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).

05 September 2019

At the zoo

Two topics this week have kept me much too close to my computer: Hurricane Dorian and events in the British Parliament. I was "present" via parliamentlive.tv for two of the key votes in the House of Commons, along with much of the debates on both motions. At the same time, we've all been painfully aware of Dorian grinding away for a near-eternity at the Bahamas, and now washing over much of the U.S. southeastern seaboard.

Maybe another time I'll look at the charges and countercharges of "Russophobia" surrounding the re-examination of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its evil Secret Protocol, and the many other storms and clangs surrounding the observation of September 1, 1939 -- the opening shots of World War II. (For now, I'll just refer you to Sean Guillory's brief and fair treatment of American Russophobia in the Moscow Times.)

All that is for another time ... maybe.

"Who are you?"
Today, Judy and I ripped ourselves away from our workstations and took a trip to the Oregon Zoo. The last time I mentioned a visit to a zoo on this blog was almost six years ago (scroll down to "Kazan' Zoo and Botanical Garden.") Again today, with a sting of nostalgia, I thought of the essay assignment I gave college entrance exam prep classes in Elektrostal:

Exercise from Olga Afanasyeva, Virginia Evans, Victoria Kopylova, Practice Exam Papers for the Russian State Exam, 2010 Revised Edition,
Moscow: Express Publishing/Prosveshchenie Publishers.
Here's how one of my students expressed herself:
Is it ever a good idea to keep animals in zoos?

I think that animals should never be kept in zoos, because it is very terrible for them. Of course, people spend time in zoos, but it would be better for people to watch “Animal Planet” instead of visiting zoos. Zoos are very bad for the animals’ health and zoos are uncomfortable for animals. To spend your whole life in a cage... For people such conditions wouldn’t be comfortable. WHY MUST ANIMALS LIVE IN SUCH CONDITIONS? This is not right.

Why not give animals better conditions? It would be better for them and also for the people. There are certainly zoos where conditions are similar to the wild. But the zoo where the animals are in cages and bad conditions – that’s awful.

If I could I would release all the animals from zoos but unfortunately I can’t do it.
I wonder how Kate would have evaluated the beautiful facility we saw today, with its heavy emphasis on conservation, care, and public education. According to its Web site, the zoo participates in 62 Species Survival Plans. However, what I loved best about the zoo's spacious habitats was that animals could completely ignore us. One chimpanzee consumed a leafy lunch with his or her back to us. Some of the animal sleep areas and play areas were surrounded nearly full circle (well, maybe 240 degrees) by observation points; others required us to look from a higher level than their homes or through portholes, but I think even so, animals had places to hide. As I watched the elephants tromp аt a stately pace in a group of three from one snack bar to another, they had a non-negotiable dignity that my rapt stares could not take away.

That's it for this week! Now I will go back to watching the human zoo that, for too much of the time, is our political reality. The elephant community we saw today could show our species a thing or two about how to conduct ourselves with gravity.

On this very day, 24-7 Prayer celebrates its twentieth birthday. As Pete Greig says in his blog post on the anniversary,
The first discovery was that prayer is actually the most important thing in life. Think about it and you’ll realise this is true. Whether you’re desperately needing a miracle, urgently needing guidance, or just needing to know if God’s actually really there, nothing matters more than prayer.

The second discovery was that we were embarrassingly bad at the most important thing in the world. We were lazy, distracted and confused when it came to prayer.
As I continue to come across long-lost books (see last week's examples), a book edited by Chuck Fager brought back a specific moment in the long and complicated relationship between American Friends and the American Friends Service Committee. The book: Quaker Service at the Crossroads. As part of the context-setting first part of the book, Fager includes an article by R.W. Tucker, "Structural Incongruities in Quaker Service," that was written back in 1971 for Quaker Religious Thought, and that is still very helpful for today's conversations about the ways our institutions do and don't serve our mission. I'd really love to know what you think.

Tony Wesolowsky writes about an NGO in Nobosibirsk that helps young people after they leave the orpanage system. Judy and I got to know a similar organization in Moscow, Big Change, with a very similar mission. (We're glad to note that Friends House Moscow helped start Big Change.) Wesolowsky's article is a good introduction into the reasons these organizations are needed.

