22 February 2024

Aleksei Navalny 1976 - 2024

This issue of Sobesednik, the only national newspaper in Russia that covered Navalny's death, was seized by authorities when it hit the streets. Cover photo caption: "Aleksei Navalny before his death: 'BUT THERE'S HOPE.'" Tagline at bottom of page: "When others keep silent, we speak!" Coverage of Navalny's death was also removed (or blocked) from the paper's Web site. Source.

Last Friday morning began with a terrible shock, a message on my Whatsapp account from a friend in Elektrostal:

Navalny has been killed in the prison today... 😔😔😔

Since that moment I've been spending far too much time in the Russian Internet, trying to understand the meaning of his death for Russia, and why I feel so much personal grief. A relatively small percentage of Russians actively supported him, but those who did were willing to take enormous risks to do so. The hope he gave them (and the feeling of hopelessness that many testified to in the first shocked hours after Navalny's death) reminded me instantly of nine years ago, the killing of Boris Nemtsov.

I can't deny my own fascination: I mentioned Aleksei Navalny 39 times on my blog over the years, not counting reposts and annual digests. The first mention was January 12, 2012.

It wasn't that Navalny was perfect. (Jeremy Morris reliably delivers his trademark mixed evaluation, which to my mind isn't entirely fair, but at least you know I've read it!) But, among other things, I loved the enthusiasm with which he did his political work, the care he put into being accessible, both on a personal level and in his unparalleled digital presence, his unquenchable humor, even in prison—and that energy and enthusiasm was clearly infectious. The Russian power vertical decreed his movement's total removal from the public arena, but those thousands of alumni/ae no doubt cannot forget how they felt serving the cause of "the beautiful Russia of the future," and what they learned, in the Navalny laboratory of hope.

Listen to their voices now, as they react to the news of his death: (source)

Ksenia: When he returned to Russia after being poisoned, I understood his decision: because being a brave person and a true patriot of our country, he couldn’t be torn away from it. But I felt very sorry for him and his loved ones: it was clear that years of tribulations lay ahead, with no apparent way out, and possibly with a tragic ending. He’d still have chosen this path. There are people who let themselves burn up, giving light and warmth to others. He was — and remains — such a person in my heart.

Now, I’m grieving. And I feel love for my country. If the best among us are ready to die for it, then it’s worth the price.

Anastasia: I’ve been having these horrible thoughts that there’s no point in a beautiful Russian future anymore because Alexey won’t see it. He deserved it more than anyone, and without him, it won’t be the same. It also seems like Russia was beautiful when he was free, could travel around the country and speak to us from the screen, and we didn’t appreciate it enough. I know he’d scold me for these thoughts, but I have them. I see no point in anything. I just have this pain that he’s no longer here.

Yulia, Dasha, Zakhar [his wife and children], I think of you every minute. There’s still the chance that he’ll see our country free through your eyes. And that keeps me going.

I could go on to describe some of the gratuitous cruelty with which Russia's propaganda machine has treated Navalny's widow Yulia (as if memos must have gone out to all those media outlets with the same trashy messages, so that a simple and heartfelt "we're sorry for your terrible loss" seemed beyond the realm of official possibility). I won't go into detail about the unseemly ways that the authorities have been playing hide-and-seek with Navalny's body and its proper Orthodox burial. I won't list all the ways his years in prison were made as vexatious as possible, including poor medical attention, and over 300 days in solitary. You can find all that in other places. I'll just end with one more tribute, a screenshot from Dozhd TV ("the optimistic channel")... with a supporter holding up a sign that used a common nickname for Aleksei: "Forgive us, Lyosha...."


A brief political biography of Aleksei Navalny from the USA's National Public Radio. 

"I will continue Aleksei Navalny's work."

Navalny's channel on YouTube. Many of his greatest hits have decent English subtitles. In this video, Yulia Navalnaya commits herself to continuing their work.

Russian authorities declare Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty an undesirable organization. (Story in Russian.)

The Carlson/Putin interview is apparently going to be an educational resource in Russia.

Martin Indyk on the "strange resurrection of the two-state solution" for Israel and Palestine.

Heather Cox Richardson warns that theocracy and authoritarianism go hand in hand. (Russia-related update: open letter from the Orthodox Christian Study Center and a growing list of cosigners, with a plea to the ecumenical world to hold the Russian Orthodox Church accountable.)

Micah Bales on a Transfiguration observation: reality can be hard to take.


"5-O Blues", Corey Harris. Not sure why, but this seemed appropriate.

15 February 2024

Christians calling for a free Palestine

Christians for a Free Palestine: screenshots from this evening's Zoom call. Clockwise: Erica Williams, Cole Parke-West, Rifat Kassis. Others involved in leading this evening's presentation included Margaret Ernst, SueAnn Shiah, Jonathan Brenneman.


We confess that Your message has been manipulated by those who claim Your name. Rifat Kassis (in prayer).

There are so many reasons to turn away, and we need you [Christians] to stay, Palestine needs you to stay. Rabbi Jessica Rosenberg.

This Lent we're not to GIVE UP anything, but to STAND UP. Rev. Erica Williams.


Just a short post today to report on this evening's interesting "mass mobilization call" on behalf of Christians for a Free Palestine.

I had found out about this call from friends who knew about my longstanding concern for Palestine. Having written on my blog last week about the use of "Christian civilization" as a justification for outright cruelty, I was relieved to learn about an effort to organize Christians to stand against one of the most blatantly cruel spectacles currently underway under the eyes of the whole world—the ethnic cleansing of the Gaza Strip.

