07 December 2023

Inheriting the earth

I'm still collecting responses to my survey: Which term do you prefer, Friends or Quakers?

Russian edition of John Woolman's Journal and Plea for the Poor (Moulton edition, translated by Tatiana Pavlova). Text on back cover: "If you don't read this book, your idea of America will be incomplete." Cover design: A. Aristov. Co-published by Friends United Press and Astreya, 1995. Digital edition here.

Nearly four decades ago, at First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Indiana, we began confronting dilemmas of inclusive language when referring to other people and to God.

In ordinary church life, the sharpest point of contact with the controversy was often our hymns and praise songs. As beautiful as Quaker poet Whittier's sentiment was, it was just plain hard to sing "Oh brother man, fold to thy heart thy brother." Another hymn presented us with these words, "Strong men and maidens meek," at which point Judy and I had to avoid looking at each other in the interest of suppressing impious snorts. But for some of us, these constantly recurring male-centered usages were more painful than funny.

Solutions were proposed: new hymnals, new inserts for our old ones, or just give liberty to everyone to change words on the fly. The problem was that, for every person who found the traditional lyrics difficult, there were several who cherished them. One Sunday, Mary Garman of the Earlham School of Religion came to First Friends and gave a very helpful guest sermon, reframing the inclusive language issue as one of hospitality—something our meeting was very good at. Meanwhile, ESR itself adopted a policy that required using inclusive language for people, while leaving the question of language for God to each of us, trusting that we had each weighed the concern for ourselves.

In recent years, several other examples of cultural patterns that objectify and marginalize people are drawing our attention. If we yearn to build a trustworthy church, we cannot avoid or trivialize these concerns. In our Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends, we are instructed to specify our preferred pronouns when we introduce ourselves at our gatherings for worship and business, and we record those preferences in our minutes. In business sessions and in minutes, we record acknowledgments of Indigenous Peoples identified with the lands that we and our meetinghouses now occupy. We have begun to make allocations from our legacy funds, allocations that are intended as reparation, recognizing that those funds are, at least in part, the fruit of stolen land and stolen labor. We have adopted minutes as a yearly meeting that express our intent to seek right relationships in concern for Black Lives and Indigenous Peoples. Our Equity and Inclusion Committee helps us remain accountable for our commitments.

This two-dimensional description of our Quaker community's progress in confronting the primordial sin of objectification is deceptive. We didn't arrive here easily, we're not all in unity with how we got here, we still have much to do, and we haven't really come to terms with unintended consequences.

First of all, some of Adria Gulizia's diagnoses of pressures and procedural shortcuts that seemed to be going on in her own yearly meeting's consideration of anti-racism policies (see here, June 2022 and November 2022) are similar to our experience, though far from identical. I want to be clear: the processes of adopting our minutes may have been imperfect but the minutes themselves stand on their own merits. In any case, I hope and pray we will always remember: political or ideological shortcuts, however urgently or piously presented, are not a substitute for actual prayer-based discernment. A church where people are labeled racist or colonialist (or, more likely, labeled as a person who does not sufficiently honor historically marginalized voices) might not be a trustworthy church.

(I trust you already know that this is the viewpoint of a 70-year-old white male! I try to remember that "we have the mind of Christ" [context] ... but I sure don't have an exclusive claim on that mind!)

It's not that all opinions are equal. For example, there is far too much defensiveness among white people, especially those who don't recognize that their own individual racism or lack of it is rarely the central issue. Racism is a demonic reality embedded in our social and economic structures. However, all of us are at different levels of personal maturity, education, experience, and spiritual gifting, and we should be humbly willing to speak our (almost always very partial) insights, trusting that the community will correct us if necessary, but never shame us.

One possible unintended consequence of our Quaker community's progressive self-presentation is that we might end up letting legalism and hypercritical attitudes undercut our warm and friendly reality. We may be imposing a hidden filter of classism, preference for activist subcultures, a dislike for enthusiastic faith, and expectations of advanced education, all while proclaiming a public message of inclusion.

The answer isn't to second-guess our commitment to right relationships. We have learned a lot about the awful cost of objectifying and marginalizing people, wherever we are on social maps; let's not unlearn it! Instead, lets talk about what a more multidimensional invitation—one that welcomes finders as well as seekers—might look like. Instead of living under new sets of rules, can we use advices and queries more frequently and more creatively? In our business meetings, can we stop and pray more frequently, resisting our agenda's relentless push when necessary? Is there space for genuine lament, for humor? What has been your experience of building true inclusion, and what do you think our community's next steps might be?

Related:  Why evangelicals should love CRT. Dismantling racism with grit and grace. Whiteness.

The special issue of Quaker Studies devoted to John Woolman is out, just in time for me to refer to it in connection with the previous theme. Mike Heller's and Ron Rembert's article, "John Woolman and 'The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth'" includes Woolman's searching self-examination concerning the rightness of wearing undyed clothing.

