subjects, though never so great truths in themselves, tends little to godliness and less to peace, which should be the chief aim of true Christians. Therefore, they cannot gratify that curiosity in themselves or others. Speculative truths are, in their judgment, to be sparingly and tenderly declared, and never to be made the measure and condition of Christian communion. Men [intentionally not marked sic!] are too apt to let their heads outrun their hearts, and their notions exceed their obedience, and their passions support their conceits, instead of a daily cross, a constant watch, and a holy practice.

-- William Penn, 1692

I was reading the New Foundation Fellowship book That Thy Candles May Always Be Burning: Nine Pastoral Sermons Of George Fox, and was stopped short by a blunt denunciation of the doctrine of the Trinity in the editors' introduction. I wondered why I found this so disconcerting.

I mentioned this reaction of mine to a friend, and he said, first of all, consider the source. He categorized the New Foundation Fellowship as one of number of reconstructionist Quaker groups, and said that their materials tended to emphasize Friends' differences with other Christians. This puts them squarely in the sectarian typology worked out by sociologists of religion.

In a wider context, Trinitarianism, he said, was one of those doctrines that most non-specialists worry about very little, except when it is challenged. I guess an acceptance of trinitarian references is one of those signals that reassure us that we're not heretics ... a signal that is more or less important to us in direct relationship to our desirable to be acceptable to the ecumenical world.

Early Friends did not intend to start a new religion but were intending to restore New Testament Christianity by freeing the faith from post-apostolic conceits and accretions. It's in this light that I understand William Penn's contrasting "Perversion" and "Principle." God and Christ and the Holy Spirit have powerful witnesses in the New Testament, but the term "Trinity" is simply an intellectual vessel developed over hundreds of years for theologians and church politicians to contain their insights and ideas and vocabularies and disputes. The Quaker caution (and not Quaker only): we shouldn't let terminology lull us into false certainties or misleading precision.

So here are some questions for myself (and you)....
  • Is it right to distinguish the word "Trinity" from the Quaker insights into the ways God acts and is made known and experienced?
  • Do our answers depend on whether we prioritize our unity with other Christians or our challenges to them?
  • If we can honor both priorities simultaneously, what words are we using?
  • How do we know when our theological explorations and assertions honor and serve God, and when they insulate us from the living God?

I find it interesting that the Richmond Declaration of Faith, the widely-shared "orthodox" summary of Friends doctrines adopted in 1887, does not use the word "Trinity."

What are the stakes involved in any particular elaboration or interpretation of the Trinity? Whole libraries have been written about this, but I thought it was interesting to sample the field through this book review on the Web site of Christians for Biblical Equality.

Early Quaker Trinity questions.

Teaching Trinity.

Stephen Hawking, brought to you by openculture.com: Explaining black holes; the lighter side of Stephen Hawking.

Evangelicals, racism, and the Sunday morning sermon.

Skripal, Novichok, and Russian social media.

Another blues dessert from Vanessa Collier.

08 March 2018

Women's Day reflections

"All types of moms are needed; all moms are important."
Soviet-era poster.  Source.
Another International Women's Day Soviet-era poster.
"Happy March 8!" (Boys making cake for mom.)  Source.
A Moscow restaurant advertising a Women's Day program,
"Blondes vs Brunettes."  Source.
We are happy to have such a wonderful occasion to express again our deep respect for you, our enchantment with your beauty and tenderness. - V.V. Putin, president of Russia, in his address today to Russian women on the occasion of International Women's Day.

If working at the Duma seems dangerous to you, find another job. - Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the State Duma, in remarks yesterday aimed at women journalists reporting sexual harassment by the chairman of the committee on foreign relations.

There was a time when International Women's Day was linked with women's rights and women's equality. (In the Soviet Union, this March holiday had the additional advantage of drawing attention away from Lent and Easter.) In today's Russia, the political overtones have all but vanished.

During our years in Russia, we celebrated Women's Day nine times. As a male observer, it's not for me to tell anyone else how to regard this holiday, but I hope it's not out of place to share some of my mixed feelings.

