17 October 2019

On loving our critics

Mike Pence, U.S. vice president, gave the 2019 commencement address at Liberty University. His speech gives me a convenient peg to hang the following suggestion: let's learn how to love our critics.

By "our critics" I mean those for whom (in Pence's warning) "it’s become acceptable and even fashionable to ridicule and even discriminate against people of faith." Why should we in fact love those people?

First of all, is Pence's initial premise correct? Is it acceptable and fashionable in some circles to ridicule religious people? Serious skeptics and atheists may not think much of us, but they don't require ridicule to make their points. Generally, the weight of their message is either the intellectual weakness of belief in God, or the harm that such beliefs cause in the real world.

When this anti-religion message becomes enmeshed in a political system, then it becomes dangerous, as the Soviet Union and other communist nations have very adequately demonstrated. Other parts of the world specialize in a different distortion -- preferring one expression of religion over others. This happens in the USA's supposed allies and enemies alike (Saudi Arabia and Russia, for example). This distortion sadly reinforces one of religion's critics' main points: religion causes social harm.

Ridiculing and marginalizing faith can happen when popular culture goes in a different direction -- neither prohibiting religion nor practicing favoritism, but making faith a strictly private matter, and (in many cases in today's world) contrasting faith with science.  The implication: empirical evidence always clashes with faith, and faith always loses. Therefore, people with intelligence should prefer science to religion -- and religion for the lazy and incurious is nothing more than superstition.

Communities of faith, confronted by this secular drift, often choose between two very different paths forward. (Of course, all explanations involving "two very different paths" are oversimplifications!) One path: a defensive isolation, within which correct answers are emphasized, and secularism is demonized and shunned. The other: adjusting the faith message so that it is as inoffensive to secular people as possible. Among the Christians I know best -- Quakers -- both options have been chosen, mostly depending on what seems most acceptable in their own local cultures.

As always, the pictures is made more complicated when politics enters in. For example, in the USA, there is no official preference of religion, but politicians play on religious sensibilities for votes. In particular parts of the country, it can be very important to emphasize one's ties to Protestant Christianity despite the Constitutional guarantee of no preference.

Given the culture of Liberty University and its immersion in the more defensive brand of Christianity, it's not surprising to read Pence's emphasis on the separation of faith communities from the surrounding culture of ridicule and discrimination. But does all such opposition always mean that the critics are determined to make you join Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the furnace? Here's my core question: shouldn't we actually engage those critics and appreciate them because sometimes they are saving us from ourselves?

Some examples from Pence's speech:
  • We need faith and forgiveness as modeled by pastor Gerald Toussaint -- "faith that unites on a foundation of grace." However, Pence doesn't have enough grace to grant that the health care opponents or the "bevy of Hollywood liberals" might have a point of view worth examining, even if disagreement remains at the end. Instead, complicated controversies are glibly dismissed, providing critics yet another example of Christianity's moral and intellectual inadequacy.
  • Next: the controversy around Mike Pence's wife's school. I wouldn't have blamed him for favoring one side over the other in that controversy, but at least describe what was at stake! Instead, I'm sure that he felt that mentioning "media and the secular Left" would stir all the right emotions, and no other work needed to be done.
  • He then ridicules the whole "Expose Christian Schools" theme in social media. This is another example where the critics who raised that banner should be thanked, not smeared, to the exact extent that real horror stories (without derisive "quotation marks") have emerged, and, as a result, healing has become more possible for many. The rhetoric of that paragraph is fascinating -- as if it were totally absurd that Christian institutions could ever hurt anyone!
  • Pence warns the graduates:
    Some of the loudest voices for tolerance today have little tolerance for traditional Christian beliefs. So as you go about your daily life, just be ready. Because you’re going to be asked not just to tolerate things that violate your faith; you’re going to be asked to endorse them. You’re going to be asked to bow down to the idols of the popular culture.
    He's not necessarily wrong here, but it's the perfect place for him to have said what "be ready" means -- or, for that matter, what the "idols of the popular culture" are. Evangelical Christianity correctly identifies some idols of the popular culture, but its conservative white versions worship other idols far too often -- particularly wealth, status, power, white supremacy, and the myth of redemptive violence. Can't we ask Liberty's graduates to look more carefully at what seduces white USA evangelicals away from rejecting all idols? Wouldn't a respectful engagement with critics, even a bevy or two of "Hollywood liberals" and "secular Leftists," help reveal those betrayals?
  • Finally, what do we do with the numerous truth claims in the speech that are certainly political applause lines but have little actual truth. Did the recovery and growth of the U.S. economy begin with the Trump/Pence administration, or did it begin earlier? Pence says, "Prosperity didn't just happen" and then solely credits the Trump administration's policies for that undefined prosperity. And won't those policies actually result in an ever-less-sustainable level of national debt?

