20 September 2018

Being perfect, part two

Unimak Pass, yesterday morning. (Slow boat to Japan.)
(Part one.)

Few themes of Quaker discipleship fascinate me as much as perfection. It's a theme I can never get my head around except in the context of a conversation. In part one, I imagined a conversation within the pages of the Bible, with contributions from Jesus and Paul. Today I'm looking at two recent blog posts.

Number one. In their article, "The Myth of Missionary Neutrality," Jeff Christopherson and Matt Rogers argue that many if not most Christians live in an illegitimate "neutral" zone between missionary heroism on the one hand, and opposition to God on the other. They challenge us with a big IF:
But if, as I’d submit, all of life is sacred and every activity, down to the most mundane, is done as an act of worship unto the Lord, then everything we do either propels God’s mission forward and fosters universal praise of his greatness or hinders the embodiment of his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Number two. In his article, "The Meaning of the Cross," Nicholas Sooy argues that Christian nonviolence is rooted in self-negation. Citing Gerontissa Gavrielia, the Greek Orthodox nun, scientist, and nurse, he says,
Gavrielia comments that we completely identify with the Divine Other, and “with every other.” This means that we must also be absorbed in love for every fellow human. Before our neighbor we must also abandon ourselves so that we do not exist anymore. We must become nothing but love, having nothing of the self, but only love for the other.
These two articles seem to come from very different Christian cultures -- American evangelical Protestant (Christianity Today) and Eastern Orthodox. It is probably a bit glib to associate the verbs act and propel in the first article with the Protestant culture, and Sooy's recurring emphasis on relationships and being to Eastern Orthodoxy, but I'm doing it anyway. (Argue with me.) What's more interesting to me is these authors' essential agreement on what qualities characterize the life of a disciple ... and, by extension, when lived fully, constitute perfection.

What do I do with a vision of perfection that involves "everything we do" and requires "abandon[ing] ourselves so that we do not exist anymore"?

The first thing that hits me is the huge gap between this vision and my actual life.  Will these and other descriptions of ideal discipleship serve as causes of despair and disillusionment, or as magnets that attract me through the beautiful prospect of a closer relationship with Jesus and other disciples who wrestle with the same questions? I'm eager to explore this second, non-shaming way of dealing with the gap.

The second thing is the creative value of these different descriptions. I don't see the evangelical and the Eastern Orthodox descriptions (and those coming from other sources as well) as competing for some theological Pulitzer Prize. Instead I see them as making access to the community of learners wider, more available to diverse mentalities. So much of Protestant doctrine seems to me to be transactional, and so much Orthodox thinking seems to be mystical, but I'm convinced that these approaches need each other to avoid succumbing to their own internal versions of legalism and elitism. Today's post is a tiny experiment in promoting this exchange.

Related posts:

Thoughts on innocence.
Games, sports, comedies...

Maybe this article also contributes to a positive discussion of perfection -- it's an affectionate account of the relationship between the Vineyard movement and Quakers.

The Russian Supreme Court takes a step toward defending freedom of speech online.

Hal and Nancy Thomas float over the fields.

Curtis Salgado and Alan Hager ...

13 September 2018

Slow boat to Japan

The year 1905 was a fateful year for Japan, Russia, China, and Korea. In the swirl of mutual suspicions, imperial ambitions, and outright bloody combat -- with Great Britain, France, and Germany pressing their own interests on the geopolitical chessboard -- two young Germans decided to make Japan their new homeland.

Emma and Paul (and me) in Stuttgart
What drew Paul and Emma Schmitz, my mother's parents, to Japan? What vision of the future were they pursuing? I also have some very practical questions: Did they go to Japan as a couple, or did they meet there? Did they go to Japan directly from Germany? What were their ports of embarkation and arrival? Later, how did they earn a living? When they were deported to Germany in 1948 (by order of the American occupation forces), I imagine their departure was bittersweet, but in all my conversations with them in my childhood and teenage years, I never thought to ask about any of these questions.

My father's family tree in Norway is voluminously documented online, but I've searched in vain online for clues about my mother and her parents. With our retirement, we have at long last an opportunity to fill in some of the blanks. Judy and I decided to travel to Japan the same way my grandparents went there -- by sea.

