20 June 2019

Back in the USSR

I've spent most of the past week immersed in historical television dramas on Soviet themes. Despite their grim subjects, I can't deny the deep nostalgia for Russia that these shows evoked. They reminded me of our universal human capacities for kindness and cruelty, humor and cynicism, acceptance and resistance ... and the specific ways I experienced these capacities in Russia and other places in the former Soviet Union, ever since my first visit in the fall of 1975.

The first program I devoured over these last few days was HBO/Sky's miniseries Chernobyl. I thought that for an American to create a program on the USSR's most serious nuclear accident was nervy -- just imagine all the political and cultural distortions that could result. But I remembered the U.S. television coverage at the time (sample: CBS Evening News) ... surely a carefully constructed drama would be better than those speculative TV news summaries that filled the information vacuum of the time?

I was aware that the HBO/Sky series was getting good marks from a lot of critics, even Russian critics. In Novaya Gazeta, one columnist essentially said "This is the film we should have made." As I weighed the many specific criticisms made by both western and Russian commentators, I appreciated the accompanying five-part podcast in which host Peter Sagal talks with series creator Craig Mazin about his creative choices, and the deviations from the historical record that critics often refer to.

The "voice" of the Sagal/Mazin podcast is typically American -- mostly upbeat, offhand, slangy, sometimes verging on glib. But one thing comes through this conversation constantly: in the series itself, Mazin and his co-workers were determined to show respect to the men and women who risked (and sometimes gave) their lives to save their fellow citizens and potentially a whole continent. They demonstrated that respect by choosing to focus on individuals and stories that exemplified human decency and generosity and the finest aspects of patriotism -- all of which combined to contain the worst possible outcomes of the disaster. Even self-serving bureaucrats occasionally displayed flashes of humanity; the series avoided presenting us with total villains. However, the overwhelming desire of the ruling system to protect itself at all costs, deny problems, and avoid humiliation, was presented with brutal realism -- and (despite some oversimplifications and dramatic exaggerations) rightly so.

"Our goal is the happiness of all humanity."
There were imperfections in the series and podcast accompaniment that aren't explained by the choices imposed by compression and dramatic continuity. For example, in episode four, one of the squads sent out to catch and eliminate abandoned pets is eating and chatting outside a cultural center. A squad member points out a banner attached to the building: "Our goal is the happiness of all humanity." The irony isn't lost on the squad, but even so I wasn't happy that Sagal and Mazin mocked the sentiment. Maybe it's my own exaggerated idealism, but those slogans (however compromised by official corruption and everyday coping mechanisms) reflected real pride among Soviet people. Today those old banners and slogans evoke nostalgia among many Russians who look about in vain for similar ideals in our own time.

Other critics have pointed out historical inaccuracies -- the reactors' deficiencies were not that secret; the authorities were generally no longer threatening executions; the courtroom scenes were practically fictional; the apartment buildings had modern windows, and so on. You can find these complaints for yourself. They don't diminish the main point for me: the enormous wave of heroism among ordinary human beings in the face of a catastrophe that they cannot even understand.

Finally: apart from the riveting plot, a very rewarding aspect of the TV series for me was the attention to visual detail, to the texture of daily life in the mid-1980's USSR. The hospitals I've seen in Russia still look like those in Chernobyl. Same with the older apartment buildings, and with such details as clocks, telephones, stoves, radios, wallpaper, stairwells, and so on. Chernobyl isn't a one-stop substitute for deeper research and reading, but it is a very worthwhile attempt to dramatize history with care and respect for its human dimensions.

The second program was one I'm returning to after almost a dozen years since I first saw it. Here's how I described Shtrafbat after my first binge-watching exposure to the series: (Thanksgiving 2007) ...
I just gave eleven hours of my free time to a fascinating Russian television miniseries, Shtrafbat ("Penal Battalion") on DVD. In WWII Russia, penal battalions were the most expendable of soldiers, made up of criminals and "enemies of the people" who were offered this service as a way to get out of the GULags and redeem themselves by blood from the crimes they'd allegedly committed. The series has some battle scenes, but it's far more devoted to the human relationships among the characters--between regular Red Army and the shtrafniki, between the criminals and the politicals, between the Red Army's military officers and the political officers, between atheists and believers, between wounded soldiers and nurses, and occasionally between Russians and Germans.

Source: IMDB  
In these eleven episodes, there were so many memorable characters and moments of drama. And complete frankness about the NKVD (predecessor to the KGB) and its horrible methods. The battalion commander Tverdokhlebov mentions to his assistant that, when they go into action, the NKVD will station troops behind them to shoot anyone who turns back, even if they're wounded. (It happened.) And the assistant, Glymov, smiles and says, "Ah, how our Soviet leaders so lovingly look after their citizens." Later, after their beloved commander has been arrested by the NKVD on trumped-up charges, the soldiers are standing in formation and the NKVD colonel introduces them to the new commander. One of the soldiers asks, "And what about Tverdokhlebov?" In the confrontation that ensues, the colonel says, "You are enemies of the people. Nothing! Useless!" Glymov waves at the ragged penal battalion troops behind him and says, "These boys still have a bit of usefulness left in them. As for you, your loss wouldn't make a bit of difference."