As a holiday, it's a big deal. This year, tomorrow (March 9) is also a holiday, making a four-day weekend. In Russia, Women's Day feels to me like a combination of Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. Boyfriends, husbands, and employers present women with flowers and chocolates and other gifts. Male family members may offer to do cooking, shopping, and housework often reserved for women in this culture. Advertising plays up the "aren't women special?" theme. Florists are busy at all hours. As Judy pointed out, it's funny to go to the grocery store on March 8 and watch those men who never go shopping at other times, and who today will wander the unfamiliar aisles in search of items their wives can find blindfolded.

Little of this holiday's rhetorical "deep respect" and "enchantment" seems to have influenced attitudes toward (for example) women's place in political life or their ability to get jobs normally associated with men. Legal safeguards against domestic violence were actually weakened just last year. Against this background, even the most sincere Women's Day greetings -- and I don't deny the sincerity at all -- could be interpreted as reinforcing assumptions that women are valued for their ability to charm and delight and serve men.

In contrast, movements in the West to correct these same ancient patterns are viewed by many Russian men and women as proof that the West is degenerating. These views came up frequently in our classes, and sometimes even among our colleagues. We were asked, for example, if it was true that a man could be arrested for opening a door for a woman.

To make the picture even more complicated, not all of the Soviet Union's egalitarian myth has vanished. As a result of that era, many more scientists, engineers, physicians, lawyers, university deans, factory managers, and judges have been women than might otherwise have been the case. The glass ceilings in Russia are configured differently than in the USA or Western Europe. But the outright challenges to those ceilings in Russia, while growing, are still in their early stages. And the word "feminist" is too often connected in the Russian mind with the word "aggressive."

In sum, that's why the over-the-top saccharine sentimentality of Women's Day in Russia sometimes sets my teeth on edge. But there was another dimension of the holiday that seemed incredibly important and moving: Women's Day as a celebration of female friendship. As far as I know, there's no holiday like it in the West, when women give gifts and tokens of friendship to each other. I was lucky enough to witness countless such scenes. Judy is a generous soul, so she quickly took to this dimension of Women's Day and entered into its spirit wholeheartedly. Now that we've left, this occasion of affectionate gift-giving among women is one of the things we miss most about Russia.

To illustrate these strangely mixed qualities of exaltation and bondage, here is the poem by Andrei Dementyev that Vladimir Putin quoted in his televised Women's Day address earlier today: (please don't blame Dementyev for my clunky versification)

I know that all women are beautiful,
Loveliness and intelligence combined.
Playfulness, too, when there's a celebration,
And faithfulness, when there's division in the home.
We're not bowled over by outfits or classic profiles
It's the womanly soul that conquers us.
And her youthfulness ...
And motherliness ...
And, when the time comes, her grey hairs.
While I'm alive, I'll pray to women.
Above all other delights, I'll prefer love.
The Lord showed us woman as miracle,
Entrusting the world with this beauty.

Finally: there is nothing about Russian doublemindedness about women that doesn't have equivalents here in the USA, just in different proportions and emphases. National stereotypes should not block mutual listening and learning until we ALL reach the "whole measure of the fullness of Christ." (Ephesians 4:13, context.)


Patriarch Kirill on the special nature of women (and more on that special nature)

The Return (film) and the cult of the patient woman.

Vladimir Putin's Women's Day address in Russian, including poem.

On Women's Day, Russian lawmaker Slutsky apologizes (sort of).

Meduza's editorial: Leonid Slutsky must resign.

Kevin Rothrock's Russia Guy podcast reviews the Slutsky story and its context. (Just eleven minutes, very worthwhile.)

Evgenia Albats: Oprah and #MeToo, Russian style.

A challenge to sexism at St. Petersburg State University.

For Women's Day, Joy Lujan lists her articles about Quaker women on one convenient page of links.

Ethan McCarthy -- Louis C.K.'s sins and mine.

