17 July 2019

The Poor People's Campaign: a meditation on unity

Yearly Meeting at work.
Friends in North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative) have worked for years on ways of upholding our Quaker testimony on equality and against racism -- and how to do so with integrity.

Recently the appearance of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival has provided a new channel for expressing this concern. The Campaign unites several themes of crucial importance for Quaker discipleship -- racial justice, ecological stewardship, economic justice, demilitarizing our economy, and moral revival. After extensive discussions, of which I only witnessed a few peak moments, the yearly meeting adopted this minute describing their exercise:

This minute reached the business meeting in its last regular session before the close of the annual sessions. In considering this minute, some Friends felt that a briefer, more outward-facing, and more full-throated endorsement of the Poor People's Campaign was called for; others questioned whether such a text could be produced and seasoned quickly enough to meet the goal in these sessions. In the event, a small team of Friends agreed to bring a draft minute to a brief extra business session the next morning. This shorter minute was approved with remarkable speed and enthusiasm:
This second shorter minute did not replace the first one, which recorded the deliberations within the business sessions. However, the second minute serves as a public expression of the body, and is being forwarded to the Poor People's Campaign and added to the epistles that are sent out to Friends worldwide.

Thus endeth a positive story. Underneath, there is spiritual drama. But I have not earned the right to comment authoritatively on this drama; the following thoughts are based on several post-yearly-meeting conversations and my experiences of other yearly meetings facing similar dilemmas. Your thoughts and corrections are invited.

When a Christian community is united by a deep concern about racial justice, why would there be any caution about adopting a minute reflecting that concern?

For one thing, this particular yearly meeting was born, at least in part, out of conscientious opposition to adoption of a uniform discipline, and by extension, to hierarchical decisionmaking in general. It is not the business of a yearly meeting to impose a decision or a text on constituent meetings who are perfectly capable of developing and adopting their own statements. Of course, in theory, the yearly meeting sessions are simply all the monthly meetings gathered into one place, but pious theory doesn't prevent the alienation that local Friends can feel when an assembly located in another place claim to be speaking in their name.
Vocabulary note: Among many Friends, "monthly meeting" is simply another term for "local congregation." Traditionally, the local meeting or church meets at least weekly for worship, but holds meetings for church governance once a month, although there are variations on this pattern.
There are other churches and denominations where pronouncements are routinely made from a central office. This can result in alienation between the central office and the grassroots membership. (What is gained by anyone when a denomination issues a righteous proclamation over the heads of their constituency? Does it lead to an increase in righteousness, or to a burst of superficial gratification among those who prevailed in the politics of that denomination?) Friends generally avoid such practices, and the Conservative yearly meetings seem particularly resistant to them.

If I sensed correctly, there was another basis for urging careful process: would our public statements be grounded in truth? Were we implying a greater degree of righteousness in overcoming racism than we were actually demonstrating, in our lives as individual Quakers and in our meetings?

[Yet another point of testing whenever we North American Friends adopt statements on racism: do we speak only in the voice of the white majority? We (and now I'm daring to speak for the whole) may wish that our demographics more closely reflected the wider communities around us, but woe to us as a body if we marginalize those Friends of color who have found a spiritual home among the rest of us.]

Two other observations for you to consider, and, possibly, to challenge. First, what is the role of trust? I imagine that, sometimes, some Friends are impatient to adopt a strong stance for racial justice and against white privilege over the objections of others who, in their eyes, seem unnecessarily cautious. Are these Friends, with their sense of understandable urgency, able to trust that this caution might result from a genuine care for the process of discernment, rather than (let's say) out of residual racism or fear of change? Have those Friends who put the process first proven trustworthy over the many years their more deliberate approach has been normative?

In turn, are those who resist that urgency -- those who urge more deliberation or assert the primacy of action at monthly meeting level -- nevertheless able to trust that the urgency may actually be the voice of prophecy rather than a politicized enthusiasm? Are they ready to weigh the blessings of good process against the ancient temptation to quench the spirit when God is actually doing something new?

Second, what is the role of spiritual warfare? Racism and elitism are manifestations of the primordial sin of objectification. In particular, racism and white nationalism are the unsurprising outcome of centuries of accumulated cruelty. To me, the bottom-line challenge to all of us Friends is not whether we have perfectly calibrated our political statements. It is this: In the face of grave systemic sin, is Jesus really Lord or not?? This frames all our efforts, all our urgency, all our prayer and fasting, all our coordination between monthly meeting, yearly meeting, and wider fellowships, toward the goal of leaving no room for racism to remain.

I hope that the happy outcome of this discernment process, supporting engagement with the Poor People's Campaign, confirms the value of heart-to-heart collaboration among various Quakerly temperaments, adds to the yearly meeting's resources for faithfulness, and will provide valuable experience for Friends everywhere.

Sarah Kaplan: a serious proposal for interstellar space travel.

How Norway turns criminals into good neighbors.

How should Christians have sex? (What, if anything, takes the place of the discredited teachings of purity culture?)

