22 October 2020

Quaker communion (partly a repost)

If there's such a thing as Quaker communion, is it more like what some of us call open worship, or more like a potluck?

(For the moment, I'm not addressing those places in the world of Friends where a formal communion is celebrated that resembles other Protestants' practices -- although I'd welcome their comments.)

These two comparisons came up in a recent discussion of communion in the Facebook group "Christian Quakers." Participants made a variety of good points about Friends' spiritual understanding of communion. The comparison with open worship was there, but most Friends in this thread focused on the connection with a common meal. 

How does the meal fit in? If in worship we seek the companionship of the living Christ, we are already memorializing his life and death and resurrection; what more do we need? However, if we rush to answer, "Nothing at all -- we're Quakers!" ...  we may be giving in to an abiding temptation in at least northern-hemisphere Quaker culture: to over-spiritualize our religious experience, and then, worse, to look down upon other Christians when those others value outward markers for their experiences of initiation (baptism) and spiritual intimacy with God (communion).

My original post (see below) was dated July 2010, and it was occasioned in part by an experience we had in Moscow Friends Meeting that summer. Our friend Sasha marked the fortieth day after his mother's death by leading a period of communion with bread and wine during our normally unprogrammed meeting for worship. It may have been only the second or third time in my whole life that I experienced such an observance in a Quaker setting, but, given the occasion, I had no hesitation about participating.

Applying the word "communion" to unprogrammed worship, or to the period of open worship in programmed meetings, seems to happen much more often than using it for potlucks or common meals, although I honestly see the validity of both if the heart-level intention is there. I've visited a fair number of pastoral and programmed meetings where the open worship period is described in terms similar to this: "Communion after the manner of Friends." The Richmond Declaration of Faith (1887) says, "The presence of Christ with His church is not designed to be by symbol or representation, but in the real communication of His own Spirit." ("The Supper of the Lord.") Deep Creek Friends Meeting in Yadkinville, North Carolina, referred to Quaker worship as "a time of intimate communion with God and one another..." in this newsletter article from 2013 that described a Sunday morning when their pastor suddenly needed to be elsewhere.

Here's the original text of my post from 2010.

Not long ago, I read some reference to "the Quaker mass," and that got me to thinking. When I'm in a Christian community that practices communion or the Eucharist, I love its deep connection both to history and to the earthiness of life. Usually I'm a sympathetic observer, but occasionally I've participated myself.

Moscow Friends enjoying tea after worship (2010)
Moscow Meeting is unprogrammed, and usually nothing takes place during the hour of worship that would look like a traditional communion to most Christians.

This is as close as we normally get: somehow over the years, a practice arose among us of singing a simple prayer before beginning our tea, asking God to bless us and pour grace on each of us.

Honestly, some Quaker arguments against ceremonial communion seem a bit thin to me. Back when I was serving with Friends World Committee for Consultation, my colleague Val Ferguson used to caution her Quaker audiences about the "three misleading negatives" that we sometimes use to define ourselves. If I remember correctly, she listed those misleading negatives as "we don't have doctrines, priests, or sacraments." 

Val urged us to define ourselves positively, not negatively. She reminded us that we have our own forms of doctrine and leadership, and pointed out that the absence of something is not always an advantage. The sacrament of communion, for example, can be a vivid reminder of the physicality of God's creation in the form of food and drink -- essential products of the earth, and in fact products which too many people don't have enough of.

Among our beloved 17th-century Quaker soundbites are these two from George Fox: "Christ has come to teach his people himself," and "You will say Christ saith this, and the apostles say this: but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest: is it inwardly from God?" Both imply the importance of communion as relationship, of being in the Presence, of "meeting" in the deepest sense.

So when we Friends argue for an inward and spiritual understanding of communion, as Robert Barclay did in his Apology for the True Christian Divinity (see Proposition XIII), I tend to agree, as long as we modestly remember we still need to make the effort to connect our faith to our practice (for example, keeping a time of quiet waiting in our meetings for worship so that we can actually, simply be in God's presence). If we don't make this effort to link intention and opportunity, it's probably not communion, no matter how lofty our theory.

In fact, isn't this the same effort required by ceremonial communion? What is superior about Friends' practice? Is it the fact that we devote a time of unprogrammed silence to this intention, shielding it from getting crowded out by the other elements of worship? My experience is that communion can be happening whenever God's people assemble -- as I've found among Pentecostals and Russian Orthodox people, among others -- and most Friends wouldn't deny that this can be the case.

No, what I cherish about our minimalist approach is actually more political than spiritual, if it's okay to make that distinction. As soon as you establish an outward practice, you need to guard it. How frequently is it celebrated? Is it optional or mandatory -- and what are the stakes? Who is allowed to lead and to participate, and who isn't? How do we interpret the relevant biblical passages? Is there a script, and how far can we deviate? Must there be literal bread (what about gluten intolerance) and wine (will grape juice do)? Barclay, in his Proposition XIII, touches on the difficulties Christians have had in reconciling their different understandings -- "For there have been more animosities and heats about this one particular, and more bloodshed and contention, than about any other."

But here again, Quakers are not off the hook.

It's true that most yearly meetings don't use ceremonial communion at all, and those yearly meetings that do provide for communion simply allow it, they don't require it. So maybe we're not tempted into the politics of licensing and quality control for this specific practice. However, I know what happens when someone speaks a second time in certain unprogrammed meetings, or speaks too long, or too emotionally, or too early in the hour, or uses the wrong theology. Without "forms," is there also a danger of treating the reality of communion so casually that we, too, might lose the connection between faith and practice? So maybe we still have issues of quality control after all.

Many meetings and churches have elders, or meetings of ministry and counsel, and this is the provision for "quality control" I like the best among Friends. Elders approach the discipline of matching faith and practice, not by appeal to a rule-book or external authorities, but again by going into communion and asking God for guidance. Being humans, they can't guarantee that they will always discern correctly, but neither does an external structure carry any guarantees.