That campaign has reached a place of lethal absurdity in Israel's demands that Palestinians evacuate Rafah, where over a million of them have sought relative safety after being driven out of points further north. Among the actions we took this evening was to leave voicemail messages with our elected representatives and senators, using the calling facilities of Jewish Voice for Peace and a suggested script:

In the slightly longer term, we were given links to join a regional community-building program, and encouraged to spread the word on a Day of Action at senators' and representatives' offices, planned for March 18. The next mass call will take place on the previous day, March 17.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the hour is very late, and any credible campaign for Christians to rise up against the slaughter of Palestinians is worth considering. This evening's event had plenty of the signals I associate with the activist subculture, but my sense was that the prayer and the music and the appeals to mobilize were sincere, honest, and non-manipulative. For example, almost unbelievably, there were no images of the suffering and ruin to which we desperately desire to respond. The co-opting of our faith in the service of imperialism was very clearly denounced, but nobody aimed invective at any specific villains. Instead, we sang, "There is power in the Name of Jesus, to break every chain...."

I saw that this evening's call was recorded, and if a link to the recording is supplied, I'll update this post. Likewise, if I learn that my trust in this effort was misplaced, I'll also update. 

In the meantime, consider joining a regional group through this link, and judge for yourself. But, in any case, in addition to praying without ceasing, let's make some noise! In particular, let's confront the heresies of white supremacy and Christian Zionism that encourage and compound these outrages, and spread the genuine Good News with humility and boldness in the strong name of Jesus, and without glibness or denial in the presence of suffering.


One of the participants in this evening's call pointed out that there are more members of Christians United for Israel than there are Jewish people in the USA.

Do you think Len Gutkin is right about a hyperbolic style in American academe?

The hyperbolic style is marked by a cluster of generic traits. First, it emphasizes its speaker’s, or else some other potential victim’s, vulnerability to harm, up to and including murder. Second, it relies on distant historical analogies meant to heighten its urgency. Third, it is hortatory, alarmed, exigent: Something needs to happen, and it needs to happen now. Fourth (and this is its most “academic” feature) it makes large but ambiguous claims about the structural or systemic aspect of one or another threat.

Timothy Snyder on Vladimir Putin's genocidal myth.

Madeleine Davies, a senior writer at Britain's Church Times, reviews Karen Swallow Prior's The Evangelical Imagination.

What is needed, she suggests, is nothing less than another Reformation. If the first concerned the truth revealed in scripture, this one must confront “the way and the life revealed in Jesus—and how the Church has failed to follow and embody it”.

We need more Howard Thurman in our politics, says David Gowler at Religion News Service.

Mike Farley: Lent is a strange period in many ways.

Friends World Committee for Consultation, Section of the Americas, announces a new program of mutual learning and encouragement among Friends churches and meetings—Quaker Connect—and is seeking a new staff member to serve this new program. Note! Deadline for applications is March 1. 

Martin Kelley considers the new Quaker histories ... and how expensive they can be. Do we need a movement toward open access among Quakers academics and their institutions? (By the way, since Martin mentioned JSTOR: I found out when researching Fairhope, Alabama, and the Friends community in Monteverde, Costa Rica, that our public library here in Multnomah County, Oregon, makes JSTOR available without charge to cardholders.)

A self-serving PS: Since I'm among those who cannot afford those expensive books (thought I've bought some slightly older books at used book stores), I find these scholars' blogs a helpfui way to stay at least somewhat informed. And here's a sobering thought: I've now been a Quaker for fifty years, which means that my own lifespan as a Quaker already spans almost 15% of Quaker history!


Here's something a bit different: a Russian rock musician's approach to what I think qualifies as blues (at least as far as the lyrics are concerned)—Konstantin Nikolsky's "When you understand with your mind." The lyrics and a translation appear after the video. At first glance, it's a bit of a gloomy and ironic song, not qualities I usually look for, but it's probably my favorite of his many hits.

By some miracle of timing, I once heard Nikolsky live. It was during the financial crisis of 1998, and he appeared in a small Moscow club with an audience of less than 20.

Константин Никольский, "Когда поймешь умом."

Когда поймешь умом,
что ты один на свете,
И одиночества дорога так длинна,
То жить легко и думаешь о смерти,
Как о последней капле горького вина.
Вот мой бокал, в нем больше ни глотка
Той жизни, что как мед была сладка.
В нем только горечь неразбавленной печали,
Оставшейся на долю старика.
Бокал мой полон, но друзей не стану
Я больше угощать питьем своим.
Я их люблю, дай боже счастья им.
Пускай они пьют воду из под крана.
Для мира сделаю я много добрых дел,
Во веки вечные их не забудут люди.
И если выйдет все, как я хотел,
То, боже милый, мир прекрасным будет.
Послав страдания на голову мою,
Послав отчаянье душе моей правдивой,
Пошли мне веру, я о ней спою,
И дай мне силы,
Чтобы стать счастливым.
 
When you understand with your mind
that you are alone in the world,
And the road of loneliness is so long,
Then life is easy and you think about death,
Like the last drop of a bitter wine.
Here's my glass, there's not another sip in it
That life that was as sweet as honey.
Now there's only the bitterness of undiluted grief,
That remains as an old man's share.
My glass is full, but I won't make friends
I'll offer more of what I'm drinking.
I love them, God bless them.
Let them drink water from the tap.
For the world, I'll do many good deeds,
Forever and ever, people won't forget them,
And if everything turns out the way I wanted,
Then, dear God, the world will be wonderful.
Having sent suffering to my head,
Having sent despair to my truthful soul,
Send me faith, I'll sing about it,
And give me the strength to become glad.
 

08 February 2024

Time (Elektrostal, shameless nostalgia, and repost)

Sergey Kadyrov's "Elektrostal City" video with his own composition.