Lon Fendall: Standing alongside those who serve in public office.
Few if any of us will ever have the kind of relationship [Jim] Wallis had with [Senator Mark] Hatfield, whose staff knew that when Wallis called, time would be found for the two of them to talk. I certainly do not have such an open door with local or national officials. But I often wonder if there is something more I could be doing to stand alongside public officials who are grappling with hard issues. We would hope they would be willing to “stand alone,” but why should they have to?
Leon Neyfakh wonders whether going to sleep at the same time as his sweetie is normal.

Vanessa Collier, "Love Me Like a Man."

01 March 2018

Decline and persistence, part two

Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends -- quarterly gathering last month at Camas Friends Church, Camas, Washington, USA, approving by-laws and recording its first four member churches.
Last week, when I considered Quakers' decline and persistence, I was determined not to hold back on our symptoms of weakness and mortality. This week I'm thinking less about decline and more about what a worthwhile future might involve. In no special order ...
  • Is there a live urgency for our continued existence? That is, are there actual people ready to say right now that, in Hugh Doncaster's words from the World Conference of Friends in 1967, "The world is dying for lack of Quakerism in action"? Are you one of those people? If so, are you also in a fellowship that will pray for you, discern with you, ensure that your passion is linked to kindness? ... Because maybe the only way we keep passion from curdling into sectarianism is by constant conversation with other discerners. If you have this burning concern, all the conventional wisdom about Friends' decline finds a new perspective. It's information, a reality check, but not God's veto on a more creative use of our resources and relationships.
  • Our most dramatic public distinctive may be the practice of waiting worship, in silent expectation that the Holy Spirit is trustworthy to guide our public meetings rather than relying on a minister and a planned program. In recent years, some of our growing congregations have still been practicing this most ancient form of Quaker worship -- but do we still gather with that same striking expectation? Almost everything else we do in public worship is done by other Christians as well, but this raw liturgical trust is practically unique to Friends. It is a precious witness to the world that we gather to meet the living God together ... but do we? And are we able to articulate why we worship this way to our internal and external audiences? -- "This is how our family of faith was formed, by giving up the hierarchies and the furniture and daring to put all our eggs in the Gospel basket!" Without that clearly expressed expectation, we risk appearing to be a closed group of advanced adepts rather than ordinary people no better than our neighbors, engaging in a practice that is accessible to anyone. (Remembering our Moscow experience.)
  • Those of us who have adopted various forms of programming -- sermons, singing, "special" music, a collection, children's stories -- are not off the hook. Do we still preserve the blessedly vulnerable space for the Holy Spirit to intervene through anyone present, no matter how new, young, or untutored in Quaker folkways? (I've spent most of my adult years in Friends meetings where the time for silent waiting might be reduced to just five or ten minutes, but I also confess that, more than once, I've taken so much time sermonizing that there was no time left for silence.) Do we really want to argue that our own arrangements, as worthwhile as they might be, actually outrank listening to God?
  • Over and over, as I've talked with adult newcomers to Friends about their first experiences among us, they mention a quality of grace, a refreshing freedom from judgment, that let them know intuitively that they are in a safe place. This is just as true among pastoral, programmed meetings as among unprogrammed Friends. Have you felt this quality? Maybe you've been part of the welcoming community, and didn't even know what a gift you gave to someone new. I think this precious reality is worth deliberately cherishing. In Russia, many of the young people we talked to about church as a concept said that they associated that word "church" with being judged. I'm not arguing that Friends meetings are unique in having this grace, but I do believe that our lack of authoritarian patterns is an important factor.
  • It's all based on our most basic testimony, trust. In an age of information wars and power plays, we can build something truly great together: a trustworthy church. If there are non-Quaker churches that are also trustworthy, so much the better: that's not competition, that's fellowship! But evidence (#ChurchToo) suggests that there is still a crying need for places that are intelligently trustworthy. (And intelligence is needed! Churches are by their very nature open places, where wounded and angry people may walk right in. Safety requires prayer and policies! Yes, there will always be risks, but shaming and isolation should never be among them.)
  • Rick Warren told the (U.S.) National Religious Broadcasters a couple of days ago that revival will never happen in the USA if the church doesn't confront racism. Friends theology strips away all irrelevant social distinctions, giving us the potential for radical hospitality, but that requires us to neutralize elitist signals of all kinds with a hunger to taste heaven's diversity here and now. If it takes a whole new conversion to give us the necessary freedom and emotional range in place of old class anxieties, so be it. I'm convinced that guilt and self-flagellation and buying friendship through arms-length service are weak responses in comparison with an invitation to meet  at the feet of Jesus -- introverts and extroverts of all colors and cultures ready to learn together what it means to live in Gospel freedom. I've seen glimpses of this among Friends, so you can't tell me it's impossible.
  • Concerning the discipleship markers known as the Friends testimonies -- peace, equality, simplicity, prayer-based group decisionmaking: I hope that they will never weaken, but I'm tired of hearing them framed as social or political distinctives. They are nothing short of miracles, signs and wonders of that freedom we're promised in Christ. They are as evangelistic as they are ethical.
  • Finally: listening to the 28th episode of Quaker Faith and Podcast, "Traveling in Ministry," led me to think about what role traveling ministers can play in stirring us up to a more dynamic stewardship of our Quaker identity and resources. When I was in Beacon Hill Friends Meeting in Boston, we were lucky to have more than our share of traveling ministers. Peter Crysdale and Ralph Greene, pastors in New England Yearly Meeting, had an infectious enthusiasm about their Quaker faith, and I learned from them that it's perfectly acceptable to be passionate about being a Friend. Subdued moderation wasn't the only game in town! And Ann and Jim Lenhart of Celo, North Carolina, confronted me directly with their sense that I was to have a public ministry. Who might be waiting somewhere for your affirmation?
A few weeks ago, Judy and I visited Metolius Friends Church near Madras, Oregon. We remembered that on our previous visits, years ago, we had a definite sense of that grace I was trying to describe earlier. This time, almost the first thing that we saw entering the meetinghouse was a placard, "Let everything be done in LOVE." The pastor was new; we had not met him before, but he too seemed to embody this quality. He led the whole meeting for worship holding his completely unanxious young child in one arm, gesturing and handling papers with his free hand.

