10 June 2021

Denominational shorts

Young E. Stanley Jones. Source.

Two weeks ago in my post, "The church is like a ...", I was recalling Craig Dykstra's description of the evolution of denominations in the USA. His ideas came back to me this week as I happened upon these words from E. Stanley Jones (The Christ of Every Road: A Study in Pentecost, 1930):

As long as religion was denominational-centric God could not trust us with power. Had he [sic] done so, it would have run into a denominational megalomania. Nor could he trust us with power so long as religion was bound up with Westernism and its supremacies. He he done that, it would have run into religious imperialism. But if religion is Christ-centric, if to be a Christian is to be Christlike, to catch his mind and Spirit, then I think God can back that with power to the utmost.

Denominations are becoming less important in their traditional roles of franchising agencies to open and close churches, supply personnel and services, outsource international outreach and disaster relief, publish curriculum, and exercise quality control over the denomination's brand. 

Of course, to the extent that denominational organizations are seen as worthy, reliable sources of inspiration and support for local congregations, and not as coercive gatekeepers, they'll continue to have a role. But that role should be held to the standard that is implied by E. Stanley Jones's "but if": Does our denomination serve as a genuine community of shared memory and experience of what it means to grow into Christ-likeness?

I spent seventeen years of my life working in denominational structures. During those years, I saw how the old "denominational-centric" loyalties were weakening and political polarizations increasing. All this certainly made my life very interesting, entirely dependent as we were on our constituency's free-will gifts and a more or less consensus-based form of governance.

I also saw a more positive development -- a new, multi-generational movement of Quakers who freely cross lines to discuss urgent matters of faith and practice without fear of the old gatekeepers. It wasn't the first such movement among Friends; for example, the Young Friends and conscientious objectors' networks had similar influences in much of the 20th century.

Social media and blogs carry the current version of this movement across to wider circles of people -- including those who can't afford to subscribe to lots of Quaker and ecumenical periodicals or travel across countries and oceans to conferences, camps, and pilgrimages. Many of the Quaker blogs that have arisen over the last two decades are part of this movement. In the USA (perhaps beyond, as well), Martin Kelley has been in the forefront of promoting this increased virtual traffic among all flavors of Friends, including those who prioritize Christ-likeness over Quaker exceptionalism.

Over the last fifteen months, the pandemic has forced new patterns on most or all of us. Many local meetings and churches have had to confront situations of increased isolation for some faithful attenders, especially those who are not accustomed or inclined to participate electronically. At the same time, the Internet has allowed us also to become more widely accessible. Our Camas Friends Church has had visitors from scattered parts of the USA, and at least two from Russia. Some of our visitors at Camas Friends were unprogrammed Friends who had never attended a programmed, pastoral Quaker meeting. The online Russian-speaking meetings for worship over the past year, facilitated by Friends House Moscow, have included participants from many parts of Russia and at least six other countries. Our online memorial meeting for Misha Roshchin was, as far as we know, the very first Quaker memorial meeting conducted in the Russian language.

Related posts:

The unbearable lightness of being Quaker

Yearly meetings: myth and reality

FUM retreat: what did we accomplish?

My post "The church is like a ..." invited comments on my three proposed models of the church (incubator, laboratory, and observatory) and asked for other models and metaphors that you found helpful. On Facebook, several of you contributed. I've taken the liberty of boldfacing some of the key words: 

I probably think of the church (at least my own!) as part retreat center, part hospital, part trade school, part activist organization. Participants can be revitalized through the experience of self-transcendence and self-care (retreat). Wounds are addressed and care is given... often by the wounded!(hospital). Skills like love and listening and other “abilities” crucial to the Quaker way or “vocation” are learned through practice (school). Energy and resources are pooled and channeled toward needs in the community and world (activism). [Matt Boswell]

I love the earthiness of "trade school"! It stands in interesting contrast with Elton Trueblood's idea that every church should be a seminary. I sort of agree with Elton but "seminary" might sound a bit forbidding. Pope Francis has given new energy to the idea of church as hospital. Thanks for your ideas! [My reply to Matt]

I faced a similar challenge with "seminary" when I decided to attend and needed to explain it to my (largely unchurched) friends and family. Its Latin root is "seedbed" - a place to plant seeds and nurture what comes to life. It worked well then, and still does! [Greg Morgan, replying to Matt and me.]

