14 June 2018

Children in the hands of an angry politician

Sign at today's "Families Belong Together" rally.
Today's debates about separating children from parents at the U.S. border reminded me of a particularly sad moment of our time in Russia. In December 2012, Russians were debating a proposed ban on American adoptions of Russian orphans. This ban was supposedly a righteous slap in the USA's face in return for the hated Magnitsky Act.

Some of the most passionate opponents of the proposed adoption ban were outraged that political considerations would trump children's welfare. See my blog post, "Don't sign this bill," for some samples of their arguments. In following the family-separation debate in the USA, it was this aspect -- putting children at risk for the morally dubious sake of political messaging ("a tough deterrent," in John Kelly's words) -- that felt so painfully familiar to me after living through those awful Russian debates. Despite my usual resistance to comparing countries on some kind of a moral scale, I truly had felt that the USA would never do something remotely comparable.

The current outrage over border separations does not lend itself to nuances. Neither did the Russian debate. Setting the Magnitsky connection aside for a moment, there truly had been abuses of Russian orphans in the USA. In one case, a Quaker pastor sexually abused an adopted girl. The case that may have inflamed Russian anger the most involved Dima Yakovlev, an adopted child who died after being left in a car in nearly 90-degree weather for nine hours. Another notorious case involved a boy sent back unaccompanied to Russia by his adopted mother, with a note: "I no longer wish to parent this child." Some of the more serious and systemic criticisms of foreign adoptions of Russians were summarized in this post from Global Voices. These arguments and scandals need to be weighed against the tens of thousands of apparently routine adoptions.

The American border situation is also more complex than the slogans we carried today at Eugene's "Families Belong Together" demonstration. For example, it's interesting to consider some of the details in Jeff Sessions's speech at Fort Wayne, which the Department of Justice Web site entitled "Attorney General Sessions Addresses Recent Criticisms of Zero Tolerance By Church Leaders." Among other statistics, Sessions cites these:
... [I]n 2009, the Department of Homeland Security reviewed more than 5,000 initial asylum screenings. By 2016, only seven years later, that number had increased to 94,000. The number of these aliens placed in immigration court proceedings went from fewer than 4,000 to more than 73,000 by 2016—nearly a 19-fold increase.
If these statistics are true, this increase in scale is a genuine problem. I would totally agree that such a major increase merits a worthy response. What is NOT a worthy response, given the human stakes involved, is the shortcut rhetoric of Sessions's next sentence: "This cannot continue."

Exactly what cannot continue? Why can't it continue? The whole tenor of this speech is that a permissive Obama regime essentially invited a flood of fake refugees and asylum seekers, but Sessions does not respect either those "aliens" or his audience enough to persuade us that the dramatic increases are all based on fraud. Nor does he offer such alternatives as opening more processing locations (I'd bet they would be a lot cheaper than a full-on wall), increasing the role of nonprofits and church organizations, improved services at U.S. consulates in the originating countries, and so on. No, we are supposed to be so alarmed by the increase that we suspend our critical faculties.

To be fair to the Justice Department, it is the Congress that  has failed repeatedly to enact immigration reform, forcing the executive branch to cope with the resulting confusion and logjams, and making the whole system incredibly vulnerable to alarmist politicians, even as farmers and other employers beg for more workers. But there is no emergency at the border, nor will there ever be one, that requires treating families with cruelty. That is a policy choice, and no biblical admonition from Sessions to obey the authorities "because God has ordained them for the purpose of order" can cover this wicked and disorderly reality.

The Russian prohibition of American adoptions gave a chilling insight into the souls of Russian power politicians. Now it's our turn.

"Families Belong Together" demonstration earlier today.
Eugene's 3-term former mayor Kitty Piercy speaks.

In that Fort Wayne speech, Jeff Sessions acknowledges his religious critics. He says, "I have given the idea of immigration much thought and have considered the arguments of our Church leaders. I do not believe scripture or church history or reason condemns a secular nation state for having reasonable immigration laws." Notice the complete disconnection between the two sentences. Church leaders, including some usually associated with the evangelical right wing, are not condemning a secular state or its "reasonable" immigration laws, they are taking very specific aim at the Justice Department's enforcement practices.

Have you sensed an unusually high public resonance with this issue? I wonder what it would take for Jeff Sessions or Donald Trump to wake up to the possibility, however unlikely it might seem to them, that for once they have completely misjudged the spirit of the times.

In any case, whether or not they ever catch on, it is more important than ever "not to become weary in doing good" (Galatians 6:9) . As Dahlia Lithwick says, "It's all too much, and we still have to care."

Vox.com's summary of the family separation controversy.

Perpetual war watch: A rising generation of Americans has never known peace.

Ilya Budraitskis on 1968: a revolution too early to judge.
It has been cultural distinctions, amplified by the microdosed spirit of 1968, that have enabled today’s European right-wing populists to attack multiculturalism and political correctness on behalf of the common people, for these notions now stand for nothing except justification of the status quo, thus causing growing dissatisfaction at the grassroots.
Once found innocent, historian Yuri Dmitriev is ordered to be retried.

Heidi Haverkamp: Church is the perfect place to cry. (Someday I will write my own post on the "gift of tears," and how I learned to embrace this gift by reading Catherine de Hueck Doherty's book Poustinia.)

This isn't the first time I've ended with an Otis Spann video. I learned about him when I was a teenager, hiding my blues addiction from my parents. Sadly, I got to know his music only a short time before he died. Never had a chance to see him live, even though I lived in Chicago.