Matthew Milliner provides a field guide to writer Richard Rohr.

Peter Wehner on the Trump-related crisis in evangelical Christianity.
In speaking about the widespread, reflexive evangelical support for the president, [Karel] Coppock -- who is theologically orthodox and generally sympathetic to conservatism -- lamented the effect this moral freak show is having, especially on the younger generation. With unusual passion, he told me, “We’re losing an entire generation. They’re just gone. It’s one of the worst things to happen to the Church.”

This week, a different video choice. My constant favorite piece of space history, the landing of Apollo 11.

11 July 2019

A "conservative" call for actual love and actual truth

Clean and simple: Yearly Meeting Web site (screenshot); source.
Hello from Wilmington, North Carolina, USA, where I'm attending the annual sessions of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). I've prepared an address for tomorrow evening's session, looking at this year's theme of "Retire to Quietness; Let the Light Shine."

This yearly meeting is one of three remaining yearly meetings of Conservative Friends in the USA. The others are Ohio Yearly Meeting and Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative). If you're familiar with the Quaker world, you already know that Friends use the word "Conservative" to mark a movement among Friends that is distinct from the dominant divisions ("liberal," "orthodox," and "evangelical"  -- I acknowledge the inadequacy and flattening quality of all of these labels).

Conservative Quakers may or may not be politically conservative (most are not, I'd guess) but they often cherish certain aspects of historic Friends practice more consistently than other Friends might. Chief among these emphases is this combination: a deep commitment to unprogrammed "waiting" worship, a complete rejection of paid and settled pastors for their own congregations, and a Bible-centered style of piety -- although this last feature varies widely from place to place, and even among individual meetings in the same yearly meeting.

In addition, one of the most attractive features of Conservative Friends practice, in my opinion, is the the unhurried pace of business meetings, with approval of minutes after each item of business or after each small cluster of items. It has been at least twenty years since I was last at Ohio Yearly Meeting and I've never been at a business meeting in Iowa, so my generalizations may all be a bit stale, but I'm happy to report that this pacing is being practiced before my admiring eyes here at these sessions.

The Interim Discipline of North Carolina Yearly Meeting of Friends (Conservative) has a helpful and candid overview of these features as experienced in this particular community. A rather pessimistic overview of the Conservative movement among Friends, written ten years ago, can be found in this article by Bill Rushby.

I was never a member of a Conservative Friends meeting, but its culture and spirituality helped form me as a new Christian, through the influence of one remarkable Canadian Friend. My mentor for my earliest years as a Friend was Deborah Haight, a founder of Ottawa Friends Meeting, who was born and raised in the Conservative Friends community of Norwich, Ontario.

To be honest, I'm using the word "conservative" in this week's blog post at least partly as bait. In the non-Quaker use of the term, "conservative" Christianity in the USA, especially in its white evangelical manifestations, often appears to have become thoroughly compromised in its enmeshment with right-wing politics. I propose that the more conservative your theology is, the more radical your practice ought to be. And this is the very moment in American history, when cruelty and corruption seem to be on the throne, when genuinely conservative Christianity ought to rise up in confrontation with the forces of "the father of lies" (John 8:44, context).

Here's what I'm baiting you to read. It's both a sample of Conservative Quaker rhetoric, and an exhortation to the nation. Arguably, it's an exhortation to those Christians who typically claim to be conservative. It dates back to last summer, having been approved as an open letter by Ohio Yearly Meeting, but today was the first time I heard it -- in this morning's business session, where it was read along with Ohio Yearly Meeting's 2018 epistle to North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative):
A Christian Call from Ohio Yearly Meeting of Friends (Conservative)

We are Christian Friends (Quakers) from various walks of life, political persuasions, ages, and backgrounds. We share both a desire to obey the Lord and a growing concern that our nation bring itself to the path of righteousness and mercy that Jesus taught.

Again and again, Christ calls us to love. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength and with all our mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Deuteronomy 6:5, Luke 10:27, Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30-31). When we are Christians, this is not optional. If our hearts are full of love, there is no room for fear, because “perfect love casts out fear.” (I John 4:18) Being blessed with God’s abundant love, we should be keeping families together, be welcoming to the strangers, and show compassion to those in need. We should see the best in each other regardless of political affiliation.

We know that “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:14) And who is our neighbor? Jesus’ answer is the parable of the good Samaritan. Only the Samaritan shows mercy to the beaten man. Only the Samaritan is a true neighbor in the eyes of the Lord (Luke 10:35-37). Today, are we acting the part of the priest and the Levite, or of the Samaritan? Is each of us willing to be a good Samaritan only to those who are like us, or who like us, or whom we like?

We are to follow Him who is the Truth (John 14:6). In an era of confusion between falsehood and truth, we risk leaving Christ's side when we listen to only what pleases us. (2 Timothy 4:3-4) For the sake of Christ, it is worth investigating the truth, wherever it may lead. In the words of Isaac Penington (a 17th century Friend). “truth will not lose ground by being tried.”