Dyes for clothing were a product of slave labor, but would his strange appearance without colored fabrics lead to the loss of friendships ... and which friendships? In light of my concern about the intentional and unintentional signals we make with our new rules (pronouns and land acknowledgments, for example), I really appreciated pondering Woolman's reflections on his own discipleship.

I've just touched on one of the articles in this issue, but I recommend the whole thing.

Judy Maurer in the Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends bulletin: "A Stranger in the Earth."

This article looking back on the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The GULag Archipelago, fifty years ago, brought back memories. I was one of those who pre-ordered that first edition from YMCA-Press in Paris. (I tell that story here.)

"Religion and Humor: An Unorthodox Relationship?" Lina M. Liederman tackles an interesting juxtaposition.

It's time for end-of-year favorite books lists. Here's one from Beth Felker Jones that's full of temptations. If you publish such a list, please send me a link! (Whether or not you live in Newberg, Oregon. :-)))

Playing for Change: Buddy Guy on his electric sitar, the late Marty Sammon, and many others, perform Buddy's "Skin Deep."

30 November 2023

Retirement. (No, not that kind.)

Panther Pond, Maine.

I've never forgotten a post I read back in 2007 on Contemplative Scholar's blog:

On Being an Animal


July 12, 2007


As a human being, I am an animal too. And so are you.

This summer I am feeling moved not to travel much. While my main plan had been to get back into my academic writing, I'm having a really hard time with that. I think I am just profoundly tired. Plus, my support system has been seriously diminished over the past year: from the ending of my music group, to the departure of two people in my life who have been really important mentors and guides.

After my busy year and these important losses, I'm now mostly focused on trying to reestablish a basic discipline of taking good care of myself. No one else can do that for me anyway. More and more I realize that this is a deep and fundamental animal responsibility we each have. It is exactly for ourselves, but not selfish. We are not just our own private property. We matter to others in the world. And so if we don't take good care of ourselves, we can bring considerable grief into others' lives, because they can do little to restore health and well-being if we are not ourselves cooperating.

I have come to realize this in myself, but I also see it from another perspective in my relationships with others. Those who are good at taking care of themselves are happy and healthy and their lives are in balance, which means that they have lots of energy to attend to others as well.

As philosopher Immanuel Kant points out, we have a basic duty to be happy, so that we are not so distracted by our unhappiness that we fail to attend to our other moral duties!

The key marker for my own self care is exercise. Happily, I am running again. This is a very good sign. This year, I will place this as one of my highest priorities. No matter how busy my life gets, I will try to regard this as essential as eating and sleeping and going to Meeting! (Hold me too this, my faithful readers!)

So I've made the radical decision not to worry about how "productive" my summer is. I'm going to live my days as aimlessly as I need to. I'll attend to anything urgent that crosses my desk. But other than that, I'll just do what I feel moved to do from moment to moment. I haven't had a real vacation as such in a long time. I hereby declare the rest of this summer to be the first really extended vacation I have ever in my whole life let myself have.

I feel open and in a data-gathering mode. What gives me life? I want to experience the world in a new way. I want to let the world fill me with healing and renewing energy. I want to pay full attention to everyone I see, but refrain from agreeing to anything that establishes a controlling dynamic in our relationships. I refuse to expect anyone to do anything for me in particular; and I refuse to agree to anything that means that others expect something of me.

(I must emphasize that this is purely temporary. When the academic year begins again, I will have no choice but to enter back into that complex network of relationships dominated by controlling dynamics going in both directions.)

But for now, I just want to be a wild animal, quiet and shy, alert and tuned mostly into the pure present moment. I want to eat and sleep and run in the woods. I want to watch beautiful sunsets and let them work their magic on my soul.

The summer, after all, is beautiful. The sun. The breezes. The freedom to walk straight outside without the fanfare of coats and hats and scarves and gloves and complicated shoes slipping on icy walks. This is the time store up health and hope.

The other things I care about will come to fruition in their own good time. Let me finally honor the wisdom of the structure of the academic year. Let me finally trust in the natural rhythms of life and nature.

At some point I posted a link to this essay on my own blog, but soon after that, Contemplative Scholar had decided to close public access. The Contemplative Scholar blog remains closed to this day, although the Scholar gave me permission to republish this post here.

(The author said that it's also possible that the blog will be reopened in the future. I'll be sure to let you know if that happens.)

Maine Botanical Gardens.
Water vole, Klamath Falls, Oregon.
Panther Pond, Maine.

Maybe you've already guessed, at least in general, why I've found solace in this post at this particular moment, even though my own life cycle isn't academic anymore. For me, the winter serves as something of an equivalent to Contemplative's summer. And yet the coming winter season in the Northern Hemisphere promises even more cruelties among vulnerable people than we witness today. How can we justify ever averting our eyes?

On one of our online Quaker meetings for worship, with our attention focused on Ukraine and the Holy Land, one of our attenders drew our attention to this "Invitation to Sit Together for Peace," with its guided meditation in the Buddhist tradition taught by the late Thich Nhat Hanh. I found points of contact on a communal level with "On Being an Animal."

