30 July 2020


A couple of Sundays ago, Matt Boswell's sermon at Camas Friends Church looked at the story of the wheat and weeds in Matthew's gospel, chapter 13 (New Revised Standard Version): 
24 [Jesus] put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
The audio recording of Matt's sermon is only about eighteen minutes, so I'd love it if you went to the Camas Friends Web site and listened to it before (or instead of!) reading my reflections. My thoughts here are not direct comments on his sermon, but they arose as I responded to the queries he gave us at the end:
  • What arises for me as I chew on this parable?
  • What important truth is this parable helping me see?
George Fox and some other early Friends talked about separating the wheat from the weeds as one of their metaphors for evangelism. In their book The Quakers, Hugh Barbour and J. William Frost described the process:
Early Quaker prophetic messages of judgment and confrontation were often given in a marketplace or during a puritan church service. For longer presentations, crowds of noisy but interested hearers were gathered on a moor or daily in a rented hall in an "appointed" or "threshing" meeting. Hearers who were "convinced" by these forms of mission were taken into smaller gatherings in private homes, where they shared their struggles of self-judgment under the Light with other seekers in daily or weekly "gathered meetings" with prayer and messages of guidance as well as silence and tears....
In an epistle from 1652, here's how George Fox distinguished threshing meetings from gatherings of the "convinced": (from Canby Jones, ed., The Power of the Lord Is Over All: The Pastoral Letters of George Fox, number 14)
All Friends, that are grown up in the life and power of the Truth, see that when you appoint your meetings in any open place, in the fields, on the moors, or on the mountains, that none appoint meetings in your own wills. That lets in the wills of the world upon the life of Friends and so you come to suffer by the world. But at such meetings let the wisdom of God guide you, that some may be there to preserve the Truth from suffering by the world, that all burdens may be kept off and taken away. So you will grow pure and strong.

When there are any meetings in unbroken places, you that go to minister to the world, take not the whole Meeting of Friends with you thither, to suffer with and by the world's spirit. But let Friends keep together and wait in their own meeting place. So will the Life ... be preserved and grow. Let three, four or six that are grown up and are strong in the Truth go to such unbroken places and thresh the heathenish nature.
Fox's Pulpit, near Sedbergh. Source.
A sample of his own "threshing" message from that same year: (from his Journal, Nickalls edition)
... There was a great fair at Sedburgh for hiring servants and many young people came to be hired. I went to the fair and declared through the fair day the day of the Lord, and after I had done I went into the steeplehouse yard and got up by a tree, and most of the people of the fair came to me, and abundance of priests and professors [those who profess faith in Christ]. There I declared the everlasting Truth of the Lord and the word of life for several hours, and that the Lord Christ Jesus was come to teach his people himself and bring them off all the world's ways and teachers to Christ, their way to God; and I laid open all their teachers and set up the true teacher, Christ Jesus; and how they were judged by the prophets, Christ, and the apostles; and to bring them off the temples made with hands, that they themselves might know they were the temples of God.
The separation of wheat and weeds in Matthew 13 is not a perfect metaphor for this "threshing" process of Quaker evangelism. For one thing, as Matt said in his sermon,
... We have to be careful about categorizing folks. I think the weed metaphor is a good one, especially if we can be less individualistic about it, more nuanced, more willing to admit that life is messy, that weeds are often subtle, that it's not that I'm a tare and you are wheat, but that in each of us are wheat and tares. And in each system, each community, are wheat and tares.
Along with tales of being beaten and imprisoned, Fox has countless examples of priests, officials, and whole audiences who start out hostile (weeds?) and end up receptive to his message. This threshing work does not not necessarily consist of separating people from each other, but challenging and inviting each person, household, or community into an experience of their own reflection and discernment. For this work, Fox insists that they don't need to be in a special place, or depend on a special person, because Christ has come to teach his people himself.

Eventually, there is a harvest, of course, as Fox and his successors (perhaps you and I) gather the "tender," receptive people together for "prayer and messages of guidance" and mutual encouragement. Quaker ecclesiology in its essence is no fancier than this: people who gather around Jesus, learning how to live with him at the center (including the ethics of that life) and helping each other learn. But there is no tying up the "weeds" to be burned, because nobody is ever judged to be permanently outside. The promise of grace is for everyone.

Are we Quakers still providing access to this experience of being gathered, encouraged, and invited to trust our inward Teacher? How do we offer this access in our own times, 370 years after the first threshing meetings?

Among contemporary Quakers, the term "threshing meeting" has a new definition. From the Historical Dictionary of the Friends (Quakers):
THRESHING SESSION. Originally used to refer to general meetings for evangelizing. Today, threshing sessions are a form of business meeting where only one issue is considered, and, usually, recommendations are brought to the regular business meeting for decision.
Britain Yearly Meeting has published this guide to threshing meetings 2.0.