Routine transoceanic transportation by ship was the norm in the years before airlines took over that task. It remained the norm for my parents in my own growing-up years: I immigrated to the USA on a ship, and and my next four transatlantic round trips were on ships as well. But now, to go by ship from North American to Japan usually requires the leisure and money to book a cabin on a freighter or a luxury Asian cruise. But, periodically, ships make the crossing simply to transfer from one seasonal market to another, and the cost can be surprisingly low. That's what our ship will be doing as it leaves Canada Place in Vancouver tomorrow and heads west ... ending its service on the Alaskan cruise market, and crossing the Pacific for two weeks to begin a season of Asian cruises.

We don't arrive at our destination -- Yokohama -- until September 30. The voyage includes eight uninterrupted days of ocean travel between Sitka and its first Japanese port, during which I hope to do a lot of background reading. One book I've loaded onto my tablet is Akira Kudo's Japanese-German Business Relations: Co-operation and Rivalry in the Interwar Period -- precisely the period I'm interested in with respect to my grandparents.

Thanks to Japanese Friend Takayuki Yokota-Murakami, with whom I served during my first term on Friends House Moscow's board, I have some clues that I never would have been able to find on my own. He and a colleague at Osaka University, Ayano Nakamura, have found out that Paul had a machine import firm based in Osaka. They also found a student record at Kobe's German school confirming that my mother was enrolled there. The school still exists ... and so I'm hoping to include that place among my visits. My Osaka University colleagues may even have found the location of my grandparents' home in Kobe.

With that information, I found one more intriguing little clue. I remember my mother telling me that the U.S. military deported them in order to confiscate their house. In an issue of the Pacific theater edition of Stars and Stripes, May 1949, in the "for lease" announcements section, there's a reference to a house labeled "P. Schmitz" with a Kobe location.

It's possible that I'll miss a deadline or two on this blog during these weeks. I'll check in when I can.

Conversation in a Vancouver souvenir shop:
Store clerk: "Where are you from?"

Johan: "Portland, Oregon."

Clerk: "Oh, you're Americans. Have you read the book yet?"

Johan: "What book? ... Oh, that one."

Clerk: "Read it. It's a gamechanger!"

A Russian-Japanese peace pact this year?

On the youngest Russian protesters: Tatyana Schukina is scared that children talk like that.

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine has been filling an undisputed need for nearly 70 years. What would possess a U.S. administration to cut 100% of the USA's support? (OK, I really had hoped to have a post completely free of U.S. politics, but, given my own ties to the region, I couldn't pass this story by.)

Publication of Andrea Sears's missionary attrition study is in progress.

Brazilians grieve the loss of their National Museum ... and consider innovative ways of restoring its place in their lives.

Big Mama Thornton in Eugene, Oregon, 1971, filmed by the crew of television's Gunsmoke. (Full Gunsmoke Blues documentary film is here.)

06 September 2018

Jamie Wright's challenge

You have this big evangelical church claiming to be Christ's ... Christ-related, claiming this God as their own, which is just such bullshit, and so, you know, when people kind of experience that pain of going like "This is garbage, like what are we doing?" and feel the rejection of the church, it makes perfect sense to me that many people just choose not to participate in the church OR a life of following Jesus, because they think it's completely connected, but it's not, it's not -- well, it hasn't been for me.

You can always count on Jamie Wright, the Very Worst Missionary, not to sugarcoat her observations! The example above is from her conversation with Peter Enns and Jared Byas on their Bible for Normal People" podcast. She appeared on their episode 51, "Jesus, Justice & the Mission Field."

Much of that podcast conversation reflects the experiences that fill Jamie Wright's recent book, The Very Worst Missionary: A Memoir or Whatever. I read her lively book with groans of recognition, bursts of sympathy, and (I admit) a certain amount of defensiveness.

Maybe you'll understand my defensiveness if I add that I've worked in two Friends organizations where missions (cross-cultural ministry) were major programs. I was the head staffer in one of them. So my natural inclination is to say, You might be right but ... we Friends avoided those mistakes! We're obviously more progressive / spiritual / authentic / superior. We don't even use the word "missionary."