Communion at ecumenical peace demonstration
Jesus said, "Do this in remembrance of me" -- and Barclay rightly points out that it's the remembrance that counts, not the exact method of remembering. Jesus uses other occasions to make similar connections, such as his discussion of Living Water with the woman at the well, and washing the feet of his disciples. But do we in fact remember Jesus? The Russian Quaker Tatiana Pavlova said, "When I sit in worship, I want to know that the person next to me is worshipping the same God." Our practices may seem very different from those of Christians with more liturgy and ceremony, but if we stay faithful to Jesus' words, and if we use our Quaker understandings of communion to grow in Christ rather than to marginalize him in favor of private meditation, or (just as bad) to one-up other Christians, we're still at the same Table. 

(Here's a link to the post as it appeared originally, along with Bill Samuels' thoughtful comment.)

Confession: I prepared this post instead of watching this evening's U.S. presidential election debate.

This Saturday: Friends Peace Teams present a workshop, "Toward Right Relationship with Native Peoples." Information. Registration.

Seventeen countries send their diplomats to the South Hebron Hills. Guess what? The USA was not represented.

A Lesley Stahl interview. No, not that one -- here she interviews Aleksei Navalny. I didn't know his English is this good.

Two very different examinations of a dysfunctional U.S. presidency: Amy Siskind. John Piper.

Louis René Beres examines the continuing risk factors for a miscalculated war between the USA and North Korea. (Thanks to jurist.org for the link.)

Fifty years ago, the concert that launched Greenpeace. (Thanks to Bill Smith for the link.)

Nancy Thomas presents a poetic breath of fresh air from C.S. Lewis.

Mike Farley on the life of prayer that (in the context of today's post, I believe) supports any real communion -- or any movement for social transformation.

A different sort of blues clip: Christone "Kingfish" Ingram describes his guitars, pickups, and pedalboard, demonstrating how each contributes to the sound he wants. Enjoy!

15 October 2020

Digesting 2009

Nothing this week is exactly new. In fact, except for the links at the end, it's all dated 2009!

I started doing annual digests of my blog in 2010, but there's something in me that wants to catalog previous years the same way. This may be just for me, but I promise a more normal post next week! For today, here are some posts from January through December 2009 -- Barack Obama's first year as U.S. president. Whether or not there's anything useful I'll leave for you to decide, but maybe these posts convey something of the flavor of that year.

Most of these posts were written in our apartment in Elektrostal, Russia, where we lived from 2008 to 2017.

January 2009: Transfer of power (the inauguration of Barack Obama)

Listening to Obama's inauguration
I'm acutely aware that, in Washington, DC, power does not transfer very far. Some knots of wealth and influence have shifted a slot or two farther away from the apparatus of power, others have slipped a little closer. By and large, the same elites are in place today as were in place two days ago. Their world is probably less upset by a new president than by the last quarter's seismic shifts in the financial markets and structures of the world.

I don't mean at all to be cynical, for two reasons: First, it does matter who is president, and how he or she uses the presidential pulpit. If we are told unsustainable lies and platitudes, then our communal resolve, our dedication to common success, is weakened. On the other hand, if trustworthy leaders give us legitimate challenges, we can offer them in return a huge fund of goodwill and support for them to draw on, and may even be far more willing to adopt more sustainable practices in our own lives in the service of a better national and global stewardship.

(Full post.)

February 2009: Publishing Truth -- ethically.

For four very interesting years I worked closely with Crane MetaMarketing Ltd. as a writer and editor for educational and nonprofit marketing programs. Working with such wonderful clients as Calvin and Houghton colleges, the Washington Christian Academy, and similar institutions, I became convinced that marketing, properly understood, is as appropriate for Christian concerns as it is for those in the secular world.

Crane's "values-based" marketing philosophy basically says that ethical marketing equips potential customers (for example, students and their families) to make a decision that is in their own best interest -- and that the interests of the institution and the customer are best served when the choice to affiliate with each other is based on shared values. This kind of marketing means that the institution's communication resources can concentrate on the engaging, creative, and transparent presentation of who they really are, what they really promise and can faithfully deliver, and make those presentations to those likely to respond intelligently, rather than wasting resources on futile and unethical exaggerations or scattershot marketing.

(Full post. I recommend the comments.)

March 2009: Are Quakers Protestant?

Paul Tillich proposed a "Protestant principle"--
. . . the divine and human protest against any absolute claim made for a relative reality, even if this claim is made by a Protestant church. The Protestant principle is the judge of every religious and cultural reality, including the religion and culture which calls itself "Protestant."
Friends honor this principle in our radical skepticism toward presumptuous authority and, more positively, when we understand that "Christ has come to teach his people himself."

I do not believe that Protestants are better Christians than Roman Catholic or Orthodox people. The best insights of Protestantism are not in fact owned by anyone, nor are these insights, by themselves, a sufficient basis for a whole church. The original role of Protestants may have been to confront corruption in a specific time and place; but that focus probably also led to an undervaluing of the Holy Spirit, tradition, and the role of nonverbal communication of faith, which in part are the strengths of the Catholic and Orthodox streams. I just think that we Friends will be best equipped to participate in crucial ecumenical conversations when we operate as embodied people fully aware of our public history, with all its prophetic elements as well as its deficiencies.

(Full post. Again, the comments are important.)

April 2009: Love's laboratories.

Wouldn't it be interesting, maybe even liberating, if we saw our worst controversies as opportunities to experiment with love? All those years of division and agony around homosexuality, for example, or our memberships in the councils of churches -- what if we had said, "How lucky we are as a small denomination all laced together with bonds of love -- we're in the perfect position to confront this divisive issue! Maybe we can do something that would be harder for a larger denomination to accomplish."