(Dear anxious members of my Christian family, I'm very willing to discuss what might make you anxious about this meditation, but not here.)

Another impulse to reprint "On Being an Animal" came from a letter I just got from a friend of mine in the UK. She wrote, "... I am due one of my biannual deplugs ... so from Nov 25th to Dec 25th that's it—no news or views on the present day (...history will be permissible)."

There is something in me that resists the idea of unplugging, as if I am somehow letting humanity down if I give up, for a time, my obsessive attention to the deeds and misdeeds of the Powers That Be. How much worse off everyone would be if I withheld my awesome influence for good!

If you sometimes feel the same way, but know down in your bones you really do need a time of retirement, consider some of these thoughts:

Consider that you, too, are an animal. Contemplative Scholar does not advocate inattentiveness, but a different, more creaturely kind of attentiveness. There is no break from reality, only a break from a set of stylized behaviors that we humans esteem much too highly, given that they are all elaborate variations on the same behaviors that all mammals display—data-gathering, marking territory, distinguishing friend from threat. We are wise to be aware of the ways human myths and conceits impact us and our global neighbors, but let's dedicate some time to resting quietly with our Creator, aware of the present moment, before returning to those demanding arenas.

Back in 1990, I made a tour of about thirty communities in southern India that, at the time, were active or potential partners with Right Sharing of World Resources. My first visit was to a non-governmental organization in Chennai. One of the most helpful and liberating pieces of advice that the director gave me was this: "Never believe (or allow people to convince you) that you are indispensable. The communities were there before you ever showed up and will be there after you leave."

(More about this conversation here.)

The kind of retirement I see in "On Being an Animal" is very different from simply quitting in disgust or becoming cynical. However, if you feel those temptations to quit altogether, a period of retirement from the deluge of difficult news may be just what's needed. Everything we have to offer is rooted, not in our own undoubted competence and cleverness, nor in our righteous anger (though it's sometimes exactly right!), but in the everlasting and universal love of God.

But the Lord did stay my desires upon himself from whom my help came, and my care was cast upon him alone. Therefore, all wait patiently upon the Lord, whatsoever condition you be in wait in the grace and truth that comes by Jesus; for if ye so do, there is a promise to you, and the Lord God will fulfil it in you. And blessed are all they indeed that do hunger and thirst after righteousness; they shall be satisfied with it. I have found it so, praised be the Lord who filleth with it, and satisfies the desires of the hungry soul. O let the house of the spiritual Israel to say, 'His mercy endureth for ever.' It is the great love of God to make a wilderness of that which is pleasant to the outward eye and fleshly mind; and to make a fruitful field of a barren wilderness.

— George Fox (Journal, Nickalls ed., pages 12-13), 1647.

I'm still collecting responses to my survey: Which term do you prefer, Friends or Quakers?

A letter from Ramallah Friends School students to the U.S. Congress, posted by the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Related note: the three young Palestinian men shot in Vermont last Saturday, Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid, and Tahseen Ahmed, were all graduates of the Ramallah Friends School. 

An Orthodox priest writes to Christians in Russia who are not in unity with Orthodox officialdom on the war in Ukraine. (English. Russian.)

And how other Russians learned to stop worrying about the war.

The Russian Supreme Court bans the "international LGBT social movement," ruling it "extremist." More coverage from Meduza. Friday update from Meduza.

One more link, in a very different direction... May we welcome Jesus as Mary did. Beth Felker Jones on the miracle of consent.

Most of these links are wildly inconsistent with observing a period of "retirement." Let's see if I do better next time!

Mark Stutso's wonderful vocals, Gino Matteo on guitar, and Jason Ricci on harp: "It's My Own Fault."

22 November 2023

Friends and Comrades, a Thanksgiving P.S.

Title frame from the film Famine. Screenshot from source.

Historian Yulia Khmelevskaya—Famine.
Historian Sergei Nikitin—Famine.
Historian and journalist Sergei Kolychev—Famine.

New York Times, July 23, 1921—Famine.
"Remember the starving!" Source.

Last week I reviewed Sergei Nikitin's Friends and Comrades: How Quakers helped Russians to survive famine and epidemic, translated by Suzanne Eade Roberts. Working with Russian and Soviet sources as well as English-language memoirs and archives, Sergei told the epic story of British and American Friends' work in Russia—in refugee assistance, famine relief, medical outreach, and agricultural reconstruction—in the years 1916-1931.

My review had lots of words, but barely any images. Today, in honor of the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday (and I'm not being ironic), I want to tell you about a documentary film that can be of enormous help with both images and context for the story Sergei tells. The film: Famine.

