12 December 2019

Olive harvest

Dialogue Quilt at Ramallah Friends Meeting (see explanation panels at end of this post)
As my family knows, I have the opposite of a green thumb. (Red thumb? Blue?) I seem to have no affinity for plants. When I mow the lawn, Judy carefully places wooden stakes to mark anywhere I might otherwise (despite all efforts at vigilance) cut down a newly-planted treasure.

Olive harvesting in Palestine gave me a chance for a more positive relationship with plants -- specifically, with the majestic olive trees who occupy a central place in the economy as well as the culture of the region.

When our Christian Peacemaker Team in Hebron planned our participation in this fall's olive harvest, we coordinated with several other Palestinian, Israeli, and international teams and offices. We were also in direct touch with several olive-growing families whose groves were adjacent to Israeli settlements or roadways, making them vulnerable to settler harassment. Some of the families needed Israeli permits to access their trees -- permits that only gave a short time to complete their harvests, rain or shine.

We participated in seven families' harvests ourselves. My share of the work seemed safe enough for a city boy -- I would draft an article about the harvest. No way I could hurt a tree with words! At three of the actual sites, I would be part of the accompanying team monitoring potential harassment and making photos for CPT use.

That's all I did at my first site. We had two team members who loved climbing the trees, and who worked very competently alongside the growers and their families, pulling or shaking the olives off the branches. Several settlers walked across their property peaceably, along with nearly two dozen Israeli soldiers, over the course of the afternoon. The single ladder at that site was used by a grower, and I couldn't reach any olives from the ground at that site. The only actual labor I did there was carry a heavy sack full of olives about 300 meters to a roadside taxi stand.

When we arrived at our second assignment, a group of volunteers was already hard at work helping the local Palestinian family, which included a retired educator who had known CPT for most or all of our 24 years in Hebron. Among the helpers was a group of Israeli volunteers who worked at one side of the property, and several Palestinian college students and faculty members were picking olives at a second site. One of the Israelis met us at the entrance to the property. She asked with a smile, "Do you want to work where there are Jews or where there are no Jews?" A bit startled, I replied that this was the first time in my life I'd been asked such a question! As it turned out, by the time we'd finished our interview with the retired educator inside her home, most of the hard work had already been done.

My third experience was with the grower shown in this Facebook video. Finally I had a chance to do some harvesting myself! Once again the only ladder was in use by a more qualified person, and I didn't quite dare climb up into the trees myself, but in this case there were hundreds and hundreds of olives within reach from the ground. By the time my arms gave out, I think I had done a more or less decent job for a first-time picker. Best of all, I don't think I did the trees any harm.

We had heard some distressing reports about recent settler harassment of olive harvesters in various parts of the West Bank, including an incident in which an elderly member of Rabbis for Human Rights was injured. In the three locations where I participated, the harvests were completed without incident.

You can find the CPT report here.



This past Monday I returned from a three-month period of volunteer service with Christian Peacemaker Teams. I'll write about some of my experiences with the team in Hebron in the next few weeks. I'll also be looking for opportunities to speak with your church or meeting, or with other audiences as way opens.

In the meantime, here is a glimpse of my final moments with my kitty companions. Of course they didn't know that I would soon disappear from their lives, but I knew it.

I would also post any number of photos of the wonderful team with whom I served, but posting each other's personal photos on public Web sites is something that can cause complications, so we don't do it.





Nancy Thomas's book on Bolivian Quaker history has been published! I ordered my copy at Wipf and Stock's special Web price from this site.

News from another writing friend: Bill Yoder has put his archive of religious journalism in one convenient location: wyoder.de.

Does the Christian right in the USA worship a false idol?

Leon Aron on Russian political humor. (My own tribute from last year. And an earlier post comparing Quaker and Russian humor, plus Mike Royko on corruption in Chicago.)

God and Stephen King.

Netanyahu wags the dog ... again.



Gino Matteo and Jason Ricci ... "I need Jesus to walk with me."





Information about the Middle East Dialogue Quilt and its imagery (photo at top of post):

05 December 2019

A grievously neglected commandment (mostly repost)

Source.
This post was originally the second part of a two-part essay, "Love, a heavy cross?" which I posted nearly six years ago. Once again an election season nears, and our urgent attention to a particular neglected commandment seems more important than ever.