07 June 2018

Good News and identity politics, part three

I love my Ubuntu t-shirt. I especially like it because it just has the logo, not the name Ubuntu, which is a trademark of the computer company Canonical. I figure that those who recognize my t-shirt will be able to trade smiles with me, knowing as I do what special people we are.

This specialness is the exact opposite of the real meaning of the Zulu and Khosa loanword ubuntu, "humanity," "humaneness," or "human solidarity." My use of Canonical's Ubuntu® logo as an exclusive identity marker is a flat-out contradiction. In my own defense, I can only plead playful intent. (And in Canonical's defense, they explicitly link their Ubuntu open-source operating system, rooted in global community collaboration, with the southern African philosophy of that name, and with its values.) Which does the world need more of, in these times -- cool logos or human solidarity?

What got me thinking about the uses and pitfalls of identity was David Rupert's article, "How Jesus Dealt with Identity Politics." He begins by summarizing all the ways politicians pander to social subgroups, and how those subgroups are tempted to emphasize their specialness and trade on their grievances.

Rupert doesn't build a perfect case, and some of the comments posted by readers cite his overly broad strokes. But I mostly agree with his important overall assertion, "Our identity is in Christ." Touching on Jesus's constant crossing of social boundaries, and Paul's revolutionary manifesto of unity ("There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus," Galatians 3:28; context), Rupert sums up: our identity in Christ is all the identity we need.

Ultimately, I think he's right. Now I know that in the evangelical subculture, to quote Scripture and subordinate everything to Jesus is how you guarantee being right. That behavior is an identity marker! But he's right because Jesus really does reset all distinctions and hierarchies and specialness of all kinds, in favor of the central and precious truth: all of us are created in the image and likeness of God, and (to borrow from Anthony Bloom) were born of God's wish to have our company.

But identity insists on staying in the picture in a big way, for at least two interrelated reasons:

First, we were all born in history, in specific times and places, and in specific families. Those circumstances played a part in forming us. As we grew older, we matured in our relationship with our own origins, and deliberately made changes -- some trivial, and some very substantial. Most of my schoolmates were Chicago Cubs fans, but I held out stubbornly for the White Sox. More importantly, I grew up in an atheist family and became a Christian. I resisted my mother's identification with Germany's militaristic past and became a Quaker ... and was disinherited. There are pleasures and pains connected with all of these details and these choices.

It's completely normal to delight in the places and people we feel closest to. With that delight, with that pride, comes an obligation: to think seriously about whether we let those identifications separate us from others who don't share them. It is that obligation that the church can help us fulfill. When my church loves me for all my inherited and adopted peculiarities (or despite them!), it is then in a good position to show that, through my identity in God, I can delight in others' peculiarities and in the promise that we are all actually in the same blessed family.

Jesus, too, was born in history, in a specific time and place. Being Jewish, he grew up in a people who (our family album, the Bible, tells us) were charged by God to be a channel of blessing to the whole world. By becoming part of the Body of Christ, we now share that charge.

There's another reason we can't neglect identity. We did not grow up in separate silos of identity; our families and communities, ethnic groups and nations, all impacted each other ... and not always for the better. If you grew up in a family whose options were limited by the violence of racial or class oppression or any other systemic evil, and if I grew up in a family that was, at best, oblivious to all that, I do not have the right to tell you to set aside your "identity politics" for the sake of avoiding discomfort on my side. I don't have the right to set abstract piety above the requirements of justice and reconciliation. The very moment we're together in the body of Christ, our love for each other cannot be buffered by denying our very different paths to this one place.

Outside the church, identity politics can degenerate into sad spectacles of people and groups one-upping each other based on conflicting claims of virtue or victimhood. Inside the church, things should be different. We can offer another way: to maintain a diligent, persistent curiosity about each other's varied identities, and the joys and laments that we sang by the rivers of Babylon. There's no contradiction between that honest, loving, sometimes awkward inquiry, and our joy at having found each other in this new place, in Christ.

Good News and identity politics, part one. part two.

Patricia Dallman on Lewis Benson, George Fox, and Christian universalism.

Preparing for World Quaker Day.

Micah Bales: The Sabbath of God is within you.

John Jeremiah Edminster: The meetinghouse library you might not have known about.

The late Eddy Clearwater:

31 May 2018

Adria Gulizia: Spirit-Led Evangelism

Urban sunrise (Portland, Oregon, USA)

Spirit-Led Evangelism

Adria Gulizia (at right). Source.
A guest post by Adria Gulizia

I first received this article at a gathering of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship and immediately knew I'd want to be part of circulating it more widely. Many thanks to Adria for allowing me to post it here. 

Adria is a member of Chatham-Summit Monthly Meeting of Friends, New York Yearly Meeting, and a member of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. -- Johan

Have you ever been amazed by God? Has he ever surprised you with joy, healing, challenge or transformation? When you experienced God's grace and power, maybe you looked for people to talk to about it with, only to be met with indifference or worse. Or maybe you were afraid to even try to tell some people your story for fear of offending. Or maybe you started off boldly in your first wave of enthusiasm, only to lose your confidence as the experience lost its freshness.

It is hard to talk about God, Jesus and the spiritual life in this moment in American history. Many of our non-Christian neighbors find the little they know about Jesus to be attractive or intriguing, but they know enough about the failings of the church to have very negative opinions about actual Christians. If we do have non-Christian friends, it may be despite our Christian faith rather than because of it - we may be seen as the exception that proves the rule.