    More fact gaps: Internationally, have we actually stood with our allies and stood up to our enemies? (I'm leaving aside the deeper questions of who those allies and enemies actually are. And, to be fair, Pence gave this speech before the current ghastly spectacle in Syria and the Ukraine scandal.) And what exactly is the purpose of the claim that "American stands with Israel" -- what unspoken assumptions are behind this assertion of Israel's apparently unique status in the world?
Thank God for critics! As the white celebrity stranglehold on evangelical conversations grows ever weaker, we'll find that some of those critics are already in the Church. Others are possibly not far away, if we can work honestly at eliminating all those stupid spiritual and intellectual scandals, until we have just the one essential Scandal of grace and love uniquely at the heart of the Gospel.

As one atheist friend of mine says, "Even I know that Jesus is the Dude."

Ira Rifkin suggests an important path ahead for religious journalism.

Hundreds of educators refuse to be intimidated by Trump administration's threats to censor Middle East studies.

Roger E. Olson on the rhetoric of tyranny. (Warning: another mention of Trump.)

Why Mary Pezzulo is not calling Mike Pence a fake Christian.

Goodbye to Alexei Leonov, a cosmonaut for the whole planet.

Samantha Fish ...

10 October 2019

Is God nice?

Ever noticed how, in Christian media, some variation or other of the "wrath of God" theme comes back to remind us of how lax we are, how we lower our standards of holiness beyond recognition, how we've let our standards slip ever since we stopped talking so much about sin and hell?

An old John Piper quotation has been circulating again:
God cares more about your happiness than you do. He is so serious about your joy that he threatens hell if you refuse to find it in him.
To be fair to Piper, I've not read the original book, so I don't know for sure that he didn't intend irony, but I do know the theological tradition from which this gem appears to come. I wrote about another expression of this tradition here: Hell, holiness, and Jerusalem. I'm not going over that ground again, but I'm intrigued by a sort of emotional corollary to it: If God is not feared the way some preacher demands, our religion has become fatally soft and sentimental. Or to put it even more manipulatively, God is to be loved, or else.

Speaking of avoiding overly sentimental images of God, there's no denying that God gets a mixed rap in the Scriptures. Abraham has to plead with God not to wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah entirely if there are any righteous people to be found there.
Far be it from you to do such a thing -- to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?
(Genesis 18:25, NIV)
To eliminate idolatrous competition, God gives some apparently ruthless commands to the Israelites, instructing them at times to attack others without mercy. (On God's collateral damage, I've also written recently.) The prophets record God's wrath at the way poor people are treated, and their faces ground into the dust, but the apparent fact is that faces were ground into the dust in order for the prophets to rage about it.

Jesus confirms that God permits seemingly random tragedy -- for example, the Galileans massacred by Pilate, or "those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fellon them -- do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!" (from Luke 13:1-5).

If I rely solely on the recorded history of our understanding of God, and on the incredible diversity of ways that we've interpreted that history, my head starts spinning. So this morning, knowing that I was being led to write about whether or not we have a God who lives up to God's own standard ("compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love" -- Exodus 34:6, Psalm 86:15, Psalm 103:8, Psalm 145:8, Jonah 4:2), I decided to try asking God directly: "Are you a kind God?"

