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...

24 July 2019

Anthony Bloom speaks to Friends (repost and update)

Raymond Village Library
Hello from Raymond, Maine, where our Internet access is mostly limited to our visits to the Raymond Village Library, a wonderful library which is open to the general public three days of the week. (Hence another Wednesday entry instead of my usual Thursday schedule). I may use a similar dodge next week, as our time in Maine draws to a close.

As I write, the former special counsel Robert Mueller is testifying to committees of the U.S. Congress. I'm resisting getting caught in the political and emotional swirl surrounding these much-anticipated appearances by Mueller. His report really does speak for itself, and could easily form the basis of Judiciary Committee impeachment hearings if there were any sort of political leadership for that obvious step in our struggle to preserve what's left of republican democracy. As for today's appearances, it's hard for me to put any hope that, in the absence of such leadership, the political mudwrestling on offer today will result in anything edifying. Maybe I'm wrong, but please forgive my lack of investment in being among the first to know.

Instead, I'm remembering Anthony Bloom again. A few weeks ago I brought you a few of my favorite paragraphs from his book On Meeting. It left me with a desire to put up another scoop of his words. Today's unappetizing political spectacles, and Christians' mixed record in standing up for higher values, brought to mind this Bible study we did at Moscow Friends Meeting....

(Startling realization: this was nearly eight years ago!)

This month [August 2011], I'm helping with a Bible study at Moscow Friends. Rather than plunging directly into a biblical theme, we're going to explore how we understand the Bible and its role in forming us as individuals and a community. I remember a very helpful Wednesday evening discussion along these lines at North Valley Friends in Newberg, Oregon, USA, and I'm eager to see how a similar discussion might go here. A new translation of the Old Testament has recently been published and has been widely discussed (see this item for a bit of an introduction to the discussion), making now a perfect time to choose this theme.

For our first discussion, I chose several scriptures on God speaking to us, through the Bible and through Jesus--including the well-known passage from 2 Timothy. On a hunch, I also went to a book of sermons by one of my favorite Russian Orthodox writers, Anthony Bloom (the bishop of Great Britain and Ireland at the time he died). There I found a sermon specifically addressing what it means to be a biblical people. I was struck by how close his sermon on the Bible is to the classic Friends view. Anthony Bloom is consistent: he teaches honesty in prayer, in our relationships with each other, and in our relationship with the Bible:
The Gospel was born in the Church. Both the congregation of Israel and the church existed before there was Scripture. It was from within that community that the awareness of God emerged--and with it, an awareness of God's love, a vision of God's ineffable beauty, and a vision, as well, of our own status and fate, formation and calling. The community of the People of God is the kind of community that knows for sure that they have something vital to witness about -- namely about the One who is their new life, the object of their love and joy. A genuinely godly people -- a genuinely New Testament people -- must be the kind of community that could write the Bible themselves, giving it birth and preaching it from personal experience. If we're not that kind of fellowship, we don't really belong either to the Gospel or the people of God.

Often we comfort ourselves with the thought that we are a community of prayer where the word of God is preached and proclaimed, and where we seek, one way or another, to live by that word. But if we look around ourselves, everything we see indicates just the opposite. If we were a community where the divine word is being born from the very depths of our experience, it would be a two-fold revelation for all who hear us: a revelation of the word that is being proclaimed, and a revelation that the proclamation has become flesh and blood, a living reality for people. The community that preaches the divine word would by its very life serve as proof of what it is proclaiming.

Is this what we see? Can we really say that the community we constitute whether large or small, is a full-bodied confirmation of the news we carry, the good news that Jesus brings to the world?
One of George Fox's biographers said that if the Bible disappeared, it could be reconstructed from his writings. Anthony Bloom's sermon seems to be asking us: if the Bible somehow disappeared today, could it be reconstructed from the testimonies and experiences of our communities? Of your church, or mine?

As usual, Anthony Bloom does not mince words. What will our little fellowship do with his challenge? What first steps can we make to become the kind of people of God who don't just read the Bible as an old document, or one that makes us individually "wise unto salvation," but begin to incarnate its meaning and message--not just for ourselves but for those around us? If I'm not mistaken, Wess Daniels and his community are considering similar questions--see "Reading the Bible for transformation" (including the comments) and "The company we keep."