This could have been a concept ready-made for exploitative violence and sensational gore, or for mindless patriotism and militarism. Instead, the series believably brings to life an almost-forgotten dimension of Russia's wartime experience. At one point, Glymov says that the secret of his survival to that point was not courage, but rather sheer cunning. Nevertheless, we see genuine kindness in his character. I can't help wondering whether, in similar circumstances, I would have been able to preserve as much humanity.
At the time I first saw this series, I wasn't aware of some of the controversy it raised. Some of the controversy I'm inclined to minimize -- for example, I totally disagree with the charge that the series exaggerates the role of penal battalions in the USSR's victory over Germany, or demeans the victory itself. There are no such implications, although in the context of today's victory cult, Shtrafbat's distinctly anti-Stalinist tone might be out of fashion. In fact, (spoiler alert), the last penal-battalion attack on the Germans is merely intended as a diversionary nuisance, although these soldiers don't know it.
Yuri Stepanov in role of Glymov the thief, about to volunteer.
Alexei Serebryakov (comm-batt Tverdokhlebov), Stepanov.
Screenshots made from episodes at Советское кино

More serious criticisms involve the actual composition of the USSR's penal forces, most of which apparently consisted of active soldiers condemned to this form of service as punishment for military infractions, as with Tverdokhlebov in this series, who escaped from German capture. They rarely consisted of GULAG conscripts, either criminal or political, and their officers were likewise drawn from officer ranks rather than from the soldiers being so punished.

One critic pointed out the unlikelihood of a priest serving in a penal company (although another source vouched for one such actual case).

Whether or not these criticisms were 100% justified, we know from both combat literature and GULAG literature that the characters who come to life in Shtrafbat are realistic, both in their range of opinions and their mixed motives for service. Many of the supporting characters are of necessity two-dimensional; even the main characters sometimes slip into well-worn stereotypes, but the ensemble acting is truly inspired. Furthermore, the debates between the politicals and the criminals -- debates that reflect tensions going back to the Civil War and collectivization -- have an immediacy that reminds us of the constant interplay between authoritarian government and a long-suffering but wily population determined to survive.

Father Mikhail, the priest (played by Dmitri Nazarov) who first appears in episode seven presented a bit of a challenge. When Germans unexpectedly attack the battalions in a small village that our heroes have been ordered to clear, he is in the church's bell tower, ringing the bell to warn of the approaching Germans. As German snipers force him off the tower, he seizes a gun and joins the defense, and subsequently throws his lot in with the soldiers. Eleven years ago I thought this character threatened to bring an element of mixed absurdity and sentimentality into a drama built on painstaking realism. The priest seems to be custom-built to fulfill a stereotypical role as a bigger-than-life warrior-confessor, source of pithy observations and sonorous blessings. In the climactic battle, spraying the enemy with machine-gun bullets, he roars "Find your graves, you damn thieves! ... Forgive me, Lord."

This time through, I put more weight on the fascinating dialogues between the priest and various soldiers (many utterly skeptical). Right away they challenge him on the propriety of a priest killing. He agrees that it's problematic: "Even sins committed by necessity must be cleansed. I won't be able to take communion for three years.... I'd miss ten years if it's the Lord's will." The priest's presence in the ranks also becomes a political problem, and contributes to the arrest and torture of battalion commander Tverdokhlebov.

I'm not in a position to argue that such figures and incidents never arose in real life. And the drama, after all, still ground on to its bloody conclusion.

The reason I began watching this series all over again was that I stumbled across the fact that the whole series is available through Amazon, with decent subtitles (although the English-language descriptions of the series and its episodes on the Amazon site are hopelessly bad). I had no subtitles to help me back in 2007, so a lot of the rapid-fire slang in soldiers' dialogues went right past me. Now, once again I can enjoy the friendship between battalion commander Tverdokhlebov (played by Alexei Serebryakov) and his company commander Glymov (Yuri Stepanov) as they figure out how to fulfill the impossible demands on their pitiful band of shtrafniki by the general, Lykov (Alexei Zharkov). We see both the respect and the exasperation within the relationship between Lykov and Tverdokhlebov, complicated by the close watch on them both on the part of the NKVD officer, Kharchenko (played by Roman Madyanov), assigned to Lykov's headquarters to ensure strict political compliance. Excellent actors, every one of them.

If you have some Russian and would like to try watching the series without subtitles and without Amazon, all eleven episodes are here. Whichever source you choose, be prepared to meet some unforgettable characters.

First time for everything dept: Becky Ankeny begins a sermon on keeping faith with an Alfa Romeo story.