(Love,a heavy cross? Part one.)

We Friends are known for shining a spotlight on the commandment not to kill (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17). Sexual ethics are a big focus among many Christians. But I hear almost no alarms about the commandment whose routine violation in the church and in the world causes constant destruction and sorrow:

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

(Exodus 20:16; Deuteronomy 5:20.)

One of the original applications of this commandment was in court settings, where witnesses were not to provide false information, or to withhold true information, in trying a defendant. Planting evidence, or deliberately ignoring exculpatory evidence--favorite tactics of corrupt police forces and courts to this very day--are clear violations of this commandment.

The more general principle can be expressed in the query found in many Quaker books of discipline: "Are you careful of the reputation of others?"

For nice people like us, who would never shoot or poison someone, the sabotage of reputations is both convenient and deadly. The methods are not especially difficult, especially when they're implemented behind the target's back.
  • Allude to the target's suspicious friendships, alliances, choice of college or seminary (or lack thereof), affiliations, tastes and affectations, as if these were enough to tell us all we need to know about him or her.
  • Repeat rumors about him or her, repost scandalous or tendentious Facebook posts and the like, without fact-checking.
  • Recount mistakes the target person has made, as if making those mistakes was his or her major occupation in life, or there were no possible alternative explanations, or the target never did any kind of restoration.
  • Constantly emphasize the difference between our side's best ideals and the target side's worst mistakes, cherry-picking as necessary.
  • Do any or all of the above with glee, taking no thought for the harm done to the target or to our own souls. (For the glee-impaired, crocodile tears will do nicely.)
Does this commandment pertain only to "neighbors" we know personally? Are we in fact allowed to bear false witness against whole groups, races, religions, or celebrities and politicians?

No! Even when politicians (to pick an easy example!) do something we don't agree with, we're not entitled to treat them as targets, vilify them with fake outrage, insult them ... even though their operatives may be doing exactly that to "our side." We're entitled to make our case passionately and point out the defects in our adversary's case, but not to cross the line into false witness. And the discipline of discerning that line might itself be a wonderful opportunity to live life more mindfully, more deliberately. We might realize that the Russian saying "living a life is more than crossing a field" applies not only to us, but also to those for whom we once had no sympathy.



This principle has an immediate practical benefit, especially in election season. I receive tons of e-mail every day, but now any e-mail that begins with the formula, "Hey Johan, guess what idiotic thing Senator X did today," gets deleted without further ado, even when I agree that Senator X is usually wrong. In fact, any e-mail that begins "Hey..." can usually be deleted without harm!



This principle of not bearing false witness plays an important role in distinguishing ethical evangelism from proselytism. This reminds me of a post from some years ago in which I quoted Yakov Krotov on bearing courteous witness to Christian faith. (Scroll down to the "kind questions.")

"Bearing false witness robs the victim of the cloak of truth and is closely allied with God’s command not to steal."



(Back to December 2019.) I'm having a hard time saying goodbye to the kittens I've helped care for since October 22. As they sit in my lap this evening without any apparent anxiety, they surely have no idea these are our last hours together. Tomorrow morning I say goodbye to Hebron.



As his online viewership continues to climb, video blogger Yegor Zhukov's sentencing is scheduled for tomorrow in Moscow. Update: Three-year suspended sentence

David Kirkpatrick on the USA's truncated evangelicalism.

Another online archive that will grow on you until it (maybe) takes over your life: digitized medieval manuscripts.



Warren Haynes's version of "It Hurts Me Too."

28 November 2019

Giving thanks for small things


Often I wake up with our two adopted kittens arranged on each side of me. But as soon as I stand up, they like to climb up my clothes until they reach my shoulders, at which point they put their little noses on my earlobes, or else they begin batting at each other around my neck.

I suppose there's absolutely nothing new about kittens being adorable. It's not even original to derive some life lessons from their cute behavior. Still, I'm going to try to express a lesson they've taught me. What follows is the substance of what I said at Ramallah Friends Meeting last Sunday.

It's the kitties' habit of climbing up the Johan tower that started this chain of thoughts. I'm not sure why they do it; there's no food when they reach the top. They just seem to like being up there. The fact that it's a regular routine might be part of what comforts or pleases them.