Alfons López Tena: Authoritarians, populists, nations in decline -- common characteristics, and the case study of Catalonia. Long but fascinating. Is the case study fair?

The journalists who have quit the Russian newspaper Vedomosti have begun a new online publication, VTimes (Rus), dedicated to honest, independent, and responsible journalism.

Next month: the Collaborators Conference for the Flourishing of Nonviolent Christianity.

In place of my normal blues dessert, here's a healthy dose of inspiration: Barack Obama's eulogy at John Lewis's funeral service at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

23 July 2020

Power, love, and endurance

How do tyrants begin?

Last week I linked to Roger E. Olson's blog post entitled "The Untold Story of How Hitler Came to Power in Germany." This week he followed that up with a brief but pointed description of street-level authoritarianism in this post: "How Would It Begin? The Early Signs of Totalitarianism."

If you thought this new post might refer to the controversial federal intervention in our city of Portland, Oregon, Olson confirms this in the comment section. It may seem off-scale to compare the brutality of the U.S. federal response to the Portland demonstrations and disorders with the ruthless violence of the "disappearance" era in Argentina, Chile, and El Salvador. If so, try also comparing those actions with the USA's long-standing "city on a hill" mythology -- not that this shining exceptionalism ever shielded all of us equally. In any case, the most powerful word in Olson's title might be begin.

The Portland situation, and its possible sequels in Missouri, New Mexico, and Illinois, have taken over more and more space in news sites and social media in the last few days. Portland's first-hand coverage divides fairly neatly into two classifications: "I was there, and federal forces attacked peaceful demonstrators," and "I was there, and those violent demonstrators are vandalizing, burning, and looting." I really don't doubt that both statements can be true. The life of a city in an extremely tense and polarized time of history can include very assertive nonviolent protest -- and, given the stakes involved (an end to white nationalism and police terrorism, at long last), this isn't surprising. Vandalism, petty arson, and other crimes are also part of an urban ecosystem under stress, whether we like it or not. Sometimes these actions may be riding on the edge of the nonviolent demonstrations, and sometimes they might just be opportunistic.

The issue is NOT which side is exaggerating or minimizing more than the other side; it's whether the community (government and civil society) has the resources to deal with the situation. If they do not, their next step is to call for help from the state government. Federal properties have their own security forces, which are expected to coordinate closely with city and state. The current spectacle of unilateral and highly irregular federal intervention under the leadership of political interim appointees beholden to Donald Trump, is scandalous, anti-democratic, and unacceptable.

Origin of photo on right.
Why are tyrants their own worst enemies?

About three weeks ago, Eastern Orthodox educator John Mark Reynolds posted an article entitled "Why do tyrants always behave stupidly?"

I don't know that Reynolds is asserting that Donald Trump is a tyrant; the observations in his essay cover a range of historical situations. However, I believe that his arguments are useful tools to examine Trump's actions. -- And, in particular, Trump's re-election campaign.

Reynolds:  "Most tyrants ride a wave of popular support." Trump's populist and white-nationalist messages proved persuasive to a critical mass of voters in 2016. Now that it's 2020, it's not yet correct to apply the label "tyrant" to Trump, but I'd like to suggest some alarming hints:
  • documented admiration for other countries' authoritarians
  • frequent references and links to white supremacy, the Confederacy, and other links to the ancient tyrannies of slavery, nativism, and Jim Crow
  • numerous extravagant personal claims in most public appearances
  • a stream of top-down decisions bypassing or overriding Cabinet-level and congressional advice
  • dismissal or reassignment of whistleblowers, ambassadors, inspectors general, witnesses in the impeachment investigation
  • acceptance or active solicitation of foreign help for his political benefit
  • unprecedented willingness to vilify or defend people who are being investigated for crimes or misconduct, depending on the politics of the situation
  • -- and to use his power to pardon or commute sentences as political acts
  • inability to separate presidential occasions from campaign events
  • adopting traditional tyrannical habits -- military parades, appointing relatives to high positions, leveraging the perks of office for personal gain.
Reynolds: "The reaction to tyranny is always, justifiably, fierce." Every single item on this list of hints has provoked growing alarm and fierce reactions from his critics. One concrete result was Trump's impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives, followed by acquittal by the Senate on the strength of his party's majority. Another apparent result is his declining percentage of support in polls of voting-age citizens.

How does this list fit Reynolds's description of a tyrant's career?
If perfect love casts out all fear, the will to power in the tyrant casts out all love. He ends up surrounded by transactional figures: people who work for treats, money, rewards, power. He knows this and slowly all the old loyalists are purged by his doubts. The tyrant has wanted power and if clever or lucky, gains power, but can only keep that power by increasingly counter-productive means. When the “new” might have come to the office with moderates in charge, he jails the moderates. When the “new” might have swept into office with some checks and balances on the radicals, he jails these leaders. Finally, the opposition becomes so radicalized, the government so dependent on mere power, that the tyrant falls.
Trump doesn't fit this path perfectly. There are those whom he might like to "lock up" or restrain, one way or another, but, so far, he can't. Mary Trump and John Bolton were, after all, able to publish their books. Marie Yovanovitch and Alexander Vindmann were unjustly forced out of their jobs, but with their lives and honor intact.