Three views of Vladimir Putin's four-hour call-in show earlier today. The Independent. RFERL. And Steve Gutterman, also on RFERL.

Julia Duin on apparent indifference of American Christians to severe persecution elsewhere. (My addition: instead, too many of us are complaining about "persecution" here in the USA. Silly example.)

Forbes: Norway continues to serve as an electric-car market pioneer.

The latest from Playing for Change: "Walking Blues."

13 June 2019

Does Truth prosper? Why or why not?

Early Quakers asked each other, "How does Truth prosper among you?" When I was asked to lead a workshop at Friends United Meeting's recent "Stoking the Fire" conference, that query came to mind, and I designed the workshop around it.

To give the workshop some structure, I went back to an experience I had about four decades ago ... a workshop led by George Lakey of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting on some topic relating to social change. I remembered a chart that he used, with forces or factors favoring the desired change on the left side of the chart, the desired change itself in the middle column, and the impeding forces arrayed on the right side of the chart. We could then think about how to activate the favorable factors and confront the obstacles.

For the "Stoking the Fire" conference workshop, I proposed the following desirable change: increased access to the Quaker message (and to the community shaped by that message). This is the "Truth" that we offer the world -- our understanding of the bondage-breaking freedom in Jesus that we are learning about as Friends, and that others might find to be as life-giving as we have found it. I put this goal in the center of our workshop charts.

To demonstrate and prime the pump, I put up a blank chart and briefly sketched in the positive and negative factors that Russian Friends might be facing as they seek to increase access to Friends' faith and life in Russia. Then -- we started a fresh chart and, together, tried to do the same thing for the American meetings and churches we belong to.

(For the version I'm posting here, I'm working from notes, which differ slightly from the sheet I photographed at the end of the session. TOGIEO = "that of God in everyone." I reworded some of the more obscure one-word notes.)

Among the positive factors proposed by workshop participants:
  • Numbers/visibility: this factor comes from a city that has several Friends meetings and a history of Quaker involvement in city life.
  • Attractive presence: same city, attractive meetinghouses and Friends schools.
  • Curiosity: Friends still benefit from being known just enough to be on people's radar, but not so well that everyone has the details they might want. When that gap succeeds in provoking interest, we benefit.
  • Form of worship: Even programmed Friends meetings usually have a period of silent (waiting) worship. This factor, silent worship and the absence of sacraments, was listed on both sides of the chart, as a factor in favor (an appealing distinctive) and an impediment (misunderstood or off-putting).
  • "That of God in everyone": the faith that God already witnesses inwardly to every person we might meet; we simply need to engage in "permission evangelism" to direct people to that inner witness.
  • Idealism: if history can be summarized as a debate between idealists and cynics, even the most severe and pessimistic Quakers can usually be found among the idealists, giving us a potential appeal to unaffiliated idealists everywhere.
Among the impediments proposed by participants:
  • False assumptions/confusion: mixing us up with Shakers, Amish, Jehovah's Witnesses; or believing that we don't exist anymore.
  • Pacifism and passivity: the frequent criticism that we would be passive in the face of evil, or that our ideals prove we are (negatively) living in la-la land, or (positively?) we must all be saints or lofty adepts; who could be pure enough to be acceptable?
  • Apathy: Our own lack of interest in growing, or being accessible to people not already in our communities.
  • Military culture: one of our participants came from a city where the military and related industries play a major role.
  • Civil religion: several of us mentioned the enmeshment of religion and patriotism, or the association of religiosity with right-wing politics.
  • Desire for hierarchy: our nearly flat organizational structures has little attraction for people who want the assurance provided by "strong" leadership. This leadership model often dominates the religious scene in many parts of the country.
  • Quaker elitism/exceptionalism: when this came up, I told my favorite Jane Boring Dunlap story. Some years ago, when we were having a discussion of evangelism and growth at Wilmington Friends Meeting (Ohio), someone asked, "If we get new people, how will we know they're really Friends?" Jane asked in turn, "Why do we assume that new people would be more stupid than we are?"
  • Church or chaplaincy? A church is a multigenerational community in which people are born, form households, live, and die, in organic relationship with the wider community. A chaplaincy ministers to a specific population (a military base; a hospital; a university). It can also serve as a metaphor for a congregation that prefers to minister to those already there, or to others very much like themselves. In considering obstacles to greater access, a congregation needs to be honest about which it is.
Some of these factors could be additionally classified as "internal" or "external" -- originating in our own strengths and dysfunctions or from the wider communities we find ourselves in. However, many factors are both internal and external, as we ourselves absorb helpful and unhelpful assumptions from our wider cultures.