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Is that what we are showing the world? As Christians, we are called to live exemplary lives that glorify God (I Peter 2:13) Standing on the True Foundation, the Rock of Christ, let us return to His path, stand in the Light of Christ Jesus that reveals all things, and bears witness to our Lord above all – above party, above friends, above media, and above ourselves..

The Ohio Yearly Meeting Ministry and Oversight report to Ohio Yearly Meeting included the following statement. Friends united with the proposed statement and adopted it as amended. The statement is titled “A Christian Call from Ohio Yearly Meeting of Friends (Conservative). Friends also appointed a committee to consider means and methods of accomplishing distribution and publication. In addition, the statement has been appended to our Epistles, and Monthly Meetings are encouraged to distribute the statement locally to ministerial associations and similar bodies. [Source.]
I have no doubt that this Call needs to continue reaching new audiences.

Related posts:

Why it's hard for me to criticize Biblical literalists
Process discipleship
Good news or bad news?

Friends Committee on National Legislation: Rejecting cruelty as a policy solution.

Jonathan Trotter: The cure for my contempt (and yours, too).

Tomgram: William Astore on drowning in militarism.

Sean Guillory's fascinating interview with David Brandenberger on Stalin's famous/notorious Short Course. (Would you believe Stalin might have been a self-effacing editor?)

The evolution of the world map.

More Canadian content from Harpdog Brown...

04 July 2019

Anthony Bloom: "And so, we stand accused in this world"

Anthony Bloom, On Meeting
This morning I'm starting my annual four-day experience of unapologetic self-indulgence, namely the Waterfront Blues Festival. Compared to that exercise in prolonged ecstasy and nostalgia for my teenage years (the years I discovered this incomparable music), the deep spiritual and political maturity that you no doubt associate with me temporarily fade into the background.

However, just the other day I was reviewing some earlier posts with the idea I could sub one of them for the blog post due today. (When you're as obsessive as I am about a publishing schedule, the idea of skipping a week is almost out of the question.) I was stopped dead in my tracks by one of my posts that quoted the famous Russian Orthodox priest, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. I decided to use that quotation this week -- with no commentary from me. Bloom speaks for himself. (I do take credit, or blame, for the translation into English.) See if you agree with me that his observations have not lost their relevance.

I ended up drawing upon two passages from him -- both are drawn from interviews, both from the same book. The first quotation was used in my post Can evangelicals reproduce?, and the second in Exceptional pride: USA and Russia.

A week from today I plan to be in Wilmington, North Carolina, USA, attending the annual sessions of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). Depending on the schedule and jetlag, I may be finding more worthy quotations from other writers for that edition of my blog.

Over to Metropolitan Anthony Bloom:

An interviewer asked Anthony Bloom, "...How do you assess the position of Christianity in the contemporary world with all that is going on in it?" His answer:
It's a difficult question because what I want to say will be hurtful to many. It seems to me that today the whole Christian world, including the Eastern Orthodox world, has distanced itself terribly from the simplicity, integrity, and joyful beauty of the Gospel. Christ and his group of disciples created a Church that was so deep and wide and complete that it could contain the universe. Over the centuries we've made the church into one human social group among many. We're now something less than the world we live in, and when we talk about that world coming to Christ, we are talking about everyone, as many as possible, becoming members of that limited social group.

That's our sin, it seems to me. We need to understand that in the Christian church, believers should become believers not only in terms of their worldview, but in terms of all of life, of their inner experience, and our role is to bring light to this world, even in places where it's dark and at times terrifying. In one place the prophet Isaiah says, "Comfort, comfort My people" -- that was God's word to him, and, of course, to us. "Comfort My people" means get an understanding of the kind of sorrow gripping the whole world, both materially, in its confusion, and spiritually, in its lack of knowledge of God. It means bring the comforting touch of God, the love of God, the attentive concern of God, which must take hold of the whole person. It's meaningless to talk to someone about spirituality when they're hungry; feed them. It's pointless to talk about a person's mistaken perceptions when we don't bring to that person a living experience of God.

And so, we stand accused in this world. In its rejection of God and the Church, the world says, "You Christians cannot give us anything we need. You don't offer us God, you offer us a worldview. And it's a moot point if God is not at its core. You give us instructions on how to live, but they're just as arbitrary as the ones other people give us." We ourselves must become Christian -- Christians according to the example of Christ himself, and his disciples. Only then will the Church obtain, not power, that is the capacity to coerce, but authority, the capacity to say words that make the soul tremble and that open up the eternal depths within any soul. It seems to me that this is our current situation and condition.

Maybe I'm coming at this situation pessimistically, but, really, we're not Christians. We confess faith in Christ, but we've reduced everything to symbols. So, for example, I'm always struck by our Good Friday service: instead of the cross on which a living young Man dies, we have a wonderful service that can move us but that actually stands between us and that rude and ghastly tragedy. In place of the cross we've substituted an icon of the cross. In place of the crucifixion, we've substituted an image. In place of a retelling of the actual horror of what happened, we substitute a poetic/musical reworking of the story.