How would we heal from a would-be tyrant?

The cost to the country of Trump's tyrannical tendencies have been serious. The first, and most dramatic, costs are represented by the dead and injured victims of his inability to admit to and learn from errors. He assumed that the coronavirus was a danger to his political fortunes and criminally downplayed its threat as a public health catastrophe -- and wasted months on incompetent improvisations, denials, boasts, and blame games.

More generally, the Trump administration has put us in critical danger of losing the important boundary between the normal operations of government and the personal fortunes of those at the top. In turn, as Reynolds warns, the opposition has also become radicalized. We now have an awful and growing separation between Trump's critics and his defenders -- a separation that Trump would rather exploit than heal.

Trump has good reason to fear for his future. His response is to raise up a specter of enemies -- China, liberals, urban terrorists, militant atheists -- who would make the USA a living hell if not for his decisive leadership. (And please pay no attention to the lack of decisive leadership when it was actually needed: to organize a robust response to the novel coronavirus.)

Reynolds leads me to believe that Trump's distorted priorities and his sheer incompetence will ultimately lead to his defeat. But what's to stop Trump's radicalized opposition, or another more polite version of Trumpism, from taking over and becoming equally destructive? After all, according to Reynolds, "No government is so good that it cannot be monstrous."

For Christians, and for all of us who put our stock in love rather than power, I believe Reynolds's advice is sound: completely recalibrate what it means to "win" and "lose" in politics, loving and engaging with our enemies on the level of our values, trusting and praying that to endure on that basis means to prevail in the long run. But, as he concludes, above all this is a matter for daily prayer. 

I was not planning to write about Donald Trump this evening. However, again this evening, a few miles from here, the demonstrations for #BlackLivesMatter have started. It was difficult to witness the street battles between Palestinian young people and Israeli soldiers in Hebron last fall, and it is just as difficult to see something similar happening here. In Hebron, the soldiers' very presence provided the occasion for clashes that, in turn, "proved" the need for the soldiers. It's a formula that the president is no doubt counting on to provide visuals for his re-election campaign.

I want to write about something other than Trump. Next week, I hope I can.

Friday PS: Timothy Snyder on the baby fascists in Portland.

"All mamas were summoned when George Floyd called for his mama": Portland's Wall of Moms

Pendle Hill's hybrid worship experiment, and the technology that supports it. (Thanks to Quaker Ranter for the link.)

Kristina Stoeckl on the end of post-Soviet religion.

Hard news: Quaker leader, pastor, author, medical missionary, theological educator, and my Friends United Meeting colleague Mary Glenn Hadley has died. 

Sofia Lemons reflects on Micah 6:8.

This is what I need at the end of a difficult day... Jimmy Vaughan and Bonnie Raitt, "The Pleasure's All Mine."

16 July 2020

Purposeful profanity? (partly a repost)

One way I know I'm aging: I wince when I hear or read the f-word in public spaces. It happens even when I agree with the sentiment, as in this Twitter post from earlier today:

(Note: This exchange is getting a lot of circulation, but I somehow doubt it's genuine.)
Twitter might be the social network that is most responsible for hastening the promotion (demotion?) of blasphemy to profanity, of profanity to obscenity, of obscenity to vulgarity, and of vulgarity to ordinary slang, but this progression is happening all around me, online and offline.

The f-word has equivalents in many languages, but the English-language word is used in many places. In Russia, our students were often unsure about its rank on the naughtiness scale. To our simultaneous discomfort and amusement, they sometimes used it more liberally than we were accustomed to in the USA -- and more liberally than they would have used the Russian equivalents.

Our local McDonald's.
Once we were in the McDonald's restaurant near our home in Elektrostal, talking in English with one of our former students about her plans to offer Japanese language classes. A group of teenagers -- two young men and two young women -- sat down at the table next to ours. Realizing that we were speaking English, the guys apparently thought they could impress their companions by showing off their English. However, their vocabularies were apparently limited to these words: "hamburger," "cheeseburger," "French fries," and you know what. With increasing volume, they took pleasure in demonstrating their English: "F - - -  hamburgers," "f - - -  cheeseburgers," "f - - -  French fries." We did our best to ignore them, rather than confronting them, which would have been the more Russian approach. (Dear Russians: am I right?) In fact, after about five minutes of this, the family at another table came to our rescue and firmly put an end to the harassment.

The Walmart exchange on Twitter, true or fake, brought to mind a blog post from about five years ago, which seems to me to have kept its currency:

Remember this bumper sticker?