Some specifics:

In her memoir (or whatever), Wright is scathing about the lack of quality control in the missions recruitment process that she experienced. Neither technical qualifications nor cultural intelligence seemed to have been taken into account in her cohort of new mission appointees.
In the process that led us there [to Costa Rica], we had often been advised, "God doesn't call the equipped, He equips the called." We had practically congratulated ourselves or being inexperienced and unqualified for the work ahead. But surrounded by a whole bunch of other unqualified/ill-equipped missionaries, I began to question this logic.
She goes on to question whether the missions posting was even appropriate in the first place.
I showed up believing I was called, expecting to be equipped and hoping to change lives, only to learn that Costa Rica didn't really need another missionary. Turns out they already had gobs of their own churches and pastors and spiritual leaders -- they had Bible colleges and seminaries, for f***'s sake. Costa Rican Christians didn't need North American Christians to teach them how to follow Jesus, and Costa Rican people didn't need any more well-intentioned foreigners to come and "help" them.
Consequently, the missionaries were not particularly respected by those they aimed to serve:
As we got to know the players [the football players husband Steve was coaching] better, some of the guys were brutally honest with us about how both long- and short-term missionaries were often perceived by locals, and that was as lazy, spoiled, entitled, patronizing, and just plain annoying. By now this wasn't exactly a shock to us.
In the Wrights' case, the local ecosystem adjusted to the presence of missionaries, but not always in the ways that were assumed by the admiring church back home. In a classic case study, Wright describes how her community in Costa Rica did what was needed to keep a Christian sports ministry on the hook for their annual clinics, for which that ministry brought lots of free athletic gear
...Local coaches and players who'd attended the same clinic the year before took a few minutes ahead of time to solicit volunteers to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. On our team of fifty, the head coach assigned a half dozen guys to raise their hands at the appointed time. Everyone else was urged to play along but not overdo it, so that the missionaries would feel successful and keep coming back.

* * *

"It's mutual exploitation," explained Mateo, who worked for Intel and played tight end. "Everybody wins."
Disillusionment took its spiritual toll on Jamie Wright, to the point that ...
There was simply no margin left in my weary soul for the catchy cliches, false promises, and overspiritualized expense reports that had played such a pivotal role in my life up to that point.
Simply bailing out then was a fantasy but wasn't an actual option. Instead, she became a writer. As she began testing her voice in the blog that became The Very Worst Missionary, she could combine her sharp eye for absurdity with her storytelling abilities (almost as good as Beth Woolsey!), and tell her audience exactly how she felt. She was learning that Jesus, who had changed her life as a young adult convert, and who she thought she had signed up to serve on the mission field, did not require her to sacrifice her brain and her tongue in the service of sanctified mediocrity.

Before I get to the defensive part, I should acknowledge that I've been reading Jamie Wright online since 2010, when her blog was called jamiewrightcr.blogspot.com. In other words, I was a faithful reader for most of the years we were in Russia. (My first link to her on my blog went to this article. Among the other ten times I linked to her, I particularly appreciated her contribution to the discussions of short-term missions.) For me, having spent 44 years in the church world, much of this time on Quaker payrolls, it's extremely comforting to be reminded that Jesus is infinitely more real than a lot of what passes for church culture.
[Sidebar: Wright often uses what Russians delightfully call non-normative language. That certainly goes for The Very Worst Missionary: A Memoir or Whatever. In one of her quotations above, I was the one who added the asterisks. But don't worry, she has you covered. If you buy a copy for someone who might be distracted by the non-normative words, just go to this blog post and scroll down for her instructions and handy concordance.

I've noted before, with regret, that there's a trend among Christian bloggers to use this kind of language. I've concluded that they know their best-fit audience better than I do, and I'm probably not in it! I can't say I am totally reconciled to what I see as the deflation of strong language (for which there's certainly a time and place), but in the case of bloggers such as Jamie Wright, I'd rather risk the discomfort than not hear what they're saying.]
My main observation on the truth of Jamie Wright's critique of missions is summed up in the last words of the podcast quotation with which I started this post. People think that behaving churchy in the evangelical style and following Jesus is all the same thing, completely connected, "but it's not, it's not -- well, it hasn't been for me." For her ... and who else?