In the meantime, a mixed picture for Russian legal actions against demonstrators for honest elections (and against police brutality).

"Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" Hans Theessink and Knud Møller, performing in Greve, Denmark.

29 August 2019

Core sample of a Quaker culture

A few days ago I stumbled across a box of books that had hidden itself from our view among the many other items we put in storage for our years in Russia. To my delight, in that box I found two books that I'd given up for lost -- books from my earliest years as a Quaker.

On the left, the light blue book is Christian Faith and Practice in the experience of the Society of Friends, which represented volume one of the Book of Christian Discipline of the then-called London Yearly Meeting. It also represented volume one of Canadian Yearly Meeting's discipline at that time.

Each yearly meeting had its own volume two. In the case of my yearly meeting, volume two was titled Organization and Procedure, and was published in a small loose-leaf binder for ease in incorporating revisions. My own copy has additional pages from two such revisions.

Although I loved both books, it's that second volume that brought back a flood of memories. The binder format made it easy to add my own little selection of Quaker tracts by taping them to blank pages. Not everything I collected in those years fit into that binder -- others went into my diaries for 1974 and 1975, the years I blazed like a comet (as I now remember, blushing a little) with naive conversion enthusiasm. But as I look at those items from which I created my personalized Faith and Practice, I notice that ...
  • My very first experiences among Friends were completely consistent with the ideals in these little pamphlets. In "The Spiritual Message of the Society of Friends," Howard Brinton writes,
    A religion is spiritual if every outward word and act is a genuine expression of an inward state. Such a religion avoids all forms which are routine and planned in advance, for such forms tend to become hollow and empty of content. For this reason the Quakers abandoned the outward form of the sacraments even though these visible manifestations are often genuine evidence of inward states. The meeting for worship is as nearly without forms as possible in order that whatever occurs may be a true and spontaneous expression of the life within.
    Sunday after Sunday, the adventure of unprogrammed meeting for worship seemed to confirm Brinton's words. Furthermore, the disciplines of nonviolence, simplicity, equality, and prayer-based meetings for church management, all seemed to be natural outward analogues to this unadorned attentiveness to God's movements within and among us. All these pamphlets seemed to confirm what was drawing me to the men and women of Ottawa Meeting, whose relations with each other -- and kindness to me -- were, to my happy astonishment, such a natural and obvious way to be Christian.

    In the decades since these first years, I've rarely heard an assertion about the spiritual life, or the consequent ethical challenges of that life, that I am not tempted to analyze, defend, or criticize. Back then I didn't take into account who published the item, whether it was Philadelphia Yearly Meeting or the Tract Association of Friends, or (heavens!) Friends General Conference. As I read these pamphlets now, I can see assertions that seem weak or simplistic, or that beg for amplification. There is little or no acknowledgment of the majority of world Quakerdom that is pastoral and programmed -- and, ironically, I've spent most of my adult life in that pastoral and programmed majority. The lack of inclusive language is now a constant and cumulative irritant. Quaker platitudes abound serenely, as if no challenge from faithful followers of other traditions would ever intrude. But in those first years, I drank it all up eagerly as cool, refreshing water for my thirsty spirit.
  • That particular moment in unprogrammed, "liberal" Quaker culture, while being very conscious of the specificity of its Quaker features, also seemed directly and uncomplicatedly Christian. At least that was the impression I got from my tendency to read all this stuff at face value. That was emotionally important to me, since my own conversion was strongly and specifically Christian and biblical. It wasn't Jesus I was seeking to avoid, nor a community gathered around him, but the religion industry.

    It took a while for me to begin seeing that the flesh-and-blood Canadian Yearly Meeting that I was gradually getting to know was not nearly as unified theologically as these pamphlets implied. The first controversy in the Yearly Meeting that I became aware of -- owing to the fact that the yearly meeting presiding clerk was a member of my meeting in Ottawa -- didn't involve Christians vs universalists, it was about the importance of formal membership. In any case, my own incubation period as a Friend was untroubled by theological complications.
  • The printed material that was helping form me was almost 100% male in authorship. Pamphlets by Agnes Tierney, Eva Hermann, and Ruth Pitman were the exceptions in those first years. (Ruth Pitman's vivid phrase about vocal ministry, "... sometimes 'the water tastes of the pipes'," has always stayed with me.) In contrast with this exaltation of male writers, the people who were most influential in my own formation were some of the women of Ottawa Meeting, such as the gentle and wise matriarch (as it seemed to me) of the meeting, Deborah Haight.
I'm not advocating that any yearly meeting adopt the practice of offering a menu of texts from which members can assemble their own private Faith and Practice, but these innocently-gathered fragments of my first acquaintance with Friends remain precious to me. The geographical and historical segment of the Quaker movement that they represent was certainly limited, but I cannot regret the role they played in my life.