Truthfully, I can't imagine any denominational executive greeting a controversy with joy and glee. Why would they? Aside from the cost in human relationships, I remember those angry letters, cancelled subscriptions to Quaker Life, financial contributions cut or eliminated, speaking invitations withdrawn, and yearly meetings departing or threatening to depart. I witnessed battle lines (yes, Quaker battle lines!!) being drawn, with the aid of the tired old rhetoric of factional mobilization -- the predictable cliches of both "evangelicals" and "liberals" sizzling through the grapevines, while too many of the centrists wrung their hands, bemoaning the end of the good old days of affable conflict avoidance.

(Full post.)

May 2009: Evangelism and enemies.

I don't want to think about how my country's equipment rained death down on people I never knew. Among the victims, those who did not wish us harm died for the glorious reason that they inhabited our margin of error, or because their deaths were seen as a reasonable price to pay to accomplish the deaths of the "real" enemy. Our officials knew that this real enemy apparently likes to cause or provoke us to kill innocents, and by the criminally stunted morality of low-intensity warfare, we oblige.

Well, I can't help going a step further. What about that real enemy, the Taliban, or El-Qaeda -- how do I know that they deserve to die at the hands of officials answerable to me and my neighbors, with bombs our taxes have purchased?

...The world's story (at least the Pentagon's story) is that (a) the Taliban are our enemies; (b) we have justifiably deployed forces within range of Taliban bullets; (c) their violence against our forces and allies is illegitimate; (d) our lethal response, including risk to civilians, is legitimate and normal.

Jesus severely complicates this neat arrangement.

(Full post.)

June 2009: Biblical realism and perpetual war.

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

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

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

(Full post.)

July 2009: Suffering.

From Pray the Devil Back to Hell
First, I don't want to be sheltered from this raw data about the world's agonies and God's frequent (apparent) non-intervention, because denial would make a fraud of my faith. As I've probably said before, my mother saw the flash of Hiroshima, and therefore lived much of her life under the shadow (she was told) of leukemia statistics. In the city itself, thousands of innocents were vaporized, roasted, or lethally irradiated.

When the war finally ended, both her own country (Japan) and her parents' homeland (Germany), and huge swaths of the world, were pockmarked with smoking ruins and mass graves, as great-power politicians strategized to reassemble their empires, and the sober idealists among them cobbled together the new United Nations to slow down our perennial cycles of butchery. This is reality, every bit as real as the Bible. Zooming down to family scale, my mother also endured the kidnapping and murder of her own fourteen-year-old daughter in 1970 -- but Ellen was only one of 86 school-age young people murdered in Chicago that year. I study and pray and trust without pretending to understand. Through prayer, I can remain aware of suffering as a prod toward mindfulness, as a standing query about remaining oriented toward justice, without becoming morbid or paralyzed....

Second, your sufferings and mine may seem mild compared to the Liberian civil war, Nazi atrocities, and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. We should not inflate our own woes, but neither should we deny or suppress them -- they may be the key to our ability to empathize with those whose trials are more dramatic.

(Full post.)

August 2009: Publishers of Truth.

It's not the first time I've been involved in discussions of translating Friends publications into or out of English, but this time I just had a brief but shocking intuition: what if the material we publish and distribute gives an impression of a tiny, fastidious, legalistic, joyless, rootless group of theoretically progressive philistines? Do we resemble anything so much as 19th-century middle-class spiritualists, gathering for seances? Do our evangelicals really take Jesus seriously, or are they just stuck on the old-time cliches because that's the safest thing to do? When will the liberals acknowledge Jesus again as prophet, priest, and king among us, and get rid of all those sophisticated post-Christian excuses for avoiding his claims on us?

In all fairness, I don't think that we Friends have made a corporate decision to project a tiny and timid message, if any at all, to the world. But where is the forum to discuss widely what kind of message we should project? -- not a message about us and how wonderful we are or how safely innocuous we are, but about the world, the state it is in, its bondages on people's lives and souls, and what God demands of us?

(Full post. Also -- see comments.)

September 2009: Faith and certainty, part two.

Mary Travers
When I'm among people--I'm talking about committed believers, now -- who point out that crippled airliners that crash probably had passengers praying just as intently as airliners that made miraculous landings, I can respect their zeal for integrity, their determination that piety not trump rationality. There's no room for an innocency that ignores the Holocaust and Hiroshima. But when I'm among people celebrating answers to prayer, I will equally not pour cold water on their gratitude! In fact, I will join right in.

Do I seem inconsistent? Guilty! But, happily, the third thing that is happening to me right now is that I'm hungrily re-reading Thomas R. Kelly's A Testament of Devotion, along with a Googlegroup of others gathered by Mary Kay Rehard. (Invitation to join is [was] available here.) Much of this book is an extraordinary beautiful and persuasive call to a life of prayer -- in fact, prayer without ceasing -- but it's not prayer for "results." It's prayer as holy attentiveness, and holy obedience. It's prayer that may lead to suffering as well as to healing. It requires lowliness (смиренномудрие in Olga Dolgina's wonderful translation) as well as confidence. As Kelly says (retranslating), we stop trying to direct God and make God listen to us; we become God's joyful listeners -- listening to the Master who does all things well.

(Full post. More good comments.)

October 2009: Odessa blues.

Blues music (lyrics included) compresses history, pathos, and ecstasy into deceptively simple packages of sound that go far beyond my ability to analyze with words. I have to admire a scholar who tries! Nichols takes blues lyrics, shows links between them and the Bible (often mediated by the overlapping genre of spirituals), and also reveals how those lyrics reflect the realities of their writers' and performers' lives. Surrounding all these details are two overwhelming realities molding life and art alike: the thick social/political/economic/psychic reality of racism, and the "Christ-haunted" culture of the American South.