Of course that reworking does reach us, but we so easily begin to get a taste for that horror, even deeply experiencing it, being shaken and then regaining our calm, whereas the vision of a living person who is murdered is something quite different. That remains as a wound in the soul, you don't forget it; having seen it, you'll never again be the same as you were. And that is what dismays me. In some sense, the beauty and depth of our worship must break it open, and must lead every believer through that opening to the terrible and majestic secret of what is actually happening.
The interviewer: "Yes, that's a very deep thought. Of course the contemporary world is oriented in such a way that, in principle, it could exist apparently without God, without spirituality. It rolls along obliviously, and you could comfortably slumber your life away and die." Anthony responds:
But what seems even more terrifying to me is that you can call yourself a Christian and live your whole life studying theology and never meet God. You can participate in the beauty of the worship, being a member of the choir or a participant in the service, and never break through to the reality of things. That's what is terrible. The nonbeliever still has a chance to gain faith, but this possibility becomes distant and indistinct for pseudo-believers because they have everything: they can explain every detail of the service, of the symbols of faith, and of dogmatics, but suddenly it turns out that they haven't actually met God.

The interviewer (speaking with Bloom toward the end of the Gorbachev era): "Father, maybe from your vantage point at some remove from Russia [namely in England], you have a better view of the processes going on in our homeland's Church."
... Political conformism has long been one of the scourges of the Russian Church. Already before the Revolution, the Church and the state formed a sort of harmonious whole, which by the way didn't always work out to the benefit of the church. After the Revolution the church kept quiet. During the time of extreme repression and persecution, political expression was out of the question for everyone. And so now it will take an extended course of study -- actually more like an education by immersion -- before we'll learn how to think politically, speak politically, from inside the Church.

No party at all should be able to claim the Church as its own, but at the same time the Church is not non-party, or above parties. She must be the voice of a conscience illuminated by the Light of God. In the ideal state, the Church must be in a condition to speak to any party, any movement: "This is worthy of humanity and of God, and that is not." Of course, this can be done from either of two positions: either from a position of strength, or from a position of complete helplessness. It seems to me -- and I'm deeply convinced of this -- that the Church must never speak from a position of strength. The Church must not be one of the powers operating in this or that government; she must be, if you like, just as powerless as God, Who does not coerce, Who only calls us and reveals the beauty and truth of things, but doesn't enforce them on us; Who, similarly to the way our consciences work, points out the truth, but leaves us free to listen to truth and beauty -- or to refuse them. It seems to me that this is how the Church should be. If the Church takes its place among those organizations that have power, that are able to force and direct events, then there will always be the risk that she would find power desirable; and as soon as the Church begins to dominate, she loses the most profound thing, the love of God, and an understanding of those who need salvation rather than the works of destruction and rebuilding.
The interviewer: "Now in the West as well as here [in Russia] we're hearing voices asserting that Russian Orthodoxy is once again becoming the state religion. What do you make of this assertion?"
I think that, thank God, we're a long way from that. It's one thing for the state to become convinced that a Christian, or in a wider sense believers generally (here I'm thinking about Muslims and Buddhists as well) can also be a loyal son of the motherland.  But whenever any church represents the vast majority of believers, the relationship of this church and the state become, of course, more enmeshed and more complicated. And once again one of the tasks of the church -- whether we're talking about East or West--consists of not allowing itself to become part of the political or social system, but rather the opposite. While remaining fully loyal (in other words, wanting the best for the nation), warning society as a whole that there is another dimension to life, that there's not just the social-political dimension but that life has depth.
Interviewer: "By whose will, divine or diabolical, was Holy Russia almost destroyed? As we all know, Russia was called Holy Russia, Moscow was the city of forty times forty churches, the land was permeated with grace that shone out from believers...."
Every country chooses some kind of expression to characterize itself, but this expression doesn't necessarily describe what is true now, but instead its ideals and aspirations. So France called itself la France très chrétienne; Germany insisted on deutsche Treue, German faithfulness; Russia constantly talked about Святая Русь, Holy Rus'. But here's the thing: if we ask to what extent Russia was actually holy, and to what extent was it in combat; if we ask whether Russia was entirely dedicated to achieving this holiness -- the answer is right there in Russian history, which provides a rare spectacle of inseparably mixed holiness and horror. Leskov's story "Deliverance" is a short, clear, vivid depiction of how things were: we see a man, a godly believer, but "the Devil only knows" what's in him -- I mean this literally, I'm not using swearwords. This man goes on raging benders, he's off to sow his wild oats, then suddenly returns to God before turning right around in the old direction. For Russian history, this is completely normal; it runs through our past like a red thread.

Source: Митрополит Антоний Сурожский, О встрече. Санкт-Петербург, Сатисъ, 2002.

Brother Yusef plans to be with us at the Waterfront Festival this year.

27 June 2019

Social justice IS evangelism

Apparently over 7,000 pastors have signed on to a recent Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel, associated with John MacArthur and several other like-minded signers, warning us against social justice as a danger to the Gospel.

