24 September 2020

"The mere sound of his name will signal hope"

It's fall, which means my Bible reading calendar has passed Malachi and is into Matthew. On a day dominated by stressful political news, here are some verses from Eugene Peterson's The Message that brought me up short. Matthew is linking Jesus with Isaiah:
Look well at my handpicked servant;
    I love him so much, take such delight in him.
I’ve placed my Spirit on him;
    he’ll decree justice to the nations.
But he won’t yell, won’t raise his voice;
    there’ll be no commotion in the streets.
He won’t walk over anyone’s feelings,
    won’t push you into a corner.
Before you know it, his justice will triumph;
   the mere sound of his name will signal hope, even
   among far-off unbelievers. [context; Isaiah's context.]
I know perfectly well that Peterson sometimes tends to puff his own wind into Scripture's sails, but this is a cool breeze that I need right now ... to know that the mere sound of the Name will signal hope, even among far-off unbelievers.

How do these verses -- particularly the name of Jesus, the handpicked Servant -- give me hope?

First of all, his messianic job description includes justice, and Isaiah promises that this justice will triumph. All of us Quakers who yearn for justice are part of the Jesus story. To the extent that we are persistent in working for justice in his name, that name will signal hope. The fact that there are Christians who seem indifferent to justice as we understand it shouldn't discourage us.

Secondly, this handpicked servant will neither bully nor coerce. Anyone whose idea of Christian service (for justice or for anything else) is to play the big shot is not -- emphatically not -- signaling hope to far-off unbelievers. With humility but great confidence, we ought to challenge anyone who damages the credibility of the Good News with their arrogance. I will not name names; I trust you recognize them when you see them. In the meantime -- good news! -- we're under no obligation to imitate their tactics.

Finally, I had a sobering thought about times and seasons. The USA is on a historic cliff-edge. On one side of us is the mountain we've been trying to climb for generations toward the summit of justice. On the other side is a plunge back into authoritarianism and class privilege. The outcome at the moment is completely unclear to me.

This uncertainty is incredibly stressful. I know people who are asking whether now is the time to begin planning emigration to some country that is on a less self-destructive path. Maybe I'm somewhere beyond naïve, but even as I work to keep us away from the edge, I also know I will keep hoping whatever the outcome.

Cover of The Long Road of Russian
(Tatiana Pavlova, editor)
Here's the thing: monarchs and potentates have been the rule for most of human history. The Jesus story began under a form of monarchy; most Christians have not known any other sort of system. The Friends Church arose during a cycle of struggle between rulers and Parliament, and gained experience lobbying and petitioning both of them. One example -- a group of 167 Quakers who petitioned Parliament to be allowed to take the place of Quakers in prison, to give the prisoners respite -- so impressed a historian in the Soviet Academy of Sciences that this historian, Tatiana Pavlova, made contact with Friends in the UK and restarted the Quaker movement in Russia. (I summarized Tatiana's story here.)

Currently the Quaker testimony of peace leads to our support for conscientious objection counseling in Russia. The voice of hope reached an about-to-be conscript in time for a counselor to intervene and prevent his forced conscription. (Here's that story.)

In the whole sweep of history, these counter-examples to passivity in the face of authoritarianism may seem minor, but they're evidence of hope persisting. You probably have great stories of your own. Even if the USA drifts down the path already pursued by other leaders whom Trump admires, it's our task to personify the promise of justice in the name of Jesus, and to pass that promise on, in season and out of season.

As for the Christians who seem to show indifference to marginalized people, and affection for brute authority, they too are part of our mission field. And at the very least, we know better than to leave them unchallenged as they functionally leach away the hope and credibility of the Good News. 

"Revolutionaries are always in the wrong .... Conservatives are always wrong, too...." Stephen Freeman gets acquainted with Vladimir Lossky.

Completing -- or not completing -- the 2020 Census in Chicago's South Side.

This week's Navalny update.

A question: Does it occur to European Americans, proud of their "good genes" and tough ancestors, that African Americans from Somalia (for example) might also be proud for exactly the same reasons?

Daniel Hunter on the ten things we need to know to head off a coup.

Three of my earliest blues heroes. I saw Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee in live concerts three or four times, including once in the dining hall of Carleton University in Ottawa; but I was never able to hear the great Otis Spann live.

17 September 2020

Secular evangelists

Declining trend, but we're hoping for tonight's promised rain to wash away at least some of the smoke.
(Screenshots from airnow.gov.)