I am quite happy with describing the church as a gathering of people who have felt themselves called out of the world into discipleship — people who have that called-out feeling in common. I don’t feel any need to make it sound like an imitation of science. It’s not, for me, as if science is the ultimate determiner of what all other things should be like. If a non-churchy group is puzzled by things like “called out of the world”, and “discipleship”, or puzzled about why people with that sort of feeling might want to congregate, I think those are good and helpful matters to talk about. [Marshall Massey]

Thanks, Johan - I like the idea of your "three word challenge" to define church using non-church language, and the way you build from there. I want to ruminate on this some more, but for now I'll go with church as a place I go for connection, inspiration, and encouragement. [Greg Morgan]

Sanctuary. [Adam Fazio]

Community ... [Penny Rutherford Sitler]

A school for experiential learning. [Marcelle Martin]

Hard to decide. [Jean-François Roussel]

I prefer hospital. [Jared A. Warner]

A Family. [Roger Dreisbach-Williams]

Thank you, Friends!

Ira Rifkin has some advice for journalists covering the complex relationship between religion and politics in Israel.

State Duma member Valery Rashkin: a rebel in the Russian Communist Party.

This article on the possible poisoners of writer/critic/poet Dmitri Bykov raises (or rather reinforces) serious questions on murder as a deliberate government policy.

Does the new map of the universe's dark matter cast doubt on Einstein? Maybe not.

Benjamin Moser visits the city that was my home for three months in 2019: Hebron.

I found out a couple of days ago that one of my favorite contemporary blues musicians, harpist James Harman, died last month. He gave me, and many others in many countries, countless hours of good musicianship and good-humored lyrics. I've posted many of his tracks on my blog over the years. It was hard to pick a favorite, but here's a delightful sample from a festival performance in Denmark:

03 June 2021

"Why are you afraid?"

Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee, Rembrandt. Detail. Source.
Rembrandt's painting.
The New Testament story of Jesus calming the storm, to his fellow passengers' astonishment, is told by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The waves threaten to swamp the boat and drown the terrified disciples (apparently including young Rembrandt in the detail above), but Jesus responds to their cries for help, calms the water, and rebukes the wind.

Each of the evangelists frames this story a bit differently. In Matthew's telling, Jesus is responding to the setting -- they've been surrounded by crowds. Maybe he wants a change of scene, or wants to resume the private instruction of his disciples rather than teaching everyone present. In Luke, the trip is apparently a separate decision. With Mark's typical flair for the dramatic detail, he begins by specifying, "On that day" (apparently the day he'd been teaching with parables) -- that's the day he proposes the evening trip across the lake. Mark also specifies that the boat carrying Jesus was one of several boats making the trip. All of the accounts have Jesus sleeping when the storm comes upon them; Mark says he was sleeping on a cushion.

All of the evangelists report the passengers' perilous situation, but Mark adds the poignant question: "Teacher, don't you care if we drown?" (NIV translation.) For me, this question makes the whole exchange between the frightened passengers and their teacher more complex. In each gospel, before the trip across the lake, Jesus has been teaching his audiences about his relationship to them and about God's realm:

  • Matthew: Jesus says, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead."
  • Mark: "With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything."
  • Luke: Jesus says, "My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice."

This prior teaching gives context to the question Jesus asks when they plead for rescue: "Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?" ... perhaps adding by implication, "... despite everything you've all seen and heard?" I interpret Mark as saying that they do have faith, but they aren't yet sure how to apply it in a dire crisis. To put words into his mouth, "Teacher, we know you could save our skins if you wanted to, so why are you acting so calm?"

When our pastor, Matt Boswell, proposed this passage as our focus for last Sunday's unprogrammed worship, he drew our attention to the command that Jesus gave the wind and waves: "Peace! Be still!" (NRSV translation.) As Matt proposes, maybe these words are intended for the disciples as well -- and, by extension, for us.

Right now, it seems very reasonable to compare our situation to the wind and waves that pounded those Galilean boats.

  • New waves and variants of COVID-19 sweep over many countries and regions, just as many people are behaving as if the precautions of the past fourteen months can be set aside.
  • Grieving families in the so-called Holy Land are trying to put their lives back together, as Naftali Bennett (who has "no problem" with killing Arabs) prepares to replace Netanyahu in Israel.
  • In Russia and Belarus, independent voices are being repressed or extinguished on a daily basis. Across the globe, glib authoritarians are exalting the path of deceit and cruelty.
  • One of the USA's grand old parties seems bent on becoming the only party that can win elections.
  • The war in Yemen has claimed more than 100,000 lives. Most of the munitions that shattered those lives came from outside Yemen.
  • Global warming continues its apparently implacable advance.
  • Everyone reading these words has experienced, is experiencing, or probably will experience a Galilean boat-ride of their own, on some scale large or small.

Given all that, I hear the words of Jesus not as a rhetorical question, but as a very real query that I (we) should answer: 

"Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?"

Here's the most important point I can make: This question is not just directed to me, personally, although I'm surely supposed to engage with it myself. It is directed to us, together. It's directed to everyone in the boat.