For some odd reason that probably doesn't do me much credit, I've always gotten a little burst of pleasure from this sticker. In some way, its attitude strikes me as quintessentially American, even though we Americans actually drive in a much more orderly way than many other nations.

This forgettable little sticker came back to me for some reason as I was reading about the recent inclusion of "WTF" in Merriam-Webster's unabridged dictionary. Apparently this dictionary decision has drawn a lot of attention, judging by the number of links on Google's news page for "wtf dictionary."

Is casual use of rude, obscene, and profane language in public increasing? Is Robert De Niro's commencement speech going to set a new norm? And should we be concerned?

I'm not as worried about the words lexicographers decide to notice as I am about people's capacity to know when to use obscenities and when to ... well, when to shut up. The public space is degraded when we don't teach discernment and restraint, and when we don't respond to violations with at least a good-humored reminder that (to adapt a memorable line from Dog Day Afternoon) "our ears are not garbage cans."

There are of course grey zones, where bad (or in the Russian term, "non-normative") language might not be exactly desirable but it's not the end of the world. Buddy Guy's frequent use of the two top-ranked vulgarities, not just in clubs but in his all-age festival appearances (such as here) feels weird to me, but let's not pretend that my beloved blues music comes from some kind of sweet and sanitized context. And as Buddy Guy himself says, if you're shocked by his language, wait til you hear the words younger "urban" performers are using.

In the Christian world, Tony Campolo years ago created another grey zone when, in one of his oft-repeated sermons he began using a four-letter word with deliberate intent to shock, then challenging his audience to consider why his dirty language distressed them more than the loss of 40,000 children's lives each day to preventable causes. (Story here.)

One of America's leading theologians, Stanley Hauerwas, has written about related themes in his autobiography (highly recommended!), Hannah's Child:
In 1974, I was promoted to associate professor with tenure. As usual, I paid little attention to the process. I suspect Notre Dame had not yet developed the tenure review process that now dominates research universities. I assume I must have been run through some university procedures, but I certainly had little sense that I might be in any trouble. I remember David [Burrell] telling me I had received tenure. He reported that the only worries about me were that some faculty thought I had come up a year too soon and that I needed to be more careful with my language.

Being careful with my language meant that I should not, as I was wont to do, use profanity. I had continued to talk like a bricklayer. There were certain words that I knew how to use and that were, not surprisingly, offensive to people at a place like Notre Dame. I also used a wide range of other words that people might have thought offensive. I used those words because that is the way I had learned to speak. I confess that I often found the middle-class and upper-middle-class etiquette that dominated university life oppressive. I certainly was not above sometimes using words that I knew would offend precisely because I knew they would offend. It took an article some years later in Lingua Franca, in which I was described as "The Foul Mouth Theologian," to make me quit using the most offensive words. I simply became tired of and bored with having that aspect of my life made into such a "big deal."
I doubt Hauerwas was as naive and casual about appropriate language as this extract implies. He's probably referring to lectures and conversations, and certainly not to his writing, which has always been lively and provocative -- without needing foul language. Within the bounds of reason, isn't it a good idea to give the same care to our listening audiences as we give to those who read us?

Campolo and Hauerwas had their reasons for going beyond the bounds of normative English. I wouldn't have made the same choices, but I can see their points. What I can't see is using vulgarities in an attempt to seem hip. Years ago a writer I usually respect used the word "a**holes" to refer to the sorts of legalistic, moralizing, clueless people who (in his estimation) give Christianity a bad name among non-Christians. The word itself doesn't shock me; it certainly fit the stereotype he was building up, and in a private conversation I might have been fine with it. But the use of that word in a book seemed to me to smell vaguely of pandering, of signaling how clued in he was, how sympathetic he was with any reader who had been offended by those obnoxious Christians. If that was a worthwhile goal, I'm convinced that it could have been achieved without flipping a verbal bird at those alleged losers ... who still are, after all, his brothers and sisters in Christ.

So it seems that some public Christians incorporate a certain amount of vulgarity into their writing for the sake of authenticity, voice, street credibility, or some such quality. (Is this at all similar to the "we're jerks" approach I looked at a few years ago?) A few weeks ago blogger Micah J. Murray was treating us to his "kick ass playlist" ... and I noted down this title at the time but now see that it's been edited to "kick-a jams." (Another Christian blogger offers music to "kick butt.") These playlists appear in Bedlam Magazine, which promises "We are Bedlam and we will not be adding to the noise—but we will be causing a commotion." Let's hope we retain the capacity to remember the difference.

It's also important to remember the difference between commotion and catharsis. Case in point, but before clicking, consider yourself warned. Justifiable anger, perhaps under-edited. Yes, such rants may be therapeutic for the writer, but what about that vulnerable segment of the audience who needs the solidarity of your anger but not the barrage of f- f- f-?