Increasing awareness of the disconnect between genuine faith and absurd practice is the arc of Wright's story. I'm convinced it's not just her story. Years of reading people's comments on her blog, and watching its popularity grow, convinced me, if I needed convincing, that her disillusionment is common. I've done plenty of my own coverage of pious absurdity. It's always fair to point out where the body fails to reflect the beauty of the Head -- or worse, when leaders take advantage of their presumed spiritual authority to further their own unholy agendas.

Not all missions programs have the fatal flaws Wright describes. At Friends United Meeting and at Northwest Yearly Meeting (the sending organizations I knew best), candidates had to undergo careful evaluation. Heroes and messiahs were not welcome. An understanding of Quaker discipleship was expected. There was nothing easy or slick about the recruitment and application process, or the ongoing evaluations, in either organization. I loved the fact that neither organization expected happy-talk reports. Underneath all of these arrangements is an understanding that the appointees are not preparing to import something to the field, but to learn what God is already doing there, and, in prayer and humility, to join in.

However, our recruitment efforts (especially at Friends United Meeting) were in direct competition with other missions organizations, some of whose hoops were a lot easier to jump through than ours, and whose bureaucracies were less transparent. I remember several instances of people we wanted to appoint ending up cutting the conversation short and signing up elsewhere. As we traveled to local meetings to raise funds for existing appointees, we found meetinghouse after meetinghouse flooded with slick promotional material from the larger agencies. Often I wanted to say to our meetings and churches, "Why not support our program? You know us. We're directly accountable to you!"

One part of Wright's critique was directly applicable to FUM, although at a slightly different angle than her Costa Rican case study: why so much effort to send people to places already saturated with Christian presence? The largest part of our missions program involved Kenya, where our work began in 1902. Friends in Kenya had been independent members of Friends United Meeting -- not a mission field -- for many years, and in fact were developing missions of their own. We collaborated on some of those new efforts, but in general we were in maintenance mode rather than opening access to Friends faith and practice among people previously unreached. Complacency and lack of vision on FUM's part arguably contributed to the periodic corruption scandals in East African Quaker institutions. (I mentioned some of these challenges in this post.)

To sum up: Jamie Wright has indicted the missions industry in vivid, blunt terms. Her specific observations may not apply to all missions agencies, or even most of them -- but maybe the programs who automatically assume "We're better than that" are already on a path of their own to stagnation and corruption. Wright's book lists some of the symptoms to watch out for, if it's not too late.

One of the reasons I will always support "missions" in some form or another is absurdly simple: human beings ought to have the freedom to mingle freely all over this planet. It's not that everyone must do so, but there ought to be no artificial barriers preventing that free flow. Nor should we be surprised when some people who wander and mingle turn out to be inadequately prepared or have mixed motives. (One of my former colleagues once said, candidly, "There's more than one reason to be a missionary in Jamaica.")

Some of these wanderers will buy and sell, some will study and teach, and some will yearn to find new friendships. And those of us who believe in a God of love and justice, whose promises are for all creation, and whose followers are agents of bondage-breaking in God's name, will naturally want to carry this good news with them wherever they go. If they can convince their church to help them, so much the better -- then it's up to the church to set up the same level of accountability for those traveling Friends that any shared concern requires; no more, no less.

Patricia Dallmann on Lewis Benson and the Quakers' revolution.

A British Quaker, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, wins the Breakthrough Prize for her pulsar discovery ... and decides to donate the money to help under-represented groups of students to become physicists.

How to attract trolls: write about Russian election interference.

... And "prominent Quakers" end up on Fancy Bear's target list.

Jim Kovpak adds some new concepts to his Russian Observers' Field Guide.

Secular courts and religious liberty in Canada.

Flags in space: NASA, politics, films, and the American flag.

Instead of my usual blues video dessert, here's a special audio track from Annie Patterson.

"Never Make Your Move Too Soon" by Will Jennings & Nesbert Jr Hooper, from Annie Patterson's solo jazz and blues EP "Make Your Move". For more info about Annie or to purchase the (3 jazz, 1 blues) EP visit www.riseupandsing.org/Annie.

Vocals: Annie Patterson, Piano/Wurlitzer: Paul Arslanian, Double Bass: Jeff Dostal, Drums: Joe Fitzpatrick, Guitar: John Cabán. Recorded, mixed and mastered by Warren Amerman, Rotary Records, Springfield, MA. Produced by Mary Witt and Annie Patterson. Cover design by Annie Patterson, photo by Mary Witt. Other tracks include: "Isn't It a Lovely Day," "Here In My Arms" and "Slow Boat to China."