One more sample of the Canadian Yearly Meeting culture of the time: here's the opening of Canadian Yearly Meeting's Advices, from the Organization and Procedure of that era. I soon memorized the first few sentences. The straightforward Christian voice is a balm to my soul, even as the male-gendered language begs to be updated ... which it has been. Much of the core content of these words remains in today's version, which you can read in Canadian Yearly Meeting's online Faith and Practice.

Most of these pamphlets remain "in print" ... at least online. In addition to the links above for Eva Hermann, Ruth Pitman, and Agnes Tierney, here are some sources:

William Penn, "A Key"
John H. Curtis, "A Quaker View of the Christian Revelation"
Howard H. Brinton, "The Spiritual Message of the Society of Friends"
Thomas R. Kelly, "The Gathered Meeting"

Patty Levering died on August 24. If you recognize her name, you probably already know that this news represents a moment of profound grief for many Friends and a loss to Friends everywhere. Her obituary and information about the memorial meeting on September 21 are accessible here. Her blog, which I discovered far too recently, is here.

Via Jim Forest of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, I found out about the death of one of New England's most inspiring and persistent activists, Frances Crowe, who had already put in a lifetime of witnessing for peace and justice when I lived in Boston four decades ago, and was still active this year!

Last Sunday, Reedwood Friends Church's meeting for worship was a collaboration between Daniel Smith-Christopher, professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University and a son of this congregation, and blues musicians LaRhonda Steele and Ed Snyder. "The Bible and the Blues" specifically focused on the connections between blues music and the book of Lamentations. You can listen to the meeting for worship by choosing from this list.

Jan Wood on the courage to see.
We, in the community of faith, have a unique gift to give to these times. We are the ones who experientially know that power of seeing, repenting and finding new ways forward together.
Images of Russia's racial and ethnic diversity -- and testimonies to the related challenges.

Sophie Pinkham writes about Vasily Grossman's novel Stalingrad, and the reasons it remained in obscurity so long. Warning: seldom have I wasted less time between reading a review and ordering a book.

Albert Collins with a slow version of this classic.

15 August 2019

Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Christian reappraisal

On the evening of February 19, 1944, the assistant minister of St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, Howard A. Johnson, walks across the street to the White House. He's been invited to have dinner with Eleanor Roosevelt. To his surprise, he is ushered into the family quarters and finds Franklin Roosevelt, alone, waiting for him.

As it turns out, Eleanor is running late, so just the two of them get started with their evening. The first topic of conversation is a writer they both like, Dorothy L. Sayers. To Roosevelt, Sayers is an author of detective stories that help him relax. Johnson adds, "You know of course, Mr. President, that Dorothy Sayers is even more important for her theological writings."