In the fall of 2004, I found out that McDonald's had established their first restaurant in Elektrostal, Russia. I confess that I had mixed reactions, as I recorded in Cures for homesickness:

McDonalds from my window (2004).
Although I'd heard rumors for years, I found myself unprepared for the mixed feelings I had when I saw, right from my eighth-floor $8/night hostel window, a McDonald's restaurant right there on Yalagin Street, "my" street in Elektrostal. On the one hand, I had to smile—leave it to McDonald's to find even this out-of-the-way industrial town. I knew that I would be welcome within its golden precincts, I would get polite service and predictable food, I could close my eyes, inhale the french-fry incense, and the miles (er, kilometers) separating me from home might briefly melt away.

There was another feeling, too. "They" had found "my" safe little city, "they" had violated its innocence, "they" were out to Americanize even this stolid, utilitarian, brick and cinderblock outpost of Soviet planning. I was no longer solely responsible for defining to the Elektrostal people what "American" meant.

Two weeks later, I felt that my description of this "stolid, utilitarian, brick and cinderblock outpost of Soviet planning" gave a somewhat inadequate picture of the city, so I filled in some details. (P.S. no. 2 in this blog post.)

Three years later, I began serving as an instructor at the Moscow region's first privately-owned linguistics college, a post that didn't end until November 2017. Judy and I and two cats lived happily in a warm apartment that became an extension of our educational work, a place where we fed and entertained students and offered our guest room to many wonderful visitors over the years. We were familiar figures at the local libraries, art exhibitions, poetry readings, not to mention the grocery stores, coffee houses, pizza and sushi restaurants, post office, computer parts stores, the fitness center, branch banks, the sports clinic, the immigration office ... and McDonald's. We knew many of the bus routes and stops by heart. In short, Elektrostal became a home for us.

It's a complicated time to express nostalgia for Russia. For me, Russia has been a massive paradox—encompassing what I called in this post "the warm heart of Orthodox heritage" with "centuries of relentless violence, conspiracy, invasion, aggression, suspicion, and mass-scale cruelty." And those negatives have been on blatant display since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago.

It's no comfort to me to say, correctly, that every nation, including the USA, has its ratio of high ideals vs cruel betrayals. As a patriotic American, I have a responsibility to defend our own high ideals in this particular season of danger. However, as a Christian I feel bound to challenge any time, any place, where "Christian civilization" serves as a justification for outright cruelty. Modesty, grace, and deep listening must be part of any such challenge, but blind denial and whataboutism are not options.

Given today's realities, I find it understandable that many people want to "cancel" Russian language and culture. (See Canceling Russia.) But I can't join them. The reason in some grand sense is my long acquaintance with Russia, starting with my first Russian class in high school, my first visit in 1975, and my travels to many parts of the country. But more concretely, my reason is: Elektrostal, period. This is the city whose artists and educators, students and grocers, doctors and bus drivers (and even the immigration office, usually!) welcomed us and gave us a home.

Tevosyan Square, Elektrostal. Celebrating the first day of school, 2016. The Sberbank branch bank mentioned below is just beyond the left edge of this picture.

I began this post with one of Sergey Kadyrov's videos that feature views of Elektrostal. This video includes a segment recorded from a bus driving along Mir Street, passing Park Plaza, the Crystal sports stadium, the Kazantsev School (at 2:20) where we taught, and City Hall. The memories flood back.


Stories are better than sentimental generalities. Here's one on life in Elektrostal (and a nice helping of Boris Pasternak), originally published April 7, 2011.

Sberbank branch where I read Pasternak.
Time.

The day before yesterday I went to the bank for a routine transaction, arriving about forty minutes before my appointment at the nearby hair cutting place.

I brought a book with me, knowing there might be a wait. As I entered, I took a number and glanced at the electronic signboard showing which number was being served. Number 37 was at window 6; I was number 83. Well, there was a chance, I thought.

Half an hour later, they were still twenty places away from serving me, and I knew I had to face reality. Off to the haircutter without finishing my banking. I took another number (117) on my way out, although I figured that, with my luck, they'd get to that number long before I was able to get back to the bank.

Well, no, they hadn't. They'd simply gone a little past my first number. So, no longer having a close deadline, I settled in for a wait. All the seats along the wall facing the bank tellers were taken; I folded myself into a child's seat next to the ATM. 

"It's a good thing to bring a book," said a woman a little older than me, sitting on the other side of the children's table and looking at my thick paperback of Pasternak's family correspondence. "Yes," I agreed, "and it's a good thing that this seat will hold 83 kilograms." A little further away, I heard a typical exchange among the elderly pensioners who make up the majority of the bank's midday customers. "What kind of transaction could be taking 45 minutes over at window 7?" "I have no idea. But that teller has been sitting at window 2 for most of the morning without taking any customers."

Meanwhile, an elderly man was trying to figure out the number system—another customer was patiently explaining that he had to push the machine's button for a number and then watch the signboard to know which window would be serving that number when it came up. Not every arriving person even bothered to find out the system—occasionally someone would walk into the branch and assertively step up to a window, standing just to the right of the customer being served. They were almost always noticed and reprimanded by other customers: "Wait a minute. You have to wait in line just like the rest of us."

On the other hand, those same customers, as I've seen more than once, might rise to the defense of an elderly man who's already been sitting a while, and who shuffles over unsteadily to a window and quietly asks whether the wait would be much longer. The crowd knows when to bend the rules and demand that someone be allowed to slip in.
Source.  