Of course I eventually have to sit down, and then they're content to sit on my lap, and after a bit more batting each other they settle down for naps.

I'm now 66 years old, and I've had the good fortune of doing and learning many interesting things. But in God's scale, maybe I'm no more than just a little kitten. Daily I make my climb up the prayer mountain to enjoy God's company. To be honest, I also sometimes find myself trying to bat away the distractions that try to get their claws in me.

I do a lot of climbing every day. Physically, I have to climb up the steep path to the kindergarten housed in the Ibrahimi Mosque complex. The prayer path is also sometimes steep. (Last night I spent most of the night at a home demolition, a topic I'll return to in another post, but you can imagine how that might lead to some spiritual questions.) But when the outward prayer and reading time is over, I need to remain in that place. I need to center down still further and spend a few minutes in God's lap.

I realized, sitting quietly in the Ramallah Friends Meeting, that this little group of Quakers has  represented a special place for me to get away and be with God in the company of others, in accordance with a regular routine. It's a safe place for me to be nothing more than a little kitten, resting in the presence of the Creator. I am not nearly as cute as our baby cats, but Friends seem to welcome me anyway. And after we greet each other in the entryway, we are ready to experience together that ancient rhythm: the prayer path, steep as that path may seem after some of what we experience in a typical week, but also the time of total rest as we remember God's promises together.

Thank you, Ramallah Friends, for representing Jesus' promise of rest -- maybe something like the lap of God that I can climb into every week. And thank you, kittens, for your trust and affection and sheer playfulness, and for deepening my perspective on life with God.



More reactions to last week's announcement by the U.S. secretary of state on settlements and international law: Aaron David Miller and Daniel Kurtzer; Kairos Palestine. (On Kurtzer and Miller, Helena Cobban has some tart words to say.)

David Swartz on how cultural divisions within evangelicalism help explain the dramatic differences in attitudes toward Trump.

How should we remember John Winthrop and the Puritans?

Amazing images of Mars from the Curiosity rover. (Video.)

Foreign agents in Russia: Selective enforcement is one thing, but legislation that encourages selective enforcement is something new.



Magic Slim ... I miss him.

21 November 2019

"The Occupying Power shall not...

...  deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies." 


- Fourth Geneva Convention (1949), Article 49.

Three days ago, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made headlines by announcing a new U.S. government policy concerning Israeli settlements. The heart of his statement: "The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law."

As you can imagine, some of us who care about international law felt kicked in the teeth. Among the Palestinian responses were these words from Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian Christian and graduate of the Ramallah Friends School, quoted by the WAFA news agency:
"The US neither has the right nor agency to rewrite international law and deface the rules-based international order based on its perverse ideological leanings," said Ashrawi. "Israeli settlements are a grave violation of international law, including international humanitarian law."
Pompeo seems to be arguing that it's useless to rely on international law if a dilemma is essentially political. (See the full statement.) The dangerous implication of this argument is that international law becomes irrelevant any time one side obtains an advantage by force and succeeds in keeping that advantage by force. The occupiers would simply have to maintain that control long enough to create an appearance of permanence for its treatment of the territory and people under its control.

His statement seems to promise that the status of individual settlements and the West Bank as a whole will be determined by internal Israeli legal processes and by Israeli-Palestinian negotiation. The problem is that any such expectation ignores the power imbalance between Israel and Palestine, the history of the USA's contributions to that imbalance, the Israeli legal system's pervasively discriminatory treatment of Palestinians, and the long-term strategy of the Israeli government (though not of all Israeli citizens) to reclaim all of the occupied territory.

Pompeo's caveat that "our decision today does not prejudice or decide legal conclusions regarding situations in any other parts of the world" implies that Israel and Palestine constitute an exception to the normal process of determining legality. But there's no logical reason to believe that any outcome anywhere that is obtained and maintained by violence, especially if the violator is powerful and has powerful friends, could not become another exception. International law exists precisely to outlaw unjust "exceptions."

