20 February 2020

William Barr, Max Boot, and "the vapor trails of Christianity"

Today's American conservatives often point to secularism and to attacks on Christian morality as the causes of countless instances of social decay. U.S. attorney general William Barr's recent speech to that effect drew the attention of Washington Post columnist, Max Boot, who responded in a column entitled "William Barr's America vs reality in 2020."

Boot's first response is a direct challenge to Barr's assertion that (in Barr's words) "Virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground." Boot counters:
Consider some of the improvements since 1960. Real per capita gross domestic product has increased 216 percent, from $18,268 in the first quarter of 1960 to $57,719 in the first quarter of 2019, driven in part by a 230 percent increase in output per hour for non-farm workers as of 2015. The share of 25- to 34-year-olds who have graduated from college has tripled as of 2016. Infant mortality has fallen nearly 80 percent as of 2018. The homicide rate was unchanged as of 2018 — five murders per 100,000 people — but that disguises a vast improvement since the homicide rate peaked at 10.4 per 100,000 in 1980. While the number of out-of-wedlock births was more than seven times higher in 2018, the share of single mothers has declined since 1997 because more unmarried parents live together. The abortion rate soared after Roe v. Wade in 1973 but has fallen more than 50 percent since 1980. How does Barr account for these improvements if the United States is on the road to ruin?
Next, Boot challenges Barr's central argument -- that religion is an essential factor in maintaining social health -- and that's when I really took notice. Boot describes how his colleague Sherry Cho assembled evidence that the opposite might be true. Cho listed the ten "most religious" and ten "least religious" nations (using data from this 2017 survey) and then compared various measures of social well-being between the two lists. Boot summarizes:
Indicators suggest that the less religious nations are much better off. Average GDP per capita in the least religious countries is more than five times higher, while the unemployment rate is more than twice as low and the poverty rate is one and a half times lower. The homicide rate is five times lower. Life expectancy is 22 percent higher, and infant mortality is 1,000 percent lower — in part because the least religious nations spend 50 percent more per capita on health care. The least religious countries are also better educated, with a mean 12 years of schooling per capita vs. 7½ years in the most religious countries. Income inequality is 24 percent lower in the least religious countries, and gender inequality (as measured by the World Bank) is more than 400 percent lower. Finally, the least religious countries are freer, with an average score of 87.6 from Freedom House, compared to 56.5 for the most religious countries.
I don't agree 100% with either Barr or Boot. Barr first: whether or not moral values are weakening as he asserts, his descriptions of the causes include absurd exaggerations. He says that in previous eras, moral decay was just one end of a pendulum-swing cycle that eventually self-corrected ... but now it's different:
First is the force, fervor, and comprehensiveness of the assault on religion we are experiencing today. This is not decay; it is organized destruction. Secularists, and their allies among the “progressives,” have marshaled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.

These instruments are used not only to affirmatively promote secular orthodoxy, but also drown out and silence opposing voices, and to attack viciously and hold up to ridicule any dissenters.

One of the ironies, as some have observed, is that the secular project has itself become a religion, pursued with religious fervor. It is taking on all the trappings of a religion, including inquisitions and excommunication.

Those who defy the creed risk a figurative burning at the stake – social, educational, and professional ostracism and exclusion waged through lawsuits and savage social media campaigns.
I am sure there are militant atheists and secularists among us; I run into their abrasive rhetoric all the time. But sociologists tell us that the USA remains uniquely religious among the world's wealthiest countries. Surely if a militant anti-religious movement were effectively neutralizing our religious majority population, we would see more evidence of their vicious attacks, inquisitions, excommunications, and savage social media campaigns. Honestly, I don't. Actually, it seems as if most politicians at the national level still feel they need to wear their religion on their sleeves.

(Remember Hillary Clinton's campaign advisor suggesting an attack on Bernie Sanders' supposed atheism? One such example does not prove a trend, but when have we heard of any campaign trying to make a negative out of someone's Christian faith?)

I would also like to know whether America's conservative religious communities have better social outcomes than the country at large. Have things improved among evangelical Christians, for example, since Ron Sider wrote his sobering book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience?

Maybe I'm too judgmental, but Barr's overdramatization of the secularists' "organized destruction" does not seem like a genuine argument -- it is simply that same tired old rhetorical scare tactic that Richard Hofstadter described as the "paranoid style in American politics."

Boot correctly points out that Barr completely disregards advances in morality in the same years during which the USA has supposedly been decaying. For example, racial segregation was legal when Barr was born (1950). We could go on to list all the crimes and social sins that were routinely hushed up in pre-#MeToo, pre-#ChurchToo, and pre-Black Lives Matter times.

Here's what I'd like to discuss with both Barr and Boot: the usefulness of the word "religion" as a meaningful category. Barr says that religion makes all the difference -- and at various points he shifts from "classic Christian" to "Judeo-Christian" to the role of religion in general in the full 50,000 years of human development. Boot and Cho refer to the full variety of religions in the ten most religious and ten least religious countries they studied.

Here's the problem. A couple of years ago anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas wrote about the influence of religion in general to their ethical behavior: "No matter how we define morality, religious people do not behave more morally than atheists, although they often say (and likely believe) that they do."

In his article, "Are religious people more moral?", Xygalatas points to several devices that contribute to this divide between faith and practice. One very important corruption occurs when ethical behavior is only applied to fellow believers within the group, not necessarily to outsiders. Another is the common tendency for religious people to produce a folk variant -- or as Xygalatas puts it,
... the beliefs and behaviors of religious people are not always in accordance with official religious doctrines. Instead, popular religiosity tends to be much more practical and intuitive. This is what religious studies scholars call "theological incorrectness."
Is it possible that both Barr and Boot don't pay enough attention to this "popular religiosity"? Barr wants to argue that the transcendent claims of religion impose limits on human waywardness that no laws or secular ideals can match. Is this in fact true? And maybe Boot's charts of religious and nonreligious nations also can't take into account whether the religions being cited all have comparable claims on the hearts and consciences of their adherents, or are often simply identity markers along with all other features of their cultures.