Last week I said that if the nation's exhaustion level is making Donald Trump vulnerable in the current U.S. presidential election campaign, maybe that makes Joe Biden's so-called consensus-building style an advantage -- the sort of advantage that a more ideologically driven (i.e., stress-inducing) opponent wouldn't have.

Where does that leave the democratic socialists and other progressive activists in the U.S. political arena? The most popular line of thinking among many in my social circles seems to be:

  1. Unify all possible allies in a diverse coalition to defeat Donald Trump, for the sake of democracy.
  2. On Inauguration Day 2021, begin restoring the essential norms and firewalls that prevailed before 2017.
  3. Apply unrelenting pressure on the Biden administration to go beyond the consensus-based, centrist program associated with the Obama-Biden brand.
Top priorities for point three vary among the leftist groups who express dissatisfaction with Biden's supposedly timid and capital-friendly philosophy (in other words, the groups whom Trumpian alarmists accuse of being the puppeteers who already control Biden!): 
  • replace the Affordable Care Act with something closer to a single-payer health finance system; 
  • get urgently serious about climate change, both domestically and globally; 
  • demilitarize our roles in overseas conflicts without withdrawing into isolationism;
  • defund the police (though this slogan remains under dispute);
  • reform or eliminate Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); 
  • rebalance the USA's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
You can probably add more points of priority. These are all in addition to the more generally accepted centrist concerns such as confronting structural racism, revising the division of labor between police and social services, and restoring sanity to the Cabinet-level departments of Health, Labor, Commerce, Education, and other units of government that have been deliberately sabotaged over the last four years.

(By the way, I do not define "centrist" and "moderate" as meaning "weak" or "unenthusiastic." The bread-and-butter governmental functions that emerged from the New Deal / Fair Deal era are not unimportant. In many cases, they suffer not just from recent mismanagement but from their timid implementation all along.)

In some democratic countries, even the list of progressive priorities listed above under "unrelenting pressure" would seem strikingly moderate! Given the truncated political spectrum that we work with in the USA, compared even with Canada's inclusion of a democratic socialist party in mainstream politics, some activists don't put much hope in lobbying a Democratic presidency or legislature. Their traditional prescriptions include everything from strikes and walkouts to massive civil disobedience campaigns, and all the way (as some of Trump's tacticians would like you to fear) to armed revolution.

I've got a bit of a split personality. My heart is often with those who are discontented. Why has it taken so long for Americans to confront systemic racism, dramatic levels of environmental degradation, health crises as the most common cause of personal bankruptcies, declining school systems, and the rapidly increasing gap between the richest and poorest in our country? Isn't there something we can do to make faster progress on these fronts? What is the particular responsibility of Christians, for whom these challenges bear directly upon how we love (or don't love) our neighbors?

I need to remind myself that there is no unanimity within the Christian family about our obligations to seek justice, and how to deploy our various spiritual gifts toward that end. Many of the Christian leaders I admire most are engaged in evangelizing not just nonbelievers (as important as that is) but the rest of us Christians, to mobilize our pray-ers, teachers, prophets, mystics, healers, and all the rest of us, to pulling down strongholds of oppression and offering solidarity and companionship to all who suffer.

Gordon Browne. Source: FWCC
One of my models is Gordon Browne, who was the head of the staff at Friends World Committee for Consultation, Section of the Americas, during most of the ten years I worked there. He didn't just believe abstractly in the peace testimony of Friends; he strongly felt that his tax dollars should not finance the Pentagon. In the early 1960's he and Edith Browne began refusing those taxes. At Friends World Committee, he set up a process to permit other employees to follow his example. He insisted that if, as a result of our tax refusal through the FWCC payroll, the government were to seek to confiscate our wages, they would have to deal with him personally. He wanted to limit the exposure of other employees, who might have various opinions about tax refusal, to legal risks as the result of the organization's stand.

At the same time, Gordon supported the organizing of a committee to promote discussion among Friends meetings and churches to discuss war tax concerns, collaborating with a wealthy Cincinnati Friend, Wallace Collett, who was also a military tax refuser. Wallace Collett didn't just evangelize among Friends for this cause; every time the government went to his bank to attach money, this gave him a chance to talk about his faith with the nonplussed bank staffers! I vividly remember Collett speaking at an Indiana Yearly Meeting session about his war tax experiences. Clerk Horace Smith, clearly moved by Collett's testimony, spoke for many of us when he thanked God for Collett's faithful public stand.

I later drew on Gordon's and Wallace's work in drafting Friends United Meeting's tax refusal process.