Dolphus Weary (r) and 1975
version of me.
The answer came immediately in the form of a memory: a Scripture that I learned as a children's song at Voice of Calvary in Mississippi in 1975, where I spent a summer teaching in a remedial reading program. In the default masculine language of the time ...
Brothers, let us love one another
For love is of God and he who loves is born of God
He who does not love does not know God for God is love
Beloved, let us love one another -- First John Four Seven and Eight!
(That last part shouted with enthusiasm.)

I found this answer immensely comforting. There is no ambiguity in this teaching. A few words later, in verse 12, John promises us that "if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us." There is no exception based on past wars or past enemies; there is only the requirement of love ... a requirement that, having ourselves been addressed as "beloved," we are eager to keep.

Not that this learning or this eagerness hits us all at once. In verse 18, we're assured,
There is no fear in love. [Goodbye, vindictive God!] But perfect love casts out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. [Goodbye, hellfire manipulation!!] The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
It's very possible that we are still fearful, still not made perfect in love. But the path is there before us, with no secret password, no doctrinal asterisks, just an invitation into a love relationship. We enter into this promise by committing ourselves to learning how to love, learning how to recognize the witness of God already in us (as the early Quakers taught with joy and costly perseverence), and allowing ourselves to dare that God's very nature ("God is love") is shaping us -- however slowly we allow our grip on fear to loosen at last.

We're also not alone on this path. (The New International Version substitutes "dear friends" for "brothers.") Back to verse 11: "Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another." For some of us, our first task is to open up to receive love before we learn to express it and rely on it and sense God's nature in the experience.

I'll never forget the experience of getting to know J. Bartram Shields, a long-time minister of Indiana Yearly Meeting. It was my first time teaching a course for the Tri-Yearly Meeting School on the Ministry, a series of retreat-style classes for those preparing to be Friends ministers in Indiana, Western, and Wilmington Yearly Meetings. Bart Shields was teaching a Bible class, and I was teaching a class based on Urban T. Holmes's book Spirituality for Ministry. Some time after that week of classes I visited Traverse City, Michigan, where Bart and Sara Shields lived, and was able to spend time with him again. He told me, "I loved you from the first moment I met you." That may have been the first time anyone said anything like those words to me in a non-romantic context. The impact that he made on me with those simple and generous words are still part of my life. I can't claim that I've totally let go of fear, but I'd be a lot further behind were it not for the influence of people like Bart Shields.

Beloved, let us love one another. That's the best way to learn about what God is really like.

A reminder: One of the best sources for news about religion in Russia and the former Soviet Union is Paul Steeves' Russia Religion News.

Why Simply Messy is a Quaker.

Evangelicals and Holy Land tourism.

Pentecostalism as mysticism: Pete Enns interviews Jonathan Martin.

Ramallah Friends School is celebrating its 150th anniversary. One way to participate: Do you have any items, documents, or other exhibit-worthy materials relating to the school's history? Consider contributing them to its new museum.

Ruthie Foster:

03 October 2019

Impeachment and rhetorical nonviolence

Urban sheep, Hebron, Palestine
...Anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
-- Jesus, from Matthew 5:22 (context)

In a conference call last Sunday, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi instructed her Democratic Party caucus on how their impeachment investigation into Donald Trump and his administration should be conducted: "Our tone must be prayerful, respectful, solemn, worthy of the Constitution."

In stark contrast, the president of the United States has ranted, insulted, belittled, threatened, and lied. Concerning the allegations that have ignited the current push for impeachment, there is a remarkable difference between the president's critics on the one hand, and his allies on the other. Critics ask questions about specific details of the story: for example, what, exactly, was the president trying to accomplish in his recent contacts with Ukraine and other countries? The presidential response: avoid the specifics at all cost, and counter with insults, misdirection, and accusations of corruption and treason.

After four years of this mixture of malice and incoherence, it's not surprising that many of us are constantly tempted to respond with at least a hint of malice of our own. Countless memes and caricatures flood our public space with savage humor, especially in social media and late-night television. Even now, I'm tempted to include a sample or two right here. However, for those of us who follow the nonviolent Lamb of God, the very embodiment of God's mercy, I want to urge mercy for Donald Trump.