I was interested that, while I waited for the signboard to creep from number 88 to number 117, I came across this passage in the Pasternak book, in a letter to Boris Pasternak's parents and sister Lydia:
The house doesn't terrorize me, and I'm not scared of work or bother, although I have enough and to spare of all that. The reason I have no time is something entirely different.  As with money, and with objects I don't know how to value and am always glad to give away, I would probably be glad to share the most precious treasure that I know, which is: free time (perhaps that's the very thing that all religions have deified under the name of God). I mean the pure interval in which one can see the boundless fullness of real life, as real as the life of trees and animals. And incredible as it may seem, I would be able to find enough free time to share with anyone you like, because everyone always manages to get hold of and store up the thing he values most highly. But, more than anything else in the world, this is something reserved for the connoisseur. An understanding of art, however rare it may be, is much more widely distributed than a feeling for and understanding of free time. I'm talking about something that's far greater than mere 'leisure'. I'm talking about living time, in freedom.

This is something that I would be willing to share (as I have done on occasion), but only with someone who knew the meaning of the word 'an instant'. Why is there so much beauty in a thunderstorm?—Because it piles space upon space, making them flash, in other words it shows how fathomless the instant is, and what immense distances it can absorb and give forth again. But since there aren't many who know how inexhaustible and capacious an instant is, there's almost no-one to share it with—yet an instant is all that free time is. It's in this sense that I never have time—I don't have time for those who don't know what time is. [pp. 113-114]
There is beauty in a thunderstorm, and immense beauty in the moment people stick up for an elderly client, even though they will be "delayed" as a result.

On the one hand, I've never been bored at the bank.

On the other hand, I see on the bank's Web site that—contrary to what I was told when I opened my account—debit cards, usable at ATMs, are available to foreigners. I think I'll check into it again. [Indeed, I soon had a debit card, which saved many hours, and deprived me of time to spend reading in the warm company of other bank clients.]



[Continuing from 2011....] Having just observed another birthday, I was caught short by this passage to Pasternak's sister Josephine, written in 1927, more than thirty years before his death:
I haven't aged, and yet I've more than aged. I don't think I'm going to live as long as I should like. But there are other reasons too—I'll explain them below—why I've started behaving and feeling—in my consciousness, in my spiritual being, without reference to my biological self—as if I were in the final stage of my life. The main reason is this: that it's the only way to live in Russia at the present time without being a hypocrite, or wasting effort to no purpose,—or worse, provoking horrible catastrophes while achieving nothing whatsoever—wasting the explosively personal creative fire of mature middle age, these years so utterly and deservedly devoted to the love of freedom. I don't want to let myself go on this subject. I'll leave it at that. [p. 82]

Related: Boredom for dummies.


The Roys Report on the "Flashpoint" roster of Pentecostal prophets hitting the road for Donald Trump.

The Authoritarian Playbook, 2025 edition.

Christopher Harding on Alan Watts, for all his faults ... 

"Quakerism in Illinois Yearly Meeting will die in our generation, unless we as a Society stop saying, 'Ain't it awful'." From the late Mariellen Gilpin—one of the series of memorial posts in the online periodical What Canst Thou Say.

A frighteningly up-to-date quote (1845!) from Frederick Douglass on genuine Christianity and its peculiarly American counterfeit. (Thanks to Jim Fussell for the link.)

Clare Flourish on The Zone of Interest (film version). I consider myself warned.


Another helping of vivid memories: In December 1969, B.B. King made his break onto the Top 40 radio charts with this song, which he performs here not long after he received his first Grammy for that hit.

01 February 2024

To know our audiences—and to serve them

Northwest Yearly Meeting, 2013; photo was first used on this post.

As the 20th anniversary of this blog approaches, I've been looking at some of my recurring themes. One of them is the importance of communicators knowing and serving their audiences rather than themselves.

If you, dear reader, are concerned to communicate with a particular audience—whether it's inside or outside your organization; whether it be someone who is wrestling with addiction or other personal demons, or someone you'd like to introduce to Christian faith, or a potential contributor to your charitable campaign—maybe something here will make sense to you. I'm writing to anyone who cares about effective organizational communication, and I also invite your comments and corrections.

As part of my own background, during the first four years of this blog I was working for a marketing firm, Crane MetaMarketing Ltd (now Crane + Peters). It was a wonderful opportunity to learn what deeply researched, ethically grounded marketing and branding could do for communicators. I don't apply these lessons very systematically in these posts, but I gratefully acknowledge the values and skills I learned in the Cranes' nest.

What follows is nothing new. I'm just linking to some of the posts (and occasional rants) I've already done on this theme, hoping that something here might be interesting.


Publishers of Truth (August 13, 2009)

We Quakers have been publishers and pamphleteers from the very start. But maybe our priorities have changed.

In the 1600's, we issued calls all over the English-speaking world and beyond—to know Jesus personally, and as a result, to change worship, church government, stewardship of resources, and social ethics. There was passion, wonder, discovery, urgency, and fearlessness.

As we live with the results of the 19th-century divisions among us, the stuff we put out often reflects where we are in the complex geography of today's Friends. We evangelical Friends write more about Jesus (and with less emphasis on metaphor). At the universalist end, there's a lot of speculative material, and much that emphasizes how to be more quakerish. There's a lot of material in the middle, but so much of it, from whatever source, seems to be, well ... tame. I think a lot of it is intended just to fine-tune us, to make us more sophisticated or more well-adjusted within our present categories.

Some of this material is great. But two related elements often seem to be missing. The first is the excitement and urgency of a movement that once believed it was bringing something new and crucial into the world, that lives and destinies depended on getting these new experiences and insights expressed persuasively. As William Penn says in one of his tracts, "Hear and be entreated for your soul's sake!"

The disappearance of this element isn't necessarily a simple or entirely bad thing—that original fire might have been 90% inspiration, but surely there was a danger of arrogance and narrowness. We were, after all, claiming the very mantle of the apostles themselves! But has all of that confidence completely evaporated, and (aside from misplaced arrogance) what have we lost as a result?

. . .