30 August 2018

Good news or bad news?

Paula White reads inscription on Bible. "History will record the greatness that you have brought for generations." Source.
About 45 years ago the Mennonite Central Committee published a booklet, Evangelism: Good News or Bad News? The booklet became part of a study package distributed by the New Call to Peacemaking, an initiative of Norval Hadley and Evangelical Friends. The New Call found its first organizational home in the Faith and Life Movement staffed by Robert Rumsey of the Friends World Committee for Consultation. In 1976 it became a joint effort by the three largest peace churches, Friends, Church of the Brethren, and Mennonites.

I first heard about the New Call to Peacemaking in 1976 at the Friends World Committee's Triennial sessions in Hamilton, Ontario, which I attended as an observer from the host yearly meeting. (This was where I heard T. Canby Jones speaking about Hiroshima.) With great anticipation I ordered the study materials, and was not disappointed. In particular I was impressed by that pamphlet on evangelism.

Forgive a bit more personal context. As a new Christian, I sometimes felt that I was developing a split personality. From the Ottawa Friends Meeting I received such treasures ... a place to worship and grow in my faith, with none of the trappings of the religion industry that (under the influence of my atheist parents) I was still allergic to. Also, they provided me with wonderful mentors such as Deborah Haight, Anne Thomas, Len and Betty Huggard, and so many others. Their kindness, and the constant encouragement of the whole community (who put up patiently with my naive enthusiasms) gave me a firm Quakerly identity that carries me to this day.

However, Ottawa Friends had their brittle places. Too much outward enthusiasm was not appropriate. Also, I gradually became aware that not everyone was as convinced as I was that Friends were simply a revival of apostolic Christianity. For a wider emotional range, and a more direct engagement with the Bible, I also began attending an informal house church I found out about through fellow students at Carleton University. That group was a bit like a hub, with spokes that went outward into all sorts of fascinating interests -- Eastern Orthodox theology, Christian-Marxist dialogues, Amnesty International. With each of these two groups, the Quakers and the house church, I behaved appropriately for that group while absorbing the discontinuity within myself. Occasionally I invited my house-church friends to come to my Friends meeting with me, and several took me up on it, but as far as I remember, nobody stayed.

Yet another part of my early faith experience was the charismatic fellowship that my Canadian relatives were part of, and which offered me yet another vision of Christian freedom ... until, at some point, it didn't: it became more like an authoritarian cult.

That booklet, Evangelism: Good News or Bad News?, helped me integrate all of my multiple spiritual identities. I was impressed that its authors (Frank Epp, John Stoner, and John Toews) dared to suggest that evangelism, as actually practiced, could be bad news. Their message was clear: yes, the good news of Jesus was about eternity and the Realm of Heaven, but that eternity starts now. The good news is good now. It begins healing and liberating now.

(I had already been hearing some of this message in non-Quaker settings -- for example, my summer internship at Voice of Calvary in Mendenhall, Mississippi, in 1975 -- but in the New Call to Peacemaking, I saw that these insights were endorsed by Friends as well, and applied directly to the concern for peace and nonviolence that had brought me to Jesus in the first place. It was that same good news that had, in my own experience, broken the bondage of racism and the cult of obedience.)

In 1982, I was working at Quaker Hill Bookstore in Richmond, Indiana, when I came across another provocative book: Alfred Krass's Evangelizing Neopagan North America. Here's how he restated the concern for evangelism as genuine good news -- and whose interests might be served by keeping it safely in the by-and-by:
...Christians have from a very early time come to operate with a metaphysic which distinguishes sharply between the "eternal" and the "temporal," the "heavenly" and the "earthly." Only in brief periods of "enthusiasm" has the Christian community been able to dream of realizations of the eternal kingdom within time and space. We used to speak that way, you remember, of "eternal life," as that expression is used in the Fourth Gospel. It was something future, to be held out as a carrot before us. Then people began to realize that the writer of the fourth Gospel did not share the world-view of Hellenistic society. He really meant to describe the current life of Christ's followers as eternal life.