Context: The full campaign against starvation and epidemic at the height of the 1921-23 famines was far larger than the specifically Quaker mission centered on the cities of Buzuluk and Sorochinsk. Together, all the international help during those years may have saved 10 or 11 million lives. It is harder to fix the number of lives that the Quaker teams might have saved, but it is certainly in the tens of thousands. Buzuluk was the capital of a region with a pre-famine population of over 600,000. Had death rates continued as they were at the start of the famine, this region would have lost fifty percent of its population, not counting people who simply left the region. Instead of 50 percent, 21.5 percent of the population was lost to starvation and disease.

Many other voluntary organizations worked in this massive relief campaign, but the largest single contribution came from the American Relief Administration, headed by the future Quaker president, Herbert Hoover. In December 2021, the U.S. Congress, despite the anti-Bolshevik mood of the times, allocated $20 million for famine relief in Russia. For a time, the American Quaker mission to the region became somewhat enmeshed in the ARA's work, with several awkward implications for their relationship with the local government as well as their British Quaker co-workers. They negotiated several exceptions to the ARA rules, and eventually regained their independence to manage their own work and collaborate fully with the British team.

Quakers may have been better prepared than some other groups to work on a large scale in Russia. Their presence in Buzuluk dated back to their World War I outreach to war refugees. They had already earned credibility with the suspicious Bolshevik authorities. At times they were a conduit into Russia for other relief organizations who didn't have the degree of access Friends had gained. When Russia made its global appeal for help in July 1921, Friends were able to respond quickly, thanks to their earlier experience in the Buzuluk region.

In covering the vast scale of the international response in these famine years, 1921-23, the documentary Famine selects several regions of Russia as case studies. The Buzuluk region is one of those case studies, featuring interviews with, among others, Sergei Nikitin and Sergei Kolychev. Judy and I knew of Sergei Nikitin's interest in this history long before we ourselves visited Buzuluk in 2008 and 2011. During our 2011 visit we got to know the local journalist and historian Sergei Kolychev, whose study of the famine years led him (a Russian Orthodox Christian) to envision a memorial to those Quaker workers of a century earlier.

Speaking of memorials, two of the Friends' workers died of typhus during the winter of 1921-22, Mary Pattison and Violet Tillard. Lenin's principal deputy, Leon Trotsky, paid tribute to them in a speech in March 1922, as quoted by Sergei Nikitin's book:

These graves are a kind of augury of the new, future relations between people which will be based upon solidarity and not be shadowed by self-seeking. When the Russian people become a little richer, they will erect (we are profoundly sure of this) a great monument to these fallen heroes.

Judging by reports of the cancellation of Famine's license for screening in Russian movie theaters, Russian authorities do not welcome these kinds of historical reminders. (Here is a link to Global Voices report of the ban, along with a summary of the film. And a report from Meduza.) I'm less sure than Trotsky that an actual monument will be built. For now, maybe the film Famine will serve as a memorial. 

If you watch it (see below), be aware that there are many stark and troubling scenes and stories from the height of the famine, including reports of cannibalism. As several observers have noted, this famine may have been the first in world history to be so minutely and graphically documented.

As with many families in the USA, cooking and eating will be two of our family's main activities tomorrow.  My memories of the film, of Sergei's book, and of our own visits to Buzuluk will not muffle my thankfulness during the holiday—they'll sharpen it.

Famine is available on the YouTube channels of the U.S. government-funded media outlet Current Time TV. The film itself was not funded by Current Time, but was financed through crowdfunding. Over 2,000 people contributed.

The film is in Russian, but you can turn on the subtitles, and choose the language you wish from the video settings. The English is adequate to follow, most of the time, although (for example) when Sergei Nikitin says, "We are now in the Quaker meetinghouse [he used the English word "meetinghouse"], it's translated "the Community House apartment...." Earlier, the auto-translator gave us "Gold" when Sergei Kolychev said "Volga." In general, you'll be able to keep up with the narrative.

Here's a separate link cued to the section on Quaker work in Buzuluk. The full film is below:

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's controversial conversion.

The prison hazards that await Russian anti-war artist Aleksandra Skochilenko.

Robert P. Jones: when (U.S.) ex-presidential rhetoric crosses into Nazi territory.

Who is abandoning the evangelical label? Ryan Burge graphs the trends.

Nancy Thomas writes about gratitude—and gets specific.

Kate Bowler's Thanksgiving blessing when you don't feel terribly thankful.

Via Open Culture: a massive online digital archive of Chaucer. Caution: it's habit-forming. And if you are able to escape, Open Culture can link you with 130 ancient maps, atlases and globes.

What is a Quaker? Here's Micah Bales's answer in English and Russian.

Rick Holmstrom's instrumental version of "Oh Mary Don't You Weep."

16 November 2023

Friends and Comrades: Sergei Nikitin tells the story of Quaker relief and rehabilitation work in Russia between 1916 and 1931

Sergei Nikitin's book on the history of Friends relief missions in Russia, particularly in the years 1916-1931, and its English translation, Friends and Comrades. Translation by Suzanne Eade Roberts.

In 1947, the Nobel Committee of Norway's parliament awarded that year's Nobel Peace Prize to the Quakers, "...represented by their two great relief organizations, the Friends Service Council in London and the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia."