So many of us want to follow Jesus' directive to go and make disciples but don’t know how to engage people who are skeptical of, indifferent to or uncomfortable with the Gospel in a way that:
  • Is authentic to our own communication style;
  • Is honest about Jesus' bold claims;
  • Honors the uniqueness, spirituality and God-given worth of the individual before us; and
  • Is unscripted and responsive to the leadings of the Holy Spirit.
I hope this will help you get started!

Understanding Evangelism
Evangelism is simply sharing the good news of the Gospel of Christ, nothing more and nothing less. Please purge your mind of any thought of “converting” anyone: that’s the Holy Spirit’s job, not yours! What you can do is share your own experience of God’s grace and power and invite others to reflect on and respond to God’s love for them.

Understood this way, evangelism isn’t about “winning souls”: it’s about opening doors to deeper relationship with God through Christ. It should also be clear that sharing the Gospel isn’t something we only do to the “unconverted”; the Gospel is also something that we should share with our brothers and sisters in Christ who need encouragement in faith. When sharing the Gospel becomes part of our ordinary life, rather than something we reserve for special initiatives or occasions, we create space for God to use us to touch lives in ways we can’t imagine and open paths we may never see. The Word of God is a seed scattered freely among all people, but we can, with God’s grace, help provide a bit of water, or sunlight, or fertilizer to help that seed take root and grow.

What is the Gospel?
Part of the reason that sharing the Good News can be so hard is that it is such good news! The Gospel is so big that it can be hard to sum up in a few words, and I won’t even try. However, I will describe different aspects of the amazing saving work accomplished by and in Christ.

I encourage you to explore parts of the Gospel that are uncomfortable to you. Several years ago, I read Death by Love, a book that explores different aspects of the atonement - the way Jesus reconciles God and humanity. My least favorite parts focused on penal substitution, the idea that Jesus accepted God’s punishment for our sins on our behalf. The whole concept seemed barbaric! But I was recently able to share exactly that truth with a dFriends of Jesus Fellowshipear friend struggling with painful guilt over the harm unwise personal decisions had caused her family. The reminder that Christ had already taken on and discharged the weight of her sins at Calvary brought her such joy, peace and healing that we both wound up in tears!

I am so grateful that I stretched myself to read and absorb that book, even the parts that I found disturbing, because it prepared me to be an agent of God’s grace to a friend in her time of need. Learning about the different aspects of the Gospel will give you a language to minister to the real people and real problems of the people you meet. Isn’t that worth a little discomfort?

With all that said, the Gospel is the good news that:
  • God passionately loves each and every person in the world;
  • God created everything in the world to work together in harmony;
  • God will set right every injustice on the Day of Judgment;
  • Jesus has paid the price on the cross for every bad thing you have ever done or will ever do;
  • Jesus has broken the stranglehold evil, dysfunction and addiction has on your life, on your family and on this world;
  • Followers of Christ have the authority to collaborate with God in his holy purposes of life, reconciliation, healing and sacrificial love;
  • The Body of Christ is a family that is holy and eternal;
  • The Spirit of Christ is here, now, to guide you into a new way of living and to empower you to shed old habits and dysfunctions;
  • Jesus provides a model for what it means to be fully human, as God intended for each of us to be;
  • The blood of Jesus has cleansed you of all defilement;
  • While you cannot earn a place of honor with God, you don’t have to - in Christ you have all the holiness and righteousness you need;
  • By fellowship in the Body of Christ, you can participate in a holy community outside of the power dynamics of the world’s hierarchies and enter into messy, glorious, life-sustaining fellowship;
  • Each and every true follower of Christ - regardless of race, class, disability or any outward characteristic - is a precious and gifted channel of God’s glory and grace; and
  • Jesus can bring you healing from all manner of woundedness.
Now, isn’t that good news?

Preparing Your Mind to Share the Good News
Read and reread your New Testament and books, including devotionals, that lift up and celebrate the Gospel. (I enjoy the Solo Devotional, which is based on the fresh and relevant Message translation and invites life-giving, interesting contemplation and reflection.) Put the Good News into your own words. Connect it to your own life. How have you experienced Christ’s power? How have you experienced God’s grace? Listen to quality hymns and praise songs, which illustrate different elements of the Good News. For example, compare “Victory in Jesus” with “He Leadeth Me” with “Canticle of the Turning.” Each is an excellent exposition of the Gospel, but the first focuses on Jesus’ victory over sin and death, the next on the ever-present guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the last on God’s care for the weak and his revolutionary justice.

There’s no single right script when you share the Gospel, and there’s no wrong testimony. The important thing is to get comfortable telling the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven. The practice of putting it into words for yourself will help you internalize this precious gift in all its glory. This will make it much easier to live each day to the glory of God and, of course, to share the Gospel with others.

Preparing Your Heart to Share the Good News
If you are reading this, it is because you are eager to start sharing the Good News - or at least curious about the idea. Maybe you realized you aren’t acting out the Great Commission and you would like to. Maybe you see how people around you could benefit from the hope Jesus shared. Or maybe you’re so excited about Jesus you can’t help sharing.

Wherever you are in your evangelism journey, you should ask God for two things: love and discernment.

Love is essential for the work of evangelism, because people can tell when they are a “project” and they don’t generally appreciate it. Love in this context is not so much a feeling as it is an attitude or way of being. The kind of love you need for evangelism - and for the Christian walk in general - says:
  • You and your inner world are precious to God - and to me;
  • It is a privilege to hear your thoughts, problems and concerns; and
  • Your need is more valuable than my time and preferences.
There will be times when God will open a door to a relationship or conversation that you’d rather stayed closed, because you’re busy or distracted or you don’t have natural affection or affinity for the person you are called to speak with. Love is what lets you say, “Not my will, but your will be done, Lord.”