  • It is directed to those of us who are directly and obviously in the storm, hanging on to the ropes for dear life.
  • It is directed to those of us who don't yet understand that your crisis is my crisis, their crisis is our crisis, no matter how far away or how little it seems to be costing me today.
  • It is directed to those of us who haven't yet asked Jesus for rescue (not just individual rescue, but for all of us in the boat together).
  • It is directed to those of us who haven't yet told the other passengers that Jesus is in the boat.
  • It is directed to those in the boat who are feeling strong today -- so that they are ready to help those whose faith is weak or gone or not yet even born.
  • It is directed to those who are feeling weak today -- reminding us that, though we're all in the same boat, we aren't simultaneously all at the same place spiritually, and when we ourselves can't see Jesus at all, we can ask each other for help.
  • It is directed to those who are especially able to spot the wind and the waves, to those whose special gift may to ask Jesus for help, and to those who, with unsung faithfulness, tend to the oars and the rigging.

One of the historic symbols of the unity of Christians, and our concern for the whole world, is the boat with the crosslike mast. As the waves of violence and bondage threaten to overwhelm our battered boat, maybe it is the special vocation of some of us to warn the passengers that for too long we have been one-upping each other, slandering each other, scandalizing non-believers, and just assuming that Jesus and the Bible are our badges of privilege.

Why are you and I afraid? Or is the better question today, Why are you and I NOT afraid? 

And, if we still have faith, which waves and which blast of wind are we going to rebuke today in the name of Jesus?

An exchange of e-mails between a Palestinian writer and an Israeli writer. 

Meanwhile, Facebook faces a loss of reputation in the Middle East.

Israel may be losing favor among the heretofore most faithful Christian supporters.

Damien Carrington: Climate-related tipping points could topple like dominoes

Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia are definitely in that battered boat.

Albert Collins, with Derek O'Brien and a superb band, play a slow, exquisitely embroidered version of "The Things That I Used To Do."

27 May 2021

"The church is like a ... "


Today I want to propose three metaphors for the church, and explain why they appeal to me:


... But first, some context: 

During our Russia years, we often found it difficult to convey what the word "church" meant to us. This was true among our students, and also among some of the attenders of our Quaker meeting. Many were generations removed from traditional parish involvements. Instead, sometimes the most obvious models were discussion groupspeer support groups, and self-help or self-improvement groups.

When western Quakers first came to Elektrostal, one of the earliest local participants in the new meeting thought at first that the visitors were bringing a new self-help practice, a sort of western version of Transcendental Meditation. It did not help matters that these were precisely the years that, with the Iron Curtain newly lifted, Russians were flooded by New Age and self-help celebrities and books of varying quality and integrity. In today's Russia, the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that it is easy to forget how diverting those ideas seemed at the time.

The fact that the new Quaker visitors were English speakers was in itself an attraction; some of the early participants in Moscow and Elektrostal were eager to learn and practice their English. This doesn't of course mean that they had no interest in the spiritual dimension of these new ideas -- it's always possible to have more than one motive to participate in anything -- but it's worth noting that several early participants now live in English-speaking countries.

Another observation from those early years: almost no families or married couples participated. There may be as many reasons for this as there were individual participants, but it reinforces for me the sense that people did not see the new meetings as communities with cross-generational dimensions -- communities within which one might be born, married, and buried. It wasn't until we had been in Russia for several years that I began noticing another disconnect: some Russian participants in the Quaker community felt that their Quakerism was a way of expressing their interest in social justice or ethics, while their souls remained in the care of their Russian Orthodox (or, in one case, Baptist) connections. (I first wrote about this here: More thoughts on the hyphen within.)

Back in the mid-1970's, Avery Dulles wrote the first version of his book Models of the Church. The "models" he describes are helpful and evocative, and together they build up a sense of the inclusivity and continuity of the Body of Christ. However, the language of these models might be a bit dense and abstract for those who have never connected with church as we understand it. My own most basic understanding of church in a Quaker context is this: a church is a group of people who gather around Jesus, learning (and helping each other learn) what it means to live with him at the center of our lives, including the ethical consequences. My three metaphors are intended to illustrate what this might mean in real life.

Incubator. When I was a brand new Christian (age 21), getting to know my very first church, I was fortunate that this congregation, Ottawa Friends Meeting, was full of wonderful encouragers. I've written about some of them (Deborah Haight; Anne Thomas) but it was true of the body as a whole as well. I don't know who exactly noticed that I had the temperament of an evangelist and had cross-cultural interests, but Ottawa Friends soon put me on their outreach committee and, later, proposed me for Canadian Yearly Meeting's Foreign Missionary Board. (Canadian Friends no longer supported missionaries, so this board disbursed endowment earnings to support international concerns.)