In his presentation speech at the award ceremony, Gunnar Jahn cited Quakers' role in peace and relief work in many countries, including Russia: "It is through silent assistance from the nameless to the nameless that they have worked to promote the fraternity between nations cited in the will of Alfred Nobel." (My emphasis.)

At the peak of the famine relief work, over 400,000 Russians were depending on Quaker food rations to stay alive. 20,000 to 30,000 people a month were treated in their malaria clinics in Buzuluk. In the history of this campaign, many people involved will indeed remain "nameless." We will not know most of the people whose lives were saved from starvation and disease through Quakers' efforts, and most of those who provided prayer and money to this work will also remain unknown. Thanks to Sergei Nikitin's book Friends and Comrades, however, the full scale of this effort, and the names of many of its central figures, are made known and brought to life.

Sergei's book is organized into five broad areas, four of which correspond to the chronology of British and USA Friends' relief and reconstruction work in Russia:

  • Assistance to World War I refugees, 1916-1918.
  • Assistance to children who were suffering as a result of the post-revolutionary civil war in Russia, 1920-21.
  • The massive famine relief, medical aid, and agricultural rehabilitation efforts of 1921-27, centered in the towns of Buzuluk and Sorochinsk, and the ongoing official Quaker presence in the USSR that ended in 1931.
  • Individual Quakers' continuing involvements in the Soviet Union after 1931.
  • Finally, reflections on the complex relationships between Friends and the Soviet authorities throughout this history.

Missions of this magnitude generate an enormous amount of archival material—logistical records and ledgers; official and unofficial correspondence among every conceivable subset of actors; public relations and fundraising materials; news accounts; photos, films, and graphics of all kinds; and memoirs. It is a huge challenge to make a judicious selection that can bring these voices into our own time with an appropriate mix of accurate reportage and fair analysis, all in a package of manageable length. It's my judgment that Sergei has succeeded.

Previous treatments of this story include an article by John Forbes in the Bulletin of Friends Historical Association, "American Friends and Russian Relief 1917-1927," published in two parts (Spring and Autumn 1952). Richenda C. Scott's Quakers in Russia (1964) ranges from the first Quaker contacts with Peter the Great all the way to her own time, but more than half of her excellent book is devoted to this same famine and refugee relief work. More recently, David McFadden and Claire Gorfinkel told this story in a more thematic approach, in their book Constructive Spirit: Quakers in Revolutionary Russia (2004), to which Sergei Nikitin contributed an introductory chapter in the form of a personal overview.

One of Sergei Nikitin's first articles on the
famine relief mission, Jan.-Feb. 1998
As Sergei explains early in his new book, he had been gathering archival materials and personal interviews ever since he first heard about the story of Quakers in wartime Russia and the young Soviet Union. During his fifteen years as head of the Amnesty International office in Moscow, he had no free time to put this material together in book form, but his retirement from that service gave him the necessary time to collect additional material and write Friends and Comrades.

Sergei took full advantage of the archives already available to previous authors, although he often made different selections from the material. All of these historians described a crucial debate among the Quakers: was their work of famine relief and medical aid in itself the main Quaker message to Russians, or was it a means by which Friends could spread their spiritual beliefs in Russia, and also build relationships with Tolstoyans and likeminded Russians? Sergei and others quote a proposed memorandum to the Bolshevik authorities that was composed by those supporting the latter priority:

[Sergei quotes the memorandum:] ‘We are upon an active campaign to overcome the barriers of race and class and thus to make of all humanity a “Society of Friends”’. The letter’s authors were frank about the historical examples of Quakers’ dissidence due to their basic principles: ‘This has led us to follow a course, on some occasions, different from that of fellow citizens; even to act contrary to the law of our country when our legislators bid us violate our principles, particularly when called upon to take human life in warfare’. In closing, the Quakers asked the Bolsheviks openly: ‘Hence we seek to know your attitude towards us, and our concern to unite in fellowship with Russian people. With that in view we desire to ask if you will allow representatives of the Society of Friends to come to Russia for the purpose of establishing independent work for the administration of physical relief and to give expression to our international and spiritual ideals and principles of life’.

Arthur Watts, a British Quaker based in Moscow, was viscerally opposed to this approach, believing that any stated purpose other than strictly disinterested relief work would threaten their hitherto relatively unfettered access. Nikitin takes up the story:

He [Watts] called the draft ‘A mild lecture and an explanation of our “chief concerns”’. Reasonably enough, he criticised the part of the text where the Quakers talked about social class: ‘It will be difficult for me to convince the recipients of the Activeness of your “campaign to overcome the barriers […] of class”’. On this point, Watts was right to reproach the authors of the letter of hypocrisy, reminding them that British Quakers still withheld control in industry from their workers, and that their British employees did not have control of anything. He wrote: ‘I have a strong objection to pretending to be better than we are’.