Pray for love. Pray for patience. Pray for a tender, listening heart. Cultivate awareness of others. If you seek earnestly to grow in love, I promise you will.

Discernment is tapping into a deeper reality, accessing the mind of God and being sensitive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Discernment is being attentive to “nudges” of the Spirit, who will lead you in all elements of evangelism - who to start a conversation with, who to build a loving spiritual friendship with, what part of the Gospel will be most meaningful and how to share it, and so forth. Discernment takes you beyond your intelligence and wisdom and gives you access to God’s intelligence and wisdom. That’s a big advantage!

Practicing different forms of prayer and worship is a great way to grow in discernment. Praying the psalms, contemplative prayer, and intercession without an agenda - waiting for God to tell you who or what to pray for - are good ways to grow in discernment, and anyone can do them. I also highly recommend meditating on scripture, particularly the prophets and the words of Jesus, so you can get familiar with what God sounds like. This is really valuable so that you can tell the difference between your own thoughts and intuitions and the wisdom that comes from God. In addition, singing and other forms of praise will help overcome any inner resistance to really trusting God to carry you through conversations with strangers, sharing messages you don’t understand, being open and vulnerable and all the other risks that come with letting God use you to draw others closer to him.

Pray to grow in wisdom and faith so that God can use you extravagantly for his glory. Pray for a bold and generous spirit. Pray to know and obey the voice of Christ inside you. God will hear you, I promise.

Just Do It!
As you go about your day, ask God, “Who can I encourage today? Who needs to experience your love today? Who can I bless today?” Be ready to obey God’s call. You may have to do some “self-talk” to follow through but you never know where obedience can take you and what conversations it may start.

For example, God may prompt you to add a few minutes to your commute by buying breakfast for a homeless person, which may lead to conversation about why you are doing it. You can then reply by sharing how God has put people in your life to help when you needed it and you feel called to be that person for someone else. Or you may cross paths with a colleague who is upset and whom you can comfort. It’s not always appropriate or productive to share the Gospel in every situation - discernment is required. But if you try to live the Gospel all the time and you ask God for opportunities to share it, you’ll find that they come up more often than you might expect.

Don’t wait until you have “mastered” the right information or techniques. Just open your heart and ask the Lord to lead you, praying the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Here I am; send me.”

Spirit-Led Evangelism in Action
I actually started writing this on a flight from Minneapolis to Sacramento. About an hour into the 3.5 hour flight, I noticed that the young man seated next to me had put away his phone, flipped through the seat back magazine and was looking desperately bored. Part of me wanted to seize the opportunity of traveling alone to set out my thoughts on Reimagining Evangelism, a book I had just finished and that was still on my tray table. However, I was aware of the uncomfortable irony in writing about evangelism while ignoring the actual person sitting next to me. Eventually, I couldn’t continue writing.

So instead I made a banal comment about how they used to give you food on long flights, and soon my Catholic row-mate Bobby and I were off to the races, discussing our respective career goals, thoughts about evil and strategies for negotiating challenging work environments. I was able to encourage him in his calling (he was a paramedic) and testify to him about the value of connecting with God. He didn't even flinch when I started talking about how followers of Christ are called to respond to evil (I did avoid the term “spiritual warfare”!), and he seemed pleasantly surprised when - after over two hours of conversation - I asked if I could pray for him during our descent.

It was one of the most anointed conversations I have had in a long time, and it confirmed my hope that when we set aside our plans and open ourselves up to God's unexpected motions, when we leave space for the Holy Spirit to act, when we are willing to testify to God’s grace and power, we can be blessed - and bless others - in unforeseen and beautiful ways.

PS from Johan: Reimagining Evangelism (the book).

Russian humor, continued (good taste not guaranteed) ... memes in reaction to alleged assassination target Arkady Babchenko's return to life. Commentary from Jim Kovpak. (Background.)

Why Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov is on a hunger strike. (Hint: It's not for himself.)

GetReligion on further developments in the Southern Baptist version of #ChurchToo.

On Stephen Bullivant's report, Europe's Young Adults and Religion: "...perhaps the single most depressing portrait of the Christian present and future on that continent -- and that is not a genre noted for its optimism."

Anna Hampton on theology of risk and theology of suffering.

Radical homemakers -- when "left" meets "right." (Valid?)

Phil Guy in Moscow...

24 May 2018

When grief just won't come

Brothers, Oregon (elevation 4,640 feet)

As envy goes, it's not a bad thing -- the sympathy and even admiration I feel for my friends when they're grieving their parents and, in recalling the years gone by, crediting those parents with setting them on the right path. Sometimes as I read or hear these stories, I get a funny sort of reverse nostalgia, imagining what it would have been like to have parents like that.

My actual story is somewhat different: my parents were alcoholics, racists, and occasionally violent -- to the dishes and furniture, to each other, and to the children. As they neared their respective deaths, their paths diverged dramatically: my father Harald became a Christian (Eastern Orthodox, thanks to the influence of a wonderful Greek chaplain at the VA hospital in Waukegan, Illinois). Harald became more open to sharing about his own life and regrets, before, sadly, he lost the ability to speak a few weeks before he died in 1995. I still think of questions I wish I'd asked him, but at least we made a start. In my imagination, I can bring some of his favorite growing-up stories to life ... like the homemade rockets he launched at his school in Nazi-occupied Oslo.