There's more. Elizabeth Oxlade, editor of the Canadian Friend, recruited me to help with her publication. After I spent a summer in Mendenhall, Mississippi, with John Perkins and the Voice of Calvary organization, Ottawa Friends helped me raise money for VOC. When Friends World Committee for Consultation met in Hamilton, Ontario, the meeting sent me as an observer -- a formative experience for a very new Friend, and one that had a fateful influence on my life. (To sum it up briefly: I eventually served on FWCC's staff for ten years.) Maybe there's a better word than "incubator" to tag this function of noticing new or young people and giving them the support and encouragement they need to try out their spiritual gifts, but in any case, that's what Ottawa Friends did for me.

What is your meeting or church doing to notice and nurture the spiritual gifts of people who maybe haven't been noticed up to now?

Laboratory. Once upon a time, when I was the new general secretary of Friends United Meeting, I went to the Lilly Endowment and tried to argue that they should give us grants to study certain trends in American Christianity, because we Friends were small-scale enough to do detailed research economically. I had in mind the liberal-evangelical divides, the controversies over same-sex relationships, and the increasing obsolescence of the traditional denomination.

This last area of course was of immediate interest to me as a denominational bureaucrat with an increasingly restless constituency. The liberal wing and the evangelical wing of FUM both had lots of people who wanted to break ties with us. Our stress points mirrored those of much larger denominations, but surely it would be easier to study us instead of denominations ten or a hundred times larger.

(Parenthetically, the Lilly Endowment's Craig Dykstra was proposing an interesting way of understanding those stresses. He traced the evolution of denominations in the USA more or less as follows:

  • the early federal model -- parallel to the new country's federal structure;
  • the corporate model, with departments for all the activities a self-respecting denomination would have, and a corresponding management structure
  • finally, the licensing and regulatory functions that might give a denomination reason to exist when the previous conceits lose their appeal.)

The church-as-laboratory is a place where we can experiment with setting love and mercy and grace as top priorities, where we dare to test the ability of (for example) liberals and evangelicals to challenge each other lovingly, where rural and urban people learn to spot cultural tensions hiding behind theological labels, where we learn what happens when we take risks -- such as not paying military taxes.

In our laboratories of love, success is not always guaranteed. In the tensions around same-sex marriages, Northwest Yearly Meeting seemed to defy the odds for years, until it didn't

Observatory. The church is (potentially) a unique institution in our society. Our unity as participants in this institution is -- or should be -- based before all else around our relationship with God. All of the categories and labels that determine our other social and economic connections, fade in importance compared to the faith that brings us together in church. This unusual connection point gives us a platform to observe the forces at play in the world. As we pray together, discern together, and compare notes together, maybe we can see things differently -- with some chance to set aside our human biases in favor of learning what blesses or breaks the heart of God.

My first explicit experience of church as observatory came in February and March 2014. In the post "The zombies are coming out," I described the discussion our Moscow Quaker meeting had on February 23, the day Ukraine's political crisis came to a head. In retrospect, my mild description of our discussion wasn't completely candid about how lively, even heated, that discussion became at times. Meeting for business was scheduled for one week later, March 1, and we realized we Moscow Friends should somehow have something to share with the worldwide Quaker community. This led to our agreement to form a prayerful observatory, to pay careful attention to the course of events in Ukraine and Ukrainian-Russian relations in the days that followed, and to come prepared in a week to compare observations and see if we could say anything in one voice.

I was presiding clerk of Moscow Friends at the time. Despite my so-called faith, I approached that meeting for business with some dread. However, love prevailed: in the end, we were able to approve a statement in that meeting -- and another a week later.

The concept of church as observatory could easily become misused to imply that the church should become some sort of political watchdog. Our "telescope" is the discernment of the whole group, watching not just the news of the day, or the events that match our passing political fascinations, but the activities of the principalities and powers and evil in high places -- and the complicity of the church. There are certainly seasons of special focus, such as the church's role in casting out white nationalism, but we always remember that "... we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer." (2 Corinthians 5:16; context.)

What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of these metaphors? What other metaphors help you make the meaning of "church" more alive and accessible to non-churchy audiences?

Jinan Bastaki on the history of South African apartheid ... and its relevance for Israel and Palestine today.

The UN's emergency plan for Palestinian recovery.

The Ryanair/Minsk scandal and the ensuing disinformation campaign.

Paul Parker marks a decade as Britain Yearly Meeting's senior staff member.

If I were in my beloved Chicago, I'd be going here. (Chicago Reader coverage of the Vivian Maier exhibition.)

Screenshot from Muscle Shoals.
Swampers drummer Roger Hawkins died last Friday. National Public Radio's obituary includes a few samples of his work. Washington Post's obituary. At this point in the documentary Muscle Shoals, we hear Wilson Pickett describe Roger Hawkins, and Jerry Wexler tells Roger what he thinks of him. A Hawkins sampler.