The title of this post back in 2015 was "Offensive on purpose" -- please see that earlier version for the original comments.

Beth Woolsey's COVID Diaries and the only three things she's been doing.

Meduza on Russia's #MeToo resurgence.

Using military service as punishment: what one young Russian anti-corruption activist and reporter, Ruslan Shaveddinov, is facing right now. (Worth registering for a free trial at this site -- no other up-to-date English-language coverage seems available at the moment.)

Meanwhile, in scenes that would probably warm the U.S. president's heart, Russian riot police charge into a peaceful demonstration and arrest around 150 participants.

Yet more attempts to explain why 81 percent of white evangelicals betrayed their/our values to support a corrupt, boast-and-blame reality TV star as president: Matthew Avery Sutton reviews three recent books that survey the resulting wreckage and the historical context.

In his usual clear and understated style, Roger E. Olson recounts the "untold story" of how Hitler came to power. If he intends for us to draw parallels, he leaves that decision and task to us.

Joint Quaker statement on potential Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley.

My favorite "opti-mystic" blogger, Mike Morrell, interviews Quaker activist Paulette Meier.

Gary Clark Jr. at Glastonbury.

09 July 2020

The most important question

"What would it mean for me to put God at the center of my life?"

It was 1977. In a meeting room at Pendle Hill, the Quaker retreat and conference center in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, Jennifer Haines stood before us and suggested we ask ourselves this question. She stood before a board, marker in hand, ready to record our responses.

Jennifer's superb book on prison and prayer.
I knew Jennifer Haines. A year earlier, I had attended the Friends World Committee for Consultation triennial sessions in Hamilton, Ontario, and Jennifer had been there to speak about her own FWCC work, the Right Sharing of World Resources program. Hearing her at that occasion, and then again in 1977 at Pendle Hill, I didn't for one moment suspect that, less than a decade later, I would be doing the same work for Right Sharing that she was doing then.

By the end of that session at Pendle Hill, Jennifer had filled the board with ideas and commitments from the participants. I don't now remember whether I contributed anything specific, but ever since then, her question has repeatedly come back to search me.

In the long term, answering that question has led me to invest my life in the Quaker movement. (This is no guarantee that my day-to-day participation has been flawless!) Our little corner of the Christian world has sometimes seemed to me to be too shy, at other times too full of itself, but for me personally Friends faith and practice have been a way of life based, directly and simply, on trust in God. We trust God to lead us in our personal lives and in our lives as communities, and we are skeptical about falling back on leaders and ceremonies that could mask our lack of trust.

I had to call on that trust many times in 1977. I left Canada with my bachelor's degree in Russian, returning to the USA with absolutely no idea what I was going to do with my future, but with the hope that it would involve Quaker service. The visit to Pendle Hill took place during those months of uncertainty, and it could not have been better timed. I decided that putting God at the center meant meeting uncertainty with trust.

This aspect of putting God at the center of my life -- meeting uncertainty with trust -- has taken on new importance for me at this moment of history. I can't remember another time when national and international stresses have converged so intensely on us. I won't list the interrelated political, economic, spiritual, ecological, racial, and public health crises that have reached a crescendo; you can count them off just as well as I can.

My friends react in a variety of ways, including several who have decided to stop following the news; others have sworn off social media; a number of them are affected by anxiety and depression. The list of those who have lost jobs, even after decades of service to their employers, is growing. In the background, waves of malevolence, fake outrage, cynicism, false witness -- some of it from sources purported to be Christian -- sweep over our public life.

I do not dare prescribe Jennifer's question, or any particular answer to her question, as unsolicited advice for anyone else. But I need that question for myself, as I try to be a faithful friend and Friend in this time of confusion. I need to confirm my commitment to trust in God. When anxieties for myself and others threaten to sweep me off my center, that's exactly when I need to ask myself Jennifer's question again.

Synopsis, trailer, screening information, and donation channels at sweethomemonteverde.com.
Yesterday about fifteen of us at Camas Friends Church met by videoconference to discuss the film Sweet Home Monteverde, which I reviewed recently on this blog. We had two special guests, Robin Truesdale, the film's director and editor, and Bill Adler, the film's producer and reporter. The film originated during Bill's period of living in Monteverde, Costa Rica, as he became concerned to record some of the memories of the few remaining original settlers.

Our discussion yesterday confirmed the power of the film to illustrate the causes and consequences of living by Friends values. It was those original settlers' way of answering Jennifer Haines' most important question.

Speaking of Camas Friends, I highly recommend this parable about becoming free, "one that I'm pretty sure you've never heard...."

When I worked for Right Sharing of World Resources, it was a program of Friends World Committee for Consultation, where I also served as Midwest field staff from 1983 to 1993. Now it is an independent Quaker organization. This year, Camas Friends Church decided to sponsor a project.