The original blank chart that we distributed to conference participants had another column on the left side of the desired-change column. This extra column was a place to note "preparation required" for each of the positive factors. We ended up not using that column in the workshop, although others using this tool might find it helpful. Instead, we put two recommendations in the center, under the desired change: "persistence" and "reframing."
  • Persistence: none of our positive engagement or our confrontation with negative forces may result in immediate growth. If we discern an approach which honors our leadings and values, we need to persist. And we need to continue to exercise a lively curiosity about whether we still care about accessibility.
  • Reframing: Can we reframe our message to overcome misunderstandings and false scandals within our potential audiences? In the military culture, can we begin conversations about the Lamb's war that is not fought with outward weapons and completely redefines "enemy"? If the lack of sacraments is shocking, can we talk about our inward understanding of communion and baptism? (And have we done our homework, so that we don't accidentally trivialize concepts that our audience cherishes?) 
This tool may be too linear and rigid for every group or situation, but maybe it could be adapted, or could simply be used as a conversation-starter. We had only ninety minutes for both the case study and this chart -- I'd love to imagine what could happen with more time, a sharper focus -- just one church or meeting, just one location -- and a prayerful, creative, wide-open approach to the core query, "How does Truth prosper among us?"

Here's a blank chart in .doc format.

Two more Quaker conferences: Quaker Religious Education Collaborative (August 9-11, this year); and the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women's Theology Conference (June 24-28, 2020).

Rita Finger: Is God "Father" on Father's Day?

Ivan Golunov and Russian civil society's brief moment of solidarity and euphoria.

Two of Golunov's articles: the real estate bonanza of Moscow's deputy mayor's relatives; and the mortuary racket.

Are Russians getting tired of the church?

Svetlana Alexievich has good things to say about HBO's miniseries Chernobyl. (So do I, in a future post.)

The cost of not opening up the Russia beat to more diversity among journalists and academics.

Donald Trump realizes he needs to do dramatic things to unstick the situation.

Mellow down easy...

06 June 2019


Patrick Chappatte, source.  
At its hollow core, whiteness is nothing in particular: It’s an airless vacuum, bereft of any affirmative quality. To be white in America is merely to benefit from the absence of racial discrimination. To be white in America is to walk a path that contains no hurdles based on the color of one’s skin, one’s name, one’s outward presentation to the world. To be white is to benefit from a history of slavery, theft, and colonization that transpired before you were born; it’s to reap the harvest, without any effort on your own part, of centuries of religious and intellectual justification for violence. It’s playing life, like a video game, on the easiest setting. There’s no shame in being born white, but there’s no pride in it either, because it is by definition a category bereft of specificity.

[Talia Lavin, "It's OK to Be White, But it's Not Enough"]
It was September 1968. The sound track of my first months as a high school sophomore was dominated by one arresting song: James Brown's "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" -- a song that was so compelling that, at random times during the day, I would hear it playing inside my head. I acknowledged the obvious irony but that certainly didn't get in the way of my enjoyment.

In high school classes we learned that race had powerful social significance but no biological significance. That social weight was a huge part of Evanston Township High School's daily reality in those years, with 5,300 very diverse students trying to figure out, together, which end was up. To ratchet up my own tension still further, at home I had to conceal my fascination with race relations because that was a taboo topic with my parents. They became even more extreme when my 13-year-old sister Ellen began running away from home and being caught by police in predominantly black neighborhoods.

I vividly remember scenes from my junior year of high school. One student especially fascinated me: she was black, had brains to spare and a sharp tongue, and seemed refreshingly uninterested in the good opinion of white students or teachers. Among my white classmates was the first person I ever met who self-identified as a Communist; he too seemed more interested in the world of ideas than social approval. Mostly, that was the niche where I'd be hiding.

In the spring of that school year, Ellen was kidnapped and shot twice, her dead body dumped from a car on the Kedzie Street bridge on the edge of Chicago. The suspect, later convicted, was black -- and my parents' descent into racial polarization was complete.

I lived in two utterly separate worlds -- my high school world with its stormy, clumsy, but often very idealistic rhythms of racial tension and reconciliation, and my home, sealed off from the rest of the world in its own haze of bitterness and alcohol. Eventually both of my parents lost their jobs. They left their home in Evanston for cheaper housing in Skokie. That's where they were in 1977, when Frank Collins and his neo-Nazis campaigned for the right to march in Skokie for "white free speech." My mother's contribution: she put up a swastika on her front lawn.

(Flashing back a moment to April 4, 1968: It was my mother who said that Martin Luther King had no right to live, having usurped the name of the great German reformer, Martin Luther.)

I have no standing to pronounce upon the content of James Brown's "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" song, and the pride that it proclaimed. What struck my young high-school brain, however, was the contrast between that pride and the message I was getting from my family. There was no positive content in that family message -- just defensiveness, fear, boundaries, prohibitions ("don't play that music around your mother"), isolation. Their path seemed completely unattractive.