Sonic the Hedgehog turns 30. (Technically, his first appearance was actually 30 years ago in February. Why am I mentioning this? Some context here, on Sonic's 15th -- scroll down.)

Nancy Thomas apologizes for taking Sam Hill's name in vain.

In case you think I'm taking myself too seriously, this ought to be reassuring. Mark Hummel and Jason Ricci -- "Just Your Fool."

20 May 2021

Who wants to "teach lessons"? Who wants to learn?

The Israeli government will not stop its operation against the militant Hamas group anytime soon unless two specific goals are reached, Israeli Ambassador to the United States and to the United Nations Gilad Erdan warned Thursday. "First of all, [we want] to teach the Hamas a lesson that they cannot continue to try, to indiscriminately try to murder our people," Erdan said on Newsmax TV's "Wake Up America."

"Teaching lessons" is a popular cliche. A spokesman from Hamas, the party in power in the Gaza Strip, used it after a previous clash with Israel:

"We taught Israel a serious lesson. This is a message to Israel," said Abu Zuhri. "The attitude of the resistance groups will be determined according to the behavior of Israel."

Many want to teach lessons; few want to learn. What lessons might be on offer from these nearly two weeks of hell in Gaza, and tragic disorders all over Israel and Palestine?

Yes, the destruction in Gaza probably was costly for Hamas, who fired around 4000 short-range unguided missiles toward Israeli towns during this conflict. With its bombs and artillery, Israel claims to have set Hamas infrastructure back by years. Did Israel succeed in teaching Hamas a lesson?

Think about it. Launching those missiles and provoking Israel's response brought destruction to Gaza City ... and long-overdue attention to the Palestinian cause.

Memorial Meeting for Misha Roshchin:
this Saturday, 19.00 Moscow time.
(For Skype link, contact me directly.)

Israelis (quite rightly) grieved the loss of life caused by those missiles, and were understandably angered by the psychological terror and physical inconvenience of Hamas attacks. The Israeli response to those missiles was loud and dramatic and terribly destructive, but its duration was relatively short. In contrast, the deprivation and desperation of those trapped in the Gaza Strip is constant. This deprivation and desperation is usually invisible to the world -- except during clashes with Israel. Lesson: The risks involved with attacking Israel might be outweighed by the benefit of letting the world see the harsh realities of living in an Israeli-controlled prison camp (and not to be too cynical, also gaining for Hamas the political benefit of looking like heroes in the fight against Israel ... and Fatah).

The biggest lesson of all might relate to the term that Israel and all its allies use to justify Israeli "lessons": 

Israel has the right to defend its people.

Yes, it does. Few dispute that Israel has the same right as any country to ensure the safety of its people, and by the established custom of this violent and unredeemed world, it has the right to use violence if necessary.

  • Question 1 of this lesson: Is violence necessary? Are there other means to ensure the safety of its people, making the deaths of innocent children avoidable? Are there ways to address the actual grievances and desperation of those Palestinian people in whose name the Hamas forces launch their rockets? As I asked last week, are there law enforcement methods that are far more appropriate than full-scale military combat for confronting urban terrorism when it does arise? By such humane and proportional means, might Hamas even become reduced, isolated, irrelevant? How many resources should go into solving these baseline problems in Gaza, in comparison to the fabulous amounts that Israeli and USA taxpayers spend on "teaching lessons" with high-tech brutality?
  • Question 2: Who are "Israel's people" -- that is, the people whose safety Israel is bound to ensure? Those who rest their case on Israel's right to self-defense may hope that we don't ask this question, but the answer is simple: "Israel's people" include all those who are under Israel's control, who are trapped by Israeli walls and forces, unable to come and go freely. A trivial example: in the present crisis, some Israelis chose to spend time with relatives living outside Hamas missiles' range. How many civilians of Gaza could make an equivalent decision? What Israeli citizen has to worry about access to jobs, food, electricity, water, land, good standards of health care, not to mention international travel and education, in the way residents of Gaza and the rest of Palestine must worry? Yet, Israel has ultimate control over most of these resources, with little or no possibility of appeal by Palestinians and their Israeli allies.

Israel asks the community of democratic nations: what country would tolerate missile attacks on its people? The rest of the world's democracies should be replying: good point! And, given the way you treat millions of people who are under your military control, and whose welfare therefore depends on you, are you honestly surprised that the relatively few among them who rig up those pathetic missiles might be seen as heroes? Aside from suffering meekly and invisibly and indefinitely, what other options have you left them?

Lesson: "I will never lose my optimism. There are people on both sides who want peace. The real battle is not between Israel and Palestine, but between those who want to coexist and those who dream of expelling or killing the other side." -- Palestinian educator Khalil Bashir, in Yousef Bashir's The Words of My Father: Love and Pain in Palestine.