I'm guessing that's actually a small percentage of the Christian establishment who would agree with MacArthur and friends on this point, while possibly differing strongly with them on other aspects of their leadership. In any case, two of the most problematic points they make in their statement are these:
  • WE DENY that political or social activism should be viewed as integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church. Though believers can and should utilize all lawful means that God has providentially established to have some effect on the laws of a society, we deny that these activities are either evidence of saving faith or constitute a central part of the church’s mission given to her by Jesus Christ, her head. (from Part 8).
  • And we emphatically deny that lectures on social issues (or activism aimed at reshaping the wider culture) are as vital to the life and health of the church as the preaching of the gospel and the exposition of Scripture. Historically, such things tend to become distractions that inevitably lead to departures from the gospel. (from Part 14).
If I twist my head a certain way, I can sort of see what they're driving at, but I can't shake my severe doubts about two related dangers in these statements:

First: this division of the church's public presence into priority one: preaching of the gospel, exposition of the Bible, and priority two: everything else.

Granting this division for the sake of discussion, shouldn't the "priority one" people and the "priority two" people be in an accountable relationship with each other? If there's mutual accountability, the things done by either group would actually represent the whole community's testimony, which would be grievously incomplete without that full participation.

In other words, in a healthy church, this prioritizing is artificial and threatens to set up an unnecessary hierarchy. To borrow a phrase, "such things tend to become distractions that inevitably lead to departures from the gospel."

Second: advocacy of social justice, up to and including civil disobedience, is among the signs and wonders that proclaim and validate our Gospel teachings to the wider audience beyond those already engaged with us. This is true whether or not literal miracles occur, and they very well can occur.

In his book, Churches that Pray, Peter Wagner tells the story of the prophetic prayer journey to the Wurtsmith Air Force Base back in 1983, during which the prayer team first reached the runway (renouncing "Satan and all his works") and then, unseen, reached the high-security area where the bombers were kept, although that area was fully lit up and patrolled. Wagner concludes, "Who knows what the future holds? But we do know that since that prophetic prayer journey the danger of worldwide nuclear holocaust has measurably been less and less."

The world is still dangerous, and armed power continues to represent conventional wisdom; to put our trust in God rather than violence, wealth, and social status, can require miraculous faith.

The unity of faith and practice is as important today as it ever was. In Chuck Redfern's important historical "evangelical myth-busting" overview of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, he puts it right out there: "Like it or not, 'evangelical' conjures Donald Trump's image, not our Lord's." It's in this atmosphere that cartoons like Mike Luckovich's (above) appear. (Friday update: Also see Michael Gerson, Evangelicals are naked before the world.)

Without evidence, there's no persuasive proclamation, no matter how exquisitely tuned to orthodox specifications. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether those guardians of doctrinal boundaries are as concerned about that proclamation and its external audiences as they are worried about being found defective by each other.


Ralph Beebe; source.
The late Ralph Beebe exemplified the unity of faith and practice that Quakers advocate, particularly in relation to peace. Read Cherice Bock's powerful sermon on the occasion of last Friday's meeting for worship for remembrance of her grandfather.

Friends and the humanitarian crisis on our southern border: observations by Lynn Gazis-Sax.

In the U.S., are Democrats less religious than Republicans? Or is this only true among white Democrats? Reposted in connection with Democrats' appointment of a new faith outreach director.

Myriam Reynaud: Will young evangelicals come back to church? (Compare my rather less temperate post from twelve years ago: Can evangelicals reproduce?)

An American experience of Russian criminal process: Gaylen Grandstaff.

Peter Beinart: Ocasio-Cortez's generation doesn't automatically presume America's innocence.

Harpdog Brown -- blues from Canada. (Looking forward to hearing him at the Waterfront Blues Festival.)

20 June 2019

Back in the USSR

I've spent most of the past week immersed in historical television dramas on Soviet themes. Despite their grim subjects, I can't deny the deep nostalgia for Russia that these shows evoked. They reminded me of our universal human capacities for kindness and cruelty, humor and cynicism, acceptance and resistance ... and the specific ways I experienced these capacities in Russia and other places in the former Soviet Union, ever since my first visit in the fall of 1975.

The first program I devoured over these last few days was HBO/Sky's miniseries Chernobyl. I thought that for an American to create a program on the USSR's most serious nuclear accident was nervy -- just imagine all the political and cultural distortions that could result. But I remembered the U.S. television coverage at the time (sample: CBS Evening News) ... surely a carefully constructed drama would be better than those speculative TV news summaries that filled the information vacuum of the time?

I was aware that the HBO/Sky series was getting good marks from a lot of critics, even Russian critics. In Novaya Gazeta, one columnist essentially said "This is the film we should have made." As I weighed the many specific criticisms made by both western and Russian commentators, I appreciated the accompanying five-part podcast in which host Peter Sagal talks with series creator Craig Mazin about his creative choices, and the deviations from the historical record that critics often refer to.