My memories of these engaging Friends -- Edith and Gordon Browne, Carrie and Wallace Collett, and others who inspired me along the way -- reminds me of what might be needed among those whose hearts are rightly discontented by persistent political and social injustice. We need an energy that is somewhere between simply measuring consensus on the one hand and rebellion on the other. We need strong advocates. We may not need or find colossal heroes for these causes, but we do need evangelists. We need people to engage in the hard work of making these causes hopeful and attractive beyond the activist subcultures and their internal dogmatics.

What's the alternative? If we are discontented with Biden and Harris as consensus-builders, unlikely to go beyond what their broad communities of support will tolerate, to whom would we turn? Do we become elitists and appear to assume that we know better than our benighted neighbors, and therefore ought to impose our revolutionary solutions upon them? If we are not content with expanding the arena of consensus and, instead, seek coercive or manipulative shortcuts, I fear that the lessons of history will catch up with us, and the forces we unleash will overwhelm us all -- if the forces of reaction don't kill us first.

(Concerning "knowing better than our neighbors": this is more than a rhetorical question. In many cases, we might very well "know better," because we have insights into the hypnotic effects of individualism and affluence that reduce people's motivation to look critically at social structures. However, that doesn't necessarily make us immune from elitism and arrogance and temptations to use power rather than honest persuasion.)

When I think about secular evangelists, the first contemporary model that comes to mind is Bernie Sanders. I have never thought of him as a credible president, because I simply don't know how he would operate as an executive under the pressures of a hundred daily crises that have no ideological solutions. But when he spoke to the faculty and students at Liberty University (video here) back in 2015, he did his best to convey his passion for morality and justice in an arena where ideological sympathies would have fallen flat. Only the actual merit of his argument had any chance of success.

Among younger activists, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has a similar ability to communicate progressive goals and pathways beyond the activist community. This may be why her enemies try so hard to marginalize and trivialize her. Little do most of them realize that her comparatively moderate version of democratic socialism may effectively prevent a far worse and more realistic danger: the complete disintegration of the USA along the chasm between affluent people and those in financial danger. That disintegration would not only make suffering worse for millions, there is no guarantee that most of the affluent classes would survive a collapse. And while all that is going on, the climate-change clock ticks on.

In my dream, the secular evangelists for political and social justice, and the Christian evangelists who connect the dots between piety and politics, ought to know and enjoy each other's company. In the best cases, there will be significant overlap! But there's also a difference. I want the Christian evangelists to remember that the center of their ministry is not simply political persuasion. Their mission is to maintain and widen access to the community which gathers around Jesus, learning from him daily what it means to live at peace with all. I don't want Christians to pretend we have a monopoly in the marketplace of ideas about justice and stewardship. The arrogance of such a position would reduce, rather than widen, their appeal to those already dealing with more oppression than they can handle.

There's another dilemma in my thinking about consensus-expanding vs violent revolution: the awkward fact that, when people are oppressed or violated long enough, we can wish that a nonviolent, consensus-expanding alternative would arise among them, but our wishes do not govern! History shows that revolutions happen, however messy the process or outcome might be. You put any group of normal humans under enough stress, you can expect ugly outcomes. As Gandhi acknowledged, even violence is preferable to fatal passivity in the face of oppression.

This reality does not justify advocating violent revolution, but it ought to increase our investment in mobilizing all our creative resources to incubate and encourage a wider commitment to justice, reframing our ideas and making them more communicable across cultural lines, and building honest alliances wherever possible -- including between secular prophets and Christian evangelists.

Nada Moumtaz's donation dilemma.
When my friends in the US and Canada asked me for trusted initiatives for [Beirut-related] post-explosion relief and aid to contribute to, my list was ready. But I hesitated.
Lawfare Podcast's Benjamin Witte interviews Alina Polyakova about what we've learned about the Aleksei Navalny case. (Note: the interview does not seriously consider the possibility of a cause other than Russian government-initiated poisoning. I think other causes are unlikely but not impossible, and should have been given more consideration.) Polyakova: 
That's always the conundrum in Russia: It's always a combination of incompetence mixed with leaving a mark, a calling card, and the brazenness of then denying that, and knowing that the United States or Europe and anyone else won't do anything about it.... The person dies, doesn't die -- it doesn't matter that much.
The Polyakova interview was recorded a week ago. Here's an interesting update. And here's an analysis of Russian treatment of the case.

Emily Provance on social identity, conflict, and her Facebook experiment.

Why columnist Jennifer Rubin dropped the word "conservative" from her profile. (And a link to my consideration of the "conservative" label.)

Mark Russ counts the cost of the blessed community. (Found via the link on Mark's blog.)