We understand that, when we choose physical force against anyone, no matter how just our cause, at that very moment we enter into our enemies' moral structure. Since time immemorial, the use or threat of force automatically justifies a return blow. "Who hit first" doesn't matter, because the use of force is a continuous chain back to Cain and Abel. Disciples of the Prince of Peace are commanded to break that chain.

Nonviolence does not just involve the refusal to use physical force against those who we understand are our enemies. We also refuse to use rhetorical violence ... for the exact same reason: Once we deploy tactics of mockery, insults, threats, and demonization against anyone, we enter into a cycle that, by primordial custom, legitimizes a retaliatory blow. Listen to Jesus and don't flirt with the temptation to say "you fool"; we have more important business than descending into a fools' competition.

Trump gives us a case study for why mercy rather than rhetorical violence is called for. A summary of the infamous Trump-Zelensky telephone call shows (even after possible editing) the U.S. president pushing the Ukrainian president to take actions for Trump's political benefit. Trump persists in calling this behavior "perfect" though he knows that we have the summary in our hands! It appears that Trump is unable to prioritize the larger parameters of U.S.-Ukrainian relations, or Ukraine's geopolitical situation in general, and chooses instead to focus on his own political advantage. He apparently doesn't even realize that this is the choice he has made! This lack of ability to analyze and prioritize is a stunning, alarming disqualification for the presidency, and yet this man somehow remains in this job, his insecurities and inadequacies made glaringly public every day. What good does mocking him or demonizing him do? We should be praying for him and for his removal from office as soon as politically possible, for our sakes and for his as well.

It's with this goal in mind that I understand Pelosi's instructions to conduct the impeachment investigation solemnly and prayerfully. Aside from the spiritual corrosion caused by mocking and demonizing Trump, such destructive tactics play right into the hands of those who are ready to give blow for blow on behalf of their perceived champion. And once you've entered the fray on their terms, you in effect give them permission to keep responding likewise.

I'm not saying that we ignore Trump's malicious attacks on his political opponents. The time may come when these attacks are entered into evidence, along with all the other occasions of demonstrable corruption and incompetence that could form articles of impeachment. And when the time comes that Trump and his corrupt administration are out of office, our fact-based and prayer-based political sobriety might put us in a better place to help heal our badly divided land.

There's only so much toxicity, anger, and falseness that David's (Beloved Spear) soul can manage before it messes with him.

Micah Bales on perfect love and boldness.

Eden Grace on Kaimosi, Kenya, the place of God's own choosing.

Rajan Menon explains why arms races never end.

Big Walter Horton played the blues harp with amazing control and tenderness.

26 September 2019

Purity of heart

Gallery: visit to a lamp store in Hebron

Recently in Christian and ex-Christian blogs and social media feeds, "purity culture" is getting the shredding that it has apparently deserved for a long time. For two examples from the CBE Web site, here's a recent one, 5 purity culture myths; and an article from 2015, lies purity culture teaches women. (Also see Melanie Springer Mock's book If Eve Only Knew, which I reviewed here, for a deeper biblical and cultural analysis.)

I say "apparently," because that culture and its trail of pain was invisible to me for most of my life as a male Christian. As you know if you've been following this blog for a while, I grew up in an atheist family and didn't come to faith until I was 21. During the years since, most of the women I've talked with about faith belong to one of these groups: either they didn't come through that culture either, or it somehow worked for them, or they dealt with the residue more or less privately. Or they left the church. In any case, I was oblivious to their experience. Instead, I mostly noticed the healthier aspects of church as a multi-generational community and developed a sort of secondhand nostalgia for the churchy childhood I never had.

I remember just one incident in my years in Quaker ministry that should have caused me to be more curious. About twenty years ago, I went to a wedding at which, during the ceremony, the father of the bride paid tribute to his daughter and her "purity pledge." It struck me as peculiar that parents would announce such an intimate detail about their daughter -- but I had not heard about the underlying cultural phenomenon.