The Internet Monk recommends this conversation between Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci concerning the novel coronavirus and the state of efforts to detect, treat, and prevent COVID-19, including special attention to populations who are suffering disproportionately.

Anastasia Edel: Putin's constitutional tsarism and the role of Russian constitutions.

Big Daddy Wilson. I've presented this video before, but it seemed especially pertinent again this week.

02 July 2020

Independence Day shorts

I've been waiting eagerly for news from my friend in Hebron, a medical student whose senior-year finals were scheduled for June. Today I heard that the last two exams are still on hold because of the pandemic-related shutdown of the West Bank. Palestine counts over 2500 active cases of COVID-19, half of them in Hebron. I wish him and his fellow students all the very best as they face the uncertainties of these times. Their country -- and the world -- needs them.

The uncertainties they face include the looming prospect of Israel's annexation of nearly the whole Jordan Valley. Yousef Munayyer suggests that the unpopularity of this move among American voters may be the factor (and not any push-back from within Israel) that is just now slowing down this annexation plan.

I've written recently about the effect of the pandemic on Friends schools in Richmond, Indiana, USA, and Monteverde, Costa Rica. What about Quaker education in Palestine? The Olive Press, the Ramallah Friends School's monthly newsletter, vividly describes some of those recent impacts. However, it doesn't go into financial details.

Even before the pandemic, Palestine's economy was in rough shape, which affects families' ability to pay tuition in "normal" times. I hope to hear more from the school and from Friends United Meeting about today's realities -- and particularly what the consequences might be for the school's ability to provide financial aid for lowest-income students.

Related: My thank-you to Ramallah Friends Meeting, written toward the end of my time with Christian Peacemakers in Hebron.

Yesterday was the final day of voting in Russia's national referendum on a series of amendments to the Russian constitution, and on a controversial provision that sets president Vladimir Putin's term count back to zero. This in effect nullifies the constitution's limit of two terms in the presidency, making Putin eligible to run for election again in 2024 and (if he wins) again in 2030 or later. (The word "consecutive" is being removed from the term limit.) The proposals were approved by a vote of 78% yes, 21% no.

Interestingly, the national campaign on behalf of the constitutional amendments was relatively quiet about the term nullification provision, although Putin himself toward the end of the campaign gave television network Rossiya 1 his rationale for resetting the counter: "I can tell you from my own experience that, in about two years, instead of the regular rhythm of work on many levels of government, you'd have eyes shifting around hunting for possible successors. It’s imperative to keep working, not looking for successors." I'm sure authoritarians around the world will be using this elegant argument for making themselves utterly irreplaceable. "Eyes shifting around" is certainly a novel way to describe normal politics!

In light of the approval of these amendments, is it now fair for us to apply the label "authoritarian" to Russia without being accused of russophobia? Russian political scientist Grigory Golosov gives his view of the situation.

Today Putin struck what might arguably be a conciliatory note in addressing the 21% of the population that didn't support the constitutional changes. Quoting gazeta.ru,
"We still have many unresolved issues. It's true. People often encounter injustice, callousness, indifference. Many people's lives are still very hard and challenging," Putin said.

The head of state noted that the authorities still have many shortcomings.

"It often seems to those of us in national leadership that we are doing everything possible, but, no, life indicates otherwise. Life shows that we often underperform," Putin stated.
The BBC summarizes the main amendments here. And here's a Russian-language summary.

What about the USA and our own era of underperformance, now that we're on the eve of our Independence Day weekend? I can't remember a time that the USA's customary exceptionalism was under such scrutiny, at least among white citizens, as it is right now.

(It's instructive to remember Michelle Obama's controversial comment in 2008 about being proud of the U.S. "for the first time" and Cindy McCain's snarky rejoinder.)

During the current swirl of emotions around patriotism, historical truth, and Confederate monuments, here are two documents that provide a bracing reality check. The first is Frederick Douglass's Independence Day address of 1852 to an audience in Rochester, New York. This passage stands out to me as a striking corrective to passive patriotism and hero-worship:
Sydney Smith tells us that men seldom eulogize the wisdom and virtues of their fathers, but to excuse some folly or wickedness of their own. This truth is not a doubtful one. There are illustrations of it near and remote, ancient and modern. It was fashionable, hundreds of years ago, for the children of Jacob to boast, we have "Abraham to our father," when they had long lost Abraham’s faith and spirit. That people contented themselves under the shadow of Abraham’s great name, while they repudiated the deeds which made his name great. Need I remind you that a similar thing is being done all over this country to-day? Need I tell you that the Jews are not the only people who built the tombs of the prophets, and garnished the sepulchres of the righteous? Washington could not die till he had broken the chains of his slaves. Yet his monument is built up by the price of human blood, and the traders in the bodies and souls of men, shout —"We have Washington to our father."—Alas! that it should be so; yet so it is.
The following passages cut very differently, but with a lethal precision. They define a core interest of the Confederacy, by which interest Frederick Douglass should still have been in chains, and for which those who once owned him were willing to betray their country:

Articles of the Confederate Constitution, by which "negro slavery" was intended to be preserved in perpetuity and through all future expansions:
Art I sect 9: (4) No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.