The "voice" of the Sagal/Mazin podcast is typically American -- mostly upbeat, offhand, slangy, sometimes verging on glib. But one thing comes through this conversation constantly: in the series itself, Mazin and his co-workers were determined to show respect to the men and women who risked (and sometimes gave) their lives to save their fellow citizens and potentially a whole continent. They demonstrated that respect by choosing to focus on individuals and stories that exemplified human decency and generosity and the finest aspects of patriotism -- all of which combined to contain the worst possible outcomes of the disaster. Even self-serving bureaucrats occasionally displayed flashes of humanity; the series avoided presenting us with total villains. However, the overwhelming desire of the ruling system to protect itself at all costs, deny problems, and avoid humiliation, was presented with brutal realism -- and (despite some oversimplifications and dramatic exaggerations) rightly so.

"Our goal is the happiness of all humanity."
There were imperfections in the series and podcast accompaniment that aren't explained by the choices imposed by compression and dramatic continuity. For example, in episode four, one of the squads sent out to catch and eliminate abandoned pets is eating and chatting outside a cultural center. A squad member points out a banner attached to the building: "Our goal is the happiness of all humanity." The irony isn't lost on the squad, but even so I wasn't happy that Sagal and Mazin mocked the sentiment. Maybe it's my own exaggerated idealism, but those slogans (however compromised by official corruption and everyday coping mechanisms) reflected real pride among Soviet people. Today those old banners and slogans evoke nostalgia among many Russians who look about in vain for similar ideals in our own time.

Other critics have pointed out historical inaccuracies -- the reactors' deficiencies were not that secret; the authorities were generally no longer threatening executions; the courtroom scenes were practically fictional; the apartment buildings had modern windows, and so on. You can find these complaints for yourself. They don't diminish the main point for me: the enormous wave of heroism among ordinary human beings in the face of a catastrophe that they cannot even understand.

Finally: apart from the riveting plot, a very rewarding aspect of the TV series for me was the attention to visual detail, to the texture of daily life in the mid-1980's USSR. The hospitals I've seen in Russia still look like those in Chernobyl. Same with the older apartment buildings, and with such details as clocks, telephones, stoves, radios, wallpaper, stairwells, and so on. Chernobyl isn't a one-stop substitute for deeper research and reading, but it is a very worthwhile attempt to dramatize history with care and respect for its human dimensions.

The second program was one I'm returning to after almost a dozen years since I first saw it. Here's how I described Shtrafbat after my first binge-watching exposure to the series: (Thanksgiving 2007) ...
I just gave eleven hours of my free time to a fascinating Russian television miniseries, Shtrafbat ("Penal Battalion") on DVD. In WWII Russia, penal battalions were the most expendable of soldiers, made up of criminals and "enemies of the people" who were offered this service as a way to get out of the GULags and redeem themselves by blood from the crimes they'd allegedly committed. The series has some battle scenes, but it's far more devoted to the human relationships among the characters--between regular Red Army and the shtrafniki, between the criminals and the politicals, between the Red Army's military officers and the political officers, between atheists and believers, between wounded soldiers and nurses, and occasionally between Russians and Germans.

Source: IMDB  
In these eleven episodes, there were so many memorable characters and moments of drama. And complete frankness about the NKVD (predecessor to the KGB) and its horrible methods. The battalion commander Tverdokhlebov mentions to his assistant that, when they go into action, the NKVD will station troops behind them to shoot anyone who turns back, even if they're wounded. (It happened.) And the assistant, Glymov, smiles and says, "Ah, how our Soviet leaders so lovingly look after their citizens." Later, after their beloved commander has been arrested by the NKVD on trumped-up charges, the soldiers are standing in formation and the NKVD colonel introduces them to the new commander. One of the soldiers asks, "And what about Tverdokhlebov?" In the confrontation that ensues, the colonel says, "You are enemies of the people. Nothing! Useless!" Glymov waves at the ragged penal battalion troops behind him and says, "These boys still have a bit of usefulness left in them. As for you, your loss wouldn't make a bit of difference."

This could have been a concept ready-made for exploitative violence and sensational gore, or for mindless patriotism and militarism. Instead, the series believably brings to life an almost-forgotten dimension of Russia's wartime experience. At one point, Glymov says that the secret of his survival to that point was not courage, but rather sheer cunning. Nevertheless, we see genuine kindness in his character. I can't help wondering whether, in similar circumstances, I would have been able to preserve as much humanity.
At the time I first saw this series, I wasn't aware of some of the controversy it raised. Some of the controversy I'm inclined to minimize -- for example, I totally disagree with the charge that the series exaggerates the role of penal battalions in the USSR's victory over Germany, or demeans the victory itself. There are no such implications, although in the context of today's victory cult, Shtrafbat's distinctly anti-Stalinist tone might be out of fashion. In fact, (spoiler alert), the last penal-battalion attack on the Germans is merely intended as a diversionary nuisance, although these soldiers don't know it.
Yuri Stepanov in role of Glymov the thief, about to volunteer.
Alexei Serebryakov (comm-batt Tverdokhlebov), Stepanov.
Screenshots made from episodes at Советское кино

More serious criticisms involve the actual composition of the USSR's penal forces, most of which apparently consisted of active soldiers condemned to this form of service as punishment for military infractions, as with Tverdokhlebov in this series, who escaped from German capture. They rarely consisted of GULAG conscripts, either criminal or political, and their officers were likewise drawn from officer ranks rather than from the soldiers being so punished.