The second missing element is the expectation of an external audience. We issue timid mating calls to try to attract people as much like ourselves as possible, and nobody else. We pander to prejudices—some of us saying "we're really just another safe, Bible-believing, evangelical denomination (water baptism on request)" and others, "don't worry, we won't intrude on your private spiritual space; we're all on various paths up the mountain, and we just like each other's company." There are a few Quaker books out there for non-Quakers, but with some exceptions they seem to portray us with an aura of quaint unworldliness and a uniformity we no longer have except in isolated pockets.... —I don't dare give examples lest I step on toes.

There's an in-between zone—for example, pamphlets for inquirers and newcomers. The series that Paul Anderson wrote for Barclay Press is good, but the vast majority of that genre is narrow, prim, derivative, overly intellectual, and often still fighting modernist-fundamentalist battles that are now largely irrelevant to spiritually hungry people.

Here's my complaint, in summary: Our publications and public communications generally seem directed at enhancing our personal sense of righteousness (however our branch of Friends defines righteousness) without a guiding vision of global relevance. I'm sure someone will tell me that the the context is there; it's just implicit. I will respond that if the non-Quaker can't detect it, they can be forgiven for believing it's not there.

What set off this train of thoughts was a question that has been raised in one of the committees I'm on, concerning choosing Friends materials to translate. It's not the first time I've been involved in discussions of translating Friends publications into or out of English, but this time I just had a brief but shocking intuition: what if the material we publish and distribute gives an impression of a tiny, fastidious, legalistic, joyless, rootless group of theoretically progressive philistines? Do we resemble anything so much as 19th-century middle-class spiritualists, gathering for seances? Do our evangelicals really take Jesus seriously, or are they just stuck on the old-time cliches because that's the safest thing to do? When will the liberals acknowledge Jesus again as prophet, priest, and king among us, and get rid of all those sophisticated post-Christian excuses for avoiding his claims on us?

In all fairness, I don't think that we Friends have made a corporate decision to project a tiny and timid message, if any at all, to the world. But where is the forum to discuss widely what kind of message we should project?—not a message about us and how wonderful we are or how safely innocuous we are, but about the world, the state it is in, its bondages on people's lives and souls, and what God demands of us?

(Full post.)


Publishers of Truth, part two (August 20, 2009)

Aside from academic stuff, the Christian publications I find most useful begin with the audience member's situation, either as an individual or as a part of society—in either case, facing a significant challenge. The author then tries to show how biblical insights, Christian disciplines, the author's own personal experiences, or the lives of fellow Christians, can shed light on the reader's situation. In many cases, such expressions have an emotional appeal as well—ranging from "your eternal destiny might be at stake!" to "God has hope for you in your addictions" to "Stop this injustice before more people are exploited or killed!" Sometimes the author even dares to claim a God-given insight specifically for that situation.

Please let me know whether you've found Quaker books, pamphlets, videos, anything, from recent years, that do this. I'm not saying they don't exist—if they do, I'd like to do my bit to give them more visibility. But too often we are not audience-centered at all; we're too busy describing ourselves and our ideas. Whether our motive is to make Quakers simply glow in the dark, or to one-up somebody else, internal or external, it's all about us.

It can't be just about us any more. Either God wants to reach the world through us, or we are just a boutique option for a spiritually drifting niche market, and our fellow creatures in spiritual or social agony should look somewhere else. If there's some other way to put it, convince me! In any case, I can't believe that the best we have to offer is to describe ourselves yet again, or to theorize on silence, "minding the light," simple living, earth care, from a position of serene safety.

There is a place for self-description; our hard-earned heritage deserves loving stewardship and persuasive advocacy, especially as we continue the important work of spiritual formation within our community and the empowerment of newcomers. I'd like us to build on that strength, going forward with honest attempts to speak God's prophetic words to the condition of people who don't have the safety margin to enjoy our self-descriptions, internal arguments, and theories. And if such people have a word to say to us, let's find ways of making that connection. Is more of this already happening than I realize? (Perhaps beyond the North Atlantic zone of Friendly affluence?)

(Full post.)


"Please don't go." (December 28, 2006)

Am I becoming a Quaker curmudgeon? Here comes another newsletter from an international Friends organization I care about. Let's see ... four pages of tiny print, with God mentioned once (in the mission statement) and absolutely no reference to Christ or Christianity. And how are we asked to support the organization? By sending money and getting our meetings to send money; evidently no prayer is needed. In contrast to the lack of divinity, the words "Quaker" and "Quakerism" are used at least a dozen times. But the overwhelming tone is that of a secular nongovernmental organization.

Years ago, when my job required me to read lots of these sorts of Quaker newsletters, I had a similar experience. A newsletter from the Quaker Council for European Affairs sent me over the edge when I realized that there was not a word in it about the spiritual motivation behind the excellent work it described. Being an experienced Quaker bureaucrat myself, after cooling off I had to admit that I knew the temptation to publicize what was on my desk rather than visualize and speak to a human audience about what was in my heart. Furthermore, as Right Sharing of World Resources staff (which I was at the time), I was aware that most of my daily reading and much of my advocacy work was in a context and culture set by large and competent secular organizations, and I began to recognize that I probably had a subconscious desire to be credible in that community.

I also realized that many Friends activists assume that their readers already understand the motivations undergirding their work, or can pick them up between the lines. But that's not how communication actually works, except perhaps among others already in the activist culture. So we think that our newsletters are spreading the word about our valuable work, but they're actually giving a cold shoulder to anyone who doesn't already share that culture. Everyone else can actually be forgiven for thinking that what we DON'T say must not be important.

I wrote a letter to QCEA at the time, but I can't remember getting a response.

Our income doesn't increase, because we're not connecting with new people, not communicating a motivation they can identify with. We communicate our programs, not our passion. We speak in the language of budgets and proposals and policies and the latest "thinking" about how to make lives better, but the common-sense reader needs to see how their own response can confront oppression, not how clever we are in using their money. And it may be natural to us to say "Quaker" and "Quakerism" over and over and over in our literature and Web sites, but without any reference to a living spirituality or the wider Christian context, we begin to give off a very cultish smell, as if we were representatives of some kind of rarified independent religion.