My mother Erika, on the other hand, did not like answering questions about her growing-up years in Japan. I vividly remember my very last visit with her, at the nursing home where she eventually died in 2007. I realized that this was maybe my last chance to know her and be known by her. She received me cordially, but turned away all my questions about Japan and the war, and after ten minutes dismissed me.

The few glimpses I had into her earlier life usually came during our parents' truly epic knock-down arguments. One memorable theme of several fights concerned which of them had seen more death and cruelty during the war. My mother held the trump cards ... her city had been bombed heavily by the U.S., and she also told about witnessing the flash of Hiroshima from her train seat on that awful morning of August 6, 1945. On the other hand, I was never sure how much to believe of her stories, because some of her claims simply seemed fantastic. Did she really go to Indira Gandhi's birthday party? Was her wartime community really supplied by German submarines, and did she actually have a teenage romance with a submarine captain? Why wasn't her family evacuated to rural locations, as the Japanese government required of many other Germans during those years?

Most of all, I wanted to know what influences formed her militant racism, atheism, and antisemitism, and why we children were not allowed to talk about sickness and death in her presence, or about religion. Any of these topics could provoke her into rage. It was only in my adult years that I began to realize that mental health was part of this picture, but by then I seemed to have lost any chance of forming a mature relationship with her.

My parents bookend a family shapshot from around 1960.
Larimer Park, Evanston, Illinois, USA.
My parents eventually evicted me from home, a few days before my high school graduation. During the stormy years before that ultimate nightmarish incident, I have to admit to some coping mechanisms of my own that didn't contribute to relationship-building. I found that, when things got tense, one way to avoid becoming the target of parental rage was to set my parents against each other. I blush to think of the times I would form a tactical alliance with one of my parents against the other, only to switch sides pragmatically as needed. My father basically survived through passivity ("preserving the family peace"), so at one moment I could sympathize with him and the trials of being married to such a volatile person, but when my mother complained about her passive husband, I might find myself seeming to take her side! On one of the rare occasions when I confronted both of them simultaneously -- that's the very event that resulted in my literally being put out on the street.

When my father died, my mother was adamantly opposed to holding a funeral. Judy and I went to Waukegan as quickly as we could after hearing of my father's death. Upon arrival, we found that Erika had ordered mortician services by writing to a randomly chosen firm from the yellow pages. Yes, she wrote a paper letter instead of telephoning or visiting, which is how she (firm believer in her "master race" identity) unknowingly chose a black-owned business, whose proprietor could not conceal his puzzlement about our family when Judy and I stopped in to finalize the arrangements.

My Canadian cousin Axel Heyerdahl and I worked with the veterans' hospital chaplain, Father George, to put together a memorial service at the hospital with both Axel and George leading the service. My mother was not present. She didn't explain her opposition to having a service, but I remembered that, when my sister Ellen was murdered at age 14, there was also no service at all. I only knew where Ellen was buried because I accidentally came across the mortician's bill on my parents' desk. ($570 in 1970 dollars.)

When my mother died in 2007, she left no instructions. (In fact, I didn't even find out she died until several days later.) My sister Renee and I arranged for a memorial service to be held at the nursing home where Erika died, and I led the service. I hope she would forgive me!

When my friends and relatives reminisce about their recently deceased parents, no matter how lovely and often funny their stories are, and no matter how much the stories explain the survivors' good qualities, those retellings are often seasoned with deep grief. I have this hollow feeling that I too should be feeling grief, but it hasn't happened yet. I sit here and try to detect even a vestige. So far, nothing.

However, there is progress of a sort. With the advantage of decades of counseling (both giving and receiving), classes in pastoral care, and conversations with others who've had similar biographies, I'm better able to think about the social contexts that formed and controlled my parents' choices. It used to irritate me almost beyond endurance when people said, "Your parents did the best they could." It never seemed that they put much effort into doing the best for their children; they had other priorities, and we mostly raised ourselves. I interpret that cliche a bit differently now: my parents had little idea of what the "best" might be. Racism, atheism, alcohol, the culture of obedience ... all combined to rob them of tools that might have given them more choices and a higher vision.

I have also made progress in forgiveness. The biggest step happened about fifteen years ago. I preached a sermon on forgiveness at Reedwood Friends Church, at the end of which I publicly tore up my copy of the codicil to my parents' will that removed me from the family trust. That document served no purpose other than to poison my feelings about my parents, so it was a liberating act to destroy it.

(The full truth: after the meeting for worship was over, I looked at the little pile of paper scraps, and thought out loud about whether they could be taped back together. A member of Reedwood approached, and as I watched silently, her hands scooped up the scraps. She gently said, "I'll take care of those.")

Am I capable of grief in general? Yes, very much so -- my sister Ellen's death was the first of many losses that have left me in no doubt about that. The deaths of my cousin Axel and my former colleague Gordon, and many other emotional blows, were also devastating in their time. I'm reserving a space for my heart and head to catch up with the loss of my parents, sooner or later.

Do you have a similar hollow place of ungrieved loss? What sort of work are you doing that I might also learn from?

I'm not sure whether this is how my father made his homemade rockets, but I do remember that his account involved soaking and drying newspaper pages.

My Twitter feed is dominated right now by shocked reactions to a Pew survey showing that white evangelicals are the demographic group least likely to agree that the USA has a responsibility to accept refugees. Be shocked but don't be surprised; there is little correlation between the social label "evangelical" and actual evangelical discipleship.

Bill Yoder: Russian Baptists choose new leadership.