I've often wondered how to express the difference between musicians who inhabit the blues, and those who are just visiting. It's not strictly race -- as Johnnie Billington says, "The blues is truth," which tells me that its core is universal -- but it has something to do with being the one who is consumed rather than doing the consuming. It's not happy trails, it's more like the end of the line. Although the blues musician might lament being alone in the world, the appreciation of his or her music is definitely a communal experience -- we've probably all been there, and we feel a bit strange when someone who may not have "been there" tries growling those lyrics.

(Full post.)

November 2009: When do we shift from "neutrality" to "advocacy"?

Oslo Friends meet in this building
If I understand correctly, many Norwegian Friends have sympathy for Palestinians in their conflict with Israel. The Gaza war may have increased that sympathy and lent it urgency. However, for some Friends, sympathy is not enough -- it is time for strong action in solidarity with Palestinians. Other Friends feel strongly that to abandon Friends' tradition of neutrality in conflicts would be wrong.

The question of whether it is ever right for Friends to support (or appear to support) one side over another in a conflict is not new. I'm sure it predates the American Revolution -- a conflict that definitely provided Friends with a huge dilemma. Case studies and books have been written about Friends responses to these situations, none of which I have with me here in Elektrostal. But while I was in Oslo, I was asked for my own thoughts on how to decide when neutrality was no longer a sufficient position. Here are a few of my reflections....

(Full post with comments -- also see part two.)

December 2009: Ending the year, as I started, with Barack Obama. Nobel lecture.

Barack Obama gave his Nobel Lecture in Oslo exactly a week ago. A day later, I finally got a chance to look at it, and I admit I was very impressed.

In terms of content, I think both Joe Volk ("Obama’s Peace: A Now But Not Yet Kind of Thing") and David Brooks ("Obama's Christian Realism") provided excellent commentary, and I agree with most of what both said, although they come from different viewpoints.

As Volk pointed out, Obama recited all the usual obligatory justifications for a just war. However, Obama did so with a sense of regret and modesty -- something rarely heard in recent presidential speeches. In the midst of the current fashion to praise the military to the skies, we expect to hear the first part of a statement like this, but how often do we hear the second part? -- "So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths -- that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly."

(Full post.)

Here are the rest of the annual digests so far:  2019201820172016201520142013201220112010

November 7: Speaking Truth to Power in a Pandemic: A Quaker Scientist's Reflections -- the fifth in the Quaker Conversations series coordinated by Friends World Committee for Consultation.

Catholic activists praise Francis' move away from just war theory.

An introduction to Sean Guillory, whose podcast I've been following since it began.

An update on Kyrgyzstan.

Kathryn Ray on the power of a heartbroken community.

Floyd Lee at Ground Zero, Clarksdale, Mississippi. (From the film Full Moon Lightning. First included in this post: Notes from Woodland, April 2009.)

08 October 2020

Anne Thomas, fellow-voyager (1944-2020)

As I look back, I see that my ministry has been as a teacher.
 (Anne Thomas, "Autobiography")

My late friend and mentor Anne Thomas indeed served as a teacher to many people in many contexts. As I grieve her death, it feels right to testify to my own experience of her as an educator in the widest sense.

Early in her career, she taught high school science and mathematics in England. Many years later, having emigrated from England to Ottawa, Canada, she visited Carleton University "to see what courses I needed to take to obtain teaching qualifications in Canada," as she recounts in her autobiography. "While lined up at registration I saw courses that looked interesting that were offered in the Religion Department and signed up for those, little realizing that I would eventually teach courses in that department."

She also took classes at the Ottawa Lay School of Theology. When I was a new Friend in Ottawa, she encouraged me to take some classes there, too. Some of my favorite memories of my education as a newly convinced Quaker involved attending those classes together with her and Deborah Haight.

Deborah had helped start Ottawa Meeting back in the 1950's, and Anne began attending shortly after arriving in Canada in 1968 with her husband Barry and young daughter Helen. (Helen's brother Simon was born in 1970.) At Ottawa Meeting, Anne taught First-day school, served in various volunteer roles, and began a lifetime of ecumenical involvements on behalf of Friends in Ottawa and nationally. Her teaching skills in Bible and theology served Ottawa Friends, her students at Carleton, and beyond. She served Canadian Yearly Meeting on the Religious Education Committee and other committees, and eventually became the yearly meeting's general secretary. She began receiving invitations to lead Bible studies at yearly meetings, United Society of Friends Women events, and Quaker conferences and retreat centers all over North America and in the UK. 

In 1995, she gave the Swarthmore Lecture at Britain Yearly Meeting's sessions. The lecture and accompanying book, Only Fellow-Voyagers: creation stories as guides for the journey, is an amazing example of her ability to open the Bible (starting with Genesis, in this case) and draw us into an exploration that visits the fields of biology, cosmology, cultural anthropology, Quaker spirituality, and the history and limitations of biblical interpretation -- all in the service of illustrating the unity and integrity of all Creation.
Over ninety-nine percent of the atom is space. In the Newtonian universe the vast areas of outer space created a sense of loneliness. In the quantum world space is filled with fields whose effects can be observed. Just as fish are unaware of the water that surrounds them, we are unaware of the fields that are within and beyond us.

Modern science accepts the mysteries and does not seek to explain them away. There is delight in seeing the caterpillar and butterfly as two forms of stabilized structure within the evolution of one system, rather than dead samples crucified in a dusty museum. We do not know how long the coast of Britain is, recognising that there is no final answer. Children's riddles are part of the reality of modern scientists, 'How do you hold a hundred tons of water in the air?' 'In a cloud.'