No, in fact, Roosevelt hadn't known that. Woolverton and Bratt, authors of the fascinating new book A Christian and a Democrat: A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, recount this evening as an illustration of the president's spiritual curiosity, especially in light of the war and the vivid reality of evil. After Eleanor and another dinner companion arrive, the discussion of Sayers as a theologian continues. Then Johnson throws out a link:
"You know, of course," he said, "that many moderns like Dorothy Sayers derive from Kierkegaard." No "of course" about it to Roosevelt. "Who," asked the president, "is Kierkegaard?" Johnson rose to the occasion with a lively sketch of the philosopher and his thought. He located its impact on modern thinking in its central premise of (in Frances Perkins's words) "man's natural sinfulness and his helplessness to reform himself except by the grace and help of God." This was the venerable doctrine of original sin but with a difference: not the traditional ideal about a moral taint or legal guilt inherited from Adam and Eve, but the name for the existential reality that each person has assented to, or willingly takes part in--his or her fallen nature. ... As Perkins said: "Johnson pointed out that the recent interest in Kierkegaard was chargeable to the current break-up of the humanistic illusion under which men had been laboring for a hundred years or so."
After piecing together more of the evening's conversation (for which no transcript exists), and providing background on Kierkegaard's rising reputation in those years, the authors of A Christian and a Democrat recount this subsequent incident:
The issues of "humanistic illusion" and original sin stayed with FDR. "Some weeks later I happened to be reporting to Roosevelt on problems concerning the War Labor Board," wrote Secretary [of Labor Frances] Perkins. "He was looking at me, nodding his head, and, I thought, following my report, but suddenly he interrupted me, 'Frances, have you ever read Kierkegaard?'" Perkins replied, "Very little -- mostly reviews of his writings." "Well, you ought to read him," Roosevelt said with enthusiasm. "It will teach you something." Perkins thought the president meant that it would teach her something about the War Labor Board. But no. "It will teach you about the Nazis. Kierkegaard explains the Nazis to me as nothing else ever has."
With all of FDR's familiarity with the Bible and the church's prayer book and hymns, and his service as a church warden his whole adult life, Woolverton and Bratt do not claim that Roosevelt was either a theologian or a man of deep mystical devotion. However, in describing his family, education, and entry into public life, they make a convincing case that his formative years were saturated in a specific Christian culture, that he was shaped by that culture and its expectations of duty and commitment to the public welfare, and that he drew upon that culture for his own personal support, and for his public rhetoric.

That Christian culture had some apparent paradoxes that help explain Roosevelt's political vision and style. For example, it was theologically liberal but expected strict self-discipline, illustrated in this book by the spartan lifestyle and athleticism of the Groton School for Boys. The school's founding rector and headmaster, Endicott Peabody, became a lifelong mentor to his former student.

Another apparent paradox: this version of Protestantism was the religion of much of the USA's upper class. At the same time it was politically progressive, even to the extent that some of its prominent exponents, such as the Baptist pastor of J.P. Morgan's church, advocated socialism. For his own students, headmaster Peabody was deliberate about making connections between faith and social justice. He invited leading theologians and social advocates as chapel speakers and lecturers, and made sure that the students saw poverty first-hand. For some Episcopalians, that progressivism may have remained social, aspirational, and theoretical, with its practical expression limited to token acts of charity and philanthropy. For others -- and specifically for FDR as he entered public life -- the religion of the Sermon on the Mount and the "faith, hope, and charity" passage of 1 Corinthians 13 shaped a political vision for the country. It was a vision that was all the more urgent in the early 1930s as the Great Depression unemployment figure reached 30%.

His own overwhelming crises came earlier, including the polio that might have ended his career permanently. The Groton culture's combination of both endurance and mutual generosity may have been a key element in Roosevelt's ability to endure the physical hardships resulting from the disease. Furthermore, those daily hardships required constant help from others, which may have mellowed his early cockiness and strengthened his capacity for empathy.

Years later, the stresses of World War II did not cause Franklin to lose sight of his progressive vision. Consider his 1944 State of the Union speech, in which he proposed a second Bill of Rights, to be added to what he called the "political Bill of Rights" adopted with the U.S. Constitution. His enumeration of these eight rights (in the masculine-gendered language of the time):
The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman large and small to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination of monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education.
How would a set of proposals like this be greeted in today's political climate? In any event, I think these eight points could well summarize what Roosevelt meant to say in a telling incident that gave the book its name. At a press conference, he was asked about the source of his "political philosophy." As the authors of the book put it, "Momentarily dumbfounded, he replied that he was a Christian and a Democrat."

The last section of the book includes comparisons of the spiritual formation and self-understanding of Abraham Lincoln and FDR, and then Herbert Hoover and FDR. Both comparisons are fascinating.

As a Quaker I wondered how Hoover would fare. The authors point out many similarities in the political philosophies of both men, as evidenced by the sheer number of progressive proposals for political and social reform credited to Herbert Hoover in his long public service. In addition to their shared ideals, both men were ambitious. One of the crucial differences between the two may be their temperaments -- Hoover, the fierce individualist, distrustful of politics and politicians, and Roosevelt the master of political congeniality.