The word "settlement" itself is deceptively simple, as if we were dealing with some benign version of gated communities. Their existence has huge consequences:
  • first, their territories are often seized by force (we're not talking, after all, about honestly purchased non-segregated real estate -- about such deals there would be no controversy);
  • they get priority access to scarce water;
  • they have a history of hostility to their Palestinian neighbors, whose farms, homes, and schoolchildren often come under attack from settlers;
  • at the same time they are protected by soldiers, who often do not protect Palestinians suffering from settlers' attacks;
  • they require secure roads, many of which are built on land seized from Palestinians, who then may not have the right to use those roads.
Both the USA and Israel signed the Fourth Geneva Convention. That treaty clearly outlines the legal status of occupied territories and their populations. Any people under any occupation by any power anywhere must be able to appeal to these basic principles. Otherwise, millions of people would simply disappear into special extra-legal zones where their rights are determined at the point of an occupier's gun -- the situation already faced by too many in this part of the world.

Nobody denies that, inevitably, politics are involved in arriving at solutions. Pompeo says, "... arguments about who is right and wrong as a matter of international law will not bring peace." He has a point; after all, being "right" in light of the Geneva Convention's articles on occupation has not yet been a decisive factor in Palestine's favor. However, international law shapes the vision for a fair outcome and adds the weight of global consensus on the standards to apply to that vision. Otherwise, "politics" in a situation of gross power disparity is just a polite term for the law of the jungle.

Dismissing international law feels like just another part of a growing anti-democratic trend -- a revolt against the rule of law and due process, in favor of rule by authoritarians. International law and human rights are things those effete diplomats care about, whereas we ought to trust in authoritarians who awe us by their ability to create "facts on the ground." Christians have a different mandate altogether: to care for those in bondage, and to confront the occupiers -- the powers and principalities and evil in high places -- who bind them.



A few words about two loaded terms: terrorism and antisemitism.

As a follower of Jesus, I can't agree with the use of violence in any situation, no matter how tempting the incentive. Using violence, even on behalf of justice, signals to the "enemy" that you are a legitimate target according to the ancient logic of self-defense and retaliation. (Arguing about who struck first just leads us back to Cain and Abel.) It follows that terrorism is never an acceptable choice.

However, "terrorism" is practiced by many people who don't fit the usual sinister stereotypes of ideological fanatics and conspiratorial groups. Under the definition of terrorism as the use or threat of violence against civilians to achieve political goals, this evil tool is used by governments and militias of all kinds, not just our own favorite villains. In situations of occupation where human rights are weak or nonexistent, people live in conditions of continuous and systemic terrorism.

Israel, like all other countries, is right to want to protect its citizens from terrorists. That defense is a legitimate police function within the rule of law and its equal protection for all, and not a reason to put whole populations under an oppressive occupation.

I have a special hatred for antisemitism, because I see what that spiritual poison did to a whole country, Germany, including my mother's own family. My father's family in Norway, however, worked to get some of Norway's Jewish citizens safely into Sweden during World War II. That war had antisemitism as one of its major inspirations, and it cost us 52 million lives.

However, many people insist on a clear distinction between antisemitism and criticism of Israel's treatment of Palestinians. I share that view. We are no more antisemitic than Americans who criticize slavery and the USA's treatment of  Native Americans are anti-American. No matter how I feel about Palestine and the occupation, I will maintain a testimony against antisemitism.




Your weekly kitten photo and update... Both kittens seem happy, lively, and affectionate, but the brother on the right seems to be growing faster than his sister on the left. Another visit to the vet (perhaps for worm medicine) may be next on the agenda.



More from Hanan Ashrawi. And a Lutheran bishop considers Pompeo's announcement.

Are Baptists (and we) ready to learn from Baptist prophet E. Glenn Hinson?

Rowan Williams and "one of the most extraordinary mysteries of being Christian," in Mike Farley's Mercy Blog.
We are in the middle of two things that seem quite contradictory: in the middle of the heart of God, the ecstatic joy of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; and in the middle of a world of threat, suffering, sin and pain.
Adria Gulizia on walking the path of the perpetrator.

On living in congruence with one's faith. (Be sure to read the story about Michele Rickett.)

Yoni Appelbaum's question: can the USA hold together?

Russia expands its laws on foreign agents -- now including individuals, not just organizations.



Lil' Jimmy Reed Band, "Honest I Do" (a song I associate with Junior Wells).