One more thing about that visit: I hope it's not too indiscreet to say that we had pro-Trump and anti-Trump people at our table, getting along together in a way that we don't often see these days. Needless to say, we can't wait for our next trip to Metolius!

Chuck Fager's question: Does Scott Miller have the answer to American Quakers' decline? (With interesting links to some nineteenth-century British writers concerned about the Quaker prospects of their era.)

Roger E. Olson wonders whether you would be mad if God saved everyone.

Michael Lind links Brexit and Trump's election to the new class war.
None of the dominant political ideologies of the West can explain the new class war, because all of them pretend that persisting social classes no longer exist in the West. Neoliberalism—the hegemonic ideology of the transatlantic elite—pretends that class has disappeared in societies that are purely meritocratic, with the exception of barriers to individual upward mobility that still exist because of racism, misogyny, and homophobia. Unable to acknowledge the existence of social class, much less to candidly discuss class conflicts, neoliberals can only attribute populism to bigotry or irrationality.
Miriam Elder and Charlie Warzel advise us not to blame Russian bots for everything.
It is true that bots are a serious problem. It is also true that the bot problem is exaggerated. It is true that Russian bots are a conspiracy theory that provides a tidy explanation for complicated developments. It is also true that Russian influence efforts may be happening before our eyes without us really knowing the full scope in the moment.
Russian political and security experts interpret Putin's state-of-the-nation speech.

Dark matter and the earliest stars: Sean Carroll considers the possible implications. (Thanks to www.3quarksdaily.com for the link.)

In memory of Terry Evans (1937-2018).

22 February 2018

The Quaker movement: decline and persistence

Over thirty years ago, Joshua Brown (then pastor of Adirondack Friends Meeting in South Glens Falls, New York) warned New York Yearly Meeting that "you can't get there from here." Given the yearly meeting's financial, demographic, and organizational trends, as he carefully outlined in his pamphlet of that name, ...
Whether our dream is to bring peace and justice to the world, to "make God more real", to answer that of God in everyone, to spread the everlasting Gospel to the ends of the earth, or merely to survive in our present poor state, we just can't get there from here.