Scientists are beginning to see that the universe is not a great machine, but that it is a participant universe in which human beings may evoke a potential into reality. Just as the groundling was created to till the garden, we too have an ongoing role, but now we have eaten from the tree we are much more aware of the power of knowledge of good and evil. Like theologians, scientists build explanatory structures, telling stories that are scrupulously tested to see if they are stories about real life. At their best these stories incorporate the non-human voices of our planetary community when we are open to including them:

... ask the animals, and they will teach you; 
the birds of the air and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth and they will teach you; 
and the fish of the sea will declare to you. 
Job 12:7
Friends have also trusted me with their personal stories and to support them as they journeyed through difficult times. ("Autobiography")

My memories of Anne are grouped into two phases. The first memories all relate to the years (1974-77) when I lived in Ottawa and attended Ottawa Friends Meeting. Those years included some difficult times for me, as I struggled with my family's rejection of me, formalized by my being removed from my parents' wills. Eventually, I had to act to take my surviving sister out of the USA and settle her with my Canadian relatives before the courts would have removed her from my parents' custody. Another challenge: my application to stay in Canada after graduation, and settle there permanently, which failed despite the best efforts of Friends and my own Canadian relatives. I had plenty of personal demons to deal with, as well, centered on my first experiences of love and rejection. At times, all of these crises threatened to affect my academic work. Through all this mess, Ottawa Friends as a community, along with my own Heyerdahl relatives in nearby Manotick, Ontario -- kept me sane, and made God's love and care a daily reality. They even encouraged me to take on my first volunteer roles among Friends, both locally and at the yearly meeting. Anne and Barry Thomas, and their lively children Helen and Simon, were very much part of this support.

With my degree in Russian in hand, and with my small collection of theological books bought with my employee discount at the Anglican Book Society, I moved back to the USA in 1977. I had very few chances to see Anne and Barry again over the next decade and a half. Then in 1993 I became general secretary of Friends United Meeting. Anne was general secretary of Canadian Yearly Meeting and a member of Friends United Meeting's board, so she and I were once again co-laborers in Quaker service. Around the time that I began, Anne had helped head off a major potential crisis for FUM by warning us against investing in what turned out to be a Ponzi scheme that had drawn in several Friends groups, including the planners of a major Quaker conference involving many FUM constituencies.

Anne's care and support continued through other waves of challenge and crisis too numerous to recount now. Over the years Anne endeared herself to many FUM board and committee members from diverse backgrounds, some of which were outwardly very different from Anne's own English and Canadian history and unprogrammed Quaker experiences. Many board meetings ended with everyone heading for ice cream at a nearby restaurant. I remember one such gathering, where Anne recounted one of her high school dances in England that featured a relatively unknown local band, the Beatles.

Anne's Bible study for January-February 1998;
PDF version is here.
During my FUM years, Anne found another outlet for her teaching skills: she wrote a monthly Bible study column for FUM's periodical, Quaker Life.

Finally, Anne's words about her ministry to people in "difficult times" reminds me to add one more detail that I'd not been aware of until I read the autobiographical essay that Helen was kind enough to send me in the days after Anne's death. 
I also represented Canadian Yearly Meeting on the Interfaith Committee on Chaplaincy and the Correctional Service of Canada for many years. Committee meetings were often held in penitentiaries and this experience was focal in helping discern the role of chaplains in Canadian Yearly Meeting. It also led to my being part of an ecumenical group of women who led Sunday evening services at Prison for Women in Kingston, Ontario.
Anne departed on her final voyage on September 4. It has taken me this long to assemble these poor words to pay tribute to her influence on me -- and doubtless on many others in and beyond the Quaker family. I believe that, in God's good time, our paths will somehow intersect again.

Anne's obituary.

Two brief orientations to Kyrgyzstan's current unrest. The Moscow Times. RFERL. I suspect they're inadequate, but they're a start.

What can we now expect from the mainline Protestant denominations that were once so influential in helping define the public moral dimensions of USA society? Two views: The New York Times. GetReligion.

Updates on the documentary film about Monteverde, Costa Rica, Sweet Home Monteverde (background here): 
  • The film participated in the Global Peace Film Festival; see excerpts from the Q&A with the online panel
  • A future opportunity: Sweet Home Monteverde will be part of the Friday Harbor Documentary Film Festival. I'll be part of the panel discussion on the film, along with director Robin Truesdale, on October 17 at 4 p.m. Pacific time.
A book review of Marilynne Robinson's latest novel, Jack. You probably won't be surprised that I ordered it before I even finished reading the review.

Notice that my blog has steered clear of any USA politics this week. Heather Cox Richardson's daily commentary has just posted; she summarizes things as they stand today better than I could.

Now based in Austin, Texas, Sue Foley began her life journey in Ottawa.

01 October 2020

Papers, please (part two: the Census)

My first "papers."
When I wrote my first "Papers, please" post back in 2017, I had in mind the Trump administration's plan to end the USA's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, sending many or all "dreamers" back to the countries their parents had brought them from. I was thinking about all the ways governments use "papers" to control our movements, to keep us separated, grouped, and in our places. I quoted the Russian saying, "Without papers, you're nothing."

As the USA's 2020 Census comes to an end, I'm thinking about another use to which "papers" can be put: the very specific way they are used within the Census Bureau. The philosophy behind the Census Bureau's approach to individual documents seems to be almost the opposite of control.

When the Census Bureau documents our individual existences, it serves two purposes. First, any person who is counted in the Census (which ideally means every single person residing within the borders of the USA on April 1, 2020) is a human being worth painstaking effort to count and to record -- one person, one document. Second, that person's Census document is carefully guarded. For 72 years, the only use that can be made of that document is to generate anonymous statistics that give the Census Bureau's governmental and nongovernmental clients a demographic portrait of the country and all its states, counties, cities, and neighborhoods.