Charlie Musselwhite and Charlie Baty pay tribute to Little Walter.

10 September 2020

Redemption, rewardism, and Republicans

Less than eight weeks to go before the U.S. presidential elections. I find it hard to resist trying to predict the winner. My friend Susanne Kromberg thinks she knows who will win, and why.

In her blog post, "Exploring political terminology -- why Trump will win in 2020," she addresses one of my favorite themes: the religious dimension of political rhetoric. According to Susanne, Trump is a dualist who sees others as either worthy or unworthy of being rewarded -- by God, according to a certain strain of Reformed theology, and (in my extrapolation) by tycoons such as Trump, whose own prosperous situation is evidence of blessing.

(Whether or not Donald Trump literally believes that God has blessed him -- note Michael Cohen's sour description of Trump's allegedly fake piety -- is not the point. The concern is whether this "rewardism" is how Trump judges the world -- and communicates to his audience.)

After outlining this worldview and its corollaries (USA exceptionalism, white nationalism, "wealth = good"), Susanne explains why she believes Trump will be reelected:

The reason Trump will win again in 2020 is that he created a very sellable mix of the above components, which stir people’s sense of Right and Wrong, which have emotional power. Trump’s opponents have made all manner of policy attempts and bids for USAn’s emotional core, but haven’t generated the emotional potency of Trump’s mix. In large part, they themselves are motivated by dualism, rewardism, colonialism, American Exceptionalism, and racism. Attempts to expose these components, reframe the American project, tap into the power of people’s emotional Right/Wrong core, or shift the political project from emotion-based to policy/party-based have not succeeded.

Trump's supposed advantage is this potent emotional appeal, which potentially touches people far more directly and viscerally than the Democrats' claims of better policies or a more appealing vision for the country's future. When Democrats try to invade Trump's Right/Wrong emotional territory to deny his right to occupy that position, they are playing on a field he (rightly or wrongly) already claims and dominates.

Is it true that, once again, Republicans (thanks to Trump's hot-wire connection with audiences) once again hold a potentially winning rhetorical hand? This question reminded me of George W. Bush's election campaigns, and in particular an essay by Dan P. McAdams, "Redemption and American Politics." (Chronicle of Higher Education; registration may be required.) This was one of the essays I considered in my blog post Redemption and Politics, back in 2004. I quoted this central paragraph from McAdams:

... The Republican Party has groomed candidates and honed messages that resonate deeply with a story of life that Americans hold dear. It is the narrative of redemption -- a story about an innocent protagonist in a dangerous world who sticks to simple principles and overcomes suffering and hardship in the end. This is a story that many productive and caring American adults -- Democrats, Republicans, and Independents -- love to tell about their own lives. Republicans, however, have found ways of talking about public life and political issues that reinforce this story. And to the extent that politics is personal, many Americans may vote their story, rather than their pocketbook.

At first, we may see little in common between Bush and his appealing redemption story, on the one hand, and the dualist/transactionalist Trump on the other. But there is an important common element, with ingredients derived from Christian culture (if not from healthy theology!). It turns out that Trump has a "story," too -- a myth of financial success built with flashy entrepreneurship, savvy negotiating skills, and a take-no-prisoners approach to conflict. His closest Christian followers even see a redemptive angle in this story -- a vulgar, two-fisted brawler whom God has chosen to be the Divinely appointed weapon against the forces of socialism, abortion, and race-mixing. He is all that stands between us ordinary people and the elites who plan to impose globalism on us. Once again, the campaign's special sauce is essentially this: an emotionally gripping story beats logical argumentation every time.

Facebook memes.

For all his folksy appeal, George W. Bush coordinated closely with the Republican Party as it existed at the time. Sixteen years later, Trump does not coordinate; he dominates. With him in charge, even a party platform is no longer necessary, reinforcing his direct-to-the-people swagger.

Speaking of that platform, take a look at Bradley Hansen's interpretation of the 2016 version, "The Creedal Orthodoxy of the Republican platform: a divisive rhetoric of unity."

After explaining why he attributes a credal structure to the platform, Hansen goes on to observe:

The RNC’s choice to adopt such a creedal formula is not neutral, and provides them a form that solidifies a bifurcation of the American political system, and by extension the American people, in order to portray the Democratic party as an enemy to American unity, that is, as heretical.

The 2016 platform, as carried over into 2020, is not a major element of the campaign being waged by our rude-but-redeemed warrior Trump. For anyone interested, however, the Republican creed reinforces his message of grave danger to our safe-suburban normalcy, subverts Christian conventions to imply a Republican monopoly of faith, and adds to the store of rhetorical reassurances for anyone who might need it.

