16 August 2018

"Shame is what turns societies around."

Working after hours at the Raymond Village Library.
In a conversation with Robert Ferguson, Danish poet Jesper Mølby was recounting the story of a German doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee, royal physician to the notoriously out-of-control Danish monarch Christian VII. Struensee took advantage of his status of trust with Christian VII to become, in effect, the regent ruler of Denmark for a period between 1770 and 1772. This gave him a chance to convert Denmark, for this brief interim, from an absolute monarchy to a model of free speech, egalitarianism, and enlightenment.

When the establishment finally caught up with Struensee and deposed him, they tortured and executed him publicly in a prolonged, extravagantly cruel process, detailed in Ferguson's book Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North, and even illustrated in the book with a contemporary woodcut which I will not reproduce here. Mølby concludes his account:
People say that as the show went on, the watching crowd fell silent, and when it was all over they left in silence. I think a limitless sense of shame was born on that April day in 1772, and shame is what turns societies around.
After the Struensee episode, Denmark reverted to absolutism, but a few generations later, the 1849 constitution abolished absolute monarchy and banned censorship in perpetuity. (However, a law was also passed that banned foreigners from high office!)

Ferguson reports this episode in Scandinavians as part of his explorations of several interrelated questions: Is the reputed "melancholy" of the northlands a real thing or an exotic assumption of foreign observers, a sort of Nordic orientalism? How do we explain Scandinavia's thoroughgoing democratic values, early abolition of capital punishment, fiscal prudence, and welfare economies, and what role does Lutheran faith play in all this? Is the shadow side of all this enlightenment a sort of enforced conformism, posing special challenges for authors, artists, and explorers?

(You won't be surprised that another Dane, Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, takes up another very significant chapter of Ferguson's book.)

Back to the scene at Struensee's execution: Jesper Mølby's evocative generalization, " ... shame is what turns societies around," caused me to stop reading and think back on another book I read recently: Lara Feigel's excellent The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love, and Art in the Ruins of the Reich. Feigel recounts the shifting cultural politics of the Allied occupation of defeated Germany, and the participation of novelists, filmmakers, poets, and journalists with varied German connections in that occupation. She also describes the German responses to those efforts -- often falling short of the shame and remorse expected by many of those determined to re-educate Germany. It fell to their children, to the next generation of Germans, to begin demanding a more thorough confrontation with guilt and shame.

I grew up in the family of a professor of German language and literature. I can still remember the shelves of books by Thomas Mann, Günter Grass, Hermann Hesse, Heinrich Böll, and so many others, that surrounded me and my toys for all my indoor hours. I was blissfully unaware of all the controversy and emotion swirling around these questions of German guilt, and I know nothing of what my mother talked about with her students at Roosevelt University. I do know that she stubbornly preserved a sense of racial superiority, granting only that the Japanese people among whom she grew up were "honorary Aryans."

Shame did not seem to influence my mother. (How I wish I had known to ask her about some of these crucial questions. What was she thinking about as she taught classes on The Tin Drum?!) But, setting aside my mother for the moment, what role did shame play in the rebirth of today's Germany?

Americans have no license to avoid these questions. The USA is a materially prosperous and culturally fertile country that has somehow succeeded in marginalizing most conversations about who has paid the price for "our" good fortune. Our current treatment of immigrants is shocking confirmation that we are still under constant attack from that primordial demon, racism. We may still be far from the depths of Nazi racism and its industrial-scale cruelty, but maybe we need a healthy shock of national shame and revulsion to turn us around before we hit bottom.

I've been reading these books, Feigel's The Bitter Taste of Victory, and Ferguson's Scandinavians, as part of my explorations of my own cultural inheritance as the Oslo-born son of a Norwegian father and a German mother who left their respective countries only a handful of years after World War II. It's also part of my preparations for my first-ever visit to Japan later this fall. I hope to spend time in Osaka and Kobe tracking down the so-far elusive trail of my mother and her family in those places.