There's just one aspect of purity culture, as I am beginning to understand it, that makes me want to pause before burying it forever. For all its poisonous theology and its crass merchandising, did it once have, at its inception, a realistic concern for the integrity of human sexuality? The original impulse to defend "purity," however that impulse later went astray, seems to have a realism about it that continues to be worth considering.

Labeling sex as dangerous is a tactic that can go wrong in so many ways, but on some raw level it could contain at least two important and related insights:
  • Sex can become dangerously addictive, particularly when coupled with our primordial sin of objectifying one another; and addiction, in turn, blinds us to the harm we cause ourselves and others;
  • Sex and its risks and rewards are not just an individual concern but also a community concern, especially if that community is committed to putting Jesus at the center (which happens to be my Quaker definition of church). By that I don't mean that the details of our lives as sexual beings are proper grist for the church's rumor mill, but that guidance on healthy sexuality and boundaries, and the consequences of violations, are both proper subjects for the church's teaching and pastoral roles. Unhealthy secrecy and mystery can set up opportunities for predators.
Churches are not just confined to two choices -- either being utterly oblivious to their task of helping their members to become disciples in sexuality as well as in peace, simplicity, equality, stewardship, and so on; or binding their members with legalistic and gender-biased expectations along the lines of purity culture.

Here I want to submit to you a recent blog post by Eastern Orthodox writer Frederica Mathewes-Green, Why They Hate Us. I hope that you'll take a moment to read it and maybe tell me whether you agree with me that her defense of purity is very different from the defense represented by purity culture -- and much more helpful. Does she in fact contribute to a defense of discipleship in sexuality that isn't trapped in that all-or-nothing choice? Or is it the same old thing in a more elegant presentation?

There are a couple of sentences in her post that threatened to become a stumbling block for me:
Given all the varieties of sexual upheaval today, critics tend to focus on gay marriage, saying that it destroys traditional marriage. But in terms of sheer numbers, porn is overwhelmingly more destructive.
She never returns to refute or amplify the "critics" who say that gay marriage destroys traditional marriage, albeit less than pornography. Personally, I understand her defense of purity as totally applicable to any relationship that has integrity.

One last writer to mention on the subject of purity: Søren Kierkegaard, author of Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. Kierkegaard keeps challenging us to face the challenge of living as free, responsible, God-dedicated individuals. Much of the book is dedicated to all the ways we can avoid that responsibility, outsourcing our morality, pleasure, intellect, to all the structures and powers ready and eager to control and smother us. Purity is a product of looking as directly into God's face as we can possibly dare; purity culture is something else entirely.

Anything I might say about Donald Trump and the impeachment process threatens to be out of date as soon as I push the "Publish" button. But in view of the "purity" discussion, I found something fascinating about Trump's characterization of the summary of his phone call with Zelensky as "absolutely perfect," even after its damning contents were available to the public. That call did not focus on Ukraine's geopolitical situation or the overarching priorities of U.S.-Ukrainian relations, but on Trump's own political interests, and his wretched, even threatening, expressions of contempt for the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

The fact that the U.S. president considers his performance self-evidently "perfect" forms a clear article of impeachment for which no further investigation is necessary. The thing speaks for itself. This is a president who is unable to understand, let alone choose, a responsible course of action corresponding to his obligations as head of the nation's executive branch and chief articulator of our foreign policy. The problem isn't fake news, it is a fake president.

Related posts on sexuality and discipleship:

What's so urgent about sex?

Trust, the first testimony, part two: now it gets personal

David Swartz on the Quaker legacy of the Vineyard's John Wimber.

Emily Couch wonders whether the "holy tandem" linking the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church is showing signs of weakening. And an update from RFE/RL's Matthew Luxmoore. Friday PS: Ksenia Luchenko, The Moscow Times.

Peter Pomerantsev left Russia to escape Putin's assault on reason.

Lynn Gazis-Sax: If the president can ask a foreign government to go after one particular citizen, why not others?

Philip Weiss: Palestinians now count for practically nothing in Israeli elections, but might they be the last hope for liberals in Israel?

Buddy Guy and Samantha Fish together!