Arthur Watts also condemned the London committee’s apparent caution and concern that Quaker help would be interpreted as an expression of sympathy for Bolshevik methods. He wrote that he could not believe that Quakers might abstain from helping Russian children out of fear of being misunderstood. He added: ‘This is really most unworthy of you. Did you demand a statement from the Tsarist Government that our help was not to be taken as indicating approval of their aims and methods?’ He drew parallels with the parables in the Bible, asking, ‘I wonder if Christ thought of issuing a Statement of Aims before raising the Centurion’s daughter’, and made the sarcastic comment that if the Good Samaritan had drawn up a careful minute, ‘we might have admired his “Quaker Caution” but it would have spoilt the point of the parable’.

Only Sergei Nikitin includes Watts's commentary on class hypocrisy.

One of the new elements that Sergei brings to his book is his research in Russian government archives. Previous histories looked at these events primarily through the eyes of the British and American participants. For example, Sergei touches on the debates between the American Friends Service Committee leadership, and the future Quaker president of the USA, Herbert Hoover, who headed the American Relief Administration and its program of famine relief. McFadden and Gorfinkel's Constructive Spirit goes into these conflicts in fascinating detail, illustrated by numerous extracts from letters and memoirs. Sergei gives briefer treatment to this aspect of the history, although he describes the awkward consequences of this conflict for the relationships between the British and American relief teams.

Thanks to his Russian sources, we learn far more about the Bolshevik authorities' own secret reports from the hardest-hit famine districts, their scrutiny of the Quaker teams, their generally favorable assessments of those teams, their worries about Quaker influences on the population, and the role of the secret police in infiltrating and monitoring the Quaker work. Nikitin also describes the sad fate during the Stalinist terror of some of those Russians who collaborated in the work—and, ironically enough, some of those who spied on the Quakers and were shot anyway. 

Equally powerful in their own way are the numerous statistical reports provided by Russian sources. According to archives held in Buzuluk, "... in June 1922, American and British Quakers fed 85% of the population in need in Buzuluk district!"

Sergei's own voice and viewpoint are the other distinctive element of his book. He observes and comments as a Russian. He came to this whole history with something of the same astonishment that I myself heard from people in Buzuluk as they remembered their great-grandparents's recollections, saying in effect, "How could it be that these British and American people cared enough about us to make the hazardous journey, face all the risks of civil war and famine, and even die for us?" (Typhus killed two of the women on the teams, Mary Pattison and Violet Tillard.) Sergei reports on some of the dozens of interviews he conducted among people with first-hand experiences of the famine years, and among their descendants.

Sergei does not just focus on the heroism, but also covers the mistakes, disorganization, and discouragements that inevitably accompany disaster relief in unfamiliar surroundings, where absolutely nobody arrives with adequate preparation, and everyone involved is learning as they go. Furthermore, Quaker idealism (in some cases, taking the form of sympathy for the Bolshevik cause) could have made them "useful idiots" for the new regime. Some Quakers assumed that their Russian counterparts would be as honest as they themselves were. Sergei gives several examples of the Quaker capacity to believe what they wanted to believe despite evidence to the contrary. Nevertheless, his overall assessment is generous:

Looking back today at the history of interaction between Quakers and the Russian authorities, the Society of Friends clearly did extraordinary work. Through incredible effort, hundreds of thousands of people were saved from death. Goodness, honesty, openness and a willingness to help–these characteristics of the British and American Quakers left a warm glow in the heart of each Russian who interacted with them.

Among the book's useful material is a detailed chronology of these years, as well as a roster of every team member involved in the 1916-1919 mission and in the 1920-31 mission. The author includes many archival photos and provides bibliographies of his English-language and Russian-language sources.

Thanksgiving update: information on the documentary film Famine, which is a valuable supplement to Sergei's book, and which includes an interview with him.

Michael G. Azar, Public Orthodoxy, on Orthodox Christians in Gaza City.

Steve Hoffman on being people of mercy.

British Quakers brief parliamentarians on climate justice.

Safeguarding vulerable people in church: Juulie Downs on the importance of clear policy and record-keeping.

60 Minutes on Clarksdale's blues heritage, and an interview with Christone "Kingfish" Ingram.

09 November 2023

One final post about hell

Concerning my latest survey on the terms "Quakers" and "Friends"I'm doing a bit of a cheat.

One respondent wondered why there was no category for "Hicksites" and another wondered why there was no category for "Orthodox." (Brief explanation of these terms.) Fair enough! I've added those two categories. If you've already responded and would have preferred one of those new categories to the "liberal" or "evangelical" categories already provided, let me know and I will (ahem) adjust the results. I'm glad I labeled this an "informal" survey.

Once again: the survey is here:  blog.canyoubelieve.me/p/survey.html. Please share it widely. Many thanks to everyone who has already responded.

"People leaving the northern Gaza Strip amid hostilities, following repeated calls by Israeli forces and the opening of a 'corridor.' Photo by UNRWA, 8 November 2023." (Source.)