Jayson Casper, Christianity Today: Ten Christian views on the conflict in Gaza and Israel.

World reaction to Israeli-Hamas ceasefire.

Materials from the blocked (why??) Andrei Sakharov exhibition.

Luna Reyes "showing the world what humanity looks like."

After reading Kate Bowler's previous book, I've preordered her new one, No Cure for Being Human.

The Poor People's Campaign and U.S. congresswomen Jayapal and Lee announce a Third Reconstruction resolution to confront poverty.

"More love, more love, ... O Zion, more love." Thanks to riseupandsing.org for the link to this video. Lyrics here. (Blues will be back next week.)

13 May 2021

Rarely asked questions

According to the Jerusalem Post, the chief of staff of the Israeli military said at a cabinet meeting today that "he opposes using soldiers to restore order in Israeli cities, noting that the military is a 'people's army' and not suitable for civilian unrest...."

Question I wish the journalists would ask: "Why are soldiers suitable for 'civilian unrest' in the occupied territories?" I suspect that in some fundamental way, Palestinians are not seen as civilians, but as enemies.

Follow-up question: Do soldiers control unrest, or do they cause unrest? I remember one of the incidents of children throwing stones at an Israeli checkpoint in Hebron, resulting in a virtual street battle including stun grenades and tear gas. The next time I was at that checkpoint, I talked to a nearby shop-owner about the incident. If there were no checkpoint and no soldiers separating the children from their schools, he pointed out, there would be no unrest to control. The soldiers themselves create the conditions that they then point to as their reason for being there.

However we feel about the occupation and its origins, international law is clear about the obligations of the occupiers for the well-being of the people in their care. Israeli policy has a beautiful work-around -- in the places they have not annexed outright, they have granted that responsibility to local authorities. But those authorities are under the total control of the occupying power, which claims the right to send in heavily-armed troops whenever they wish. Some of those troops behave very well (as I saw), while others don't bother to hide their utter disdain for the people at whom they aim their guns.

Similarly, in the last few days we have seen Hamas shooting hundreds of missiles aimed with little or no precision from Gaza into Israeli towns. President Biden repeats the tired line, "Israel has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory." Again, when Israel claims absolute ultimate power over Gaza, why is the possession of illegal weapons capable of indiscriminate murder not a police matter? Why is Israeli care for civilians under their control completely hands-off when convenient, and then, when suddenly there is "unrest," their only apparent option is to use bombs, guided missiles, and artillery?

Israel claims that Hamas armed forces nest themselves among civilians, so that collateral casualties from Israeli actions, however regrettable, are the fault of those forces. Criminals among civilians? -- sad but not at all unexpected!! That is why in a normal city you have street-level, day-in-day-out policing, so the authorities know what is going on in the neighborhoods. When an innocent family lives one building away from a bomb factory, that should make Israeli law enforcement wonder whether there are not better ways to control this dangerous criminal behavior than pouring high explosives into the neighborhood! Once again, why are journalists not asking about the appropriateness of treating some human beings (Israelis) with all the protections of a real justice system, while seeing only military solutions for Palestinians? Yes, there is a fiction that Gaza is not Israel, which disclaims any responsibility for Gaza's normal well-being, but functionally it is utterly at Israel's mercy. "Mercy," of course, has nothing to do with actual policy.

Early in the current cycle of violence, the BBC's Razia Iqbal interviewed a Palestinian activist and an Israeli spokesperson, in one of the more evenhanded journalistic treatments of the situation. The Israeli official, Mark Regev, claimed that Israel was enforcing the law and controlling the unrest around al-Aqsa Mosque with scrupulous regard for everyone's religious rights.

When Iqbal pressed him about the precipitating conflict -- the looming prospect of evictions from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem -- he responded that in cases like this, "where you have two different groups that claim the right to a property, the Israeli government is not directly involved in this case in any way whatsoever." Sounds reasonable enough if we didn't already know that, for decades, almost every Israeli leader has advanced the explicit policy of ridding "greater" Israel of its Palestinian population. Mainstream journalists rarely seem able to ask, bluntly, if this isn't in fact the actual policy goal, although Iqbal came close. Such a policy would be the only thing that explains all of these jarring realities -- police for the Israelis and the military for Palestinians; treating the Gaza and West Bank territories as self-governing when convenient and as giant prison camps when deemed necessary; and treating Israeli and Palestinian property claims using two different legal systems -- in favor, of course, of the Israelis.