Based on my parents' nationalities, I'm half Norwegian, half German. (I tend to give more weight to Norway because that's were I was actually born.) Both countries have complex histories; both countries have been aggressors (remember the Vikings!), and both countries have also contributed massively to global culture. Just to make things even muddier, both nations took their current shapes very recently. Norway gained its independence from Sweden in 1905. Germany became a united country just a few years earlier, in 1871, was divided again in the wreckage of World War II, and reunited again in 1990. So, to be honest, there has to be a certain vagueness in claims of cultural pride based on nation-states. Since every country has human beings capable of creativity and faithfulness as well as bias and jaundice, it's ultimately a sour enterprise to go beyond honest pride and begin comparing and ranking countries' contributions to world civilization.

(Another personal aside: when my parents married across the lingering enemy lines of Norway and Germany, they linked two families full of intelligent, fun, and generous people.)

As for pride in being white? On some non-verbal level, I think I realized already in high school that "white pride" just didn't compute. As Talia Lavin says, whiteness "... is by definition a category bereft of specificity." Furthermore, all of its logical and demonic force is contained in this simple, deceptively bland formulation: "We are not non-white!"

In 1974, I became a Christian, thereby becoming part of a global family of faith. In this family, all nationalities, cultures, and social divisions still remain distinctive features and flavors of our humanity, to cherish and share, but (when God is truly at the center) do not give us the right to outrank or alienate or condemn each other. When God is not at the center, then all bets are off, and the word "Christian" just marks another social division to be attacked and defended in the sad, ancient spectacle of human cruelty.

Glacial progress department: In November 1997, I was at the White House for an ecumenical gathering on racial concerns. I wrote about it here.

More on whiteness: Blake Mundell asks, who are my people? (Thanks to Hannah Evans for the link.)
...[E]ach of my ancestors ended up making the exchange, and the peoples and the magic that they forfeited in their ascension to whiteness are now lost to me. I don’t greet the Danish people I see in the grocery store with inside jokes and unrestrained laughter. I don’t feel less alone in the wider world when a person of Irish descent walks into the coffee shop where I’m writing. I mostly feel nothing. I don’t know how to recognize my kin.

But at least I still have my whiteness.
Richard Ostling: Where is world religion heading, anyway?

Becky Ankeny on calling and commitment.
Since I can’t be Jesus, I want to be Jesus’ sister. So it is important to see what it is that God wants me to do. Jesus insists everywhere that God wants me to help, not to harm; to save life, not to destroy it; to set free, not to leave imprisoned. And Jesus illustrates by example that standing by and doing nothing when I can do something helpful is in fact doing harm.

And God wants me never ever to use the Law—the Bible or some other code of moral behavior—as an excuse to ignore those being harmed, destroyed, held prisoner by evil.
Respect to Senator Richard Lugar.

As church cultures changed, so did their financial practices and controls.

TomDispatch: What fight is the Pentagon spoiling for?

D-Day's wishful thinking: With the death of the Nazi myth of invincibility, fascism itself died in this world. (And recognizing fascism today.)

More of the talent planned for the 2019 Waterfront Blues Festival: Larkin Poe ... the sisters return.

30 May 2019

Out of order

Nothing alarms the patriarchs like a woman preaching.

Just a quick review of recent versions of this debate: After seeing several recent social-media exclamations along these lines -- "Churches where women preach are false churches" -- I sat up and took notice when one of my theology feeds brought me Owen Strachan's article, "Divine Order in a Chaotic Age: On Women Preaching."

A few days later came this thread from preacher and teacher Beth Moore:

In the comparatively sheltered world of Quakers, maybe it's easy for some of us to minimize these debates as unrelated to us. It's particularly easy for me, being male and an adult convert. Beth Moore conveys some of the agony and grief and betrayal that would be frighteningly easy for me to miss completely. This would not be right, because we are in the same larger family of faith, both spiritually and historically -- and because we bear a testimony to challenge that larger Christian family, just as they challenge us in other areas of theology and discipleship.

Without brushing aside the specific debate within the Southern Baptist Convention and similar communities, I'm fascinated by a prior concern that I see in the Strachan article: the yearning for order.
Order is not incidental to Christian doctrine; order is central. God is the maker and ruler of all things; the creation is distinct from him, yet exists by the super-sustenance of his Son (Colossians 1:17); the world in which we dwell is not characterized in fundamental terms by randomness and disorder, but by divine design.
A few sentences and selected scriptures later, we have the implication of "order" for the dispute at hand: men must always shepherd women, not the other way around. Men lead, and women appreciatively follow and support, and instruct the younger women; thus has it ever been among those who Stand On the Word:
It is not man who has “fixed” the word of God, and written it in the sky. By God’s own hand and mind, there is order in the home; there is order in the churches; there is order in the world God has made.
Whenever I encounter this kind of reasoning, it often seems to pose a stark choice: either it's this kind of order, or none at all. One recent anti-egalitarian blog post quoted Abraham Kuyper:
Finally Modernism, which denies and abolishes every difference, cannot rest until it has made woman man and man woman, and, putting every distinction on a common level, kills life by placing it under the ban of uniformity.
(In Kuyper's defense, the same lecture included his Calvinist denunciation of "...not merely all open slavery and systems of caste, but also all covert slavery of woman and of the poor.")