Re-reading the end of this post from 2011, I remembered that at the time Wess Daniels wrote the items I referenced from his blog, he was pastor at Camas Friends Church. When we returned to the USA from Russia, and eventually resettled in Portland, Oregon, the church we've ended up at is … Camas Friends Church. We love it! (Wess is now at Guilford College's Friends Center -- but his writings continue to be available to us all.)

Follow-up: Anthony Bloom speaks and we listen. Here's what I wrote the following week about the first session of that planned Bible study series.

Mike Farley on craving and prayer.

A story in captions: What does Leonardo DiCaprio have to do with Lake Baikal?

Gregory Osmolov: Why HBO's Chernobyl series resonates in Russia today.
For the Russian audience, perhaps not always consciously, the main theme of Chernobyl was not the events of the past, but the forces of invisibility that are still at work today. In a risk society whose contours – just like the spread of the Chernobyl radiation cloud – have begun to appear in our everyday lives, the main factor is not just a loss of security, but a fundamental need to come to terms with life in a world of growing uncertainty, where we are increasingly losing control over what is happening.
The new book Adventists and Military Service: some Quaker comments. (By the way, are Quakers "naively optimistic"? And which Quakers?)

A set from Steve Guyger and band:

17 July 2019

The Poor People's Campaign: a meditation on unity

Yearly Meeting at work.
Friends in North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative) have worked for years on ways of upholding our Quaker testimony on equality and against racism -- and how to do so with integrity.

Recently the appearance of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival has provided a new channel for expressing this concern. The Campaign unites several themes of crucial importance for Quaker discipleship -- racial justice, ecological stewardship, economic justice, demilitarizing our economy, and moral revival. After extensive discussions, of which I only witnessed a few peak moments, the yearly meeting adopted this minute describing their exercise:

This minute reached the business meeting in its last regular session before the close of the annual sessions. In considering this minute, some Friends felt that a briefer, more outward-facing, and more full-throated endorsement of the Poor People's Campaign was called for; others questioned whether such a text could be produced and seasoned quickly enough to meet the goal in these sessions. In the event, a small team of Friends agreed to bring a draft minute to a brief extra business session the next morning. This shorter minute was approved with remarkable speed and enthusiasm:
This second shorter minute did not replace the first one, which recorded the deliberations within the business sessions. However, the second minute serves as a public expression of the body, and is being forwarded to the Poor People's Campaign and added to the epistles that are sent out to Friends worldwide.

Thus endeth a positive story. Underneath, there is spiritual drama. But I have not earned the right to comment authoritatively on this drama; the following thoughts are based on several post-yearly-meeting conversations and my experiences of other yearly meetings facing similar dilemmas. Your thoughts and corrections are invited.

When a Christian community is united by a deep concern about racial justice, why would there be any caution about adopting a minute reflecting that concern?

For one thing, this particular yearly meeting was born, at least in part, out of conscientious opposition to adoption of a uniform discipline, and by extension, to hierarchical decisionmaking in general. It is not the business of a yearly meeting to impose a decision or a text on constituent meetings who are perfectly capable of developing and adopting their own statements. Of course, in theory, the yearly meeting sessions are simply all the monthly meetings gathered into one place, but pious theory doesn't prevent the alienation that local Friends can feel when an assembly located in another place claim to be speaking in their name.
Vocabulary note: Among many Friends, "monthly meeting" is simply another term for "local congregation." Traditionally, the local meeting or church meets at least weekly for worship, but holds meetings for church governance once a month, although there are variations on this pattern.
There are other churches and denominations where pronouncements are routinely made from a central office. This can result in alienation between the central office and the grassroots membership. (What is gained by anyone when a denomination issues a righteous proclamation over the heads of their constituency? Does it lead to an increase in righteousness, or to a burst of superficial gratification among those who prevailed in the politics of that denomination?) Friends generally avoid such practices, and the Conservative yearly meetings seem particularly resistant to them.

If I sensed correctly, there was another basis for urging careful process: would our public statements be grounded in truth? Were we implying a greater degree of righteousness in overcoming racism than we were actually demonstrating, in our lives as individual Quakers and in our meetings?