It's not impossible to describe the conditions for a better future. As Rashid Khalidi says in today's Washington Post, "A sustainable solution, whether based on two states or one, must enshrine absolute equality of rights for both peoples, including collective, national and political rights, as well as religious, property and civil rights." This may be incompatible with a vision of Israel as a country in which only Jewish people are first-class citizens, but it is VERY compatible with an Israel that is faithful to its own ancient biblical standards of justice.

(Jeremiah 22:3Psalm 82Proverbs 16:122 Samuel 8:15.)

I wish a journalist would ask these politicians -- all the politicians on all sides who seem to hold life and death in their hands -- the following questions:

  • Do you believe in equal justice for everyone in your care?
  • And who exactly is in your care and not in your care?
  • When conflicts arise, will you judge with impartial justice? When you are wrong, what recourse do we have?
  • How do people behave when they have no recourse? Can you honestly blame them?

(Related posts: Who wants to "teach lessons"? Who wants to learn?; Praying without ceasing in Hebron; Hell, holiness, and Jerusalem; "How was I supposed to think about a world...?";  Christian jihad; The rhetoric of righteousness.)

Misha Roshchin
A Quaker memorial meeting for Mikhail Roshchin will be held at 19.00 Moscow time (noon Eastern time in the USA) on Saturday, May 22. All who knew Mikhail and would like to honor his memory are invited. The meeting will be held online, on Zoom. Please send me your e-mail address to receive the Zoom link. (johan@canyoubelieve.me) The meeting for worship will be conducted in Russian with translation for English speakers if needed.

On May 20 and 22, the Quaker Religious Education Collaborative is holding Conversation Circles on "Learnings that Light the Way." More information on the QREC site.

Beacon Hill Friends House has places in their residential community available this spring, summer, and fall. More information on this page. Also see their virtual events page for their schedule of programs and events.

Russian historian Mikhail Meltyukhov on the proposed ban on "equating" the goals of the USSR and Nazi Germany.

Back to today's theme. How hard could it be to condemn the killing of Palestinian children?

Philip Weiss on the increasing polarization around Israel's national idea in view of today's brutal reality.

The late Troels Jensen, Danish blues guitarist, and the Small Town Blues Band: "It Hurts Me Too."

06 May 2021

Living without lying

Pravda (Truth). Cropped from source.
"One of the hallmarks of the former president was his ability to turn any accusations against him into an attack on his opponents. True to form, this morning he set out to appropriate the term 'the Big Lie' for his own. Rather than meaning his refusal to admit he lost the election, he wants to use the phrase to mean the opposite: that it refers to 'The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020.'" Heather Cox Richardson.

"But they have softer ways, more therapeutic ways of implementing a totalitarianism. And so that's why we don't see it coming, we Americans, because it's all happening under the guise of helping and of social justice and so forth. But these people who saw the same sort of thing happen in the Soviet Bloc, that's why they're trying to warn us." Rod Dreher, source, speaking about his recent book, Live Not By Lies.

"Speaking as an agnostic, here's my question. How can you stand there on Easter with candle in hand, while simultaneously poisoning people and committing robbery on a cosmic scale?" Russian Twitter.

"What is truth?" -- Pontius Pilate.

In the fall of 1973, many of us at the Institute of Soviet and East European Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa were following the fate of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who had just given permission for his GULag Archipelago to be published abroad. Some of us eagerly pre-ordered copies from the YMCA Press in Paris, and in January 1974 our copies arrived.

For Solzhenitsyn himself, the consequences of his decision to publish his book were not long in coming. On February 13, 1974, the world learned that he had been arrested the day before, and had been expelled that day to West Germany.

As a sort of final shot at his opponents, he had prepared an essay, "Live Not By Lies," and had left instructions that it was to be released in the event of his arrest or death. It was dated February 12 and released on the 13th, the day of his exile.

Solzhenitsyn was -- and is -- a problematic figure for many. A courageous and persistent champion of free speech and the rule of law, he also tended to romanticize the Russian state (not its rulers, especially not Peter the Great and his successor tsars) and bitterly criticized the cultural decline of the consumerist West. Many of Olesya Zakharova's observations in her article "A Linguistic Look at Russia's Human Rights Record" apply to Solzhenitsyn's criticisms.

Nevertheless, I continue to admire Solzhenitsyn and his essay, including its advice for life in a time where "truth" has become a flexible commodity. Judging by the Mohler/Dreher interview quoted above (note: I've not read Dreher's book), Solzhenitsyn's essay (or at least its provocative title) may be co-opted by those who are warning that militant leftists and atheists are waging war on Christian civilization -- and that we should therefore be preparing for a totalitarian future.