Do the Democrats have any message to counter Trump's "very sellable" deal, with similar direct appeal for voting audiences? Sixteen years ago, John Kerry apparently tried to compensate for Republicans' monopolistic claims on patriotism and faith in the military by accepting the DNC's nomination for president with a military salute, announcing "I'm reporting for duty." It didn't work.

Joe Biden may have a simpler task this time. After five years of jangling American nerves, the Republican brawler might have developed his own greatest vulnerability: our exhaustion.

If this is true, the Democrats were wise to choose a consensus-builder rather than an ideologue for this year's race. All Joe Biden has to do is to personify a stable and elemental decency, along with the capacity to build a credible team around him and Kamala Harris. They will not put a loud emphasis on making progressives happy -- beyond robust rejections of classism and racism -- because that will add stress, not relieve it. Biden's story has its own redemptive elements -- humble origins, a steadfast Catholic piety, personal and family victories over tragedy, deep friendships across partisan lines -- that do not need to be recited in detail to be effective.

But is the promise of a break from constant fear-mongering and scandal enough to overcome voters' addiction to the thrills of populist nihilism -- to the daily reassurance that they are the deserving Good, and their daily dose of shivs between the ribs of rotten cosmopolitans and Marxists? Is it possible that Trump's appeal is wearing thin?

Next week (if nothing more urgent or inspiring intervenes!): Is consensus-building actually enough?

Here's one of the sources you can use to keep up with developments on the U.S. 2020 Census. 

We're still knocking on doors for the census, despite yesterday's pervasive smoke ... however, we took today off. Governor Brown (quoted here): "We've never seen this amount of uncontained fire across our state."

Remember the Internet Research Agency (whose role in U.S. election manipulations was featured in the Mueller Report)? They're back.

Update on Aleksei Navalny, including some mixed reports about apparent improvements in his health.

Meanwhile, the women leading the political opposition in Belarus are nominated for the Sakharov Prize.

Terry Mattingly at GetReligion: What really happens when people are 'born again'? Not as much (outwardly) as you might think.

Grayson Gilbert on prayer, depression, and Charles Spurgeon.

Did you participate in the first Young Friends Worldwide workshop last month? The second in the series is in two days.

"Hesitation Blues" -- Blind Boy Paxton.

The Blues Kitchen Presents: Blind Boy Paxton 'Hesitation Blues' [Live Performance] from NEON PEACH FILMS on Vimeo.

03 September 2020

USA's census (bonus: interstellar relief)

Russian-language Facebook ad for USA's 2020 Census.
I've been walking and driving all over greater Southeast Portland these last few weeks, going to addresses for which the U.S. Census Bureau believes it doesn't have 2020 Census information.

When I was hired as a Census enumerator, I affirmed (did not swear, dear Quaker elders!) that, for the rest of my days, I will not divulge any identifiable personal information gained from my interviews, so I'm not going to risk telling stories from my rounds, though it's tempting!

This AARP article prepared me for the possibility that some of my door-knocking would be met by stony-faced rejections. It has happened (sometimes backed up by big dogs!), but less frequently than I'd feared. About half of my visits have ended up with successful interviews of one kind or another. The other half is made up of all sorts of exceptions -- nobody home, the address didn't exist anymore, the address was vacant or under repair as of April 1 (national census day), it had become nonresidential, the door is answered by someone who didn't live there on April 1, and so on. Some visits are unsuccessful simply because I showed up at a bad time. Only a few have disputed the Census Bureau's need or right to collect the information.

I'm pleased to report that my Russian language has come in handy for a good number of visits, and I was again reminded of that special blend of warmth, humor, and pragmatism that I will always associate with our friends and neighbors during our years in Russia. With over a hundred thousand Russian speakers in greater Portland, I don't risk giving away anything private by mentioning these delightful encounters.

It's obvious that this decade's census has unusual challenges, both logistical and political. For my own part, I'm just glad to be able to participate in a government project I totally support.

Voyager spacecraft; source.
Do you need some relief from the relentless flow of stressful political news? Would you welcome a distraction from the reality that the U.S. presidential election is exactly two months away?

My time-tested advice: think about the scale of the universe. Even just our own interstellar neighborhood may be enough to allow the political machinations on our little planet to shrink to their proper perspective.

I remember the first time I read that the interplanetary probes Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were on their ways out of our solar system and entering interplanetary space. My first reaction: it took that long? They were both launched in 1977. Since leaving their last planetary assignments, they've been traveling outbound to the stars at the speed of roughly 15 kilometers per second (Voyager 2) and almost 17 kilometers per second (Voyager 1). That's over 35,000 miles per hour for Voyager 1, making it the speediest human-made object ever. 