[Yet another point of testing whenever we North American Friends adopt statements on racism: do we speak only in the voice of the white majority? We (and now I'm daring to speak for the whole) may wish that our demographics more closely reflected the wider communities around us, but woe to us as a body if we marginalize those Friends of color who have found a spiritual home among the rest of us.]

Two other observations for you to consider, and, possibly, to challenge. First, what is the role of trust? I imagine that, sometimes, some Friends are impatient to adopt a strong stance for racial justice and against white privilege over the objections of others who may seem unnecessarily cautious. Are these Friends, with their sense of understandable urgency, able to trust that this caution might result from a genuine care for the process of discernment, rather than (let's say) out of residual racism or fear of change? Have those Friends who put the process first proven trustworthy over the many years their more deliberate approach has been normative?

In turn, are those who resist that urgency -- those who urge more deliberation or assert the primacy of action at monthly meeting level -- nevertheless able to trust that the urgency may actually be the voice of prophecy rather than a politicized enthusiasm? Are they ready to weigh the blessings of good process against the ancient temptation to quench the spirit when God is actually doing something new?

Second, what is the role of spiritual warfare? Racism and elitism are manifestations of the primordial sin of objectification. In particular, racism and white nationalism are the unsurprising outcome of centuries of accumulated cruelty. To me, the bottom-line challenge to all of us Friends is not whether we have perfectly calibrated our political statements. It is this: In the face of grave systemic sin, is Jesus really Lord or not?? This frames all our efforts, all our urgency, all our prayer and fasting, all our coordination between monthly meeting, yearly meeting, and wider fellowships, toward the goal of leaving no room for racism to remain.

I hope that the happy outcome of this discernment process, supporting engagement with the Poor People's Campaign, confirms the value of heart-to-heart collaboration among various Quakerly temperaments, adds to the yearly meeting's resources for faithfulness, and will provide valuable experience for Friends everywhere.

Sarah Kaplan: a serious proposal for interstellar space travel.

How Norway turns criminals into good neighbors.

How should Christians have sex? (What, if anything, takes the place of the discredited teachings of purity culture?)

Matthew Milliner provides a field guide to writer Richard Rohr.

Peter Wehner on the Trump-related crisis in evangelical Christianity.
In speaking about the widespread, reflexive evangelical support for the president, [Karel] Coppock -- who is theologically orthodox and generally sympathetic to conservatism -- lamented the effect this moral freak show is having, especially on the younger generation. With unusual passion, he told me, “We’re losing an entire generation. They’re just gone. It’s one of the worst things to happen to the Church.”

This week, a different video choice. My constant favorite piece of space history, the landing of Apollo 11.

11 July 2019

A "conservative" call for actual love and actual truth

Clean and simple: Yearly Meeting Web site (screenshot); source.
Hello from Wilmington, North Carolina, USA, where I'm attending the annual sessions of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). I've prepared an address for tomorrow evening's session, looking at this year's theme of "Retire to Quietness; Let the Light Shine."

This yearly meeting is one of three remaining yearly meetings of Conservative Friends in the USA. The others are Ohio Yearly Meeting and Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative). If you're familiar with the Quaker world, you already know that Friends use the word "Conservative" to mark a movement among Friends that is distinct from the dominant divisions ("liberal," "orthodox," and "evangelical"  -- I acknowledge the inadequacy and flattening quality of all of these labels).

Conservative Quakers may or may not be politically conservative (most are not, I'd guess) but they often cherish certain aspects of historic Friends practice more consistently than other Friends might. Chief among these emphases is this combination: a deep commitment to unprogrammed "waiting" worship, a complete rejection of paid and settled pastors for their own congregations, and a Bible-centered style of piety -- although this last feature varies widely from place to place, and even among individual meetings in the same yearly meeting.

In addition, one of the most attractive features of Conservative Friends practice, in my opinion, is the the unhurried pace of business meetings, with approval of minutes after each item of business or after each small cluster of items. It has been at least twenty years since I was last at Ohio Yearly Meeting and I've never been at a business meeting in Iowa, so my generalizations may all be a bit stale, but I'm happy to report that this pacing is being practiced before my admiring eyes here at these sessions.