14 November 2019

When bad news is good news

Thirteen years ago, I wrote a blog post, Can evangelicals reproduce?, which was sparked by a New York Times article, "Evangelicals fear the loss of their teenagers." The downward trend that Ron Luce bemoaned seems to be continuing, along with a stream of articles about this exodus from the churches.

I mentioned a couple of these articles a few weeks ago in the links section. "Two different takes on trends in church-going attendance among younger adults: Christine Emba. Rick Snedeker." Some of the evidence suggests that demographic and sociological trends are driving this loss of attendance, but Vance Morgan, in his blog post Noah and his children: bad news for white evangelical Christians, cites recent op-ed columns by Michael Gerson in support of another major factor: the church is actually driving them away.
The younger generation of people raised in evangelicalism have “an allergic reaction to the religious right.” Imagine that. The very movement created, largely by white evangelicals, for the expressed purpose of strengthening the role of religion in the public square has managed to alienate greater and greater numbers of Americans, particularly the young, from religion.
I'm sure that some leaders, whose concern for tradition and power exceeds their desire to do actual evangelism, will say that these trends prove that this generation cannot endure the gospel, that Paul's prophecy in 2 Timothy 4:3 is coming true:
For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.
I'm sure that this is a fair criticism some percentage of the time. But this sort of pandering has been going on forever -- Paul himself complained about it in his own time. Question: which of these is a more likely factor in this era's exodus from the churches: new waves of massive rebellion against the gracious good news of Jesus, or an unholy enmeshment of Christian celebrity culture with right-wing politics ... and now with a president who boasts openly -- and, for the most part, accurately -- that "the evangelicals love me"?

(At the risk of overinterpreting the word "the" -- it sounds to me as if Trump is referring to "the evangelicals" not as a family he himself identifies with, but as a voting bloc he has won over.)

The ones who are refusing to "put up with sound doctrine" are those who have neglected evangelism by word and deed, preferring to use the power of religious language to divide and manipulate. This is not attractive -- it is repulsive, and the statistics reflect it. It's in this sense that bad news (for the religious establishment) is good news. It is good news that these compromised versions of the Gospel, in which Jesus barely gets the time of day, are being unmasked. Let's now serve a Gospel that makes its way in the public marketplace of ideas and inspiration through its own merits, free from association with the unholy agendas that threatened its good name.



Cat update: (This is probably what you really came here for.)

It's been just over three weeks since our two little Hebron kitties joined our team, and one week since we started giving them solid-ish food. They have continued to do well. Today we switched them to dry cat food, soaked for a little while in some water to soften the food. They took to it immediately.

Both kittens are growing, but slowly. Latest development: a few days ago, the smaller kitty began purring for the first time, and began letting us hold her for more than a few short seconds.



Postmission is a book that examined generational tensions within evangelical Christianity specifically in the missionary scene, back at the beginning of this century. Go to this post and scroll down for some of the writers' diagnoses.

Helena Cobban resurrects Just World News.

The fall of the Berlin Wall: a day when way opened.

All the days ordained for me.... Life would almost seem normal, except it isn't.



I played the studio version of Derek Lamson's song this morning for our team's reflection time, as we sat under our office's memorial plaque for Tom Fox.

07 November 2019

First principles revisited

Tomorrow will be the third anniversary of the U.S. presidential election that gave us Donald Trump. On that election day, Judy and I were still living in Elektrostal, Russia, and our votes had already been cast by e-mail. Around the time that we sent in our votes, back in October 2016, I wrote on this blog:
In arguing against Trump, we are not simply advocating a choice among several normal candidates. We are making a choice against authoritarianism and we should say so clearly.

I'm not advocating scare tactics. It's possible that "it can't happen here," to adopt the rose-colored title of Sinclair Lewis's 1935 novel, given our vaunted system of checks and balances, but the very process of coping with the commands, whims, and misdeeds of a rogue president could plunge our country into constitutional crises on a weekly basis, and thereby prolong our legislative paralysis at the very point we're also destabilizing our ties with the rest of the world.
It didn't take unique prophetic insight to write this -- almost everyone I quoted in that post was saying similar things, along with many other commentators. They were simply drawing conclusions from Trump's campaign pronouncements and his uncanny hold on his core supporters.