One critic pointed out the unlikelihood of a priest serving in a penal company (although another source vouched for one such actual case).

Whether or not these criticisms were 100% justified, we know from both combat literature and GULAG literature that the characters who come to life in Shtrafbat are realistic, both in their range of opinions and their mixed motives for service. Many of the supporting characters are of necessity two-dimensional; even the main characters sometimes slip into well-worn stereotypes, but the ensemble acting is truly inspired. Furthermore, the debates between the politicals and the criminals -- debates that reflect tensions going back to the Civil War and collectivization -- have an immediacy that reminds us of the constant interplay between authoritarian government and a long-suffering but wily population determined to survive.

Father Mikhail, the priest (played by Dmitri Nazarov) who first appears in episode seven presented a bit of a challenge. When Germans unexpectedly attack the battalions in a small village that our heroes have been ordered to clear, he is in the church's bell tower, ringing the bell to warn of the approaching Germans. As German snipers force him off the tower, he seizes a gun and joins the defense, and subsequently throws his lot in with the soldiers. Eleven years ago I thought this character threatened to bring an element of mixed absurdity and sentimentality into a drama built on painstaking realism. The priest seems to be custom-built to fulfill a stereotypical role as a bigger-than-life warrior-confessor, source of pithy observations and sonorous blessings. In the climactic battle, spraying the enemy with machine-gun bullets, he roars "Find your graves, you damn thieves! ... Forgive me, Lord."

This time through, I put more weight on the fascinating dialogues between the priest and various soldiers (many utterly skeptical). Right away they challenge him on the propriety of a priest killing. He agrees that it's problematic: "Even sins committed by necessity must be cleansed. I won't be able to take communion for three years.... I'd miss ten years if it's the Lord's will." The priest's presence in the ranks also becomes a political problem, and contributes to the arrest and torture of battalion commander Tverdokhlebov.

I'm not in a position to argue that such figures and incidents never arose in real life. And the drama, after all, still ground on to its bloody conclusion.

The reason I began watching this series all over again was that I stumbled across the fact that the whole series is available through Amazon, with decent subtitles (although the English-language descriptions of the series and its episodes on the Amazon site are hopelessly bad). I had no subtitles to help me back in 2007, so a lot of the rapid-fire slang in soldiers' dialogues went right past me. Now, once again I can enjoy the friendship between battalion commander Tverdokhlebov (played by Alexei Serebryakov) and his company commander Glymov (Yuri Stepanov) as they figure out how to fulfill the impossible demands on their pitiful band of shtrafniki by the general, Lykov (Alexei Zharkov). We see both the respect and the exasperation within the relationship between Lykov and Tverdokhlebov, complicated by the close watch on them both on the part of the NKVD officer, Kharchenko (played by Roman Madyanov), assigned to Lykov's headquarters to ensure strict political compliance. Excellent actors, every one of them.

If you have some Russian and would like to try watching the series without subtitles and without Amazon, all eleven episodes are here. Whichever source you choose, be prepared to meet some unforgettable characters.

First time for everything dept: Becky Ankeny begins a sermon on keeping faith with an Alfa Romeo story.

Three views of Vladimir Putin's four-hour call-in show earlier today. The Independent. RFERL. And Steve Gutterman, also on RFERL.

Julia Duin on apparent indifference of American Christians to severe persecution elsewhere. (My addition: instead, too many of us are complaining about "persecution" here in the USA. Silly example.)

Forbes: Norway continues to serve as an electric-car market pioneer.

The latest from Playing for Change: "Walking Blues."

13 June 2019

Does Truth prosper? Why or why not?

Early Quakers asked each other, "How does Truth prosper among you?" When I was asked to lead a workshop at Friends United Meeting's recent "Stoking the Fire" conference, that query came to mind, and I designed the workshop around it.

To give the workshop some structure, I went back to an experience I had about four decades ago ... a workshop led by George Lakey of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting on some topic relating to social change. I remembered a chart that he used, with forces or factors favoring the desired change on the left side of the chart, the desired change itself in the middle column, and the impeding forces arrayed on the right side of the chart. We could then think about how to activate the favorable factors and confront the obstacles.

For the "Stoking the Fire" conference workshop, I proposed the following desirable change: increased access to the Quaker message (and to the community shaped by that message). This is the "Truth" that we offer the world -- our understanding of the bondage-breaking freedom in Jesus that we are learning about as Friends, and that others might find to be as life-giving as we have found it. I put this goal in the center of our workshop charts.

To demonstrate and prime the pump, I put up a blank chart and briefly sketched in the positive and negative factors that Russian Friends might be facing as they seek to increase access to Friends' faith and life in Russia. Then -- we started a fresh chart and, together, tried to do the same thing for the American meetings and churches we belong to.