Bill Samuel on Pentecost.

Becky Ankeny: Hope and living water.

Excellent episode of The Russia Guy podcast: interview with David Filipov.

The Mannish Boys in Germany...

17 May 2018

Hell, holiness, and Jerusalem

Visiting Ivan the Terrible's offices at Alexandrova Sloboda. Andrew Graham-Dixon explains some of the features of the hell fresco: (top) sinners boiling in oil; (middle) Judas  in Satan's  lap. (BBC's Art of  Russia, episode 1.)
Hell is endlessly fascinating.

About six years ago, I commented on Wayne Cordeiro's claim that, in eternity, "we will never see another non-Christian." Then, a couple of months ago, in my usual list of interesting links, I referred to Roger E. Olson's intriguing article, Would You Be Mad at God if He Saved Everyone? He was not arguing against the existence of hell, just against hell and its avoidance being the basis of evangelism or Christian commitment.

Another day, another defense of hell ... this time from Ben Witherington: The Problems with Universalism and the Denial of Hell. Witherington does not insist on eternal torment as the only possible description of hell, but ... well, read for yourself:
If God is a lover of humankind, what if they say ‘no thank you! I don’t want to love you! I don’t even want to believe in you! Go away!’ Hell is the place where God says ‘if you insist on having it your way, then your will be done’. ‘If you insist on being bad to the bone despite my love for you, and refuse to repent, refuse to believe the Gospel refuse to accept my Son, refuse to live a godly life— then there is a place in the afterlife where you can carry on in that direction’. In other words, precisely because God is love, and the required response is that we freely love him back, it is not inevitable that all will be saved. It just isn’t. Sometimes, love doesn’t win. Sometimes love is unrequited and tragically, this is even the case with God’s love.
The problem is, as with most defenders of eternal damnation on the basis of a binary choice, this isn't any sort of 3-D reality. It only deals with the theoretical rebel who's personally experienced God as lover of humankind, is fully aware of God's healing grace, and has rejected it.

This isn't a trivial exercise in theology. Just three days ago, the USA's government arranged a global microphone for two Christian leaders to express a supposedly Christian blessing and benediction on a terminally stupid event: the opening of the new site for the U.S. embassy in Israel. How many people in Palestine, in Gaza, and around the world, watching the spectacle of death and agony on the boundaries, truly believed that the involvement of Jeffress and Hagee was consistent with God's love for all? How many heard an invitation to "believe the Gospel" (aka the Good News)? On the other hand, for how many was Christianity's credibility as an expression of God's grace and love reduced?

And what do you think: was God gratified by the praise at the place where divine approval was being asserted with imperial confidence, or was God with the bleeding and dying? How do we know?

Let's be fair. Maybe this highly politicized event was an extreme example. Here's my life and death question: Exactly how much exposure to God's love meets the threshold requirement that, when not accepted, merits damnation? Is there a compensating calibration that takes into account the hateful messages poured out by Christian celebrities and their faithful zombies? Does God sometimes wink at the unchurched who are trying to make sense of such mixed messages and say, in effect, "Don't worry, honest seekers and jaded observers, those guys have forgotten how to do real evangelism -- they're just playing to a domestic audience"? (OK, maybe I'm fantasizing, ... or maybe that wink is sometimes our job!)

Many defenders of eternal damnation argue that God's holiness cannot tolerate sin. I agree! This means that God could never impose coercion or cruelty on sinners, because God cannot be exempt from God's own standards of holiness. Instead, through Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and the testimony and good company of God's people, God is persistently drawing us away from every sin and imperfection ... not limited by our inability to imagine the perfection to which the Bible calls us, nor by our pathetic impatience.

I cannot go completely universalistic. I agree with Ben Witherington that, at least theoretically, it's logically possible for someone to be exposed to the full scale of God's goodness and deliberately reject it. But how often does that really happen, in contrast with the cartoonish scare tactics of some representatives of the religion industry? I just don't believe that any theologian, no matter how white and male and well-connected, and full of righteous anger, can define that rebellion on God's behalf. And woe be unto that one whose corrupt confidence pushes the sinner away from God.

Seventeenth-century Quaker theologian Robert Barclay begins his exploration of salvation and damnation here. Read and be refreshed!

Times of Israel interviews John Hagee.

Chemi Shalev in Haaretz: "Israel has only one king, and his name is Donald Trump."

The first Palestinian museum in the USA opens quietly in Connecticut.

Gracy Olmstead: What the early church knew -- women make great leaders.

Fascinating and important: Keith Gessen on the USA's "old Russia hands" in today's context.

Now is the needed time.

10 May 2018

Iran, biblical realism, and perpetual war (old posts remixed)


A new day, a new crop of ominous headlines. Iran, Israel, and Syria are featured prominently, not for the first time. We get a glimpse into U.S. involvement in Niger. (By the way, what other country has an "Africa Command"?) Saudi Arabian air strikes hit central Sana'a, Yemen. The world waits to see how North Korea will play its nuclear chips in upcoming negotiations. (Will they really agree to an honest denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and will the USA also agree to the exact same condition?)

The first time I offered the following Bible study on perpetual war, it was early in Barack Obama's presidency, but I saw little to change as I checked it over for today's post. As a case study, I've drawn from another post -- this time on Iran -- still within Obama's first term. It's all for one purpose: to remind us that the powers and principalities seem organized around perpetual war. Followers of the Prince of Peace need to continue our prayerful vigilance. We need to learn to live, worship, testify, play, resist, create, heal, and celebrate in the unsentimental assurance and joy of biblical realism.