Voiceover: "For the Palestinians displaced from
the north, this is what awaits them in the south of
the [Gaza] Strip." (Screenshot from source.)

This morning, on SE 52nd Avenue here in Portland, Oregon, I saw a billboard asking "Where are you going? Heaven or HELL."

Mark Schaefer's blog post about this series of billboards pretty well sums up my own thoughts on this message. But the words "Where are you going?" and the two blunt destinations made me think about the images we're seeing from Gaza. Those people walking along Gaza's main north-south road, with children in their arms, or a few possessions, some with white flags—where are they going? What awaits them there? Something like heaven, or something more like hell?

On the Deutsche Welle video from which I drew one of the photos, aid organizations are quoted as saying "Nowhere in Gaza is safe."

As I assembled these images, I remembered a passionate sermon from Munther Isaac,  "God Is Under the Rubble in Gaza," which Isaac gave on Oct. 22 at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Beit Sahour and again at the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, following the bombing of Gaza's oldest Christian church.

Here again that question—"Where are you going?"—echoes in the sermon...

We are broken. The people of Gaza are suffering. They have lost everything except their dignity. Many attained glory—they attained martyrdom—even if they did not ask for it. Now, again in our history, they find themselves facing the same choice: death or displacement. Our Nakba continues!

Where are they to go? There is no place for them in this world!

You and I are praying for them, and we know that the people at the center of the storm are in constant prayer:

We prayed. We prayed for their protection … and God did not answer us, not even in the “house of God” were church buildings able to protect them. Our children die before the silence of the world, and before the silence of God. How difficult is God’s silence!

Job's words seem to ring out from somewhere in the background, from Job 13:15 ..."though God slay me, yet shall I hope in God...." Indeed, Munther Isaac calls on the faithful to remember that "Jesus is no stranger to pain, arrest, torture, and death." Furthermore,

We have another comfort, which is the resurrection. In our brokenness, pain, and death, let us repeat the gospel of the resurrection: “Christ is risen.” He became the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. When I saw the pictures of the bodies of these saints in the white bags in front of the church, during their funeral, Christ’s call came to my mind: “Come, you who are blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundations of the world” (Matthew 25:34).

But along the way, Isaac does not dodge the agonizing question of prayers that seem to go nowhere: "We search for God on this land. Theologically, philosophically, we ask: Where is God when we suffer? How do we explain his silence?"

I find that, in the tragic midst of this hellish reality (a reality also experienced by the innocent victims and hostages of Hamas!), I've run out of patience on the threat of hell as an evangelistic tool. I've outlined my indictment before:

Perhaps only a cultural context of individualism, safety, and affluence could explain how a prominent evangelical writer could pose the problem as glibly as Erik Strandness did in the quotation I cited in God's sweet revenge, part two:

I agree with [Rob] Bell that love does win, but his conception of love is incomplete because he forgets that it takes two-to-tango. God has extended a dance invitation to all of us so when we tell Him that our dance card is full we miss the opportunity to trip the light fantastic with the lover of our souls. Sadly, many humans are afraid of the commitments inherent in divine intimacy so they opt for being wallflowers at the salvation dance rather than stepping out and cutting a rug with the Groom at the wedding feast of the Lamb.

God’s love wins! However, when it is not reciprocated, those who reject it lose. Hell isn’t about sins committed but about God’s redemptive love going unrequited.

I'm serious. Where in Gaza or, for that matter, where in the real world of suffering, or shattering disillusionment, whatever the location, is God's "dance invitation" decisively evident? And through whom? Thank God, the invitation to faith is still present even in Palestine, through the honesty of people like Munther Isaac. I can't speak for these Gospel voices, but I doubt they use the threat of hell to sharpen their arguments among people who are already living in constant fear, people who surely must sometimes be asking themselves, "How do we explain God's silence?"

If some of them sadly conclude, "Maybe there is no God," can we truly say that an invitation was knowingly, obstinately, and fatally rejected? Turning the question around: How can we contribute to effective expressions of God's love among a people whose experience is that, in Isaac's words, "Hell is a reality in Gaza today"?

Updates page for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Friends Committee on National Legislation (its annual meeting and Quaker Public Policy Institute) meets in person and online November 15-19.

Mark Russ gives us a peak at the 2023 online gathering of the Quaker Theological Discussion Group and previews his own paper. More details on the two-day event (December 1 and 2) here.

Matt Vlaardingerbroek gives us three reasons why Bible-believing Christians don't really exist. And David Williams says, yes, you can have a biblical worldview without, you know ....

Bill Jolliff reviews Derek Lamson's "A Month of Sundays." You may remember that Derek Lamson is also the author of Mark V: The Opera, which I reviewed here; and Judy Maurer's interview with Derek is here.

Here's a "needed" song. As Eric Bibb says, "Just what my soul needed." (As they get ready to play, the musicians refer to the Lightnin' Hopkins version in the movie Sounder.)

02 November 2023

Weighing the true cost of travel ... how do you decide?