(For the version I'm posting here, I'm working from notes, which differ slightly from the sheet I photographed at the end of the session. TOGIEO = "that of God in everyone." I reworded some of the more obscure one-word notes.)

Among the positive factors proposed by workshop participants:
  • Numbers/visibility: this factor comes from a city that has several Friends meetings and a history of Quaker involvement in city life.
  • Attractive presence: same city, attractive meetinghouses and Friends schools.
  • Curiosity: Friends still benefit from being known just enough to be on people's radar, but not so well that everyone has the details they might want. When that gap succeeds in provoking interest, we benefit.
  • Form of worship: Even programmed Friends meetings usually have a period of silent (waiting) worship. This factor, silent worship and the absence of sacraments, was listed on both sides of the chart, as a factor in favor (an appealing distinctive) and an impediment (misunderstood or off-putting).
  • "That of God in everyone": the faith that God already witnesses inwardly to every person we might meet; we simply need to engage in "permission evangelism" to direct people to that inner witness.
  • Idealism: if history can be summarized as a debate between idealists and cynics, even the most severe and pessimistic Quakers can usually be found among the idealists, giving us a potential appeal to unaffiliated idealists everywhere.
Among the impediments proposed by participants:
  • False assumptions/confusion: mixing us up with Shakers, Amish, Jehovah's Witnesses; or believing that we don't exist anymore.
  • Pacifism and passivity: the frequent criticism that we would be passive in the face of evil, or that our ideals prove we are (negatively) living in la-la land, or (positively?) we must all be saints or lofty adepts; who could be pure enough to be acceptable?
  • Apathy: Our own lack of interest in growing, or being accessible to people not already in our communities.
  • Military culture: one of our participants came from a city where the military and related industries play a major role.
  • Civil religion: several of us mentioned the enmeshment of religion and patriotism, or the association of religiosity with right-wing politics.
  • Desire for hierarchy: our nearly flat organizational structures has little attraction for people who want the assurance provided by "strong" leadership. This leadership model often dominates the religious scene in many parts of the country.
  • Quaker elitism/exceptionalism: when this came up, I told my favorite Jane Boring Dunlap story. Some years ago, when we were having a discussion of evangelism and growth at Wilmington Friends Meeting (Ohio), someone asked, "If we get new people, how will we know they're really Friends?" Jane asked in turn, "Why do we assume that new people would be more stupid than we are?"
  • Church or chaplaincy? A church is a multigenerational community in which people are born, form households, live, and die, in organic relationship with the wider community. A chaplaincy ministers to a specific population (a military base; a hospital; a university). It can also serve as a metaphor for a congregation that prefers to minister to those already there, or to others very much like themselves. In considering obstacles to greater access, a congregation needs to be honest about which it is.
Some of these factors could be additionally classified as "internal" or "external" -- originating in our own strengths and dysfunctions or from the wider communities we find ourselves in. However, many factors are both internal and external, as we ourselves absorb helpful and unhelpful assumptions from our wider cultures.

The original blank chart that we distributed to conference participants had another column on the left side of the desired-change column. This extra column was a place to note "preparation required" for each of the positive factors. We ended up not using that column in the workshop, although others using this tool might find it helpful. Instead, we put two recommendations in the center, under the desired change: "persistence" and "reframing."
  • Persistence: none of our positive engagement or our confrontation with negative forces may result in immediate growth. If we discern an approach which honors our leadings and values, we need to persist. And we need to continue to exercise a lively curiosity about whether we still care about accessibility.
  • Reframing: Can we reframe our message to overcome misunderstandings and false scandals within our potential audiences? In the military culture, can we begin conversations about the Lamb's war that is not fought with outward weapons and completely redefines "enemy"? If the lack of sacraments is shocking, can we talk about our inward understanding of communion and baptism? (And have we done our homework, so that we don't accidentally trivialize concepts that our audience cherishes?) 
This tool may be too linear and rigid for every group or situation, but maybe it could be adapted, or could simply be used as a conversation-starter. We had only ninety minutes for both the case study and this chart -- I'd love to imagine what could happen with more time, a sharper focus -- just one church or meeting, just one location -- and a prayerful, creative, wide-open approach to the core query, "How does Truth prosper among us?"

Here's a blank chart in .doc format.

Two more Quaker conferences: Quaker Religious Education Collaborative (August 9-11, this year); and the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women's Theology Conference (June 24-28, 2020).

Rita Finger: Is God "Father" on Father's Day?

Ivan Golunov and Russian civil society's brief moment of solidarity and euphoria.

Two of Golunov's articles: the real estate bonanza of Moscow's deputy mayor's relatives; and the mortuary racket.

Are Russians getting tired of the church?

Svetlana Alexievich has good things to say about HBO's miniseries Chernobyl. (So do I, in a future post.)

The cost of not opening up the Russia beat to more diversity among journalists and academics.

Donald Trump realizes he needs to do dramatic things to unstick the situation.

Mellow down easy...