At the present trend, which shows no sign of reversal and which has held steady over at least 30 years, we will be out of business as a Yearly Meeting in a generation.
Many Friends took Josh seriously, and in the 1990's I had several occasions to visit Friends in New York Yearly Meeting for myself, and experience their ongoing faithfulness. However, the statistical decline Josh pointed to has continued at more or less the same rate:

7,070 (in 1955)
5,124 (in 1985)
3,241 (in 2015)

Many Friends yearly meetings of two or three centuries' standing have similar gloomy statistics -- some better, some worse. Most have probably not had the benefit of the sort of sober and unspiritualized organizational audit that Josh Brown gave New York Yearly Meeting, but concerns about Quaker decline have been raised periodically for much of our history. We decline, and yet we persist.

Two recent articles have revived my own interest in this concern about decline and persistence:
Although McCormick's voice is very different from Josh Brown in 1986, there are some similarities  between the two analyses -- identifying demographic trends as well as unhelpful organizational patterns. Wess Daniels points to the possibilities of a powerful spiritual dynamic that can carry us beyond mere organizational adjustment, namely the crucial dialogue between tradition and context.

(Josh Brown has also continued to serve us well three decades after his first manifesto. See his blog, especially "What went wrong with Friends?" and "Have we learned anything?" I appreciate how he avoids doctrinal and metaphysical blame games -- without concealing his own Christian commitment -- and focuses on patterns of organizational behavior.)

Here are some of the questions I'm asking myself after re-reading Josh's 1986 essay and the two recent articles:
  • If Friends continue to fade quietly from the scene, will Jesus be less able to reach people in bondage? Or have we already become irrelevant to those who've not yet heard of us? 
  • Given that we are a microscopic percentage of the world Christian movement, do we have an inflated sense of our own importance? Or, to put it more positively, could we rest contented that our influence on Christian discipleship will last beyond our institutional survival?
  • In today's world, much of organizational Christianity is repelling potential converts instead of attracting them. Are Friends doing anything to counter this phenomenon? Or, as I sometimes fear, are we too distracted by self-satisfaction (in some places) or squabbling among ourselves (in other places) to offer a better way in?
  • For a research project at Woodbrooke in England a few years ago, I divided Friends outreach into two broad categories -- those who emphasize Friends discipleship (the testimonies of peace, simplicity, equality, prayer-based group decisionmaking) and those who emphasize the Gospel invitation to repent and believe the Good News. Neither group denies the other's goal; it's an argument about approaches and priorities. I argued that both approaches were valid. Can we forge creative alliances between their practitioners instead of their traditional one-upping of each other? Or is this just too optimistic?
  • Can we learn from the newer Quaker yearly meetings in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, including their own conversations on tradition and context, and their own struggles with finances, rigidity, and authoritarianism? How will we do this?
Finally, I suspect that there will always be a small but persistent market for what I've perhaps unfairly called boutique Quakerism -- tiny groups with progressive political ideals mixed with a savory blend of self-help spirituality and old Quaker cliches. Their marketing will probably continue emphasizing how doctrinally undemanding they are, how optional their linkages to anything remotely biblical.

Another persistent group will emphasize how safely they cling to cultural evangelicalism in its white North American manifestations, shielding its adherents from any exposure to the dangerous diversity of the worldwide Quaker family, accusing dissidents of betraying biblical standards.

Will anyone remain free simply to build a warm, generous, trustworthy outreach to people who are not skeptics, who are in fact ready to accept the Christian invitation, but who don't want to be manipulated? Are we still ready to experience Christ coming to teach his people himself -- and invite others into that adventure?

(Part two.)