Before I get to this week's post, have you seen my latest survey? I'd like to know whether you prefer the term "Quaker" or the term "Friend"—or maybe "it depends."

The survey is here:  blog.canyoubelieve.me/p/survey.html; please share it widely if you too are curious.

Many thanks to everyone who has already responded.

An episode of the sitcom Frasier from 1996: It's February 29, a beautiful day in Seattle, 80 degrees F., and Frasier Crane says, "It defies you not to take a moment to acknowledge the power that created it." His father says, "Thank you, global warming."

We are called to be patterns and examples in a 21st century campaign for peace and ecojustice, as difficult and decisive as the 18th and 19th century drive to abolish slavery.

Kabarak Call for Peace and Eco-Justice, Sixth World Conference of Friends, Kenya, 2012.

This past Saturday, Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends met for its fall gathering at Eugene Friends Church. One of the items on our agenda was our participation in the Friends World Committee for Consultation's World Plenary Meeting in South Africa next August. Each yearly meeting may appoint one representative to participate in person. (In addition, there will be capacity for many Friends to participate online.) Whom would we send?

I followed the ensuing discussion carefully, not just because I was serving as one of the recording clerks, but also because similar discussions must be happening all over the world. Conscientious members of geographically widespread organizations have serious choices to make: weighing the decision to continue our patterns of carbon-fueled travel to conferences at a time when, as one Friend  pointed out in our discussion, the pollution generated by air travel goes directly into the atmosphere. She added, bluntly, "Our planet's carbon budget is exhausted. There has to be a point where Friends say, 'We can't participate in this destruction anymore'."

She went on to add that we do have a choice. When we choose to make an environmentally costly trip by air, we can also commit to disciplines that compensate, such as a drastic limitation of other travel, or becoming vegetarian, or abandoning carbon-fueled vehicles in favor of walking, bicycling, or mass transit.

Much of the remaining discussion centered on the question of how we decide: in any specific case, how do we balance the unique blessings of personal attendance with the cost of such attendance when we've apparently already used up our planet's carbon safety margin? This is my question to you: how has your organization handled this dilemma? Have you adopted any guidance that you could share with other Friends (and anyone else facing this question)?

Among the reflections that arose during this business session:

  • A Friend told of the life-changing impact on him of attending the 2005 World Gathering of Young Friends and asked us to prioritize young people in making choices of participants.
  • Another Friend wanted to know what consideration Friends World Committee for Consultation itself had given to this question. We were told that the environmental cost of travel had led to several FWCC decisions: first, to abandon the triennial cycle (that had been in place when I worked for FWCC) in favor of gathering every seven or eight years; second, to reduce in-person attendance to one person per yearly meeting plus a limited number of at-large places; third, to promote the idea of local "hubs" where people would gather from convenient distances to participate together online.

    (I had a personal experience of an earlier FWCC attempt to reduce travel. The 1991 World Gathering of Friends took place on three different sites: Honduras, Kenya, and the Netherlands. I helped staff the Honduras site, and used the opportunity to visit Right Sharing of World Resources work in Honduras.)
  • Another Friend asked us to consider the cost of forgoing opportunities to meet face to face with people whose views are different. When conflicts arise from lack of contact across divisions, this too can have environmental costs.
  • A proposal: Are there Friends among us who will be attending the World Plenary in any case because of their staff or committee work, and could we choose one of these Friends to be our in-person representative?

We concluded the discussion without making a decision regarding the appointment of an in-person representative. Instead, we asked concerned Friends to gather the additional information we might need to make a good decision, and publish that information in our Yearly Meeting's Bulletin. It is not too late to send us your experiences and advice!

The calculations you may need in order to plan reductions in your carbon-based energy usage.

Carbon reduction advice.

FWCC's sustainability page.

Sustainability: personal witness.

How does war damage the environment?

Michael T. Cooper on claims to sacred lands: the cases of Lakota/Black Hills, Contemporary Druids/Stonehenge ... and the Israeli nation-state. (Part one.)

Jeremy Morris on pogroms (specifically the recent one at Makhachkala's airport), social psychology, and the falsity of numbers.

Mark Pratt-Russum on holding change.

Perhaps, the real work is confronting the finish lines we’ve created. Audre Lorde said, “The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations that we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.”

Micky ScottBey Jones follows up that quote with this simple reminder, “Doing the work reveals more of the work to be done in us.”

Greg Morgan: no, you really don't know what it's like.

Tricia Gates Brown: In peace and war, why quiet listening is important action.

What made Geoffrey Durham stay, after his first experiences of Friends?

It’s worth remembering that a person who comes with a deep spiritual hunger is primarily interested in whether Quakers might be able to help them. There will almost certainly be an urgency to their visit: will they find support here, or won’t they? And so being told about events in, say, 1652 is unlikely to be of much assistance. We need to be careful of sending our enquirers too swiftly out of the door.

Marcella Simien sings a classic Otis Redding song, "These Arms of Mine." (Redding's version.)