But these temperamental differences also coincided with aspects of their spiritual formation as well. Hoover's idea of determining policy mirrored Friends business process: his job was to work out good proposals using the best data and methods. These proposals were to be duly agreed upon by his peers in a thoughtful process that involved no politicking or horse-trading of the kind that FDR loved. Hoover distrusted government initiative that overrode individual initiative, while FDR recognized that the times demanded action on a scale only government could address. As FDR proceeded to convert their shared progressive ideals into government policy, Hoover grew ever more fearful that the end would be socialism. As the authors summarized,
A basic difference between them lay in the contrast between technical efficiency and social adroitness, between the engineer with his infallible facts and figures and the politician with his sensitivity to tides and temperament. Religiously, they represented the two different sides of Protestant aspiration, the tension between the individual's concern for personal salvation and the communal emphasis on an ordered Christian society. In political theory, the mood of the 1930's swung toward security and collective action under the impact of the Depression. Hoover remained in the older camp of individualism, in which setbacks and difficulties were thought to improve character. Roosevelt upheld as the model citizen the one who helped his neighbor. Hoover agreed with that but insisted that charitable action come from the individual, not the government. Both presidents asked, in effect, which of the seven deadly sins most infected the body politic. For Hoover it was sloth, carelessness, and ignorance. For Roosevelt it was avarice, covetousness, and greed.
This debate continues right into the present, and is often conducted with epithets ("socialism!" for example) that were already familiar in the 1930's. After reading this book, I wonder whether the words "a Christian and a Democrat," spontaneously offered by Franklin Roosevelt as his apparently self-evident "political philosophy," would trip so naturally off anyone's tongue now.

Myles Werntz summarizes Howard Thurman's twofold challenge: those who would be contemplative must identify with those who are suffering, and those who would address suffering must be contemplative.

The Quaker role in the history of economic boycotts.

Marianne Williamson's unorthodox campaign scrambles the categories and intrigues voters. In terms of American religious history, where does she fit in?

God is pleased to give us the Kingdom, but are we afraid to receive it?

Progressives need to start preaching Hell again.

Russia's nuclear accident may not be what you've heard.

How the Kremlin-friendly media portray Moscow's protesters; and the myth of the bourgeois liberal protester. Russia's government-financed RT reports that Russian senator Vyacheslav Markhayev strongly criticized riot police for unnecessary roughness and unprofessional conduct during recent protests.

Rosie Flores, "It Came from Memphis."

08 August 2019

A living sanctuary

Hieromonk John and protesters advocating honest elections in Moscow. Photo by Yulia Zakharova; source.
Our church today finds itself at the center of a political confrontation for a simple reason: the demonstration was supposed to be at Tverskaya Street, and Stoleshnikov Lane, where we’re located, is the closest pedestrian side street. It just happened geographically.

The church was open to the public today, like usual. It’s always open, and we’ll always welcome anyone inside. Welcoming everyone is our duty. That’s why we’re a church. So we haven’t done anything here today that’s special or extraordinary. [More.]
Olya Misik reads the Russian constitution. Source.

My Alexander Men' library -- see something you need?
We know the place well -- the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian in Shubino, located in the center of Moscow and named in honor of two Arabic Christian martyrs who practiced medicine without charging fees. I have several friends and acquaintances at this church. Moscow Friends Meeting used to have a member who was also part of Cosmas and Damian.

For me the church was often a sanctuary for rest and contemplation, where I loved sitting in an obscure corner and watching the life of the church go by. Judy and I bought books and art from their bookstore; that's were we bought Bibles for Moscow Meeting and for giving away, using money donated for that purpose by Friends Women. It was also my source for books by Alexander Men', and once I had a chance to attend one of the church's regular conferences dedicated to Men's memory.

We also know the geography that the monk is referring to, having walked to the church building numerous times from Okhotny Ryad metro station, passing near City Hall as we approached the church. It makes total sense that some of those trying to squeeze their way out of a police action on Tverskaya might find themselves precisely at this sanctuary. I'm simply grateful that the church itself was spiritually prepared for that clash between people demanding honest elections and riot police determined to shut down their demonstration. The church was prepared, not by any sort of political work on behalf of the protesters, but by simply being "church."