Biblical realism and perpetual war

Lots of smart people have been busy redefining the word "war." Maybe it once referred to lethal combat between nations or sharply-defined groups, with declarations and surrenders, truces and treaties. We Quakers were taught by our elders and our books of Christian discipline that war, and preparations for war, were inconsistent with discipleship. Sane citizens of all political persuasions at least united on wanting peace for ourselves and our children, imagining and working for the day that the country's war would end.

Now, things have become fuzzy. In particular, guerrilla warfare, counter-insurgency, low-intensity warfare, and the so-called stateless actors have changed the nature of warfare. In these bizarre times, a wealthy power like the USA can actually pay people not to shoot at our forces -- and take political credit for the resulting reduction in violence -- and at the same time define many detainees at bases abroad as implacable enemies and hold them for years without effective due process.

It's a crazy world, and it presents urgent challenges for believers.

The challenges of wartime faithfulness to the Prince of Peace may be increasing, but at root those challenges are not new. They are still extensions of the same old patterns of human sin, about which the Bible has always been refreshingly realistic:
  • In 1 Samuel, chapter 8, the Hebrew people ask Samuel to appoint a king over them, so they can be like other nations. God tells Samuel to respond to the people with an explicit warning as to what this means: (verses 11-18)
    He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.
  • Jeremiah 17:9: "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?"
  • Psalm 14:2-3 (The Message):
    God sticks his head out of heaven.
    He looks around.
    He's looking for someone not stupid—
    one man, even, God-expectant,
    just one God-ready woman.

    He comes up empty. A string
    of zeros. Useless, unshepherded
    Sheep, taking turns pretending
    to be Shepherd.
    The ninety and nine
    follow their fellow.
  • More realism: Ecclesiastes 5:8: "If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still."
  • Romans 3:10-17:
    As it is written:
    "There is no one righteous, not even one;
    there is no one who understands,
    no one who seeks God.
    All have turned away,
    they have together become worthless;
    there is no one who does good,
    not even one."
    "Their throats are open graves;
    their tongues practice deceit."
    "The poison of vipers is on their lips."
    "Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness."
    "Their feet are swift to shed blood;
    ruin and misery mark their ways,
    and the way of peace they do not know."
    "There is no fear of God before their eyes."
  • Ephesians 5:11-14a: "Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible...."
  • Ephesians 6:10-18:
    Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.
  • James 4:1-2: "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God."
Biblical realism not only prepares us for the prospect of perpetual war, it equips us to confront some of its specific features.

Back in 1961, Eisenhower warned about the increasing power of the military-industrial complex. "Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry," he said, "can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together." But part of today's challenge is that it is extremely difficult for citizens to stay "alert and knowledgeable." Here are some of the reasons:
  • The policies of permanent war are rarely discussed in accessible public forums. If Tom Hayden is correct, military thinkers are focusing on a "long war" with a fifty-year time horizon. When have you heard a congressional debate about this? "The way of peace they do not know."
  • Some of the specific methods used in this long war are even less likely to be discussed openly--everything linked to "torture," to the "dark side" ("for it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret"), to the methods that made Gen. Stanley McChrystal's reputation as a can-do commander for the Afghanistan-Pakistan front.
  • We routinely forget our Biblical realism when we recount American history. Over and over again, we put our trust in glib experts whose collective reputation for accurate forecasting and sound management stands at near zero. We are overawed by the nesting bureaucracies and crisp technocratic orgnames of the Pentagon, as if the new cult of the Zen Warrior armed with a PhD, precision drone airplanes operated from Colorado, along with the naive goodwill of Americans who have entrusted their sons and daughters to this machine, can make up for fatal levels of hubris and lack of a shared moral center.
  • "National security" has been raised to cult status; it justifies everything from rude treatment of airline passengers to pre-emptive warfare. However, a super-nation that has established military and economic trip-wires all over the globe cannot help but hear alarms constantly. Only genocidal civil wars in central Africa, apparently, do not trip loud enough alarms, but a self-serving politician in the country of Georgia can summon billions of dollars of US weapons to aim at Russians. When do we discuss the "national security" of a just world, and of health care, educational reform, and environmental sanity within our own borders? "You yourselves have become his slaves."
Biblical realism allows us to confront perpetual war by reminding us that the hearts of nations as well as individuals are inclined toward deceit, and the Bible doesn't make an exception for us. This is why it is so important for us to demand clear definitions of loaded terms such as torture, enemy, national security, bases, experts, extremism, terrorism, and patriotism. Yes, it's hard to keep up with Eisenhower's expectation of an "alert and knowledgeable citizenry," but it should not be for lack of trying.

Biblical realism allows conservatives to make common cause with progressives, as long as both sides are willing to have some of their favorite oxes gored. For example, progressives might have to be willing to see what conservatives see, looking around the world -- evil exists, sworn enemies exist, and a sentimental, mindless isolationism provides no security for anyone by any definition. Imperialism and an unceasing search for geopolitical and economic advantage is an unsustainable policy (progressives are right about that) but, what ARE sustainable policies? Are there some among us who would be able to work on that question, confronting the realities of a fragile, unstable, angry, and often ecologically oblivious set of global actors? Christian conservatives are beginning to realize that they can't only be conservative when it is convenient. If you believe in biblical inerrancy, for example, doesn't that cover the Bible's teachings on wealth and poverty? Immigration? Peace? Loving one's enemies?