These explorations are how I'm spending the first months of retirement. It's an amazing and unfamiliar freedom to pursue a single thread of inquiry, uninterrupted, for days and weeks. Thank you for keeping me company here!

Adria Gulizia wants us to welcome the gifts God sends us.
Too often, we in the Church ignore or downplay what the Bible says about the gifts of the Spirit that God bestows on every believer through the power of the Holy Spirit. In more conservative congregations, this may be because of a desire to see authority and influence flow through the “official” channels of church leadership rather than according to the beautiful anarchy of God’s grace. In more liberal congregations, gifts may be ignored or downplayed due to a misguided egalitarianism that studiously ignores the fact that different gifts may entail different degrees of visibility and require different levels of accountability and support.
The Pietà of a Mother Orca: Is Leah Schade justified in using the powerful Christian image of crucifixion? At first I was dubious, but on re-reading her article, I felt more persuaded. What kinds of interests and influences might be shaping our responses?

The Russia that Republicans love doesn't exist. And: How conservative is the Russian regime?

Has it really been fifty years? I remember the crushing of the Prague Spring.

Are missions a joke? (Responding to critics of missionary service.) I've read Jamie Wright's The Very Worst Missionary: A Memoir or Whatever, enjoyed it a lot, and plan to do my own review before too long. In the meantime, I thought this blog post on A Life Overseas was a helpful response to Wright and similar critics.

"Lead me to the water -- I will drink."

09 August 2018

Nagasaki shorts

Cross from the Urakami Cathedral, Nagasaki
(Collection of the Peace Resource Center)
It was 38 years ago today, at the end of Boston's annual Hiroshima-Nagasaki peace vigil, that Judy and I were married at Friends Meeting at Cambridge. I love celebrating our August 9 wedding anniversary, but I always pause to think about the full import of the date.

I've written about Hiroshima before, and probably will again. Today, a few words about Nagasaki. Specifically, about how hard it is to look at this cross. It is from the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Nagasaki, a building that was located about a third of a mile from ground zero on August 9, 1945. This bomb-scarred cross is part of the collection of Wilmington College's Peace Resource Center.

The Christian cross symbolizes the sacrifice of the nonviolent Lamb who was slain for all of us, and this particular cross tells me how costly our defiance of the Prince of Peace still is. We dare not sentimentalize or trivialize the cross of Christ!

It's been over thirty years since Helen Redding, director of the Peace Resource Center, first showed me the Center's Hiroshima/Nagasaki Memorial Collection, and told me the story of how Barbara Reynolds established the collection. At the time, it seemed cruelly ironic to me that the second atomic bomb attack was on the city that many considered the center of Japanese Christianity. I don't feel that way now. There's no reason that we Christians should be shielded from any hazard that the world's innocent children of whatever description might be forced to suffer.

A week and a half ago we moved from Eugene back to Portland, Oregon, but this past Sunday we returned to Eugene Friends Church to say a proper goodbye. We sang these words during worship:
And I will rise when He calls my name
No more sorrow, no more pain
I will rise on eagles' wings
Before my God fall on my knees
And rise
I will rise

(from "I Will Rise" by Chris Tomlin, Jesse Reeves, Louie Giglio, Matt Maher)
When I sing contemporary worship choruses, I am often tempted to substitute "we" and "us" for "I" and "me." But not with this song.

Back around the same time I met Helen Redding in Wilmington, Ohio, I had the good fortune of meeting Joe Kelly for the first time. You can read some of Joe's story in the description of the meeting he pastors in Traverse City, Michigan -- Friends of the Light. He once told me that his vision of a Quaker meeting was a community that would embody Jesus for people who had always thought they were not "good enough to be in a church."

In my olden days, The Canadian Friend subscription
records were on McBee cards for sorting by postal
code and expiration date. Source.
When I sing "I will rise on eagle's wings," I am thankful that I already know that I don't have to be Good Enough to sing those words. But I've been in the church world for over four decades -- much of that time as an employee of the church. (I started out as the business manager for The Canadian Friend at $100/month.) I love imagining these same words being sung bravely by someone who decided to trust Jesus just yesterday, or who is maybe right in the process of deciding, and whose life might not exactly have anything resembling a churchy gloss. I cherish the assurance that we will rise together. You and I and the children of Nagasaki.