In an article on the future of Friends in Europe (pdf file here), I wrote:
John Punshon once divided Western religious people into two groups with two characteristic questions: the children of the Enlightenment (“How can I know what is true?”) and the children of the Reformation (“Where will I spend eternity?”). People in one group often talk right past those in the other group, and neither has much native sympathy for the other, even though they actually share important spiritual and ethical concerns. In my questionnaire [in preparation for writing this article], I asked what God wanted to do in Europe specifically through Friends. Several responded that (for example) “this isn’t phrased in language I would use.” To what extent are we talking past each other? Would an inter-Quaker “Enlightenment/Reformation” dialogue increase our capacity to speak to a wider range of non-Quakers?

If we neglect this dialogue, I worry that the Quaker movement in Europe could divide into two streams: a limited chaplaincy for an individualistic, intellectual, highly ethical stream of Quakerism that is weak on transcendent motivation but unlikely to disappear altogether because it is persistently attractive to a tiny sector of the public; and a more public form of Protestant-flavored Quakerism that is more transparent and accessible, with a wider emotional range, yet is poorer for lack of fellowship with the first stream. Is such a bifurcated future to be welcomed, or to be avoided?
Does the inter-Quaker dialogue I described above, to "increase our capacity to speak to a wider range of non-Quakers," have any relevance for conversations about our future?

Jonas Cox (Spokane Friends Meeting) on the spirituality of Eric Clapton, part two. (Part one is here.)

A life of persistent service: Memorial minute for Barbara Graves. Her memorial meeting will be this Saturday at Berkeley Friends Church in California.

As The Guardian's Shaun Walker says goodbye to Moscow, he's thinking about Putin's quest for lost glory.

Here's a song we used in class....

(based on Rory Block's version)

15 February 2018

Realism 2.0

Madras (Oregon) sunset
The conventional wisdom:

You want sane gun control policies? A day in Washington DC without a new outrage? A genuine presidential election in Russia? Don't hold your breath!

As I noted after Russia's 2016 legislative elections, the advice to "be realistic" is too often simply a wet blanket to smother our hopes for something better. This evening on television, in response to the cries from Stoneman Douglas High School students and parents, pleading for action on gun control, I heard that same old cynicism: "Why," asked the worldly-wise, "should we expect a genuine response this time?"

We in fact won't do any better this time than we have before, if we surrender to this passivity. But the opposite of passivity isn't frantic perfection! I like these words from Jim Manney:
There’s an old saying that we should “pray as if everything depends on God, work as if everything depends on you.” It’s been attributed to Ignatius (though there’s no evidence that he said it), and many think it captures the Ignatian spirit: turning it all over to God in prayer and then working tirelessly and urgently to do God’s work. I prefer to reverse it: “pray as if everything depends on you, work as if everything depends on God.” This means that prayer has to be urgent: God has to do something dramatic if everything depends on me. It also puts our work in the right perspective: if it depends on God, we can let it go. We can work hard but leave the outcome up to him. If God is in charge we can tolerate mixed results and endure failure.
In any given moment, we may have no guarantee that our vision or our resistance will prevail, but we're working "as if everything depended on God." Listen, we are a happy people -- it has been given to us to work in collaboration with the Holy Spirit, accepting success and failure with an eager persistence and willingness to pray and learn and try again.

I have this odd intuition that, in fact, we're finally gaining on the bullies. They've overplayed their hand. A couple of years ago I saw a documentary on the D-Day invasion of Normandy. The vicious German machine-gun fire cut into the lines of invading troops coming ashore with awful effect, but those same machine gun bullets were strangely ineffective when traveling through more than a few feet of water. The water's resistance was enough to slow the bullets to a nonlethal speed.

Similarly, I dare to hope, our own increasing resistance may be taking its toll on the bullies.  The #MeToo movement is shaking up ancient assumptions of impunity for sexually aggressive power figures. Domestic violence, even by highly-placed White House officials, is no longer a "private" matter. Corruption and arrogance in state and federal cabinets are provoking resistance, too. Strangely, Donald Trump's relentless barrage of abusive Twitter remarks may itself lead to an outpouring of "we've had enough!"