Similarly, Latin American theologians and biblical scholars have shown how we are still influenced by the metaphysic of Hellenism when we speak of the kingdom. Our glasses have kept us from accepting what the New Testament says about the kingdom: that it has entered our time and space. Not only our Hellenistic glasses are at fault, however. It's not a coincidence that it's in the interests of the world's ruling elite that Christians should have a delayed expectation of the kingdom. This makes them docile, law-abiding citizens who do not make embarrassing demands today. It threatens the status quo immensely when you have people around who expect and demand that oppressive situations be changed.
It's time to be honest. Everything I have written to this point today is here as a direct result of Monday's White House event to honor evangelical leaders. I really do not want Donald Trump to take up any more space in my blog and in my life -- and I also realize that you, dear patient reader, don't need me to provide insights that you wouldn't otherwise receive. But, just as with the Jerusalem embassy ceremony, the White House meeting and dinner again put a set of celebrity evangelical leaders in the national spotlight, in effect giving them a unique public setting to do the evangelizing that their label obliges them to do, in season and out of season. Instead, the main aim of the evening seems to have been to enlist them and their followers in the president's re-election campaign. If there was a peep of protest there, it never reached the public. As a self-described evangelical, I can't let this go unchallenged.

So: for the record, those court evangelicals (to use John Fea's term) do not speak for me. In honoring a president who incites division, verbally abuses his opponents, and treats vulnerable people the way he and his team do, their version of evangelism is not good news.

One more personal bit. I again crossed paths with the New Call to Peacemaking in 1983, when FWCC's Robert J. Rumsey retired and I was part of the team of FWCC field staff that replaced him. I inherited his stock of Evangelism: Good News or Bad News? and the other New Call materials. Staffing responsibilities for New Call had already passed to John K. Stoner of the Mennonites, but I was happy to help with distribution of these good resources.

While we're on the subject of God's kingdom, did Lou Reed (Velvet Underground) understand God's kingdom better than evangelicals do?

Adam Taylor on the Faustian bargain on full display at Trump's evangelical dinner. Bobby Ross comments on the dinner's media coverage.

Authentic Spirit-led evangelism: Adria Gulizia wants to help you get started. (On my blog, this study has been the most popular post of the last four months, with over 1,100 views. I hope its publication on Adria's own blog gets even wider circulation.)

John Inazu is still confident about "confident pluralism."

From RFE/RL: Declassified memos offer a fascinating window into the Bill Clinton-Boris Yeltsin relationship.

Putin makes a rare television speech to explain his support for a modified pension reform program. Meduza summarizes Vladimir Putin's proposed softening of the reform and the cost of the compromise. A rather jaundiced appraisal from Alexei Tsvetcoff. (In Russian: Navalny says "I told you so," and explains V. Putin's decision with statistics.)

"They call me Lazy; goodness knows I'm only tired." Goodbye, Leslie Carswell Johnson.

23 August 2018

George Fox on overcoming corruption

Friends Meetinghouse, Quaker Ridge Road, Casco, Maine. Photo by Judy Maurer.
In 1658, George Fox wrote to Oliver Cromwell's daughter Elizabeth Cromwell Claypole, ... and reported in his journal that his letter proved helpful to many others. In the aftermath of Tuesday's important developments in the struggle to preserve the rule of law in the USA, the letter is proving helpful to me. Here are my favorite passages.
Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts, and then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord God, whereby thou wilt feel his strength and power from whence life comes, to allay all tempests, against blusterings and storms. That is it which moulds up into patience, into innocency, into soberness, into stillness, into stayedness, into quietness, up to God, with his power.

So then this is the word of the Lord God unto you all; what the light doth make manifest and discover, temptations, confusions, distractions, distempers; do not look at the temptations, confusions, corruptions, but at the light that discovers them, that makes them manifest; and with the same light you will feel over them, to receive power to stand against them.

For looking down at sin, and corruption, and distraction, you are swallowed up in it; but looking at the light that discovers them, you will see over them. That will give victory; and you will find grace and strength; and there is the first step of peace.
It is true that if I focus on the transgressions, I will simply wade in with rhetorical fists flying. This will not do. The U.S. president is setting up conditions for a civil war. The hostility between those who are sold out to Trump, whatever the cost, and those who greet his every outrage with scathing invective, is palpable. The next few days and weeks may decide whether the country continues as a republic under law, or becomes some kind of authoritarian, personality-driven hybrid. The people I trust do not agree on what path seems more likely, but nobody is predicting reconciliation. In this feverish time, I don't have the right to retreat, but I do need to address the fever.