Melani McAlister writes about the homelessness that some evangelicals of color are experiencing in the Trump era. Sample:
The very term “evangelical” has become fraught for many people of color, who might never have been that comfortable with the label to begin with. For some time, a crucial reality of evangelical life has been its increasing racial diversity, buoyed by evangelicalism’s growing transnational ties. In the last few decades, U.S. believers have grown more likely to travel on short-term missions, participate in international conferences, or simply watch one of the multiracial and multinational teachers and preachers on Christian television and online. Over the last two years, however, the election of President Trump has created a profound generational, racial, political, and gender divide—one that has shaped U.S. evangelical life so thoroughly that the long-term impact will not likely be known for a generation.

The factors that are causing global warming don't just add up, they might have a mutually reinforcing domino effect. Reading this article makes me ask again: what will be the Pearl Harbor-level alarm that will finally pierce our denial about climate change?

Today: Hiroshima/Nagasaki commemoration at Wilmington College.

Hiroshima: the anti-transfiguration.

The Quaker meetinghouse that speaks of quiet faith.

... And what we encounter in silence, says Mike Farley, lies beyond all distinctions.

Kent Thornburg on nutrition, chronic disease, and the 100-Year Effect.

Meet computer pioneer Grace Hopper (including a fascinating interview with David Letterman), thanks to Open Culture.

For the best in rockabilly and blues, go to ... Moscow! Dennis Mazhukov introduces us to the Off Beat band.

02 August 2018


"... Ending the life of a criminal as punishment for a crime is inadmissible because it attacks the dignity of the person, a dignity that is not lost even after having committed the most serious crimes."

This revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes it official: the Roman Catholic Church opposes any use of capital punishment and commits itself to end its use worldwide.

GetReligion's Terry Mattingly points out that the anti-death penalty stance of Pope Francis, a hero to Catholic liberals, was simply following the trajectory established by his more conservative predecessors, who were already poised on the edge of an outright prohibition of capital punishment.

What impact will this new pronouncement have? Back in 1999, I was part of a lobbying team in Lincoln, Nebraska, attempting to convince Catholic governor Mike Johanns (a devout believer and generally a thoroughly decent politician) to commute the death sentence of Randy Reeves. [More details of that case here (1988), here (1999), and here (2016).] Reeves came within two days of the electric chair, saved by an intervention in the Nebraska Supreme Court, not by the governor. Will today's Catholic politicians recognize that the death penalty is a violation of that same principle ("the dignity of the person") that governs Catholic opposition to abortion and euthanasia?

The dignity of the person is not a decisive factor for the world's systems, but when we've had our lives turned upside down by Jesus, our ways should be very different, and the world should notice! During a period in our history when the public impact of the Christian faith doesn't seem to fall on the side of mercy very often, today's "inadmissible" headlines give me a lot of joy.

Related links:

Mark Silk: Francis kills the death penalty for Roman Catholics.

Harriet Sherwood covers the political implications, including Vatican-China relations.

Sister Helen Prejean comments on the Vatican announcement.

Friends United Meeting's statement on capital punishment (1960).

My testimony to the Indiana State Senate, February 1999.

On losing a sister to murder.

Bobby Ross, Jr., on Michael Graczyk, a journalist who has witnessed over 400 executions.

Russians: Take a line from Spike Lee and do the right thing! In the meantime, Amnesty International representatives are not allowed to visit Oleh Sentsov on day 81 of his hunger strike.

Amy Young on Richard Rohr, the second half of life, and what it all means for organizations.

Martin E. Marty on farm religion.

Ed Stetzer on our missionary identity.
A lot of people still think Christendom when they think American, Canadian, British, or whatever. They believe they need to take back the country because it’s theirs and others are interlopers.