Art IV sect 2:(1) The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States; and shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired.

Art IV sect 3: (3) The Confederate States may acquire new territory; and Congress shall have power to legislate and provide governments for the inhabitants of all territory belonging to the Confederate States, lying without the limits of the several Sates [sic]; and may permit them, at such times, and in such manner as it may by law provide, to form States to be admitted into the Confederacy. In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.

24-7 Prayer: George Floyd and the tipping point of a nation.

Catherine Rampell helps us prepare for a truth-based Fourth of July: she suggests the U.S. is falling behind its global peers. Are you starting to notice?

As you seek to be faithful in this time, do you find yourself out of step with your family, your friends, and your church? Maybe Ron Sider, editor of The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Evangelical Christians on Justice, Truth and Moral Integrity, can help. Here's a list of his upcoming online seminars for general audiences and for pastors. (I plan to review this book in a later post.)

What are the geopolitical ramifications of SpaceX's Starlink space-based Internet delivery project?

Helen Ibe's guitar solo of "A Change Is Gonna Come" (Sam Cooke).

25 June 2020

Bolivian Friends: A grand and modest epic

Oscar Tintaya's original painting for the cover of A Long Walk, A Gradual Ascent

Publisher's description.

Quick quiz: which four countries of the world have the highest numbers of Quakers?

Answer: Kenya is in number one position, followed by the USA and Burundi. In fourth place by total number, and in third place by proportion of total population, is Bolivia. How did Quakers attain such prominence in a relatively small South American country?

This is the story that Nancy Thomas tells in her new book, A Long Walk, a Gradual Ascent: The Story of the Bolivian Friends Church in Its Context of Conflict. The particular stream of the Bolivian Friends movement chronicled in her book is the National Evangelical Friends Church (INELA, Iglesia Nacional Evangélica de Los Amigos). INELA is one of several different Friends denominations in Bolivia, but at the beginning of Nancy's account, between 1915 and 1924, parts of their story merge.

Nancy's book is just one product of a joint INELA-Northwest Yearly Meeting commission on INELA and mission history. In addition to compiling and preserving written records, the commission conducted numerous interviews with descendants of the earliest generations of Quakers in the country. The commission's Facebook page includes videos with a sampling of their work.

A Long Walk, a Gradual Ascent includes an early chapter by Nancy's husband Hal Thomas on the history, worldview, social structures, political context, economic life, and language of the Aymara people who are the great majority of Bolivian Quakers. As he notes, "The Aymara-speaking people of the Bolivian and Peruvian Andes have inhabited the mountain pastures, high plains, and the breakaway valleys of what is today Bolivia and southern Peru as a significant social and cultural presence for more than nine hundred years." Their experience over the last four and a half centuries includes cycles of colonialist oppression and Aymara resistance, making 20th-century experiments in Bolivian democracy, and the honoring of indigenous identity that is part of former president Evo Morales's mixed legacy, an important part of the history.

Conflict is a recurring theme in Aymara culture and history, leading Nancy to write, "It may be an irony that this should be the setting for the development of a 'peace church' such as the Quakers; or it may be a sign of grace."

I call this a grand epic and a modest epic. Its grand scale is in part geographic -- starting from just one village church on the shore of legendary Lake Titicaca and one urban church in La Paz. A hundred years later it counts around two hundred congregations in the INELA denomination alone, with hundreds more in the other Quaker yearly meetings in Bolivia. Along the way, a sister denomination took hold and flourished in Peru, and outreach began in Chile, Brazil, and Argentina. INELA, as an independent denomination, has formed strong relationships with the rest of the world Quaker family while maintaining its close fellowship with Northwest Yearly Meeting.

William Abel, 1916 (from book)
At the beginning of this epic, it's a story on an intimate scale. One young man, a son of the Kumeyaay tribe in San Pasqual, California, William Abel, became one of the very first students of the Training School for Christian Workers in Whittier, a mostly-Quaker initiative which later became Azusa Pacific University. The narrative of Abel's life, including his education at this school, interrupted halfway by eleven years of missionary service in the Philippines, is truly gripping, thanks in part to new details about his youth that emerged from the Thomases' research.

When he finished the Training School, Abel decided to serve God in Bolivia. This was a fateful decision. In Bolivia, he met and began joint ministry with three Quaker women. One of them, Florence Smith, had taught at the Training School in California. The other two, Mattie Blount and Emma Morrow, were from Westfield, Indiana (the originating point of the other major stream of Bolivian Quaker history, now associated with Central Yearly Meeting). 