Last winter, every address on record with the U.S. Census Bureau received a questionnaire with three options for its completion: fill out and send the paper version back to the Bureau, answer the questionnaire over the phone (844-330-2020), or complete it online (see language options at top right of page). Since the end of July I've been a 2020 Census enumerator, going from home to home based on a list of addresses whose questionnaires were still unaccounted for. I was fascinating to see the seriousness of the Census Bureau's commitment to both aspects of the count: its dedication to the goal of representing every single person with a unique Census document, and to guarding the security of that document. Here are a few glimpses of that commitment.
  • All people who work with individual census documents must make a lifetime promise, sealed with an oath or affirmation, that they will never divulge anyone's private information beyond the authorized channels within the Census Bureau. We actually had to stand up and raise our right arms to make this promise.
  • As we talk with the people we are counting, we enter the information into a Census Bureau app on our government-issued iPhones. As soon as the interview is complete and the new individual record is submitted, we ourselves no longer have access to it.
  • One woman I interviewed, who came from a country with a different attitude to citizens' privacy, questioned me closely about the security of her data. "Why should I believe you?" she asked. I knew she would appreciate a direct answer: "If I break this promise, I could go to prison for five years."
  • During one extraordinary eleven-hour shift on September 23-24, I was part of a team that visited temporary roadside encampments and other exposed places where people without standard housing were living. (These people are often called "homeless" but the Census apparently prefers "houseless," not judging whether these places might in fact be homes.) In this shift we used paper census forms rather than our iPhones. We were under strict instructions not to disturb sleeping people or behave intrusively, so we sometimes had to count them "by observation." If we were unable to interact with someone for a full interview, we gave them Census designations on the forms in place of personal names, and we made no assumptions and recorded no personal information that did not come directly from the person concerned. Even without these details, each such paper form was strictly guarded and logged. The papers from each individual location, and the accompanying logs, were carefully filed in separate envelopes. There was never just a head count; instead there was one full page for each person, no matter how fleeting the encounter or how minimal the information.
Whether we used the phones or the paper forms, we were asked to use the exact words of the Census questionnaire and never make assumptions (for example, about sex or age or race) based on our own observation. Sometimes this presented cross-cultural challenges. For example, when asking people from some cultures whether they were male or female when they were standing right in front of you might seem strange to them, but I always simply explained that I was reading a script that required me not to answer questions on their behalf, but to let them decide what I should record. One muscular Russian man about my age, with his wife standing next to him, paused when I asked him whether he was male or female. As his wife greeted the question with a friendly snort, he said, "let me think about that for a moment."

The same question almost brought another interview to an end because the question was so non-negotiably binary. However, the questionnaire has a "refused to answer" response for every demographic question, and the person I was interviewing chose to take advantage of that option, and we continued. I hope that by the time of the 2030 Census there will be a more inclusive set of options.

The USA's census-taking process is inevitably political, because of the constitutional use of the census to determine the size of each state's delegation in the House of Representatives. and because census statistics help direct large segments of federal and state budgets. This year, Donald Trump's campaign to marginalize immigrants has put even more stress on the census. For example, the controversy over ending the data collection process on September 30 rather than October 31 has landed in court, and at the end of today's shift I cannot tell you whether I will be working tomorrow. However, my day-to-day experience of census work reassures me that, at least among the staff and management I worked with, the commitment to the integrity of the process remains in place.

As I was preparing to write this account of my 2020 Census experience -- and how "papers" can have a positive purpose -- our friend Bill Denham sent us a link to Elvira Piedra's beautiful explanatory tribute to the census.

Another form of "papers" with humane purpose -- the legendary Nansen passport.

Yakov Krotov interviews (Rus.) Sergei Nikitin about Nikitin's recently published book, How Quakers Saved Russia

Woolman Hill and Beacon Hill Friends House co-sponsor an online Bible exploration series this fall: Walking with the Bible. (My thanks to Martin Kelley and his Quaker Ranter for the link.)

The Nazis murdered Jewish artist Gertrud Kauders -- but they never found the 700 paintings she carefully concealed in a house under construction in the Prague suburb of Zbraslav.

Rick Estrin and the Nightcats take it slow...

24 September 2020

"The mere sound of his name will signal hope"

It's fall, which means my Bible reading calendar has passed Malachi and is into Matthew. On a day dominated by stressful political news, here are some verses from Eugene Peterson's The Message that brought me up short. Matthew is linking Jesus with Isaiah:
Look well at my handpicked servant;
    I love him so much, take such delight in him.
I’ve placed my Spirit on him;
    he’ll decree justice to the nations.
But he won’t yell, won’t raise his voice;
    there’ll be no commotion in the streets.
He won’t walk over anyone’s feelings,
    won’t push you into a corner.
Before you know it, his justice will triumph;
   the mere sound of his name will signal hope, even
   among far-off unbelievers. [context; Isaiah's context.]
I know perfectly well that Peterson sometimes tends to puff his own wind into Scripture's sails, but this is a cool breeze that I need right now ... to know that the mere sound of the Name will signal hope, even among far-off unbelievers.

How do these verses -- particularly the name of Jesus, the handpicked Servant -- give me hope?

First of all, his messianic job description includes justice, and Isaiah promises that this justice will triumph. All of us Quakers who yearn for justice are part of the Jesus story. To the extent that we are persistent in working for justice in his name, that name will signal hope. The fact that there are Christians who seem indifferent to justice as we understand it shouldn't discourage us.

Secondly, this handpicked servant will neither bully nor coerce. Anyone whose idea of Christian service (for justice or for anything else) is to play the big shot is not -- emphatically not -- signaling hope to far-off unbelievers. With humility but great confidence, we ought to challenge anyone who damages the credibility of the Good News with their arrogance. I will not name names; I trust you recognize them when you see them. In the meantime -- good news! -- we're under no obligation to imitate their tactics.

Finally, I had a sobering thought about times and seasons. The USA is on a historic cliff-edge. On one side of us is the mountain we've been trying to climb for generations toward the summit of justice. On the other side is a plunge back into authoritarianism and class privilege. The outcome at the moment is completely unclear to me.