The reality is, we are the interlopers. We are the strangers and foreigners.
Parker Palmer on six gifts of aging.

Tim Berners-Lee, World Wide Web creator, feels something has to change, and is methodically attempting to hack his creation.

Kim Wilson and Rick Estrin showing off!

26 July 2018

Moving shorts -- and Anthony Bloom on breaking open the circle of silence

We're in the middle of yet another move. We're moving from temporary quarters in Eugene, Oregon, back to the house in Portland where we lived until we joined the faculty at Elektrostal's New Humanities Institute.

In October 2007, I went alone to Elektrostal to teach the fall semester. But it was exactly ten years ago this week that Judy and I, together, moved into the apartment on Yalagin Street that would be home for the remainder of our ten-year Russian adventure.

The following is my blog post (original here) from that move -- but first, some words about the photos. The first photo was taken before we knew we were going to have to move. It shows a concert in the courtyard of our housing quadrangle. See the couples on the benches in the lower middle of the photo? The windows just above their heads are the windows of the apartment we did not yet know would become ours.

The next two photos give a glimpse of the apartment's raw state when we moved in. The last picture (Judy trying out the new food processor, gift of Friends Women) shows a bit of how we fixed it up. How I miss that place!

Back to July 30, 2008:

Today is moving day.

The landlord needs this place for his son, so we found out with nine days' warning that we needed to leave at the end of this month.

Looking for a new place was interesting. Elektrostal is a city of 150,000 but the rental market is tight, especially since we needed enough space to store our colleagues' possessions along with our own. We thought this would be a chance to move to one of the older buildings near the center of town, but we soon found out that those apartments can be both more expensive and less desirable than we had guessed from their external appearance. (And, concerning pollution in the northern half of town, one friend advised, "Carry a Geiger counter.")

Literally by process of elimination, we ended up choosing a place that turned out to be extremely close to where we live now--in fact, right across the courtyard. Much of the moving process will simply (although tediously!) consist of getting stuff down seven floors and walking them less than 100 meters across the yard.

Our new apartment is unfurnished--in fact, it's brand new; we're the first tenants. Thanks to thoughtful purchasing by our Northwest Yearly Meeting Friends who've already lived in Elektrostal, we have the basics already secured. Later this morning, I'm going to a warehouse in Moscow to retrieve some of those purchases, including a refrigerator and (we hope) kitchen cabinets. Our new apartment here is a bare shell, with nothing but wallpaper and light switches, so we've also been on the hunt for modestly-priced light fixtures, shower curtains, mirrors, toilet seat, towel racks, and other necessary items, which we'll buy and install as time and money permit. (Well, some things go in immediately!)

The building is not yet equipped with the Ethernet connections for Internet access that most large apartment buildings in Elektrostal seem to have. Nor is it set up for cable television, another (inferior) way to connect to the Internet, and we don't have a land line for traditional phone service, so we can't use our modems, either. We're assured that it's just a matter of time before this building is wired, but in the meantime we have to go back to borrowing and buying Internet time elsewhere, starting tomorrow.

One place we can do that is about halfway across the city--a small computer game club with about sixteen computers lining both sides of a room in a building they share with a dentist and travel agency, among other businesses. We found out about it from a local representative of the Noginsk-based Flex company, our current Internet provider. When he heard that the Internet was our primary way of staying in touch with our sons, he took us in hand, grabbed a wireless router and cable from his store's stock, and led us to this club's premises, where he proceeded to introduce us to the young people running the facility and (without my ever having asked for this!) to set up a wireless access point for our own equipment. For every story someone might tell about Soviet-style customer service here in Russia, I can tell another about someone going above and beyond.

So, if at all possible, I should be back next Thursday.

[From the same post, July 30, 2008.]