When I saw yesterday's news item about the decision of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to declare the whole ELCA denomination a "sanctuary church," I couldn't help think of the story from Moscow. The context is dramatically different -- the Lutherans see themselves as "an immigrant church in a nation of immigrants" and they are responding in part to developments at the U.S. southern border -- but there are underlying commonalities. In both nations, the governments are becoming distinctly more authoritarian, and in both nations, good-hearted people with a diversity of opinions are reeling from successive shocks. In both countries, official lawlessness is on the rise, and people are suffering as a result.

In both places, the temptations to extremism on the one hand, and a passive alienation or escapism on the other, may seem attractive. Speaking personally about the U.S., I can imagine all sorts of worst-case scenarios which sometimes seem almost inevitable, and in which I have no effect at all. I find this very disheartening. And at the same time, looking across the ocean, I see people the age of my Elektrostal students, and younger, being randomly arrested and beaten in broad daylight in the capital of the country I was blessed to serve in for ten years.

It's in this wider context that I'm wondering whether, maybe, the word "sanctuary" is regaining its power as a helpful metaphor for how the church is to serve everyone. Back in the 1980's, when the sanctuary movement for undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers in the USA was taking off, I used to muse over the linguistic communities formed around the different meanings of this word "sanctuary." Some Friends would immediately associate the word with help for immigrants, while others only used it to refer to their meetinghouse's main room. In my heroic fantasies, I would be the one who could build a bridge between these two communities. These days the gap seems wider than ever.

Many Friends churches and meetings sing the well-known worship song "Sanctuary" by Randy Scruggs and John W. Thompson:
Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary
Pure and holy, tried and true
With thanksgiving, I'll be a living
Sanctuary for You

It is you, Lord
Who came to save
The heart and soul
Of every man [sic]
It is you Lord
Who knows my weakness
Who gives me strength
With thine own hand

Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary
Pure and Holy, tried and true
With thanksgiving I'll be a living
Sanctuary for you

Lead Me on Lord
From temptation
Purify me
From within
Fill my heart with
You holy spirit
Take away all my sin

Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary
Pure and holy, tried and true
With thanksgiving, I'll be a living
Sanctuary for You
Far from being an anthem to an escapist God-and-me spirituality, maybe this song -- and others like it, and related spiritual disciplines -- can help us grow ourselves and our churches into real sanctuaries. It's a bit scary: preparing to be a Sanctuary for the One whose Jesus-identity is disguised as a refugee.

Even more scary: what if, in time of crisis, the person who stumbles into our church does not connect the Gospel dots the way we do -- in fact is afraid of refugees and foreigners? What if he or she comes in with badge and gun? How seriously do we dare believe that the Prince of Peace knows our weakness and gives us strength with his own hand?

Update to my Nagasaki post: Wilmington College returns the Nagasaki cross to the Urakami Cathedral. (Also see the Wilmington Yearly Meeting epistle.) Thanks to Dan Kasztelan for the links. Here (video) is the story from a Japanese viewpoint.

As the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty fades into history, Anthony Wier explains what he means by "arms quicksand." (Thanks to Riley Robinson for this link, and for the link to the Friends Committee on National Legislation's Nuclear Calendar.)

El Paso, Dayton, the Bible, and now is the time.

Why Sharon Hodde Miller can't follow Christ and also succeed at being nice. Toward the end of her article she points out that we shouldn't exchange the appearance of niceness for the appearance of boldness. Maybe someone will take up the implied challenge to address that opposite failure: those who think that you can't follow Christ without pugnaciously Standing On The Word with everyone you disagree with.

There's a part of Norway that has open borders ... but it's not easy to reach.

Tomdispatch: John Feffer and Lifeboat Earth.

Steve Guyger and this week's blues dessert:

01 August 2019

Why resist when the target is so juicy? (Was: A new commandment)

Twitter discussions are often unproductive, but Lilith's accusation reminded me of old pre-Twitter conversations on religion and cruelty:
A few minutes browsing the Internet reveals the perennial fascination of this debate, but nothing that qualifies as conclusive. The most sobering insight that comes to me is this:
  • the human species has, throughout its history, included many violent members;
  • religious or anti-religious identification doesn't seem to affect this reality.
Religious identity is just one of the influences that shape our behavior; many other influences may spring to the surface when we (consciously or instinctively) choose to act violently or nonviolently, cruelly or kindly, in response to the stimuli we're receiving.