This chain of biblical logic cuts short any discussion of the actual fact that the Scriptures were not "fixed" and "written in the sky" by God alone; they were assembled, edited, and ratified by a very human process. It's a process that we trust because we know the same Holy Spirit that guided those editors and assemblers. When we study the Bible reverently and prayerfully, we in effect receive the sacred texts NOT as some kind of occult oracles but as a legacy of the Body of Christ.

We receive that legacy with our brains fully functional even as our spirits eagerly await what the Holy Spirit has to tell us through those words. All new believers, every new generation, must ratify the Bible for themselves. Nobody can claim that the Bible magically translates or interprets itself, or imposes some eternal order of church politics with iron logic that trumps all human participation. Mind and Spirit must always collaborate. The outcome, the division of labor among us, is not controlled by any church bureaucrat, no matter how coercive their allegedly biblical rhetoric.

We don't have to choose between the vision of order represented by Southern Baptist complementarians and the caricature of disorder and uniformity that they sometimes present as the dangerous alternative. Early Friends raised a vision of "Gospel order" that agrees completely with Southern Baptists on the main point: God is a God of order, not of disorder. It's in the next steps -- leadership and discipleship -- that things tend to diverge.

In Lloyd Lee Wilson's summary,
The Quaker understanding of gospel order stems from an understanding of Christ's role as the restorer of the original relationship between the Creator and creation. By this view, Christ reconciled creation with the Creator, and by so doing enabled everyone who believes in Christ to enter into a new relationship with God. It was (and is) the responsibility of Christians to live in this gospel order, both out of the desire to do God's will, from the joy that being in that right relationship brings, and as a testimony to the rest of the world about the gospel. (Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order.)
However we might understand our eviction from the original Garden of Creation in Genesis, Christ reconciles us with the Creator, and enlists us in the Lamb's War to bring this good news of reconciliation and restoration to everyone, confronting all bondages in the process -- including those bondages imposed under color of presumptuous church authority. There is a definite order here:
  • God as creator
  • Christ as our reconciler and redeemer
  • You and I, equally, as the church gathered around him, learning from him what reconciliation means, and working out together our division of labor in living a reconciled life and extending the invitation far and wide.
There is no rigid formula, biblical or otherwise, that tells us in detail how to do this division of labor. The Bible records God's promises and our ancestors' checkered record in receiving and believing those promises. It is full of cautionary tales illustrating that record, including our nasty habits of lording it over each other! It is an incomparable storehouse of ethical and prophetic principles -- and the costs of ignoring those principles. It records how the first generation of Christians came to understand that their good news was for everyone everywhere. It assures us that the Holy Spirit remains with us to comfort and lead, and that the community has all the spiritual gifts necessary to accomplish a Spirit-led division of labor.

Our resources also include our church's memories of learning over centuries what it means to participate in God's order. We Friends have been experimenting and recording our results for many generations, so we have stories about what Quaker discipleship actually looks like in different circumstances and cultures. We also know we must be honest about our failures and our too-frequent lack of sufficient boldness. We are learning the signs and wonders (nonviolence, simplicity, equality, truth-telling, decision-making based on group prayer and discernment, and so on) that bear our testimony of reconciliation to the world.

Recording ministers. Photo: Judy Maurer.
Finally, we have each other. This past weekend, our Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends gathered in Canby, Oregon, for our annual sessions. Around 200 of us made significant decisions for the future of our new church association with tenderness and care for all. We recorded five ministers (four women and one man), certifying in our minutes that we have witnessed their public ministry and testifying that they represent us well. We have no paid staff at the yearly meeting level, our presiding clerks constantly emphasize that they serve us, not the other way around ... and I can honestly say that everything I saw was done in good order.

Reality check: Compare these admittedly oversimplified correlations of attributes:
  • Anti-egalitarian order: men in authority over everyone else; coercive, non-negotiable leadership styles
  • Gospel order: equality in leadership; decisions made through whole-group discernment
Which of these paths seems strangely similar to the ancient and corrupt patterns of worldly power, and which seems more consistent with Christian conversion and redemption?

A letter from Dan Evans about Saturday's funeral for Rachel Held Evans, and about the reality he finds himself in. Saturday update: The streaming video of the service remains available at that page. Nadia Bolz-Weber gave the sermon. centered on John 20:1-18.

Speaking of the Bible, another volunteer in Arizona goes on trial for helping immigrants survive desert conditions.

An interview with Christy Wimber on the church and its attitudes to healing.

Progressive AND orthodox... post-boomer religion and the resurrection. (Thanks to Fleming Rutledge for the link.)

Newly opened Nobel and CIA files reveal more about the 1958 Literature award to Boris Pasternak.

Orwellian? Roskomnadzor holds a seminar for regional journalists on how not to run afoul of recent Russian legislation.