On our long bus and train trips between Moscow and Elektrostal, I've been reading and re-reading Anthony Bloom's О встрече (On Meeting), from which I've quoted before. (Posts are grouped under the label bloom.) One of his most inspiring chapters is on the theme of the Christian/atheist dialogue. Here's a small sample on the need to cultivate the ability to listen deeply:
Years ago I was a doctor, and often observed how sick people are visited by their friends. A person comes into the patient who is dying; but it's terrifying to the visitor to talk about death, and the possibility that the patient might raise the subject is equally terrifying. So the person carefully asks, "And so, how are you feeling today?" The dying person, seriously ill, can see that fear in the visitor's eyes, can tell that the visitor doesn't want to hear the truth, and so answers evasively or untruthfully, "Can't complain, better today than yesterday." And the one to whom the truth is terrifying grabs onto these words and says, "Oh, I'm so glad that you're better," and brings the visit to a hasty end to avoid the possibility of the truth surfacing. Maybe this hasn't happened to you, but I have a lot of experience in this connection; I was a doctor for fifteen years--five in wartime--and saw many dying people, and saw that awful scene--a person being left alone because others don't want to hear and see what terrifies them. What is required is self-renunciation, readiness to look at another person, to hear not only words but the voice's intonation, the voice's sound, weak and sometimes shaky, to see the eyes that say at times the opposite of what the lips are saying; and not to panic but to say tenderly and lovingly: "Let's not deceive ourselves or each other; I know thing aren't 'better'--let's talk, let's break open this circle of silence, let's break down the wall that isolates you and hopelessly isolates me, that separates us so that our mutual love can't unite us any longer."

You might say to me that often this kind of love doesn't exist between ideological opponents--that's even more terrifying, that's no comfort, to say that I can't speak with a person who is my ideological opponent, because a priori I've already excluded them from the realm of that love! Have I really already subjected them to the final judgment? Is there really not a place for them either in this world or in eternity, where I hope to be? That's an awful thought! But that's what is going on when we refuse to engage in a human encounter.

Going back to July 2008 was a nice escape (until we reached the posts about the Russian-Georgian conflict!) Now back to 2018....

James Tower on prayer: how being a pastor and a parent has changed things.

What happened to the protesters at the World Cup final? RFERL brings us up to date. (Russian.)

Why don't news outlets connect extreme weather with climate change? Should they?

Bobby Ross tries to figure out why he didn't like the Washington Post piece on that mostly pro-Trump Alabama congregation.
I feel like I'm seeing these people through the lens of a Beltway publication with a certain position on Trump as opposed to an unfiltered lens that would present a more complicated picture of these "rural rubes," as the one Twitter user described them.

That's not to suggest that the church members quoted don't offer some kookie outlooks on immigration, race and other biblical matters. But I never got the feeling reading the piece that I was seeing a full portrait of these people.
(He invites further discussion.)

Janiva Magness doesn't age! ...

19 July 2018

A vacancy at the top

It seems that the presidency of the USA, as traditionally constructed, is vacant. There's a guy over there sitting at the desk, but his connections with executive management, policy formation, and moral leadership all seem tenuous. Paul Waldman of the Washington Post goes so far as to ask, "Is Donald Trump even in charge of this government?" Noting several instances of the wide gap between Trump's words and staffers' actual work, Waldman says,
So what we see is a constant tug-of-war between Trump and many of the people who work for him, in which they try to get him to read a briefing book or moderate his fawning over Putin, which he resists, but they often find ways to do the same things on policy that they would have done even if the president himself were more reasonable.
This leadership vacuum is not total. Waldman notes Trump's radical and cruel impact in areas he has prioritized in accordance with his "white nationalist philosophy." When Trump does care, look out -- even children suffer!

Sometimes noxious things also go on in Trump's areas of inattentiveness. As an example, Waldman cites the Environmental Protection Agency. Still, there are reservoirs of continuity and competence and professionalism in the federal system to help us tread water -- to the alarm and amusement, variously, of other parts of the world.