Despite their high speeds, gained largely by using planetary gravitation as slingshots, they did not enter interstellar space until 2012 (Voyager 1) and 2018 (Voyager 2)! "But even at more than 11 billion miles from the sun, the Voyagers’ story is just beginning," writes Nadia Drake in National Geographic. They are still 56,000 years (Voyager 1) and 65,000 years (Voyager 2) from exiting the Oort Cloud, whose outer limit might be defined as the true boundary of our solar system.

Amazingly, we're still receiving data from the Voyagers, and may do so for a few more years before they run out of all resources. However, it has been decades since we've been able to change their courses -- and to the best of scientists' knowledge, their present trajectories make them unlikely to be captured by another solar system's gravitational forces for many millions of years, if ever. However, some time in the next 40,000 - 60,000 years they'll come within a few light years of several dozen stars, if anyone in those solar systems is keeping an eye out for them....

(Reminder: those several dozen stars are all part of a tiny neighborhood in our Milky Way galaxy, which has something like 100,000,000,000 to 1,000,000,000,000 stars -- some say 300 billion (American billions). Beyond the Milky Way there may be another 100,000,000,000 to 2,000,000,000,000 galaxies. And is our universe the only one?)

Don't you feel better already?

Awkward question from Micael Grenholm: Are American Christians worshipping America?

Drew Strait reviews the new book by Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States.

Mary Butler Coleman is tired of sitting in the balcony.

Meduza on Novichok and Navalny.

Two ordinary Americans posting on Twitter about Russia ... only I can't find them anymore!

Roger E. Olsen recommends three documentaries on Christians in the Germany of the 1930's. All three are available on Youtube. I've seen the first and second of these three, and can understand why Olson recommends them.

Argentina's Xime Monzón performs Slim Harpo's "Rainin' in my Heart" ... 

27 August 2020

The socialists are coming!!

I'm not much for labeling people,
but I have to make a living somehow. Source.

Among my friends and relatives, the supporters of Donald Trump's re-election as U.S. president have two top priorities.

Priority one is their opposition to abortion. I wrote last year about my own conflicted views on abortion, but those who explain their support of Trump by saying "I’m voting for every unborn soul the Democrats want to murder," are probably not available for the conversations I advocated there.

Right now, in close second place, Trump supporters oppose the inevitable socialist apocalypse that would follow a Democratic victory in November. "Don't let the Socialist Democrats turn the USA into Venezuela," warns one popular graphic. Once again, the "socialist" label is being pressed into service, not in the service of a fair discussion, but as an epithet.

To be effective, this scare tactic requires us not to look too closely at what's behind that "socialist" label. We must believe that the democratic socialism of people like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the same as the forms of socialism practiced in Venezuela and Cuba, for example, and that the factors that shaped those case studies would be present in the USA as well.

I can see why it would be tempting to encourage this confusion. Classic socialism -- government control of most or all markets for goods and services -- has a disastrous historical record. In theory, such a system would ensure that everyone gets their basic needs met, but the level of social control required to maintain these systems practically guarantees a descent into tyranny. For a preview of this tendency, look at the history of socialist and communist organizations. Only Protestant Christians rival them for the ability to quarrel and divide on doctrinal issues. If we just take the scare tactics at face value and assume that Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders are hell-bent on creating that sort of system, we can be excused for fearing the consequences.

(For a fictional attempt at a spiritual x-ray of late-stage Soviet socialism, read Francis Spufford's novel Red Plenty, which I summarized here as "the most unusual book I've ever read about the Soviet Union.")

Democratic socialism shares the same major goal as classic socialism: eliminating the social and economic causes of suffering. Eliminating preventable suffering is also a major ethical priority of Christianity, which is probably why so many socialist thinkers have been Christians. For example, Canada's democratic socialist political party, the New Democratic Party, included Christian politicians such as J.S. Woodsworth and Stanley Knowles among its formative leaders. The Roman Catholic Church's social teachings helped form the modern labor movement in many countries. Prominent Christian socialists in the USA's history include Norman Thomas, Dorothy Day, A.J. Muste, Kirby Page, and Mother Jones. This history, if better known, might go a long way to correcting the impressions left by the celebrity Christians of the far right.