Christone "Kingfish" Ingram is coming back to the Waterfront Blues Festival this July. You can hear why that makes me happy:

23 May 2019

The I-word and the habits of empire

Timothy Snyder at the Judenplatz, Vienna, May 9, 2019 (YouTube screenshot)
On May 9, Europe Day in the European Union, Timothy Snyder gave a speech "to Europe." In a time of radical skepticism and disillusionment (e.g., Brexit, Fidesz, National Front, Alternative for Germany), he reminded the European Union of its true contribution to the world. That contribution is not a sweet story of orderly integration of enlightened nation-states. In fact,
...[Y]our little implausible national myths allow you not to see that the European Union is the one successful answer to the most important question in the history of the modern world, indeed the one central question, which is: what to do after empire. What to do with empire?
The places of the world where empire is still the norm, said Snyder, are places where the imperial appetites that led to the Holocaust are still in evidence. Those appetites are characterized by (using Snyder's categories) ecological panic, dehumanization, and state destruction.

Snyder outlines the stakes involved in not taking imperial history and ambitions into account. He circles the globe for examples, but one side-note brought me up short: "The current predicament of the United States is a direct result of our getting our imperial past wrong." So, for just a moment or two I'm going to apply his imperial-appetite categories to our present American crisis. (He is not responsible for my applications of his ideas.)

Ecological panic. Hitler feared that Germany's resources within its borders would be unable to sustain its growing population; expansion was imperative, and only a united and aggressive Volk would do what it took to acquire needed territory -- and would thereby prove its worthiness to survive. I've already written how this master-race mentality infected my own family (here, for example).

Global warming and the wholesale slaughter of species may literally lead to a worldwide ecological panic, with terrifying implications for geopolitics. Compared to this global disaster for all life, the American perceived competition for jobs and the interrelated white-nationalist agendas ("Jews will not replace us!") may seem small-scale, but, having festered for centuries, they are our immediate and urgent reality. Tucker Carlson has built his brand on asserting the harm caused by immigration. (See Malice in Wonderland for examples.) Hate crime, not surprisingly, has been on the rise.

Glass facsimile (left) of data card at Oslo's Holocaust
Center, Bygdøy. Source.
Dehumanization. In Snyder's Europe Day speech, he recounts the Holocaust-era brutality of judging human beings solely on how much work can be squeezed out of them before it's more cost-effective to kill them.

That calculating spirit can now be enhanced by digital tools. We've already seen attempts at reducing human beings into digital campaign targets -- and we've also seen, as Snyder notes, how unwilling those who benefit from such campaigns are to investigate them. We can see how digital dehumanization provides convenient tactics for advancing ecological and Volk-national advantages for the who are determined to rule over others.

State destruction. When the empire hollows out the institutions of state as Germany did in occupied lands, setting aside laws and regulations in favor of freedom of action for those on top, unspeakable horrors become normal. Do we see anything like this in the USA? (Is it fair to count the weakening and outright corruption of several cabinet-level agencies, or the wholesale White House resistance to congressional inquiries, or the death of children in U.S. border custody, or the sabotage of Obamacare?) The history of the USA has always been a tug-of-war between the highest ideals of due process and the rule of law, and outrageous exploitation of labor and withholding of common resources, usually on the basis of race. Our foreign policy has too often consisted of the extension of this tug-of-war into all the world. These days, the idealist side seems to be slipping the wrong way.

In this context -- countering a Volk-centered ecology, digital dehumanization (now implemented for social division and political gain), and the destruction of our rules and institutions -- I continue to advocate the impeachment of the U.S. president. Four months have gone by since I last wrote about this, and the symptoms of national corrosion keep piling up. Yes, the tempo of congressional and legal investigations into the Trump cult has increased, but the president seems to be able to reframe these fragmented challenges as "harassment" rather than a direct consequence of his own misdeeds and evasion. Meanwhile, he exercises no leadership to call the USA out of its slide back into ecological panic, dehumanization, and state destruction -- in fact, he actively feeds these appetites.

As the presidential campaign of 2020 draws nearer, we need the House of Representatives to conserve and focus its energy, and the always-wandering attention of the people, on the single task of holding the president accountable by the comprehensive remedy for high crimes and misdemeanors prescribed by the Constitution: impeachment. Donald Trump must not be allowed to enter the 2020 elections with his legitimacy as a candidate for president conceded without an honest and focused fight. Let him go on trial in the Senate with all the evidence presented in one coherent stream. Let the Senators, serving as jury, go on record forever, in full view of voters, with their judgment on the suitability of this man in light of our nation's heritage of idealism.

A first substantial step in the U.S. Congress toward revoking the Authorization for Use of Military Force (aka the perpetual war authorization).

Terrence Malick makes a film about one of my heroes of faith, Franz Jägerstätter.

Challenging Apartheid tourism: the case of Palestine.

What is happening to Iraq's Christians?