As I sit still and follow Fox's advice, the first thing that comes to me is that there is no special corruption or villainy in Trump's captives that is not potentially present in me as well. They are the same biological species, they are subject to the same signals of territoriality and group mobilization, the same patterns of identifying "ours" and "theirs" and the same tendencies to ascribe evil to "them."

Via Twitter
Being honest with myself and God that I'm not categorically better than "them" doesn't have to cause a paralysis of shame or uncertainty. I have made decisions and commitments in my life that I would like to count on to keep me from being trapped in those patterns; and when I stumble or fail, I have already put myself into the hands of a church community that has the right to teach and elder me. The challenge is to stay in the "light that discovers" rather than jump back into those old patterns and shortcuts. Thanks to family and community and prayer, I don't undertake this challenge alone.

There is the first step of peace.

Secondly, Fox promises that God's light and power will help me to stand against temptations and corruptions. I myself would probably rely on the combative tactics that we see all around us, but that just leads to my own brand of temptations, distractions, and confusions. I would enjoy the approval of others equally angry with the authoritarian tribe, and maybe that's a start: resistance is better than utter passivity. But in the light and power of God, and with input from those I've learned to trust, I can find my share in the Godly division of labor. I can learn to identify my circle of potential influence, and resist the illusory temptation to correct and punish those not in that circle.

There are two areas where I feel a more or less constant temptation to intervene. When I encounter false witness -- for example, when an individual or group is being slandered -- and I have the possibility of intervening, I do. No matter how angry I am, I try to confine my intervention to public facts. (On this blog, with its admittedly limited reach, I rehearsed here and here.)

The other area is the misuse of Christian faith to serve the principalities and powers of this world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12) Here I see the embedded demonic power of racism warping our nation's ability to reason together and build the more perfect union that our own Constitution anticipates. It seems obvious and urgent that the church should be united in this specific front of the Lamb's War, and I pray to have a role in challenging the demon that weakens our Christian testimony and damages its reputation. As a grateful immigrant, I want to help build that more perfect union.

What share have you found in confronting the fever of these times? What perspectives am I in danger of overlooking?

Aretha Franklin, late Queen of Soul, as vocalist and pianist.

Meduza on the near-end of Protestant pastoral visitations in Russian prisons.

Two interesting articles from OpenDemocracy: Why Russia needs a grassroots campaign against political repression. An interview with the mother of Anna Pavlikova, an 18-year-old facing extremism charges in Russia (currently under house arrest).

Fighting back against the abuse of history: the Arzamas cultural history project.

Jim Forest: Pope Francis and the death penalty in historical perspective.

Cultural or doctrinal conflicts: What's the difference and does it matter to journalists? Ira Rifkin wants to know.

"My soul looks back in wonder, how I got over."

16 August 2018

"Shame is what turns societies around."

Working after hours at the Raymond Village Library.
In a conversation with Robert Ferguson, Danish poet Jesper Mølby was recounting the story of a German doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee, royal physician to the notoriously out-of-control Danish monarch Christian VII. Struensee took advantage of his status of trust with Christian VII to become, in effect, the regent ruler of Denmark for a period between 1770 and 1772. This gave him a chance to convert Denmark, for this brief interim, from an absolute monarchy to a model of free speech, egalitarianism, and enlightenment.

When the establishment finally caught up with Struensee and deposed him, they tortured and executed him publicly in a prolonged, extravagantly cruel process, detailed in Ferguson's book Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North, and even illustrated in the book with a contemporary woodcut which I will not reproduce here. Mølby concludes his account:
People say that as the show went on, the watching crowd fell silent, and when it was all over they left in silence. I think a limitless sense of shame was born on that April day in 1772, and shame is what turns societies around.
After the Struensee episode, Denmark reverted to absolutism, but a few generations later, the 1849 constitution abolished absolute monarchy and banned censorship in perpetuity. (However, a law was also passed that banned foreigners from high office!)