19 September 2019

The hyphen within, part three

From The Guardian's review of David Brooks, The Second Mountain. Photo Paris Pierce, source.
One of our friends in Russia has a Russian Orthodox father and a Muslim mother. She herself was profoundly influenced by evangelical Christians who conducted public meetings in the early post-Soviet years. When she speaks on spiritual topics, she draws from both wells -- Islamic and Christian -- and also from her own long life of prayer and reflection. After years of conversations with her, I would not dare to assign just one religious label on her. And, as committed as I am to my own Christian identity, anchored in a specific relationship with Jesus, I cannot imagine being deprived of the company of this unclassifiable friend.

Even so, my Western mind protests. Doesn't religious identification involve discipleship -- a singleminded, unembarrassed, and unhedged followership of a specific teacher? Biblical phrases such as "unequally yoked" come to mind, and "you cannot serve two masters." I remember the admonition of Canadian Friend Hugh Campbell-Brown to "plow deeply in the furrow you've been given." (To give him justice, I don't think he would want this quotation to be used in the service of a narrow approach to faith.)

Of course you don't have to go to Russia to find hybrids. In his most recent book, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, New York Times columnist David Brooks writes about his own Jewish and Christian identity, its sources in his childhood, his growth in appreciation of the Christian element, and his understanding of the specific gifts that each element gives him. If I read him correctly, he simply cannot reject one of these sources of identity in favor of the other. I would love to know how you understand his choice. For example: are the attributes he especially links with Judaism objectively weaker in Christianity, and vice versa?

For that matter, what value is "objectivity" in such questions (or the stern judgments of the self-appointed guardians of each emphasis), when personal experience and the filters of culture actually govern how we become aware of these attributes?

(One sample of the conversation about David Brooks's "Confusionism," with some telling quotations from the book.)

On some glib level, one could point out that Christianity is sometimes described as a Jewish heresy, and Islam is sometimes described as a Christian heresy. But what satisfaction are such throwaway observations when looking at the experience of an actual human being trying to communicate how his spiritual identity is coming together in real time? I remember Martin Marty, years ago, talking about Chuck Colson in the context of the post-Watergate phenomenon of jailhouse conversions. You have to be careful how you apply analysis and skepticism, appropriate perhaps for a mass phenomenon, to an individual life such as Chuck Colson -- or David Brooks.

I understand that my own responsibility is to care for my relationship with God -- a relationship in which Jesus is in the center. I also yearn for the company of others who have the same priority. As the years have gone by, I am just as interested in that Center as I was in the white heat of my conversion 45 years ago, and I am just as dependent on the company of fellow disciples, but I'm less and less interested in patrolling the boundary zones. To put it another way, I am interested in those zones, where creativity and confusion are both realities, where there are risks and rewards, and where I recognize fertility without romanticizing it. I'm not interested in the vain project of asserting control.

One thought experiment I've been thinking about recently as I grapple with other people's certainty: Is Jesus the Messiah on these planets or their not-yet-discovered distant cousins? Are there analogues to the Bible? I have absolute confidence that there is no place in Creation where the Creator has not left breadcrumbs, but that's just about all I "know."

Related posts:
The hyphen within and the paradox of Quaker hospitality
More thoughts on the hyphen within (are Quakers a full-service church??)
Denomination and monopoly
Are Quakers Protestant?

More on The Second Mountain from Bill McGarvey: David Brooks, St. Augustine, and Dorothy Day.
Broken Vessels Quaker Ministries announces its Deeper Roots program is coming to California.
Beth Woolsey has been thinking a lot about kindness.
A missionary reflects on the exvangelical movement.
From the Pew Research Center: Israel's religiously divided society.
And from the United Nations: a needs assessment of the place where I am right now.
Where I might like to be: floating saunas in Oslo.

In view of the stakes involved, the lack of collective urgency among our elected stewards of national well-being -- our politicians -- concerning global warming is frightening. At least one age group in the USA, teens, might be modeling the intensity that the concern merits from all of us. The Washington Post's story.

Blues in the Kremlin ... that is, in the Kremlin of Kazan', Tatarstan.