The newsletter that set me off this time (not from the QCEA) shows no ability to connect with any audience other than one primed to salute at the word "Quaker" and at listings of activities combating social ills. There's not even a symbolic, token linguistic nod at the majority of Friends who are at least nominally evangelical. My first, most ornery response: I guess our Christian faith must either be inconsequential or an embarrassment; it is certainly not a source of motivation worth mentioning. The intended audience obviously doesn't include me or people like me. But I know the writers, who are wonderful people, and I know that the reality cannot be that bleak: perhaps it is just that common tendency to forget the audience in favor of the desk, to emphasize the quantifiable and familiar "whats" and "hows," and leave out the why.

Why do I fear that I'm becoming a curmudgeon? Because a day earlier I received a mailing from an evangelical Christian organization, for yet another curriculum to train counselors in the church. Why must I always immediately scan such material to see if there's any evidence of women and of racial diversity in leadership? (Often not, even in 2006, soon to be 2007!!!) Why do I immediately check for evidence of at least minimal gender sensitivity in language? Why do I get so discouraged when there's no mention of systemic violence or societal sin? Why do I bristle at bouncy happy-talk that includes no serious analysis or self-criticism, and treats me like a naive idiot?

So, honestly, when was the last time I got a newsletter or appeal letter from a Quaker or other Christian source that actually satisfied me?

. . . See why I worry?

(Full post.)


Meditations on sectarianism (October 11, 2012)

A few years ago I tried to draw a distinction between evangelism and proselytism.

Evangelism is the persuasive, experience-driven communication of spiritual truth, combined with an invitation to experience a community formed by that truth. Without the invitation, evangelism is never complete, but without hospitality, the community is not truly accessible. If being a Friend is not simply a matter of happy historical accident, the reality must be as available as the theory.

In a world full of competing loyalties and oppressions, evangelism must be rooted in God's love for all creatures. Practically speaking, it must have the recipient's best interests at heart; it must be truly liberating. Proselytism, on the other hand, simply aims at a transfer of the listener's affiliation from one spiritual home to another (ours); in the worst case, it serves our interests, not theirs.

We Quakers do not proselytize. We are not trying to sell our spiritual community at the expense of another's: our responsibility is strictly limited to informing people about our faith and experience, and making the doorway accessible to those who want to test and see whether what we say is true. Furthermore, as a teacher, I believe that I have the responsibility to (as Douglas Steere put it) "confirm the deepest thing in another," and if that deepest thing is his or her Orthodox faith, I will do nothing to weaken it. If anything, I'd seek to make it stronger!

Keeping that doorway open, however, remains crucial!! Without the refreshment—and the scrutiny—of new people, we run the danger of stagnation, of becoming a chaplaincy for a small self-absorbed group. There's a question that some Quakers seem to pose whenever we suggest putting more energy into evangelism: "If we get new people, how do we know they are really Friends?" I love the way Jane Boring Dunlap of Wilmington Friends Meeting in Ohio responded to that question in a discussion: "Why do we assume that new people would be dumber than we are?" On a sadder note, I remember how some people in the old Elektrostal Meeting (when it existed) asked me, "Why is it so difficult to become a Friend? Aren't we good enough?" Yes you are!!—Friends are nothing more exotic than Christians who simply want to clear a way to the Source.

What did that unexpected visitor see when he burst into our [Moscow] meeting, with its quiet circle of Russians (and Judy and me), and the candle and Bibles on the table in the center? Maybe in this complicated age of gurus and special knowledge and ever-more-fragrant varieties of Gnostic elitism (and you find them here in Russia, too), a group of people sitting in reverent silence might at first glance resemble a special rarified group of adepts. No, no, no! We gather neither for self-confirmation nor for self-enhancement; we gather to meet with God in full reliance on the promises of Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Do you want to meet with God in friendly company and in simplicity of faith? That's the sole basis of our warm invitation. In the realities of today's Russia, it's more important than ever that we remain completely transparent, faithful to our essential simplicity—and accessible.

(Full post.) (Be sure to read comments, too.)


With many thanks for your patience, here are a few more links along these lines:

Signs, part one, part two, part three, part four.

Do we realize how we sound?

A good Quaker is hard to find.

Publishing truth—ethically.


In light of our Camas Friends' 2024 Word of the Year, "Repair," here is Becky Ankeny on God's Repair Shop.

Kristen Du Mez remembers Letha Dawson Scanzoni.

What fiction can reveal about the fragile fabric of societies: Aminatta Forna on Sierra Leone, the former Yugoslavia, and wider implications.

Kake, Alaska: A Quaker apology.

Hearing aids may take some getting used to, according to Nancy Thomas.


Introducing Dorothy Donegan.

25 January 2024

Pure intention, part three: Fox, Penn, and deconstruction

(The ecstasy of worship is connected to pure intention.  Pure intention, part two).


Source.  

Do not satisfie yourselves with out-sides, with a Name, a Profession, a Church-membership, &c. For 'tis not what you say, but what you do. But Turn In, and examine your own Hearts, see how they stand affected towards God and his Law and Truth in your inward Parts. Be Strict and True in the Search, as you would save your Souls. If your Minds be set on Heavenly Things, and that Holiness and Charity be the zealous Bent thereof, well will it be with you for ever.... 

Isa. 51. 6. Jer. 31. 33. Heb. 8. 10, 11, 12. Phil. 1. 12. Psal. 144. 15. 

—William Penn A Key... (1693)

Last year, when the "word of the year" for Camas Friends Church was curiosity, I was curious about how many friends (Friends) I knew whose faith journeys were in a time of deconstruction.