But somehow I'm not really comforted that we might be able to survive his ignorance and incompetence through sheer endurance alone. Here are two of the biggest risks of allowing Trump to continue playing president:

External risk: cyber war. Russia is a country of incredible natural wealth and extraordinary cultural achievement, perennially led by corrupt, rapacious elites whose constant preoccupation is to increase and preserve their ill-gotten gains. The future is bleak for those at the top: either the rising middle class will demand due process (or leave the country) or an elemental uprising will bring revolution, with all the uncertainties of that path. The loss of the current godfather at the head of Russia's power vertical may mean an intermediate crisis: warfare among the robber barons and their various armed allies in the government.

Comparing politicians' country homes: Norway's Stoltenberg, Russia's 
Yakunin. Norway's avg monthly salary $6570; Russia $800. Source.
In any case, the immediate goals of Russia's leadership is to break down and destabilize any international structures that might provide alternative visions and models for its own population. At home, this means a steady diet of Russian superpatriotism, reinforced by misapplied Orthodox piety and exaggerated portraits of western decadence, and periodic waves of thuggish treatment for dissidents. The people at the top must do everything in their power to distract the ordinary Russian citizen, who is entitled to ask, "Why are we the world's richest country in natural resources, and yet have so little left to spend on medical care, schools, and basic infrastructure?" (Variations of this theme are a constant thread in Russian political humor.)

Internationally, the destabilization goal requires Russia's leaders to make alliances with populist politicians who use more or less these same domestic tactics in their own cities and countries. Trump's racialized patriotism, opportunistic religiosity, and shit-hole attitudes toward much of the rest of the world make him an ideal ally.

Given the Russian leadership's weak economic base and lack of any internationally persuasive vision of the future, practically its only method of global power projection is to mobilize and support those dubious allies. In European cases, money has sometimes been the main channel of support for populists, racists, and neo-fascists, but we know that in the American case, Russian leaders chose cyber warfare. Mueller's February 16 indictments went after the propaganda efforts, whose aims were to sow anger and division. This month his indictment identified the alleged Russian military intelligence officers who attacked on the other front: espionage and campaign sabotage.

Jack Goldsmith reminds us Americans not to get sanctimonious on the subject of campaign interference and sabotage: the USA has long experience as actors in this field. As I've said before, the Russians are not unique in using this common political toolkit, even though their goals may seem (to us) to be less meritorious. But it is the U.S. president's job to meet the challenge in any case, and regardless of previous history! The president ought to personify the moral response to the ugly content of cyber attacks and to prioritize the technical defenses against espionage and sabotage. The technology may be neutral, but there is nothing neutral about defending democracy from corruption and kleptocracy. Trump: get on it or get out of the way.

Domestic risk: civil war. Russia's leaders and their cyber campaigns may have contributed to the possibility of a future civil war in the USA, but they're only adding their bit to a reality that has existed for generations. It's the poisonous, demonic compound of racism and nativism that fuels some irreducible part of Donald Trump's base. The existence of this demon, often hidden behind an ostentatious faux-Christian mask, helps me understand why intelligent people seem to lose their critical faculties and make absurd excuses for Trump's shambling incompetence. It's as if they've joined a cult.

Whatever the reasons for the trance they're in, this loyal Trump base continues to bluff and sneer its way through scandal after scandal. Granted, some scandals peel off a few of their numbers, but even the utter debacle of Helsinki was "not a tipping point" for his base. His aggregate approval rating on fivethirtyeight.com remains at 41.8%.

That's a huge part of the population that has been taken in by Trump's self-centered version of anti-establishment populism. If the country's moral self-defense mechanisms assert themselves in November 2018 and November 2020 and Trump is removed, how will his loyal followers react? What ongoing form will their alienation take? It's reasonable to anticipate that the more decisive the action against Trump is (impeachment? indictment? resignation under pressure?), the angrier his loyalists will be. Instead of being fearful of this possibility, we should consider our options and responsibilities now, before the storm breaks.

Is "civil war" too strong a term for the coming crisis? Remember that the original American Civil War involved similar social divisions in which attitude to race (even among white people) was a huge factor. (James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom carefully traces attitudes toward race and immigration in the politics of both North and South.) Also, just as we see today, the lines of conflict cut right through families.