So ... despite losing the popular vote, the authoritarian candidate emerged victorious thanks to the Electoral College. Ten weeks later came Trump's inauguration. On the eve of that day, I proposed some first principles for "shaping our discipleship" to meet the challenges of the Trump era. Here they are in all their earnest clumsiness, ready to compare with the experiences we've already had in these past months and years of a rogue presidency. What additions or improvements would you make?



January 19, 2017: I'm writing on the eve of the inauguration of the most unqualified, most thin-skinned, bullying American president in living memory, or perhaps ever. Many people I know in the evangelical community are consulting with each other on shaping our discipleship in light of this reality.

In designing a campaign, I learned from my marketing apprenticeship at Crane MetaMarketing Ltd. (who are not responsible for my politics!!) how important it is to create first principles. Here are some possible first principles: please suggest additions, deletions, improvements! (I'm slightly scared that I'm taking it all too seriously, too!)

1. Don't hide from the truth. It would be wonderful to imagine a presidential outsider finally disrupting the establishment and its conventional wisdom in favor of wildly creative ideas that could truly address the dangerous levels of income inequality in the USA, the stark challenges of global climate change, the replacement of democratic institutions by the ever-growing apparatus of the National Security State, and our imperial habits on the world stage.

In each of these areas, our actual new president shows no evidence of any such capacity -- indeed, in sector after sector of presidential stewardship, he seems to signal retreat (more moneyed people at the top), denial (who needs energy R&D and climate science?), and dangerous levels of chaotic improvisation (national security and international relations).

I see two enormous and more or less opposite dangers (please tell me how I'm wrong!!) ...
  • the era of Trump will totally enthrone the interests of those who see themselves benefiting from the marginalization of vulnerable people and elimination of the social advances associated with the sneering term "political correctness"; or
  • the era of Trump will come to an abrupt end as the top operatives of the National Security State decide that this incredibly loose cannon is too big a risk for the Empire to tolerate. 
As institutions adjust to new leadership, as different levels of government maintain their boundaries, as legislators and lawyers tug at their various ropes, and as our international allies impose their own reality checks on us, we may have better outcomes than this pessimistic summary suggests. Miracles can and do happen. But as a first principle, I want us to remain sober, clear-eyed and vigilant, drawing intelligent conclusions from the evidence.

2. Do not divide the country into pro- and anti-Trump populations. This is crucial! First of all, given the millions of potential voters who stayed home, only 27% of the eligible voting population chose him. And of that 27%, whatever their reasons for choosing Trump or rejecting his opponents, few if any were actually voting in favor of chaos, self-dealing, bankruptcy, or wholesale incompetence in high places. Part of his constituency does support an unprecedentedly authoritarian leader, but even they expect competent performance.

In any case, regardless of our various choices at (or not at) the polls, the whole country is in the same boat -- even, arguably, the super-rich, whose golden eggs might or might not survive a meltdown among the rest of us. The new president has the same job description and the same responsibilities as his predecessors, and it's up to us to hold him to these expectations on behalf of everyone. If he cannot make good on his fabulous campaign promises, it would be a terrible mistake to mock his voters and wait gloatingly for their disenchantment. Seek the good of all!

Friday PS: Part of me honestly hopes that Trump's most fanatical followers do become disenchanted. But massive disenchantment with him doesn't guarantee reconciliation with the rest of the nation. It's up to us to demand and build trustworthy institutions, recognizing that, sadly, some extremists will probably reject reconciliation on any reasonable basis.

3. Resist the degradation of civil discourse. Meryl Streep's thoughtful Golden Globe speech gave one vivid example of what that degradation looked like to her. Trump's reaction to her speech (hurling insults at Streep and her community) just proved her point. Trump's opponents, in turn, often give as good as they get, and we're off to the races ... to the bottom.

Resisting degradation of discourse requires honesty and self-examination. During the presidential campaign, Trump came in for some well-deserved criticism for his arrogant sexual vulgarity, and many of us probably assumed that socially conservative people, perhaps especially evangelical Christians, would be alienated by this behavior. But then I heard a BBC interview with a woman in the American Midwest who totally shrugged it off. Interviews like that one reminded me of an interesting conversation I had with a blue-collar worker in Richmond, Indiana, maybe twenty years ago. When he found out that I was a Quaker, he smilingly informed me that he and his circles took it for granted that Quakers (who had founded the city and who were still generally pillars of Richmond respectability) were the people in charge of making sure nobody in Richmond had any fun. He invited me to hear his favorite local band at a hotel bar. I came a bit early and heard a stand-up comedian telling a sexually explicit story that was beyond raunchy. People laughed! I didn't recognize any Quakers or Earlham College people in the audience. I was shaken by the social distance that was represented for me by that comedian's casual vulgarity and his audience's equally casual indifference.