Ferguson reports this episode in Scandinavians as part of his explorations of several interrelated questions: Is the reputed "melancholy" of the northlands a real thing or an exotic assumption of foreign observers, a sort of Nordic orientalism? How do we explain Scandinavia's thoroughgoing democratic values, early abolition of capital punishment, fiscal prudence, and welfare economies, and what role does Lutheran faith play in all this? Is the shadow side of all this enlightenment a sort of enforced conformism, posing special challenges for authors, artists, and explorers?

(You won't be surprised that another Dane, Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, takes up another very significant chapter of Ferguson's book.)

Back to the scene at Struensee's execution: Jesper Mølby's evocative generalization, " ... shame is what turns societies around," caused me to stop reading and think back on another book I read recently: Lara Feigel's excellent The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love, and Art in the Ruins of the Reich. Feigel recounts the shifting cultural politics of the Allied occupation of defeated Germany, and the participation of novelists, filmmakers, poets, and journalists with varied German connections in that occupation. She also describes the German responses to those efforts -- often falling short of the shame and remorse expected by many of those determined to re-educate Germany. It fell to their children, to the next generation of Germans, to begin demanding a more thorough confrontation with guilt and shame.

I grew up in the family of a professor of German language and literature. I can still remember the shelves of books by Thomas Mann, Günter Grass, Hermann Hesse, Heinrich Böll, and so many others, that surrounded me and my toys for all my indoor hours. I was blissfully unaware of all the controversy and emotion swirling around these questions of German guilt, and I know nothing of what my mother talked about with her students at Roosevelt University. I do know that she stubbornly preserved a sense of racial superiority, granting only that the Japanese people among whom she grew up were "honorary Aryans."

Shame did not seem to influence my mother. (How I wish I had known to ask her about some of these crucial questions. What was she thinking about as she taught classes on The Tin Drum?!) But, setting aside my mother for the moment, what role did shame play in the rebirth of today's Germany?

Americans have no license to avoid these questions. The USA is a materially prosperous and culturally fertile country that has somehow succeeded in marginalizing most conversations about who has paid the price for "our" good fortune. Our current treatment of immigrants is shocking confirmation that we are still under constant attack from that primordial demon, racism. We may still be far from the depths of Nazi racism and its industrial-scale cruelty, but maybe we need a healthy shock of national shame and revulsion to turn us around before we hit bottom.

I've been reading these books, Feigel's The Bitter Taste of Victory, and Ferguson's Scandinavians, as part of my explorations of my own cultural inheritance as the Oslo-born son of a Norwegian father and a German mother who left their respective countries only a handful of years after World War II. It's also part of my preparations for my first-ever visit to Japan later this fall. I hope to spend time in Osaka and Kobe tracking down the so-far elusive trail of my mother and her family in those places.

These explorations are how I'm spending the first months of retirement. It's an amazing and unfamiliar freedom to pursue a single thread of inquiry, uninterrupted, for days and weeks. Thank you for keeping me company here!

Adria Gulizia wants us to welcome the gifts God sends us.
Too often, we in the Church ignore or downplay what the Bible says about the gifts of the Spirit that God bestows on every believer through the power of the Holy Spirit. In more conservative congregations, this may be because of a desire to see authority and influence flow through the “official” channels of church leadership rather than according to the beautiful anarchy of God’s grace. In more liberal congregations, gifts may be ignored or downplayed due to a misguided egalitarianism that studiously ignores the fact that different gifts may entail different degrees of visibility and require different levels of accountability and support.
The Pietà of a Mother Orca: Is Leah Schade justified in using the powerful Christian image of crucifixion? At first I was dubious, but on re-reading her article, I felt more persuaded. What kinds of interests and influences might be shaping our responses?

The Russia that Republicans love doesn't exist. And: How conservative is the Russian regime?

Has it really been fifty years? I remember the crushing of the Prague Spring.

Are missions a joke? (Responding to critics of missionary service.) I've read Jamie Wright's The Very Worst Missionary: A Memoir or Whatever, enjoyed it a lot, and plan to do my own review before too long. In the meantime, I thought this blog post on A Life Overseas was a helpful response to Wright and similar critics.

Update: Here's the promised review of Jamie Wright's book.

"Lead me to the water -- I will drink."