The Interim Discipline of North Carolina Yearly Meeting of Friends (Conservative) has a helpful and candid overview of these features as experienced in this particular community. A rather pessimistic overview of the Conservative movement among Friends, written ten years ago, can be found in this article by Bill Rushby.

I was never a member of a Conservative Friends meeting, but its culture and spirituality helped form me as a new Christian, through the influence of one remarkable Canadian Friend. My mentor for my earliest years as a Friend was Deborah Haight, a founder of Ottawa Friends Meeting, who was born and raised in the Conservative Friends community of Norwich, Ontario.

To be honest, I'm using the word "conservative" in this week's blog post at least partly as bait. In the non-Quaker use of the term, "conservative" Christianity in the USA, especially in its white evangelical manifestations, often appears to have become thoroughly compromised in its enmeshment with right-wing politics. I propose that the more conservative your theology is, the more radical your practice ought to be. And this is the very moment in American history, when cruelty and corruption seem to be on the throne, when genuinely conservative Christianity ought to rise up in confrontation with the forces of "the father of lies" (John 8:44, context).

Here's what I'm baiting you to read. It's both a sample of Conservative Quaker rhetoric, and an exhortation to the nation. Arguably, it's an exhortation to those Christians who typically claim to be conservative. It dates back to last summer, having been approved as an open letter by Ohio Yearly Meeting, but today was the first time I heard it -- in this morning's business session, where it was read along with Ohio Yearly Meeting's 2018 epistle to North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative):
A Christian Call from Ohio Yearly Meeting of Friends (Conservative)

We are Christian Friends (Quakers) from various walks of life, political persuasions, ages, and backgrounds. We share both a desire to obey the Lord and a growing concern that our nation bring itself to the path of righteousness and mercy that Jesus taught.

Again and again, Christ calls us to love. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength and with all our mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Deuteronomy 6:5, Luke 10:27, Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30-31). When we are Christians, this is not optional. If our hearts are full of love, there is no room for fear, because “perfect love casts out fear.” (I John 4:18) Being blessed with God’s abundant love, we should be keeping families together, be welcoming to the strangers, and show compassion to those in need. We should see the best in each other regardless of political affiliation.

We know that “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:14) And who is our neighbor? Jesus’ answer is the parable of the good Samaritan. Only the Samaritan shows mercy to the beaten man. Only the Samaritan is a true neighbor in the eyes of the Lord (Luke 10:35-37). Today, are we acting the part of the priest and the Levite, or of the Samaritan? Is each of us willing to be a good Samaritan only to those who are like us, or who like us, or whom we like?

We are to follow Him who is the Truth (John 14:6). In an era of confusion between falsehood and truth, we risk leaving Christ's side when we listen to only what pleases us. (2 Timothy 4:3-4) For the sake of Christ, it is worth investigating the truth, wherever it may lead. In the words of Isaac Penington (a 17th century Friend). “truth will not lose ground by being tried.”

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Is that what we are showing the world? As Christians, we are called to live exemplary lives that glorify God (I Peter 2:13) Standing on the True Foundation, the Rock of Christ, let us return to His path, stand in the Light of Christ Jesus that reveals all things, and bears witness to our Lord above all – above party, above friends, above media, and above ourselves..

The Ohio Yearly Meeting Ministry and Oversight report to Ohio Yearly Meeting included the following statement. Friends united with the proposed statement and adopted it as amended. The statement is titled “A Christian Call from Ohio Yearly Meeting of Friends (Conservative). Friends also appointed a committee to consider means and methods of accomplishing distribution and publication. In addition, the statement has been appended to our Epistles, and Monthly Meetings are encouraged to distribute the statement locally to ministerial associations and similar bodies. [Source.]
I have no doubt that this Call needs to continue reaching new audiences.

Related posts:

Why it's hard for me to criticize Biblical literalists
Process discipleship
Good news or bad news?

Friends Committee on National Legislation: Rejecting cruelty as a policy solution.

Jonathan Trotter: The cure for my contempt (and yours, too).

Tomgram: William Astore on drowning in militarism.

Sean Guillory's fascinating interview with David Brandenberger on Stalin's famous/notorious Short Course. (Would you believe Stalin might have been a self-effacing editor?)

The evolution of the world map.

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