This uncertainty is incredibly stressful. I know people who are asking whether now is the time to begin planning emigration to some country that is on a less self-destructive path. Maybe I'm somewhere beyond naïve, but even as I work to keep us away from the edge, I also know I will keep hoping whatever the outcome.

Cover of The Long Road of Russian
(Tatiana Pavlova, editor)
Here's the thing: monarchs and potentates have been the rule for most of human history. The Jesus story began under a form of monarchy; most Christians have not known any other sort of system. The Friends Church arose during a cycle of struggle between rulers and Parliament, and gained experience lobbying and petitioning both of them. One example -- a group of 167 Quakers who petitioned Parliament to be allowed to take the place of Quakers in prison, to give the prisoners respite -- so impressed a historian in the Soviet Academy of Sciences that this historian, Tatiana Pavlova, made contact with Friends in the UK and restarted the Quaker movement in Russia. (I summarized Tatiana's story here.)

Currently the Quaker testimony of peace leads to our support for conscientious objection counseling in Russia. The voice of hope reached an about-to-be conscript in time for a counselor to intervene and prevent his forced conscription. (Here's that story.)

In the whole sweep of history, these counter-examples to passivity in the face of authoritarianism may seem minor, but they're evidence of hope persisting. You probably have great stories of your own. Even if the USA drifts down the path already pursued by other leaders whom Trump admires, it's our task to personify the promise of justice in the name of Jesus, and to pass that promise on, in season and out of season.

As for the Christians who seem to show indifference to marginalized people, and affection for brute authority, they too are part of our mission field. And at the very least, we know better than to leave them unchallenged as they functionally leach away the hope and credibility of the Good News. 

"Revolutionaries are always in the wrong .... Conservatives are always wrong, too...." Stephen Freeman gets acquainted with Vladimir Lossky.

Completing -- or not completing -- the 2020 Census in Chicago's South Side.

This week's Navalny update.

A question: Does it occur to European Americans, proud of their "good genes" and tough ancestors, that African Americans from Somalia (for example) might also be proud for exactly the same reasons?

Daniel Hunter on the ten things we need to know to head off a coup.

Three of my earliest blues heroes. I saw Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee in live concerts three or four times, including once in the dining hall of Carleton University in Ottawa; but I was never able to hear the great Otis Spann live.

17 September 2020

Secular evangelists

Declining trend, but we're hoping for tonight's promised rain to wash away at least some of the smoke.
(Screenshots from airnow.gov.)

Last week I said that if the nation's exhaustion level is making Donald Trump vulnerable in the current U.S. presidential election campaign, maybe that makes Joe Biden's so-called consensus-building style an advantage -- the sort of advantage that a more ideologically driven (i.e., stress-inducing) opponent wouldn't have.

Where does that leave the democratic socialists and other progressive activists in the U.S. political arena? The most popular line of thinking among many in my social circles seems to be:

  1. Unify all possible allies in a diverse coalition to defeat Donald Trump, for the sake of democracy.
  2. On Inauguration Day 2021, begin restoring the essential norms and firewalls that prevailed before 2017.
  3. Apply unrelenting pressure on the Biden administration to go beyond the consensus-based, centrist program associated with the Obama-Biden brand.
Top priorities for point three vary among the leftist groups who express dissatisfaction with Biden's supposedly timid and capital-friendly philosophy (in other words, the groups whom Trumpian alarmists accuse of being the puppeteers who already control Biden!): 
  • replace the Affordable Care Act with something closer to a single-payer health finance system; 
  • get urgently serious about climate change, both domestically and globally; 
  • demilitarize our roles in overseas conflicts without withdrawing into isolationism;
  • defund the police (though this slogan remains under dispute);
  • reform or eliminate Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); 
  • rebalance the USA's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
You can probably add more points of priority. These are all in addition to the more generally accepted centrist concerns such as confronting structural racism, revising the division of labor between police and social services, and restoring sanity to the Cabinet-level departments of Health, Labor, Commerce, Education, and other units of government that have been deliberately sabotaged over the last four years.

(By the way, I do not define "centrist" and "moderate" as meaning "weak" or "unenthusiastic." The bread-and-butter governmental functions that emerged from the New Deal / Fair Deal era are not unimportant. In many cases, they suffer not just from recent mismanagement but from their timid implementation all along.)

In some democratic countries, even the list of progressive priorities listed above under "unrelenting pressure" would seem strikingly moderate! Given the truncated political spectrum that we work with in the USA, compared even with Canada's inclusion of a democratic socialist party in mainstream politics, some activists don't put much hope in lobbying a Democratic presidency or legislature. Their traditional prescriptions include everything from strikes and walkouts to massive civil disobedience campaigns, and all the way (as some of Trump's tacticians would like you to fear) to armed revolution.

I've got a bit of a split personality. My heart is often with those who are discontented. Why has it taken so long for Americans to confront systemic racism, dramatic levels of environmental degradation, health crises as the most common cause of personal bankruptcies, declining school systems, and the rapidly increasing gap between the richest and poorest in our country? Isn't there something we can do to make faster progress on these fronts? What is the particular responsibility of Christians, for whom these challenges bear directly upon how we love (or don't love) our neighbors?

I need to remind myself that there is no unanimity within the Christian family about our obligations to seek justice, and how to deploy our various spiritual gifts toward that end. Many of the Christian leaders I admire most are engaged in evangelizing not just nonbelievers (as important as that is) but the rest of us Christians, to mobilize our pray-ers, teachers, prophets, mystics, healers, and all the rest of us, for the sake of pulling down strongholds of oppression and offering solidarity and companionship to all who suffer.