Maybe "war" seems too violent a word. As Tom Streithorst says, "War Doesn't Make Sense Anymore." Fair enough; supply your own word that implies massive social disruption and suffering. All I know is that I don't want a president who stokes the conditions for that suffering by playing on fears and divisions, preparing his followers to believe that only rigged systems, criminal immigrant gangs, and Enemies of the People could threaten his reign. Removing him, and passing through the subsequent detox period, might be risky, but letting our national divisions solidify further while external cyber attacks continue to weaken our democratic mechanisms, seems far riskier.

The community of Christian believers is one of the few institutions that crosses all lines of class, race, and political movements. Evangelism, prophecy, and social action are not tactics to one-up or embarrass Trumpists, they are expressions of the Body as it tries to reflect the beauty of the Head. Therefore, it remains imperative not to let our protests degenerate into mocking. Honest anger is fine -- necessary! -- but shaming and belittling and false witness are NOT. Keeping company with vulnerable and detained people, and raising hell with violators of human rights, are important actions; and those who cannot do these things directly should be prepared to support the activists, pray for them, and give them pastoral care, even as the same care is always made available to those in the Trump base.

I hope that in a couple of years I'll be able to re-read these lines and say, "Wow, that was some strange fever! Glad it broke. It all seems so dated and overwrought." May it be so.

I tried re-reading what I wrote above about Russia as if we were still living in Elektrostal, interacting daily with students and colleagues we respected and deeply cared about, whose hospitality, humor, and lively curiosity gave us a lot of joy. Many of them support Putin (with varying degrees of enthusiasm or pragmatism); many of them expected that we would naturally vote for Trump as being the U.S. presidential candidate who would be best for Russia.

As our friends came to realize, I never believed that Trump was presidential material, although the chaos and cruelty within the USA that he's perpetrated have gone beyond our worst fears. But I also believe that Trump is not good for Russia. It is not good for Russian-American relations to be in the hands of two essentially corrupt politicians, one of whom (the American) is not trusted by his own intelligence services and who cannot be relied upon to deliver stable outcomes.

When the USA returns to its senses and has an actual fully-functional president, I'll do all I can to advocate good Russian-American relations at leadership levels. In the meantime, I will never confuse the Russian elite with the country that they relentlessly exploit.

Why James McGrath abandoned young-earth creationism; along with resources for anyone grappling with questions of "faith vs science."

Studies in power: Claudia Dreifus interviews Robert Caro.

Sick of politics? Try this: New measurements from Hubble and Gaia add to the puzzle of mysterious deviations in the calculations for expansion rates of the universe.

Friday PS -- The Bell's assessment: Russia moves toward further economic isolation....

Today's dessert provided by Josephine....

12 July 2018

Stepping out of the boat

Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends, May 18, 2018, opening session.
Immediately [after feeding the multitudes; context] Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
When Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends opened its very first annual sessions as an established body, about two months ago in Canby, Oregon, USA, I was practically holding my breath with excitement and anticipation. During our opening worship, Matthew's account of Jesus, the disciples, and the water came to my mind. I quickly realized why: we were Peter, stepping out of the boat. Would we have the necessary faith?

The parallels with Matthew's gospel aren't perfect. We weren't simply on our way to the next stop; our boat was more like a lifeboat dropped from the shifting deck of Northwest Yearly Meeting. (Nautical metaphors might be a bit risky; some would say we were forced to walk the plank!) One thing we had in common with Peter: We had asked Jesus to command us, and he did.

Here we're among those receiving
certificates as recorded ministers.
Step one, conducting business as disciples who love each other: We were a completely new yearly meeting, a new association of Quakers, with only a few quarterly rehearsals under our belts, but I was impressed to see how well we worked together. Important decisions were discussed and approved. (You're invited to access minutes through this page.) We named committees and officers. We received a treasurer's report and approved a budget. We recognized ministers. We received visitors from other parts of the Quaker world.

It seemed to me that we took that first step without sinking. Much of the practical credit goes to clerk Cherice Bock, who led us with grace and patience and sensitivity.