Fact and (science) fiction, and our plans to return to the Moon.

Argentinian harp player Xime Monzón...

16 May 2019

Abortion and the cost of rhetoric

Sources: baby bassinet; execution gurney
Last night I heard another panel discussion on abortion on television. Rick Santorum defended Alabama's just-signed law practically banning abortion altogether -- his main point was that even pregnancies resulting from incest and rape represent innocent lives, however horrific the circumstances of their conception. His opponents on the panel objected to his imposition of his own religiously-based standards on others.

For much of my adult life, I've been in the perverse position of opposing abortion while at the same time opposing most anti-abortion rhetoric. Right now, as the controversy swirls around the Alabama law and similar attempts elsewhere, there are three reckless inconsistencies that gnaw at me:

First: the new "heartbeat laws" are far more extreme than most anti-abortion advocates have advanced in the past. The new laws seem to represent a calculated tactic: their dramatic clash with the relatively moderate U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision would (they hope) inevitably lead to a chance to reverse it. According to polls, even Americans who oppose abortion still wish to reserve that option for rape and incest cases, but in Alabama's case, the law could punish abortion providers more severely than rapists. (It's logical, says Santorum; rapists rape while abortion providers kill.)

In any case, tactical extremism just adds to the impression that brass-knuckle politics will, once again, make dialogue all but impossible. It makes me see double: are the bill's supporters being truly idealistic in their maximalist stance, or are they cynically exaggerating their true positions for a political gain?

Second: while both pro-choice and anti-abortion advocates count many women among their participants, a large percentage of anti-abortion legislators are men. For example, every Alabama state senator who voted for their new law was male; the state's four women senators opposed the bill. It seems beyond strange that so much veto power over women's health decisions is still exercised by men -- and those men seem, as a group, to be unembarrassed by this discrepancy and unenthusiastic about working for a more representative politics.

(Yes, I'm aware of my own johan-splaining behavior here -- this is a post I tried for most of the day to resist writing.)

Third: both sides exploit the Bible. This is also an old story -- abortion opponents have one way of looking at Scripture; pro-choice advocates have another. The cost of this proof-texting approach: the secular observer concludes, in the words of the ancient cliche, "You can make the Bible say whatever you want." The "orthodox" and "progressives" of James Davison Hunter, or George Lakoff's "strict fathers" and "nurturant parents" -- all can find what they pragmatically need in the Bible to bash opponents and thereby gratify their main audiences.

The actual Bible is achingly ambiguous about the "sanctity" of life. My serious summary: life is precious, except when it isn't. Babies are precious, except when they're not. My opposition to abortion is not based on any specific Bible verse, but on the whole tradition of interpretation that is summed up by the "consistent life ethic" -- which opposes abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, militarism, social and economic injustice, violence in all its devious and addictive forms. Are there other traditions of biblical interpretation? Yes, of course. Can I prove that the "consistent life" interpretation is more correct? No! Does it even command the respect of most Christians? I doubt it.

However, for me there's a persuasive consistency of this "seamless garment" approach to following the Prince of Peace. It's internally consistent: the unborn life is important, but its survival is no more guaranteed than that of the life that has emerged into the world. Just as we ask for sacrifices and communal responses in situations where conception was unanticipated, we ask for sacrificial and communal responses to injustice. We ought to be just as diligent in caring for the born as for the unborn, knowing that all our outward fortunes are uncertain, all of us require care and mercy. It's consistent with the loving kindness and mercy of the God of the Bible. And, just as Jesus and Paul demand, it rejects the hypocrisy of forms for the countercultural reality of the Good News.

This persuasive consistency, I think, would go a long way toward subverting the rigid categories of anti-abortion and pro-choice campaign mentalities. As a first practical step of mercy, we could gain the capacity to describe those we disagree with in terms that they themselves would recognize. (See Katelyn Beaty's "The Abortion Conversation Needs New Language.") And while we slowly build friendships around the complex shared challenge of reducing abortions, we may also find new allies for those other consistent life challenges: injustice, militarism, and all other threats to life.

Elesha Coffman on the legacy of Rachel Held Evans.

The silent significance of British Quaker meeting houses.

Cathedrals "should unite, not divide people": the case of Yekaterinburg.

Victory Day, and again Stalin looms over the scene, not necessarily to Putin's advantage.

Russia without Putin: Sean Guillory interviews Tony Wood.
"...[T]he more Putin becomes indispensable to any description of Russia, the more every successive description of Russia has to have him in there. Otherwise people won’t understand what you’re talking about because you imagine every news report about Russia, even if it’s about reindeer herders in Yakutia, has to have some reference to how this relates to Putin and his power system. Is he in control of this remote outpost or not? And I think that’s really counterproductive. It just narrows the horizon within which people are framing what’s happening in Russia."
Project Artemis: crash program or modest proposal?

Ray Manzarek describes the creation of "Riders On the Storm."