(For the year 2024, our church's word of the year is repair, a word I link more or less closely with all sorts of other re- verbs: restore, renew, renovate, resurrect, resuscitate, rejuvenate, regenerate, revitalize, reanimate ... reboot. They all have corresponding nouns, too, and let's not forget renaissance, rebirth, and so on. A fertile word!)

Last year, in part two, I thought about why, as an adult convert, I hadn't felt a similar desire to deconstruct my understandings of faith. I'm sure part of the reason was that I was an adult convert. At times, when I heard people's positive stories of growing up in the church, I regretted not having the supportive family that church had been in those people's experience. But when I heard stories about the church's shadow side—from fear of damnation for petty misdeeds, all the way to outright abuse—I could see that my late entry had its pluses. As I became more involved in Quaker institutions, I began to realize that I had some responsibility for church systems that wounded others, even if they hadn't directly wounded me.

This was part of why I began to think about what it meant for a church to be trustworthy. One step in that journey was my participation in a group of Friends who had gathered around a former student of a residential Friends school who had been molested by the headmaster. That case became a centerpiece of a special issue of Quaker Life. (A Mennonite periodical's article on a similar theme had encouraged us to take this step, despite Quaker Life's ancient avoidance patterns for anything controversial.) Another step was the experience of reading Gordon Aeschliman's book Cages of Pain, which I wrote about here.

Lately I've been reading some writings of early Friends, in connection with my last three blog posts on why Quakers might prefer the term Quaker or Friend to refer to themselves and their churches/meetings. Today I've been re-reading William Penn's brief tract with a long title, 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.

Back in 1974, as an enthusiastic new Quaker, I was eagerly immersing myself in the journals of George Fox and John Woolman, the book of discipline of London Yearly Meeting, Barclay's Apology, and William Penn's Key, along with the other writings and tracts that I mentioned here. Something in this material struck me in a new way today. Maybe it occurred to you a long time ago! But here's what I realized: the early Quakers might strike us now as staunch defenders of Christian faith, but they themselves did an enormous amount of deconstructing. And they did so at great cost and risk.

Consider these famous lines from George Fox:

Now after I had received that opening from the Lord that to be bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not sufficient to fit a man to be a minister of Christ, I regarded the priests less and looked more after the dissenting people…. As I had forsaken all the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those called the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. [1647]

I've always been impressed by his vivid recollection of that "voice"—but look at what preceded it. After bitter experience, he had to leave the religion industry and all its management structure behind. It's not surprising that his first imprisonment—for blasphemy—was just a few years away.

And then here is his future wife Margaret Fell reporting on the sermon that he gave at Ulverston steeplehouse in 1652:

And then he went on, and opened the Scriptures, and said, ‘The Scriptures were the prophets’ words and Christ’s and the apostles’ words, and what as they spoke they enjoyed and possessed and had it from the Lord’. And said, ‘Then what had any to do with the Scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth. You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?’

Talk about deconstruction! He neither dismisses the Bible nor gives it a magical superiority that the Bible itself never claims. He honors the Bible but also challenges his audience by linking the Bible's rootedness in the Spirit with the people's innate capacity to hear the same Spirit, if they will do so.

Barclay's full-length Apology and Penn's short Key both purport to defend Quakers from charges of heresy by showing how our every apparent peculiarity is directly tied to the Bible, or plain logic, or both. Even so, in their own ways, they are textbooks of deconstruction. A typical argument from Penn: 

(a) the Quakers' opponent's "perversion" says that Quakers don't believe in X, 

(b) but (says Penn) nothing could be further from the truth. The opponents hedge that X with human inventions, but we Quakers take a simple and direct approach. Look at a few of the "perversions" he cites in A Key, and see what I mean.

None of this is to suggest that the Quaker movement turned out to be immune from corrupting influences. At times we've tolerated pride, self-mythologizing, social prejudices of all kinds, cultural blind spots leading to colonialism, doctrinal rigidities among liberals and evangelicals alike, the twin addictions of affluence and individualism, and the struggles of technocrats and spiritualizers who fight over "what" and "how" and forget to ask "WHY?

Friends who once admired William Penn now must deal directly with his ownership of slaves, and even Fox himself now seems unclear—perhaps ignorant, perhaps resigned—about the slavery he encountered in the colonies. More recently, I know that scandals equal to those reported by Gordon Aeschliman have happened in Friends organizations.

However, at their best, our founding parents were able to model the deconstructing power of returning to the Center. It's important to recognize what they did; it's more important to do likewise ourselves.


Ron Worden on George Fox's use of the Bible.

Friends World Committee for Consultation, Section of the Americas, seeks a new executive secretary. Robin Mohr's very productive service for FWCC ends in July 2024.

Judy Maurer interviews Windy Cooler for our Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends newsletter.

We [Quakers] have a need to belong to each other—and to belong to that identity. For us, to allow shame into our lives and into our communities is incredibly threatening. It’s things like interpersonal violence or substance abuse or having too much money or too little money. These are all taboo in the broader society but I think inside of our little emotional pressure cooker, which is this tiny little Quaker world that we share with each other, being open about the shame of these things would be completely off limits.

Living Histories: A Past Studies Journal. Looks very interesting. Unfortunately, the next deadline for submissions (February 2) is almost upon us.

Woodbrooke hosts Paul Anderson, March 13, for an evangelical Quaker perspective on George Fox.


Angela Strehli with the Aki Kumar Band with a Muddy Waters classic, "I Love the Life I Live."

18 January 2024

"...The People, called in Scorn, QUAKERS": part three

A banner at Friends House, Euston Road, London.
Source: Gillian O'Brien via Twitter

"I think our jargon and collective theological vagueness sometimes gets in the way of welcoming new people. And YET, the theological vagueness is part of what makes room for people of different backgrounds to worship together."