Another case of resistance: as the Russian authorities try to shut down the exposes of corruption and the election-boycott campaign of Alexei Navalny's team, they don't give in to traditional fatalism. Instead, persistence and humor keep the team's message accessible. (Example: want the snowbanks cleared from your street? Spraypaint Navalny's name on the snow, and chances are it will get shoveled!) Even Navalny's banned Web site remains at least sporadically accessible.

After yesterday's catastrophe in Florida: the millions spent on lobbying against gun control in the USA may not be enough, this time, to ward off the day of reckoning. True, the number of guns already on American streets still will be in the hundreds of millions for a long time to come, so there are no simple solutions. But this time our outrage may finally force recognition that changes are needed and demanded. The U.S. Constitution's first-amendment guarantee of free speech has limitations directly connected to public safety; the exact same consideration must be restored to the second amendment's right to keep and bear arms. Best of all would be to modify that amendment, but a close second might be to require all gun owners to become part of a "well regulated Militia." Whatever the ultimate solution, let's keep the pressure on the politicians to focus, for a change, on our children's right to stay alive, or be prepared to explain themselves to an angry electorate.

If I'm right that the bullies may soon be, at long last, in retreat, I don't want them to be replaced by progressive bullies. Rage, however righteous, can be dangerously intoxicating. The discipline of "working as if everything depends on God" recognizes that many of our efforts will be tentative and partial and experimental. At first we may simply be shaking off the habits of passivity, before we gain confidence in the ways forward. If we allow ourselves to be heroically critical of the principalities and powers, but cut off those who criticize us, we'll soon be creating new oppressions in place of the ones we fought.

Over thirty years ago, I attended a conference on discernment at Quaker Hill Conference Center. I remember Jan Wood defining discernment, not as finding certainty or uniformity, but learning to turn our faces toward God. That's what realism has come to mean for me.

David Byrne's repost: Guns are about freedom....

A spiritual analysis of gun violence from William De Arteaga.

Brian Beutler tours the confusing funhouse of rightwing conspiracy theories. (Reminder from last summer that the "left" is not immune.)

Election day in Russia is March 18. In Yekaterinburg, people are discussing just about anything else.

Friday PS: Another victory for citizens making noise: a Russian professor, fired for protesting low pay, is reinstated.

Roger Ridley and Grandpa Elliott, together for the last time on a Playing for Change video...

08 February 2018

February shorts

In last week's post, "Smoking gun with silencer," my comments included a charge that Donald Trump had conned his way into the U.S. presidency. (See the full set of comments for the context.) Keith Saylor wanted me to say more precisely what I meant by "conned" ... a fair request. I'd like to repeat a part of my reply here:

You [Keith Saylor] charitably summarize my "con" argument this way: "It seems to me you are suggesting that Donald Trump conned his way to the Presidency by misusing or abusing the confidence in electoral process and the office of the Presidency to degrade the political culture for personal and general economic interest."

I don't think that Trump set out to degrade the political process. My argument is slightly simpler: He tricked a significant number of voters into believing that he would be a more competent leader than Hillary Clinton. Her case depended at least in part on her resume (activist, Senator, Secretary of State, etc.) and, consequently, her familiarity with how things are done, along with her policy priorities, which were standard-issue centrist reforms.

Trump's case was dramatically different. He denounced the political and financial establishment ("the swamp") and said, basically, "Rely on my intelligence and intuition as a get-it-done businessman who gives it to you straight." His utter disdain for political correctness simply reinforces this impression as someone who is not controlled by convention or the establishment.

Now I'm sure that a certain segment of his base has in fact gotten what he promised and demonstrated before the election: a transgressive figure with no verbal filter. This bull-in-a-china-shop behavior continues to delight them. This may be a function of their extreme alienation from the politics of the past; I just don't know. But it would be wrong for me to say that this specific segment was conned into voting for Trump.

I simply cannot believe that this segment accounts for all 60 million of his voters. Among those voters must be millions who actually believed his promises to clean out the swamp and who took his claims of expertise at face value. They surely hoped that his brutish behavior would cause a creative upset, not a destructive one. These are the people who were conned, in my opinion. They did NOT expect the degradation, collapse of worthwhile norms, administrative incompetence, chaotic and contradictory political signals, and exaltation of wealth that have marked his tenure so far. They may have made a comparison between Candidate Trump as intuitive genius and Hillary Clinton as the "swamp" candidate, but not between her and the rolling crisis we're experiencing now.