In other places, I've written about the impact on my teenage self of discovering the book War: The Anthropology of Armed Conflict and Aggression, on Evanston Public Library's "new books" shelf. As my eighteenth birthday neared, and its related deadline to register for the military draft, I was reading a lot about war and aggression, and these books went a long way to helping me understand how violence seems to be part of who we are as animals. All this was before my Christian conversion, but already I was being prepared to be radically skeptical of any attempt to link violence with high ideals. And isn't it true that almost all religions try to motivate us with high ideals?

In any case, the debate over who is more cruel -- religious people or non-religious people -- is unproductive without definitions and without honesty about the debaters' motives. I'm more interested in promoting integrity among the people I know best -- believers. Does our faith open our eyes to the actual biological roots of violence or mask those roots with pious justifications (whatever rationalizations we're receiving from the principalities and powers)? Does it help us understand and practice the love it claims to embody?

(And ... could our behavior as believers undermine the skepticism of non-believers, even to the point that they might want to peek inside our communities and test our claims, to their eternal advantage? Are we ready to greet them with honesty and love, rather than the snarky arguments I often find on the Internet?)

All of these thoughts reminded me of a blog post I wrote shortly after Saddam Hussein's execution:

My favorite icon, one that overlooks the stairs down to my home office, is a very plain paper-on-board icon I bought in Zagorsk, USSR (now Sergiev Posad, Russia) in 1975. Jesus is holding the Gospel open at the words, "I give you a new commandment, to love one another."

As I searched for redemptive meaning in the vindictive death-scenes of Saddam Hussein's execution, the words of Jesus came to me with fresh force. The particular scripture (John 13:34) is addressed to his closest friends, but there's no doubt in my mind that the love we practice among those in our community truly is practice, so that we can love in wider and wider circles, even to our "enemy."

Almost anyone who talks about Saddam Hussein in the context of peacemaking feels bound to stipulate to his numerous crimes, including mass murder, not to mention summary executions of his political enemies. Where does love fit in? Just as C.S. Lewis advised not tackling the Gestapo as lesson one in learning to forgive, we do not have to lapse into sentimentality in considering how to love a tyrant. But how is this for a start? Resist the ancient temptation to kill him!

Why resist when the target is so juicy? Why not just let the drumbeat of "duly constituted authorities," the soothing rhetoric of "this young democracy" lull us into shrugging off another deliberate extinguishing of a human life?

Here's what I'm starting to realize. As a species, we have so little practice in resisting this ancient temptation. It's time to advocate and spread a "new" ethic: turn away from that urge to kill. Resist! When the desire to turn a human being into a sack of bones and guts arises, turn within and ask where that impulse is coming from.

Those of us who are protected by the buffers of middle-class gentility from the world's bloody reality still need to be in on this campaign. Our passivity too easily licenses our government's participation in the Saddam Hussein debacle; we can pretend not to see that the legal fiction of his execution is only a few steps removed from the common practice, in that same country, of methodically sawing off the heads of one's militia's enemies. (Clips of these "executions" are also provided on Internet video sites.) Neat distinctions between the gallows (that death facility in Baghdad that was made so notorious by Saddam himself) and the less formal executions only serve to obscure this imperative: even when we feel fully entitled to kill, we need to put an end to this practice. We need to demand that our foreign policy not bless others' willingness to continue practicing the ways of death. We need to oppose militarism, capital punishment, abortion, and every other deadly compromise, not from sentimentality, but because every time we end a life, it makes the next time easier.

Dale Aukerman, among others, has written movingly of the impulse to kill as a persistent reflection of the Fall. In Darkening Valley, he wrote these words (pp. 21-22):
Jesus said in one of his most drastic images, "If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell" (Mt. 5:29). As we sense the incipient dynamism of sin within ourselves, we must, rather than yielding any further, make the most determined move imaginable for breaking with it. It can be seen throughout our world how much that call and warning of Jesus applies to readiness for war. Where there is not the determined plucking out of the eye that looks, however hesitatingly, toward killing, the whole person and the whole society are plunged toward the inferno of thermonuclear murdering and being murdered.