Gordon Browne. Source: FWCC
One of my models is Gordon Browne, who was the head of the staff at Friends World Committee for Consultation, Section of the Americas, during most of the ten years I worked there. He didn't just believe abstractly in the peace testimony of Friends; he strongly felt that his tax dollars should not finance the Pentagon. In the early 1960's he and Edith Browne began refusing those taxes. At Friends World Committee, he set up a process to permit other employees to follow his example. He insisted that if, as a result of our tax refusal through the FWCC payroll, the government were to seek to confiscate our wages, they would have to deal with him personally. He wanted to limit the exposure of other employees, who might have various opinions about tax refusal, to legal risks as the result of the organization's stand.

At the same time, Gordon supported the organizing of a committee to promote discussion among Friends meetings and churches to discuss war tax concerns, collaborating with a wealthy Cincinnati Friend, Wallace Collett, who was also a military tax refuser. Wallace Collett didn't just evangelize among Friends for this cause; every time the government went to his bank to attach money, this gave him a chance to talk about his faith with the nonplussed bank staffers! I vividly remember Collett speaking at an Indiana Yearly Meeting session about his war tax experiences. Clerk Horace Smith, clearly moved by Collett's testimony, spoke for many of us when he thanked God for Collett's faithful public stand.

I later drew on Gordon's and Wallace's work in drafting Friends United Meeting's tax refusal process.

My memories of these engaging Friends -- Edith and Gordon Browne, Carrie and Wallace Collett, and others who inspired me along the way -- reminds me of what might be needed among those whose hearts are rightly discontented by persistent political and social injustice. We need an energy that is somewhere between simply measuring consensus on the one hand and rebellion on the other. We need strong advocates. We may not need or find colossal heroes for these causes, but we do need evangelists. We need people to engage in the hard work of making these causes hopeful and attractive beyond the activist subcultures and their internal dogmatics.

What's the alternative? If we are discontented with Biden and Harris as consensus-builders, unlikely to go beyond what their broad communities of support will tolerate, to whom would we turn? Do we become elitists and appear to assume that we know better than our benighted neighbors, and therefore ought to impose our revolutionary solutions upon them? If we are not content with expanding the arena of consensus and, instead, seek coercive or manipulative shortcuts, I fear that the lessons of history will catch up with us, and the forces we unleash will overwhelm us all -- if the forces of reaction don't kill us first.

(Concerning "knowing better than our neighbors": this is more than a rhetorical question. In many cases, we might very well "know better," because we have insights into the hypnotic effects of individualism and affluence that reduce people's motivation to look critically at social structures. However, that doesn't necessarily make us immune from elitism and arrogance and temptations to use power rather than honest persuasion.)

When I think about secular evangelists, the first contemporary model that comes to mind is Bernie Sanders. I have never thought of him as a credible president, because I simply don't know how he would operate as an executive under the pressures of a hundred daily crises that have no ideological solutions. But when he spoke to the faculty and students at Liberty University (video here) back in 2015, he did his best to convey his passion for morality and justice in an arena where ideological sympathies would have fallen flat. Only the actual merit of his argument had any chance of success.

Among younger activists, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has a similar ability to communicate progressive goals and pathways beyond the activist community. This may be why her enemies try so hard to marginalize and trivialize her. Little do most of them realize that her comparatively moderate version of democratic socialism may effectively prevent a far worse and more realistic danger: the complete disintegration of the USA along the chasm between affluent people and those in financial danger. That disintegration would not only make suffering worse for millions, there is no guarantee that most of the affluent classes would survive a collapse. And while all that is going on, the climate-change clock ticks on.

In my dream, the secular evangelists for political and social justice, and the Christian evangelists who connect the dots between piety and politics, ought to know and enjoy each other's company. In the best cases, there will be significant overlap! But there's also a difference. I want the Christian evangelists to remember that the center of their ministry is not simply political persuasion. Their mission is to maintain and widen access to the community which gathers around Jesus, learning from him daily what it means to live at peace with all. I don't want Christians to pretend we have a monopoly in the marketplace of ideas about justice and stewardship. The arrogance of such a position would reduce, rather than widen, their appeal to those already dealing with more oppression than they can handle.

There's another dilemma in my thinking about consensus-expanding vs violent revolution: the awkward fact that, when people are oppressed or violated long enough, we can wish that a nonviolent, consensus-expanding alternative would arise among them, but our wishes do not govern! History shows that revolutions happen, however messy the process or outcome might be. You put any group of normal humans under enough stress, you can expect ugly outcomes. As Gandhi acknowledged, even violence is preferable to fatal passivity in the face of oppression.

This reality does not justify advocating violent revolution, but it ought to increase our investment in mobilizing all our creative resources to incubate and encourage a wider commitment to justice, reframing our ideas and making them more communicable across cultural lines, and building honest alliances wherever possible -- including between secular prophets and Christian evangelists.

Nada Moumtaz's donation dilemma.
When my friends in the US and Canada asked me for trusted initiatives for [Beirut-related] post-explosion relief and aid to contribute to, my list was ready. But I hesitated.
Lawfare Podcast's Benjamin Witte interviews Alina Polyakova about what we've learned about the Aleksei Navalny case. (Note: the interview does not seriously consider the possibility of a cause other than Russian government-initiated poisoning. I think other causes are unlikely but not impossible, and should have been given more consideration.) Polyakova: 
That's always the conundrum in Russia: It's always a combination of incompetence mixed with leaving a mark, a calling card, and the brazenness of then denying that, and knowing that the United States or Europe and anyone else won't do anything about it.... The person dies, doesn't die -- it doesn't matter that much.
The Polyakova interview was recorded a week ago. Here's an interesting update. And here's an analysis of Russian treatment of the case.

Emily Provance on social identity, conflict, and her Facebook experiment.

Why columnist Jennifer Rubin dropped the word "conservative" from her profile. (And a link to my consideration of the "conservative" label.)

Mark Russ counts the cost of the blessed community. (Found via the link on Mark's blog.)

Charlie Musselwhite and Charlie Baty pay tribute to Little Walter.