Democratic socialism recognizes that there is no way to impose this laudable goal of eliminating preventable suffering from the top down. Coercive centralized planning, no matter how elegantly organized or diligently practiced (see Red Plenty), involves a monopoly on power, and we humans have a terrible record with unchecked power. Democratic socialists rely on two major devices to keep power in check -- a system of political checks and balances, and a market economy. Strangely enough, these are the same mechanisms favored by conservatives

The mission of democratic socialists is simple and twofold:

First, they advocate and evangelize for their central vision: a good society ensures fair access to the community's resources so that nobody suffers needlessly.

Second, they must compete in the political marketplace of ideas and policies, engaging with colleagues and opponents to find the right balance between two competing goods: building up enough resources for the community's social goals, while providing for reasonable incentives for the private marketplace to thrive and the hybrids (public utilities and other public/private joint ventures) to reward investors. This is where conflicts often arise: advocates for the most generous social policies can collide with those who want to maximize entrepreneurial and investor incentives. The more we challenge each other to keep our shared values of social justice at the center, the more fruitful (my optimistic self says) these conflicts can be, and the more we can expose the hidden motives of greed and class interest that are in direct conflict with all (progressive and conservative alike) whose goal is fair access to resources and the elimination of needless suffering.

Democratic socialists propose solutions that analyze the division of labor between government management and the free market, and adjust that division in favor of our most vulnerable people. For all activities that are best regulated by the free market -- the vast majority of industries and services -- there may be no role for government beyond the preservation of public safety and mechanisms for resolving disputes. But for those activities which are basic to everyone's health and safety, such as police and fire services, roads, every-address postal service, guaranteed access to education, and (I would argue) health care, accountable government management makes sense. The free market simply does not know how to weigh private incentives and the public good in such large-scale concerns, though many will pretend (for their private benefit) that any alternative to the market is (scary music) socialism!

Improving this division of labor -- making better choices between what the free market does well, and what an elected government can accomplish -- is the actual conversation proposed by actual democratic socialists. Every democratic country in the world has already arrived at some such division of labor, including the USA, although nobody has done a perfect job. How can we in the USA do a better job together to "promote the General Welfare" and eliminate needless suffering? And ... really, does this urgent conversation sound so apocalyptic?


In thinking about this theme, I found a couple of interesting articles.

And on Norway as a case study of democratic socialism, "Scandinavian Socialism: The 'Truth' of the Nordic Model."


To call Jesus a socialist might be a suspicious use of religious rhetoric for political gain, but let's look with pure motives at how Wess Daniels describes the biblical evidence of the Savior's priorities: Jesus against empire.

Church during "lockdown" and a "hiddenness of life and worship...."

A sad anniversary: Samantha Smith and the Soviet Union.


UPDATE on the Ramallah Friends Schools:

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the pandemic-era situations faced by several Friends schools. I've also been wondering how Ramallah Friends School in Palestine has been doing. Yesterday I got an update from Adrian Moody, director of the School:
We are currently preparing for a return to school on the 7th September. Cases in the Westbank are going up around 600 per day. We know if we get a case here at school then we will have to close again so things are really uncertain. We have to prepare whilst the goal posts are constantly moving.

The pandemic has really hit school finances. Shop owners were severely hit with all the closures but civil servants were also hit because salaries were cut up to 60%, A lot of our parents are struggling to pay their fees and have to pay for the last academic year as well as prepare for the new academic year. We do what we can to help and we have opened up applications for financial aid and fortunately were able to raise some emergency funds through donors to help our most affected parents.

The financial situation on the Westbank has been dire for some time and the pandemic has just made it incredibly difficult. We are in for a tough year.
To make a contribution to Ramallah Friends School and their resources for financial aid, visit the School's online donation page. To participate in Friends United Meeting's support for the School, visit FUM's donation page


Enjoy Sue Foley breaking down the blues guitar for us:

20 August 2020

Seeking to justify myself

I can't count the times I've heard, read, and appreciated the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke's Gospel, in which the conventionally religious people pass by the injured robbery victim, and the despised foreigner proves to be the merciful neighbor and comes to the rescue. Rarely, if ever, have I taken into full account the provocation for the story: the lawyer's question, "And who is my neighbor?"

More precisely, I've become interested in the motivation for the lawyer's question. Having won Jesus' approval for his reading of the requirements for eternal life ("Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind" and "Love your neighbor as yourself”), he wants more: 

"But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, 'And who is my neighbor?'" (My italics.)

In "justifying" himself, what was the lawyer trying to accomplish? Several commentators point to other examples of Luke spotlighting people who are more concerned about their own reputations than the essence of faith (Luke 16:14-15, 18:9-14, for example). Sharon Ringe's commentary on Luke (in the Westminster Bible Companion series) suggests that the lawyer, aside from showing off, was trying to get Jesus to put manageable boundaries on the concept of neighbor, perhaps to fit the lawyer's own comfort level.