12 September 2019

On being normal

A few years ago there was a near-riot in downtown Moscow. It was caused by tensions between ethnic Russian footballers and youths from other ethnic groups from the Caucasus region, shortly after a Russian Spartak fan was killed by a group of North Caucasian young people. In the brief melee, a young man of North Caucasus background was injured. In a news clip, we saw a policeman leading him to a safer location, all the while reassuring him, "Everything will be ok."

Actually, the word he used for "ok" was, in its most direct translation, the word "normal." The policeman was literally saying "Everything's normal," despite dramatic evidence that things were far from normal in any sense I'd recognize.

During our years in Russia, among the Russian words in constant use all around us, this word "normal" normal was one of the most intriguing, and one of the hardest to pin down. In one context it could be reassuring: "Are you sure you can cope?" ... "Don't worry, everthing's normal."

It could be, on the other hand, just as vague as the American English reply, "fine." If you ask "How are you? and the answer is "normal," the reality could range from "can't complain" to "the usual misery."

As an adjective referring to people, individually or collectively, "normal" often means something like this: "measuring up to the more or less standard expectations of competence and social acceptability." (Failing to meet those standards can earn you another rich Russian description: "inadequate.") In the 1996 Russian presidential election, one of the candidates (Grigory Yavlinsky, I think) advertised himself as a "normal" public servant, and one of his brochures listed exactly what he meant by that: academically qualified in economics, speaking several languages, not suffering from destructive addictions. Without coming right out and saying his opponent's name, he was contrasting his normalcy with the incumbent, Boris Yeltsin.

The word "normal" has a new poignancy in the current season of discontent in Russia. Journalists covering demonstrations for honest elections and against police brutality often ask participants why they are there. Older demonstrators often say something like this: "I know the government isn't listening to us, but I'm here simply so I can look at myself in the mirror and say 'I'm a human being.'" However, when young people are asked this question, their answer is frequently much simpler: "I want to live in a normal country."

I hope that sociologists are working on the question, "What do they mean by 'normal' and (given the lack of perfect countries on this planet) how will they know when they see it?" I'd be fascinated to know what influences formed their assessment that their dear native land doesn't qualify.

When we've learned the sources of their direct and (often) fearless demand for something better, I hope that we in the USA can also participate in this conversation. I suspect that "normal" has something to do with a sense of personal efficacy, defended by fairness and due process, and not bankrupted by blatant corruption. These are values for which Americans have been beating the drum globally for generations, and by comparison with many other places, they still operate -- for some more than for others. In Russia, hope and fairness face direct, dramatic threats from authoritarianism, corruption, and passivity. Our threats might sometimes be less dramatic but may end up equally dangerous: corrosive income inequality, severe breakdowns in national unity (amplifying the ancient demon of racism), cowardice in the face of the climate crisis, and our own version of passivity -- complacency.

At our best, maybe we've helped young Russians form a sense of what a "normal country" would mean. In turn, could their courageous discontent inspire us to confront the erosion of our own ideals?

Also see:

Kind cats
Russian avos' and American politics, parts one and two

Church and mission in Europe: optimism and pessimism. One sobering voice:
Harvey Kwiyani of Liverpool Hope University is more cautious because “most Europeans still do not understand that Europe is a mission field and those who do are still unable to figure out how to engage this new mission field of Europe”.
Note to journalists covering the religion beat: sometimes reporters have to tell old stories to new readers.

Recovering original manuscripts from reused papyrus: the remarkable library of St. Catherine's Monastery.

Jules Evans interviews Mark Vernon, the author of The Secret History of Christianity. Has the faith lost touch with its mystic roots? (Side note: I'm intrigued by Evans's job title: policy director at the Centre for the History of Emotions.)

More from the Austrian Bluesharp Festival: René Wermke, John the Revelator

PS: Hello from the Pilgrim's Guest House at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Madaba, Jordan. While I'm on this brief self-awarded sabbatical, I may be posting more sporadically and with fewer links and clips. Along with my usual unruly mix of themes, I'm hoping to focus specifically on "praying without ceasing" (from 1 Thessalonians 5:17).