Step two, building our identity: Here we really had to decide whether we as a body were in fact walking toward Jesus. Some of our churches are uncomplicatedly and unaffectedly Christian, culturally indistinguishable from other evangelical Friends congregations, except for the refusal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. None of our meetings identify as non-Christian, but some have more experience providing spiritual hospitality to people who have survived encounters with authoritarian religiosity. Those churches are particularly careful not to use Christian language in ways that could come across as glib and domineering. At our Canby sessions, this issue came up in considering what to require of applicants for membership. Rather than asking applicants to use specific language about themselves, we agreed to describe who we are -- a Christ-centered community -- and leave it up to applicants to decide whether this kind of community was something they wanted to join.

Once again, we grappled with a complex issue ... and did not sink.

We're not out of the water yet, so to speak. We have more decisions to make, including the adoption of a book of discipline. Beyond these important identity-and-boundary concerns ... and intimately related to them ... are the questions that all we Quakers are bound to ask ourselves at all times: what does God want to say and do through us? Given our legacy of Quaker discipleship, what will be the shape of our peace witness, our evangelism, our Lamb's War against racism and elitism, our care for God's creation? What wider associations of Friends might help us in being faithful to God's leadings?

Beyond what is required to protect children and vulnerable members and attenders, we do not claim top-down authority over individual churches, but we will be free to develop shared services and ministries. What might those be? Will we collaborate on Christian education for children? Will we consider joining wider associations of Friends?

Referring to William Barber's message to Friends General Conference (see next item below), we're living in a time where there's just a lot of meanness. There will certainly be temptations to look down at the water, to fear the wind, to fall back on the tired answers of the past. To be honest, I feel those temptations multiple times a day. I want to keep going step by step toward Jesus, knowing that even if I slip, I can still say, with Peter, "Lord, save me!"

FGC plenary session with Rev. Barber
About a week ago, William Barber II, a minister from Goldsboro, NC, and founder of Repairers of the Breach, addressed the annual gathering of Friends General Conference. Basing his message on Ezekiel 22:23-31, Barber traced four enmeshed sins (meanness in politics; misuse of the courts; misdirection of the masses; and theological malpractice) from Ezekiel's time, through the era of Lucretia Mott and Levi Coffin, right up to today.

At 47:40 he says,
And we ended up in America with a president steeped in racism, narcissism, economic isolationism, and we ended up with a majority Congress so paid off by the corporate backers that they would sell their own children's future out to get a tax cut to the wealthy, guns to the NRA, freedom to the insurance companies, deregulation to the polluters, and the right to oppress workers to the corporations, and more money, more money, more money to the military defense contractors and the war economy. That's where we are, that's the analysis.

And here we are, at a time -- we are saying in the Poor People's Campaign -- where once again, like Dr. King said, we have to address systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy, and militarism, and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism, if we're going to turn this country around. And you can't separate any one of those from the others.

Why do I say that? Because systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy, and militarism, and the false moral narrative of Christian nationalism, has created a kind of meanness in politics, like in Ezekiel's day, like in Lucretia Mott's. There's a meanness in politics, a meanness we haven't seen as overt for a long time.
Early on, Barber refers to Ezekiel's indictment of false prophets. Toward the end, he returns to this theme: "...What we see now is a boldness of the false prophets, this kind of covering up and being puppets to the Empire rather than being prophets to the Empire." His call to Quakers: be still and quiet long enough to know we're called by God and not by ego and arrogance, and then speak out, act out, as true prophets -- as the moral witness of our time. (I recommend not skipping anything, but to hear his charge to Friends, go to 1:03:09.)

Timing is everything, it seems. Pension reform in Russia. (And related longevity charts.)

Shaun Walker wonders whether the World Cup will change how Russia is covered by foreign press.

Frederica Mathewes-Green's tattoo and related thoughts on faith, visible and persistent.

Sarah Kaplan on ghostly neutrinos from a distant galaxy.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe with Walter Horton