PS: It's not a "con" if he didn't intend to deceive, so my argument above is a bit incomplete. What really seems deceptive to me are two things: the "drain the swamp" claim, when in reality his regime is marked by very wealthy and well-connected Cabinet members and others; and the claim of being more intelligent and better-informed than others (in some cases FAR better), when he apparently counted on being able to operate by feel and fiat.

It doesn't seem quite fair to charge that he fully intended to make such a mess of things, or to wander so close to authoritarianism. But, whatever he intended, his actions, compromises, and inadequacies have led us into crisis territory. And all that is without considering whether he is so beholden to actors in Russia that he cannot act to secure our electronic borders.

The Winter Olympics have started! It's the one recurring event of the sports news cycle where the country of my birth, Norway, plays an outsize role on the world stage, so pardon me for any temporary inconsistencies in my conceit that I'm a world citizen!

Ellen looks at ski jumping coverage.
Norway's first curling matches of this year's games (mixed doubles) came up with wins. However, curling wasn't one of my childhood fascinations at Olympics time. The two sports that I loved following were ski jumping and biathlon. This remains true.

One other early victory for the 2018 Norwegian team: they managed to return 13,500 eggs ordered by mistake for the team's kitchen.

This year politics will play a larger than normal role in the games. North and South Korea will field a combined team for women's ice hockey, presumably without USA permission. On a sadder note, 47 Russian athletes and coaches lost an appeal to be included in these games. As a result of the doping scandal, those Russians who were found eligible will compete under the banner of the Olympic Athletes from Russia, rather than the Russian national flag.

In general (with exceptions!), the Russians I've talked to about this scandal have two responses, often given together although they may seem contradictory:

First, the penalties imposed on Russian athletes reflect anti-Russian attitudes in the West; and secondly: yes, doping happens -- it's just part of the normal culture of corruption in Russia. (Also, some ask "what about" the doping that goes on elsewhere in the world? Back to the first point: their claim is that since doping goes on everywhere, only politics can explain why Russia is singled out.)

Back in March 2017, did you see opposition politician Alexei Navalny's video "He's not Dimon to you!"? That expose of Russian prime minister Medvedev's allegedly ill-gotten real estate began with the tiniest initial clue: finding out who owned the location where the prime minister's online purchases of sneakers were delivered.

Screenshot from today's video. Outside Navalny's HQ.
Today's sensational new video from Navalny's anti-corruption team, which alleges connections between Russian deputy prime minister Sergei Prikhodko, oligarch Oleg Deripaska, and Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, describes another investigation that also began with a minor and apparently unrelated incident. A group of provocatively-dressed young women, accompanied by a film crew from Lifenews (specializing in yellow journalism favorable to Russian authorities, now defunct), showed up at Navalny's Moscow campaign offices in an apparent attempt to embarrass his team. Curiosity about these women and their mission led to a chain of further discoveries. (For more, see the video, which has English subtitles. See this evening's Washington Post article here.)

By the time I saw the new video, nine hours after its YouTube debut, it already had half a million viewers. At the end of the day, it has 1,145,000 views on Navalny's own YouTube channel alone.

Friday PS: Oleg Deripaska is not happy. Fresh summary on RFERL.

Jen Zamzow asks whether churches should handle sexual abuse allegations internally.

That "evangelical" label, again: Jonathan Merritt with John Stackhouse.

Rapper NF: where Christian hip-hop and Eminem meet. (Some NF tracks included.)

More on Russia's upcoming presidential elections: Alexander Kynev. Natalia Antonova.

With the U.S. Pentagon being force-fed yet more money, what happens to the money they already have? Here's a bit of probing by Nick Turse.

Buddy Guy's "Skin Deep" gets the Playing for Change treatment. (Thanks to Bill Denham for the link.)