The same skepticism that conservatives like to train on bleeding-heart idealists might also help create a more critical and careful examination of wealth, power, the possibility of structural injustice, and the possibility that some enemies might even become friends -- and at less expense than it would take to kill them.

Both progressives and conservatives, unfortunately, get too caught up in their own identities, rather than using their philosophies as analytical disciplines and sources of inspiration. Checking to see if someone puts out the right cultural signals, shares the same visceral dislikes of certain politicians ("who makes you hear the dog whistle?"), and laughs at the usual stereotypical jokes about nutcases--all that builds false community, not true national security.

Biblical realism challenges liberals and progressives alike with thousands of years of evidence that its diagnosis of the human condition is absolutely right. Power corrupts, period. When people try to go it alone without God (with or without a religious cover -- see Jeremiah), disaster results. Here's where we can start a conversation that crosses the divisions: Conservatives have years of experience with the protection of individual rights and promotion of individual responsibilities; progressives have years of experience promoting a vision of sustainable interdependence. Together, we face a new challenge -- a system of undeclared perpetual warfare that arguably poses a spiritual, economic, and political danger to all our children, and our global neighbors' children. What can we tell our children together -- or will we keep the walls up, conspire to give them only half the picture?

Right now, if I look at the momentum that's already been built up for the "long war," a more or less permanent state of imperial armed vigilance in some of the world's most troubled regions, it's hard to feel much optimism. In part, that's what makes this a spiritual issue. For Friends, especially, I hope and pray for a new burst of creativity and (humble) confidence. We have progressives and conservatives already in close quarters in our tiny global family; we have political scientists, mystics, evangelists, social critics, libertarians, economists, poets, scientists, even veterans and a Quakers' colonel! .... I'd love to believe we could rehearse and model what a biblically-rooted, ethically-shaped, prayer-driven revival might look like -- one that not only transforms individuals, revealing Jesus to many people and communities without hope, but also equips us to confront and replace the vision of perpetual warfare.

The case of Iran 
(from "Idealism and realism: the case of Iran")

It's hard to imagine a crazier policy proposal for the U.S. government than to initiate or support an attack on Iran, but some Israeli sources say that their country has already been given a tacit go-ahead by U.S. president Obama. Others, while skeptical of success, feel that hot rhetoric is fueling a war-momentum that may become hard to resist. Our own Friends lobby in the USA, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, is urging us to help legislators resist this rhetoric and support legislation that prioritizes diplomacy.

With all the enthusiasm for war that features prominently in U.S. political life these days, it took a comedian and his fake news program (Daily Show [updated] link) to expose the opportunism behind so much of this truculence on all sides, and to call on everyone to calm down. A calmer atmosphere might help us all to consider some of the complex sides of the concern about Iran:
  1. Hawks! Remember Robert McNamara's first lesson of war ("Empathize with your enemy") and ask yourself what the world looks like from Iran's perspective. The nations that have the power to destroy Iran have (a) nuclear weapons, and (b) pre-emptive-strike defense doctrines. Furthermore, Americans and Israelis don't even question that we and our nuclear weapons and angry politicians are self-evidently on the side of the angels. In other words, no other country can justify having the kind of defenses against us that we maintain against them. Is our use of drone assassin airplanes, our falsely-hyped war against Iraq, our support for dictators whenever convenient, and Israel's peremptory and often lethal occupation policies, consistent with this angelic assessment of ourselves? Аre we as trustworthy as we want our adversaries to be? If not, why should Iran be weaker or more angelic than us -- simply because might makes right?
  2. Doves! The case is not at all clear that Iran wants nuclear weapons, even though its main proclaimed enemy, Israel, already has them. Nuclear weapons are hard to build, hard to deploy, hard to store, and extremely hard to deliver! -- and that's not even considering the political cost of having them. However, what if it's true? What if Iran's leaders don't simply want to get the theoretical capacity to develop weapons eventually (something every medium-sized power in a hostile neighborhood would probably like, rightly or wrongly) -- what if they actually want the weapons and are crazy enough to deploy them? Our analysis as disciples of the Prince of Peace can certainly be based on nonviolence, but it should never be based on wishful thinking. What do idealists concretely do in the actual presence of evil?
  3. Presidential nominee candidates say that the time for talk is over. Is it, however, true (as the FCNL FAQ sheet for Iran asserts) that "U.S. and Iranian officials have reportedly spent a grand total of 45 minutes in direct, one-on-one talks in more than 30 years"? [Update: recent FCNL statement.] There is a strange political and intellectual laziness -- or maybe it is cowardice -- in official U.S. circles about vigorously pursuing high-level contacts with Iran in favor of trying to guess what their official pronouncements really mean. (See "The first rule of gracious correspondence.") Maybe there are secret communications all the time, but communication that does not influence public perceptions and rhetoric eventually is useless.
I'd like to see more proposals along the lines of Thomas Buonomo's "green energy" proposal for Iran -- offering a blessing to Iran that has the added advantage of offsetting (or challenging) Iran's nuclear-fuel option. This proposal alone is hardly enough to calm down war fever, but it is the sort of proposal that can remind us what's at stake and that we're not trapped! The search for alternatives to war should get as much enthusiasm and resources as are devoted to promoting war--in fact, more.

This post has grown far too long. Instead of my usual batch of righteous links, I'd like to recommend one site that has been a reliable resource for my permanent war watch: Tomdispatch.com.

With that, let's go directly to music ... another repost.

"Clothes Line" is a song we'll probably never use for a classroom gap-fill exercise! (Historical background on this song here, but Rick Estrin and the Nightcats have made it their own; I've never seen them not perform this song.)