Theologians who have reiterated a just war or a war-of-liberation position have not adequately reckoned with this dynamism. For them a limited sinning (for which grace abounds) is permissible when a preponderantly good outcome is to be expected. Such positions have often been elaborated in the context of declaring with great emphasis the sin and guilt of all human beings. Because the sin and guilt are so encompassing, it is supposedly necessary, proper, and forgivable to add to them at times by going to war. Such positions are possible only for those who have no real comprehension of the biblical understanding that in sin and sinning a mighty dynamism strives for total dominion over those who in any way choose to commit sin and that God's grace moves not only to blot out guilt but, even more crucial, to hurl back that dominion. The history of our [20th] century, probably more than that of any other, corroborates the biblical awareness of sin's dynamism. Jesus said to the adulteress, "Go, and do not sin again." Only as we strive to hear and obey that directive with regard to our readiness to kill, can we be freed from this aspect of sin's dominion.

A prominent American clergyman asked me once, "What's the matter? Are you afraid of getting a little blood on your hands?" I am -- not because I'm so good, but precisely because I'm not. I am in jeopardy, exposed before the power of evil impinging upon me and lurking within me, the little blood on my hands would inevitably become much, much blood.
The hard work of obeying Jesus' commandments concerning love does not involve getting misty-eyed over murderers and tyrants. It involves inner work: building the capacity to resist objectifying anyone who bears the image of God, and then confronting the dilemmas involved with organizing alternative approaches. Not killing the murderer is just the first step. We still need to find out what makes people into murderers, how to safeguard society from future danger, and how to heal the wounds their crimes have left. But wait a minute -- we had those same challenges before, even when we felt free to obliterate our enemies. But too often we just dealt with the symptom and, apparently, made no progress with the disease.

To what extent is advocacy of nonviolence a luxury for me? As I said once before on this blog, when I was an editor with Quaker Life, I checked the subscription records once to see if any copies of the magazine went to the zip codes around the area where my sister Ellen was murdered. After coming to the USA, our family lived in Evanston, Illinois, and that was where my sister lived nearly up to the time she was kidnapped and killed. Quite a few copies of the magazine went to Evanston's zip codes. But not a single copy went to the area where Ellen died. True, I grew up in an alcoholic and occasionally violent family, and my mother reinforced that I was from "officer class" stock on my German side. Some of my warmest childhood memories were the times I'd sit with my father while he cleaned and oiled his guns. I can still remember the smell of the oilcloth. Still, my own survival never appeared to depend on willingness to use force.

What I long to do is to withdraw my consent from the conventional wisdom that blesses killing under the "right circumstances," which functionally means anytime we as a society don't have the will or imagination to find another way. I really hope that the worldwide revulsion at the the Saddam Hussein spectacle might be a moment of conversion for human beings -- this is what it does to our soul to choose deliberately to end a life.

There's plenty for all of us to do who want this conversion. Those of us who live in relative safety don't need to feel guilty or useless; let's work to expand the zones of safety. Those of us who love to use words should consider whether we enjoy killing the reputations of others; let's not drop one syllable of our opposition to bad policies, but without trashing the human beings behind those policies. Some of us are gifted to discern the forces that link militarism, economic exploitation, and racism; please help the rest of us get a handle on the implications for the way we live, vote, and spend. But sooner or later, a few of us will actually know when a life is literally in our hands. Maybe the ancient temptation will have lost its force.

(Original 2007 post, with original comments, is here. By next week, I expect to be back home and depending less on old material to meet deadlines.)

In my Internet wanderings around the "who is more cruel" debate, I re-encountered this helpful essay from Martin E. Marty: Varieties of unbelief.

Looking thoughtfully/critically at the new Museum of the Bible.

Patricia Dallmann on prayer, self-preservation (or not) and shooting the moon.

Ukraine's Soviet-era archives are opening up, with consequences for memory politics. Research can be emotionally draining for staff as well as visiting families:
When you work in an archive related to state repression, you can’t take documents too close to heart, says Andriy Kohut.

“We had a new member of staff,” Kohut tells me. “We started giving her files to catalogue – to put document descriptions together. I called in her office and she was crying: she had begun to read the case histories and it was too much for her. People who have worked here for a long time try to distance themselves: they just note the key data and ignore everything else. She had started reading a file, rather than processing it.”
Who knew conservatism had so many varieties? Here's one: Liberal conservatism.

Suits my mood...