During these months in La Paz, Abel met a young Christian, Juan Ayllón, who (as events unfolded) is now considered, along with Abel, the co-founder of the Quaker movement that became INELA. After this important convergence of personalities, and after only eight months in La Paz, William Abel contracted smallpox. Morrow and Ayllón cared for Abel in his final days; when Abel died, Ayllón arranged for his funeral and burial in La Paz. The commitments made by everyone involved during these eventful days and months, including the international and inter-Quaker relationships represented by these diverse personalities and the prayers of their communities, laid the foundation of the Quaker movement in Bolivia. Nancy's book leads us through these stories with sensitivity but also an earthy realism. This is history, not hagiography.

Meanwhile, a seemingly separate story was unfolding on the shore of Lake Titicaca. A Christian convert comes home from the big city and holds small meetings in his village of Amacari, forming a completely independent little Christian movement that reminds me of the Seekers of English Quaker history.

As you've no doubt anticipated, Juan Ayllón eventually makes contact with Amacari village. Those early developments, along with the shift of sponsorship for Ayllón and the young Quaker movement from Central American Friends Church (Guatemala) to Oregon Friends (now Northwest Yearly Meeting), the founding of Bolivian Friends schools, the formulation of the "indigenous principle" to guide relationships between the Oregon missionaries and Bolivian Friends, all the way to the independent yearly meetings in Bolivia and Peru that we have today -- are all part of Nancy's grand epic.

It's also a modest epic, in several senses. There is genuine heroism and amazing self-sacrifice in this movement, including, at times, serious persecution from the unsympathetic sectors of the Roman Catholic church, sometimes in combination with skeptical politicians. However, Nancy also reveals less heroic dimensions of the story: conflicts among church leaders and among missionaries, and several instances of leaders falling into various moral pitfalls, both sexual and financial. (There's also a story of a genuine, touching romance with a heartbreaking conclusion. Here is a missiological study that doesn't lack for human drama!) The theme of conflict arises repeatedly, sometimes among church leaders, often between INELA's Bolivian leadership and the Oregon missionaries, and sometimes between generations in the church. The Thomases' commitment to tell the story from both "inside" and "outside" (from the Bolivians' viewpoint as well as the missionaries') means a commitment to unvarnished truth.

Throughout the decades of INELA's history, Nancy weaves Bolivia's political developments into the narrative, as the country endures right-wing and left-wing authoritarianism, coups and revolutions, and eventually adopts electoral democracy. One very specific and illustrative case study involves the farm that the mission bought in 1947 as a source of income and a location for leadership training. As it turns out, the farm came with a whole community of farm families (colonos) that were bound to the land as part of Bolivia's hacienda system! Oregon Quakers were shocked to find themselves as, to put it bluntly, slaveholders. To make things more complicated, as the new owners sought to free the farmworking families and give them title to their plots, a few of them actually preferred the existing arrangements, but demanded improvements within that structure. As Nancy says, "... [O]ne has to ask if the mission or the OYM [Oregon Yearly Meeting], back in the 1940s and 1950s, had any sense of the gravity of owning an ex-hacienda in such revolutionary times." The story of Quakers divesting themselves of the farm and smuggling out its equipment in the dead of night is told from contemporary correspondence. Unfortunately we don't have access to much of the local non-Quaker point of view at the time.

Nancy also avoids exalting the Quaker element in this narrative. The earliest missionaries were, as she points out, more interested in planting churches in the Protestant holiness mold than conforming to specifically Quaker models. However, the Quaker element is always present as a sort of subterranean stream. The Chaco War with Paraguay (1932-35), for example, found some of the young Quaker men choosing to be conscientious objectors. The egalitarian and participatory nature of Friends governance coincided with similar features of Aymara culture. Women were central figures in the early history of the movement, and have regained influence in more recent years through their own women's organization within INELA. An increased emphasis on social justice outreach in recent decades fueled both innovation and tension within INELA's ministries.

In sum: this history balances well-sourced historical accounting (1,151 footnotes!), with a testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit in raising up a people for God's service in Bolivia and beyond.

Order your paper copy directly from the publisher. Amazon has a good price for the e-book version. Nancy's blog Mil Gracias has several background articles, including these posts about William Abel: The story begins. The story continues. (The second post includes remarkable family coincidences not in the book.)

Ferguson Mother of God. Source.
Cassidy Hall's prayer for white people (including herself).

Hear the voices of Americans born in slavery.

Putin's memory war reaches out (officially!) to German historians of World War II.

Voting in Russia's constitutional referendum has begun. So have the controversies.

The spiritual shadow side of Donald Trump's rallies.

Reflections on justice, superficiality, and spirituality: First, Leigh Stein on the eclipse of the girlboss ... and then Anne Kennedy's resulting commentary.

A conversation with Joan Baez.

This video's a repeat, but it's Lazy Lester (Leslie Johnson, rest in peace) with Eve Monsees, so I'm not sorry.