—A response to the final question, "Any closing thoughts?" on my survey asking whether and when you prefer the term "Friend" or "Quaker."

I have so many mixed feelings about this insightful statement. It almost makes me want to post a whole new survey, with such questions as ...

  • Does your corner of the Quaker world consider itself jargon-ridden and/or theologically vague? 
  • If so, what advantages and disadvantages of these features have you experienced?
  • If not, is your greater conformity a source of strength and joy, or a result of not wanting to reveal your doubts? (Or both or neither!?)
  • For what purposes do you want to welcome people of different backgrounds and make room for everyone?
  • How much unity, if any, do you consider necessary to worship together? (For that matter, what is worship?)

Based on this Friend's other responses, I'm guessing that they're in the unprogrammed side of the Quaker movement, among whom there tends to be more theological diversity than where I am. But in any case, the big question for me is: why do we gather as a Quaker community? To put it another way, Who or what gathered us?

(Related: A great people to be gathered.)


A couple of years ago I saw this banner hanging on the outside of Friends House in London: "IN TURBULENT TIMES ... BE A QUAKER." I'm relatively sure no irony was intended. Here's my guess at an interpretation: "In times such as these, be someone who is capable of centering yourself in quietness, while at the same time being engaged on behalf of social justice and earth care." I'm not sure literal quaking at the word of God, as early Quakers preached and experienced, is directly recommended by the banner. We may have been the 17th century forerunners of the Pentecostal movement, but that's not the comparison that comes to mind now.

(Related: Happy birthday, Charismatics.)

On that same visit to London, we visited the Westminster Friends meetinghouse, location of the first British Quaker meeting for worship I ever attended, back in 1975.

On that more recent visit, I was intrigued by an outreach of that meeting in the form of an attractive invitation to its "Drop-in Silence ... Bringing peace, tranquility and silence to London's busy streets." Especially interesting were these promises in capital letters at the bottom of the notice: "NO PHILOSOPHY, NO RELIGION, NO CATCH / JUST PEACE, TRANQUILITY & SILENCE."

The Drop-in Silence Web site makes it clear that this weekly period of quiet is not a Friends meeting and is solely intended to provide a safe, unconditional place of calm. But Westminster Meeting's qualifications as host of Drop-in Silence are hinted at on the meeting's own Web site, in its tagline: "An oasis of calm in central London."

There is a modest reference to Friends on the Drop-in Silence Web site. Those who are curious about the sponsorship of the Silence can find links in the "About" pull-down menu. These links go to Westminster Quakers, to Britain Yearly Meeting, and to the Wikipedia article about Quakers—the last one making it clear how diverse our movement has become since the days quaking was more or less normal.

Londoners can come into the weekly Silence with the assurance that there is no proselytizing intent in Friends' offer of an oasis of quiet in the city. But there is a side of me that Eastern Christianity has influenced, which is why I can't help believing that those visitors are entering a space that is drenched in decades of prayer.


Back to my survey. The ways respondents identified themselves in the conventional categories we Friends use were interesting. Many were not content to choose just one category; for example, the Conservative/Wilburite category (yes, I know they're not exactly the same) included two who also identified as Liberal, and two who also identified as Evangelical.

Two respondents said they encompassed practically the whole spectrum: Liberal, Orthodox, and Conservative. To my mind, these intriguing responses don't necessarily indicate theological vagueness, but instead point to the inadequacy of these categories. I suspect I know at least a couple of these people, and there's nothing vague about them. 

Seven included "other" in addition to specific categories. Five simply chose "other."

Eleven people responded to the questions in the section addressed to people who aren't now Quakers. Eight said that they understood that the two terms, Quaker and Friend, are synonymous, and three hadn't understood that. Five were more familiar with the term Quaker, four with Friend, and two said that both terms were familiar. I would love to have more data from people who aren't involved with Quakers, but the great flaw in that aspect of my survey is that non-Quakers pop into my readership very randomly, probably as an odd result of an Internet search, and most don't stay on my blog very long.


Speaking of random encounters with the term Quaker, my last quotation from the survey follows.

I prefer the full title Religious Society of Friends of Truth, because I think dropping the last phrase obscures the significance of history of the former words.  And I do wish that P&G or whoever is responsible for past or current Quaker brands, such as are referred to above, would drop them.  I consider they're offensive effrontery.  Would they use Methodist or Anglican or Catholic or Mormon or any other church name?  It's absurd, and fixes Quakerism in the quaint past, along with comparable Racial totems like Aunt Jemima - I speak as an American Quaker...

When I read this comment, this jingle came unbidden into my head: "Quaker State your car, to keep it running young." Although the motor oil brand is probably referring to the state of Pennsylvania rather than to our religious movement, it does reinforce the respondent's point. But I also have to ask, whose fault is it that it's so easy to fix Quakerism in the quaint past? Have we been marginalized by others, or have we marginalized ourselves?

Many thanks to the survey participants for giving me so much food for thought.

(Part one. Part two.)


Here's the late Mariellen Gilpin on prayer and place—and Moscow Friends: The Cloud of Witnesses.

Here's Britain Yearly Meeting on observing George Fox's 400th birthday. Note the link to the Friends World Committee's page on the same subject.

Is There a Balm in Gilead? Prospects for a Palestinian/Israeli Peace. George Fox University's Woolman Peacemaking Forum this year features Jonathan Kuttab. Tuesday, February 13, 6 p.m. Pacific time.

Do unexpected megastructure discoveries challenge the cosmological principle?


I'm going to hurry up and publish this blog post in case we lose power in this icestorm. But not before I provide some blues dessert.... The late James Harman had been in "this same racket since 1962...."