Unfortunately, a totalitarian future is not out of the question, and the degradation of truth would almost certainly contribute to it. Too many ideologues (some on the left, some on the right, some unclassifiable) insist on their own tissues of half-truth, innuendo, and gauzy mythology, as an adequate standard by which to indict their enemies' alleged lies and conspiracies. In all these blasts of propaganda I see no evidence that actual Marxists are behind critical race theory, for example, nor do I see much Gospel content among those claiming to stand for Christianity. Through all that fog, I still see great wisdom in Solzhenitsyn's advice to those who don't consider themselves militants but who nevertheless yearn to resist the bondage of any oppressive system. According to this advice in "Live Not By Lies" [English; Russian] such resisters will reject service to falsehood, in favor of a commitment that they:

  • will not sign, write or print in any way a single phrase which in [their] opinion distorts the truth
  • will utter such a phrase neither in private conversation nor in public, neither on [their] own behalf nor at the prompting of someone else, neither in the role of agitator, teacher, educator, nor as an actor
  • will not depict, foster or broadcast a single idea in which [they] can see a distortion of the truth, whether it be in painting, sculpture, photography, technical science or music
  • will not cite out of context, either orally or in writing, a single quotation to please someone, to feather [their] own nest, to achieve success in [their] work, if [they do not] completely share the idea which is quoted, or if it does not accurately reflect the matter at issue
  • will not allow [themselves] to be compelled to attend demonstrations and meetings ... contrary to [their] desire
  • will immediately walk out of a meeting, session, lecture, performance or film if [they hear] a speaker tell lies, or purvey ideological nonsense or shameless propaganda
  • will not subscribe to or buy a newspaper or magazine in which information is distorted and primary facts are concealed.

I want to go a step further and think about the implications of Solzhenitsyn's advice for the church. On a theoretical level, could we agree that the church must be a place that doesn't require servile behavior within its community, and also shelters people who take risks for truth in the wider world?

To go beyond theory, I see two contradictory realities in the church communities I know:

  • The church is the ONLY social institution that must, by its very nature, resist ideological conformity. Once we find our unity in Jesus, we may differ in our understanding of how to live as his disciples and what the ethical consequences of such a life might be, but we are united that we are in this adventure together, and we ultimately are for each other. In any Christ-centered church, there is room for the radical, the conservative, the evangelical, the socialist ... that is, in any church where people actually cherish each other more than than their own angle on the world. The church also has the capacity to distinguish vital theological conflicts from cultural, generational, and temperamental misunderstandings masquerading as theological issues -- should it choose to use that capacity.
  • The church reflects the distortions and pressures of the larger society. This is inevitable in any church that is actually accessible to the larger community, where people come in with all levels of woundedness and/or maturity. Churches may be (consciously or unconsciously) tempted to build themselves up by forming their identities around something other than Jesus. Those false identities might involve mythologies and common enemy lists that are anti-Gospel, however masked they might be in vague Christian platitudes or stern biblical "teachings" that we're required to take on as a condition of being approved by the church's authority figures. Is it any coincidence that the Quaker meeting over here has practically zero Trump followers, while that one across the state line seems to have a Trumpian majority?

So: to answer Pilate's question, "what is truth?", can we start here? (I'm serious -- let's discuss!)

  • Truth involves assertions and explanations that can be shared among people of goodwill who can freely make observations and ask awkward questions without fear of political or social rejection.
  • Truth is never immediately and completely obvious to anyone based solely on their social status or claims of exclusive knowledge.
  • Truth will never separate people from God's love. Where God's love prevails, truth will never separate people from each other.

First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Indiana, was probably a majority-Republican church in the late 1980's. It was a well-established and respectable institution in downtown Richmond, when its monthly meeting for business received a request to counsel and support several of us who were refusing to pay our income taxes, or part of them, in observance of the Quaker testimony against supporting war. First Friends prioritized Gospel obedience over conventional respectability and supported these law-breakers who insisted that, even when it comes to paying taxes, God, not Caesar, should have the last word. 

I'm sure that most members of First Friends did not plan to become tax resisters themselves. Probably the majority had never even heard of such a practice. Even so, they decided to support those who asked for counsel and accountability for their witness, minuting the church's readiness to accompany them to court if it should come to that, and to help them out in practical ways if the path led to financial hardship. For me, this story has always been a case study of a church's ability to accommodate dramatic differences in understanding of discipleship.

Related posts:

Division of labor, part one, part two.

Love and truth and religion addiction.

Publishing Truth -- ethically!

Olga Misik updates Solzhenitsyn for the year 2021.

Julia Duin on covering Pentecostals who exalt Trump: "... There's a lot of America that feels this way. And most journalists are utterly missing it."

Roger E. Olson asks where God is in this pandemic.

Bill Yoder interviews Peter Epp on Siberian Mennonites.

Steven Davison considers "that of God" -- and the language of Light -- in the gathered meeting.

Keith Richards removes a string.

Billy Branch and friends in Chicago: "Help Me."