Here's where the honesty comes in: intellectuals and self-identified sophisticated people can be equally vulgar, just not usually in the same settings. (Recent example: the chortles and puns I heard from liberal commentators discussing the raw intelligence apparently gathered by a retired British spy reporting on rumors of Trump's activities in and with Russia. Don't know what I'm referring to? Give thanks!)

Vulgarity is, among other things, a stress reliever. Different people experience different kinds of stress and have different kinds of training and upbringing to draw on in coping with it. In any case, if we are going to conduct a principled campaign of discipleship in the Trump era, we have to stay civil, whatever the provocation, refusing either to blast back in kind or to retreat into smug elitism.

4. Count the cost of protracted resistance, and organize accordingly. Some of us are Quakers in part precisely because we dislike this kind of combativeness. We will probably need to help each other learn some new skills and disciplines in the area of a dignified ferocity and persistence in engaging in needful conflict for the sake of our social values and priorities. In the division of labor that's inherent in the New Testament concept of spiritual gifts, I hope some of our pastorally-gifted Friends will stay mindful of the psychic cost of being in nearly constant conflict. How will it affect those of us who are naturally inclined to rage, or are even addicted to rage? How will it affect those of us who are totally conflict-avoidant?

If we succeed in muddling through these next years, avoiding those two worst case scenarios or other catastrophic outcomes, it might be because, in seeking to stay grounded in truth and reality, we overestimated the dangers and underestimated the nation's resilience. But it might also just be because we have been practicing love and resistance and truth-telling and prophecy and ethical evangelism and creative confrontation in season and out of season. I see no rest for the Christian community and our allies except as we care for each other and spell each other and heal each other, and extend the same care and vigilance to those who might come unexpectedly into our spheres of influence.

Another source of potential exhaustion will probably be internal conflicts in the resistance. There's no reason to panic about this; learning to conduct conflict ethically is always a useful thing, and we might as well practice among people whose concerns we share. We will probably learn that no one approach or philosophy will ever command unanimity, but that our own vigilance must include the values we see absent from the regime and which we cannot abide seeing absent from our response: not just avoiding vulgar discourse, but being stubbornly unwilling to lie, to use violence, to objectify and bear false witness, and so on. Or to put it another way, our vigilance will be fueled by our modesty and joy in our own creatureliness, as we try not to stray from the Living Water constantly offered by our Creator.

(Thank you to David Finke who read an early draft of this post and encouraged me to publish it. He bears no responsibility for its deficiencies, especially since its length has more than doubled since he read it!) 

(Original post.)



(Back to the present, November 2019.) I think and confess that, in all my bleak scenarios of this era, I underestimated the levels of routine corruption that we would encounter, even as our predictions of the more dramatic dangers of authoritarianism, abuse of power, incompetence, and bias toward wealth, all came true. And maybe in God's economy, that corruption has finally come around to bite itself -- perhaps fatally -- as the Ukraine/Giuliani/Biden scandal has finally made impeachment almost inevitable.



Update on our Hebron kittens: Today they had their first taste of (relatively) solid food. They gobbled it up, and now we anxiously wait to see whether their little systems are ready for it. They seem happy and playful and affectionate but are still gaining very little weight.



Danny Coleman on anecdotal Christianity.

A Quaker, Gretchen Castle, is the new chairperson of the Conference of Secretaries of Christian World Communions. (More coverage in The Friend.)

Paula White-Cain joins the White House staff -- but what does that mean? What does she think of Trump's opponents? (Somehow I don't recognize myself!) What does her leadership tell us about shifting relationships among Pentecostals and evangelicals?

A profile of Kennette Benedict, who has devoted most of her adult life to nuclear disarmament.

Never mind Trump ... what's happening to the universe?

Michele Berdy is expanding her Russian linguistic horizons.



Albert Collins in Dortmund, Germany.