Ringe ends her fascinating examination of this parable with these words:

No one can simply have a neighbor, one must also be a neighbor. Neighboring is a two-way street. The parable changes in a fundamental way how the question about neighbors is usually framed. The Gospel records no one's response to this story -- neither the lawyer's nor the onlookers'. The story simply stands as another challenge to the transformation of daily life and business as usual, which lies at the heart of the practice of discipleship.

I'm not surprised that the lawyer's and onlookers' responses are not recorded. What counts is Jesus' challenge to the lawyer's motivation -- his seeking to be seen as an expert on the law, and his desire to keep mercy in reasonable bounds. The response to Jesus' challenge that counts is ours.

Meme on Facebook.
The death of George Floyd and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter has put racism in the USA on trial in dramatic new ways, particularly in the polarizing context of this political season. As a sort of reaction, I've seen many variations on a theme that goes something like this: "I don't see race; I just see people." (Sometimes the tagline of this approach is "All Lives Matter," frequently accompanied by conspiracy theories about the Black Lives Matter movement.) My problem with this approach is that it reminds me of the lawyer who wanted to justify himself. First: he wants to show his own command of the law, and, to be fair, in doing so he is literally correct -- we are to love God and love our neighbor. In Black Lives context, we are to put an end to all false and unjust distinctions based on race. I can imagine Jesus saying, "Good! Do this and you will live."

In the Good Samaritan story, the lawyer still wanted to justify himself. In asking for a definition of "neighbor," the lawyer sought to prioritize his own comfort. Here we see a crucial lesson for our own dialogues on race: our personal story and our personal comfort are not the priority! You and I might personally not "see race," if that were possible in a nation that deliberately baked racism into every aspect of social and economic life for centuries. However, our smug certainty does not change life for anyone whose actual skin color makes life actually risky, who must "see race" to avoid those risks. And those who bear testimony to the risks of racism are our neighbors.

The man who was rescued by the Good Samaritan had been traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. In commenting on this passage, Martin Luther King proposed a logical extension of the Samaritan's mercy: 

On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. [Source.]

This is what being a neighbor means now. For white followers of Jesus, it means not being obsessed with the need to prove that "we don't see race" and are obviously superior to those deplorables who do. It means learning to discern, with God's merciful help, what racism has done to all of us, and to engage in a deliberate collaboration with all the mystics and activists of all races, liberals, progressives, and conservatives alike, to pull down the strongholds of racism. Then we will know that All Lives Matter.

I have a hard time imagining not seeing race, but maybe that's just me. I see no particular value or demerit in my white skin color, but I do have pride in my Norwegian heritage. I want to learn about and enjoy the pride that people from other cultures have, whether or not those cultures are linked with skin colors different from mine. When I was in high school, the expression "Black is Beautiful" gained currency; am I to deny this? The Black church was my first consistent exposure to Christianity; am I to betray that legacy?

At the time I'm posting this, Aleksei Navalny, Russia's best-known opposition leader, is fighting for his life. This link is likely to be outdated in a matter of hours. More from Meduza. I've also been following coverage on this Russian site, Dozhd TV, which passes on a report from the head of Navalny's anti-corruption organization that Navalny's body contains a substance that is hazardous to those around him.

Kristin Du Mez: Jerry Falwell, Jr., and the legacy of evangelical machismo. (That's my term, not hers.)

Aside from controversies over "All Lives Matter" and the supposed socialist hell being prepared by Democrats, the evangelical support for Donald Trump is often driven by the anti-abortion movement. Supposedly, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are "hell-bent" to pull out all stops on abortion. I tried to encourage cooler rhetoric in this post from a year ago last spring. Randall Balmer has this interesting resource (PDF) to put this relatively recent evangelical concern into historical perspective.

Why do missionaries leave the field? In particular, what are the cultural factors? Andrea Sears presents data from 714 survey respondents.

Friday PS:  I just saw this Washington Post article about interracial conversations among evangelical leaders and the dramatic effect of Trump's presidency. This quotation from Emmanuel Acho leapt out at me, just hours after I'd published this week's post: 
"Some Christians say, 'It’s not about race, it’s about grace. It’s not about skin, it’s about sin,'" Acho said in an interview. "It’s hard for Black people to attend predominantly White churches, specifically when White pastors are silent on the issues that matter to Black people."

Mstislav Rostropovich plays Bach's sort of blues.