Cutting across all these arguments -- and especially Boot's and Cho's analysis -- is Robert Woodberry's research on the worldwide influence of those he calls "conversionary Protestants." His claim, documented in his paper "The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy," is that these missionaries "heavily influenced the rise and spread of stable democracy around the world."

The resulting questions I have for both Barr and Boot are these: how can we argue these controversies based on vague and selective definitions of religion? Is there some factor that we ought to be paying more attention to, that might animate more actual, practical love of neighbor, and how might that factor guide the way we describe today's social pathologies and social improvements?

I'm intrigued by William Barr's reference to the secular values he compares unfavorably to our Judeo-Christian legacy. "What we call 'values' today are really nothing more than mere sentimentality, still drawing on the vapor trails of Christianity." I'd like to challenge the "really nothing more" part of this charge, but it's true that the "vapor trails" of Jewish and Christian influence are evident everywhere in our definitions of private and public good.

Maybe Robert Woodberry's study documents a similar phenomenon. Is it possible that in the "least religious countries," the powerful legacy of "conversionist Protestants" proved more durable than any specific form of public religiosity? In other words, can we attribute any of those good social metrics in "least religious" nations to the "vapor" left by those faithful evangelists? If so, what were they preaching and practicing that went powerfully beyond conventional religion as described by Xygalatas ... that is, beyond "popular religiosity" and the divisiveness of "we are special"?

Related posts:

The golden age of evangelism

The atheist's gift

Meeting Jesus halfway

It's hard to believe in Jesus

Every knee shall bow

On loving our critics

The Canadian pipeline crisis was centuries in the making.
For decades, pipelines and other extractive industries, such as mineral and coal mining or logging, have legally pilfered Indigenous land by presenting members of a nation’s council and the citizenry with the same basic sales pitch: “We have money, and you do not.”
Umair Haque on fascism: what happens when a society can't speak the unspeakable?

Has the rising "religiously unaffiliated" tide started to slow?

When I snagged this link from The Guardian, it was #2 on the "read in the USA" list: the truth about why we wake up at 3 a.m.

Buddy Guy is still learning.

From my list of blues musicians I really really miss: Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee:

13 February 2020

Prayer and politics

At its very heart the Christian life and identity is a process of incorporation into a new social organism, a new community. Spirituality cannot exist apart from this social context.
-- Kenneth Leech (1992), The Eye of the Storm: Spiritual Resources for the Pursuit of Justice

If but one man or woman were raised up by his power, to stand and live in the same spirit, that the Prophets and Apostles were in, who gave forth the Scriptures, that man or woman should shake all the country in their professions for ten miles around.
-- George Fox (1652)

Is there good news for the poor that isn't politics?
-- David Dark (earlier today) on Twitter
Prayer can be thought of as a particular aspect of theology. Theologians try to think coherently about God and about God's relationship to creation, and to communicate with others about their thoughts and questions. In prayer, we're not just thinking about God; we actually include God in those thoughts and questions. It's true that those who pray don't always think of themselves as theologians. However, to the extent that they think about what they're doing in prayer, and with Whom, they are thinking theologically.

In fact, theology shapes prayer. When we pray, we are expressing our relationship with our Creator, and that relationship does or does not include expectations of God's trustworthiness, God's promises and how we know about them, and God's care for us.

(And who are "us"?)

Our theology may not be fixed for all time, and it may have space for ambiguity and uncertainty. Today I may be utterly trusting and tomorrow I may be consumed by doubt. Our theology may be carefully pieced together from various sources, or it may be composed largely of inherited assumptions. In any case, we are also in a theological relationship with the culture that shaped those sources and assumptions, and which encourages or limits our freedom to choose.

Kenneth Leech's book The Eye of the Storm begins with a chapter on culture, specifically the individualistic culture of much of the English-speaking world. The separation of "spirituality" from social and political awareness in this culture is a relatively recent development -- a separation that was not part of the wider church's teachings during most of the history of Christianity. That earlier teaching voice of the church was not always a pure Gospel message; it was warped at times to serve earthly empires rather than the Kingdom of God. Now that the church's capacity to teach is far more fragmented, we still find distortions and enmeshments with earthly power. Nevertheless, the point remains: the idea that our individual salvation is distinct from the fate of the larger community is a novelty with important implications for our theology of prayer.

Doug Gwyn has written (in, among other places, Heaven on Earth: Quakers and the Second Coming, co-authored with Ben Pink Dandelion and Timothy Peat) that our Quaker movement began in a time in the life of England when many people were anticipating the end of history. Quakers responded to those times with a particular synthesis of two apocalyptic streams of thought:
  • First, a proclamation that the true apostolic Gospel message was again being preached after a long night of apostasy -- a message that had the power to form covenant communities who would behave in accordance with that message. 
  • Second, the confirmation of God's grace and power was not the stamp of a monarch's or bishop's approval but the inward working of the Holy Spirit. 
(Don't blame Doug, Ben, or Tim for this compressed summary!)

This combined message valued the experience of the individual believer but also provided a strong social context within which the Scriptures were interpreted, the Friends "testimonies" (important principles of spiritual and ethical discipleship) were taught, evangelists and prophets were sent into much of the world, and community members facing hardship received care.

The new Quaker movement made revolutionary claims. Not only was the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus a decisive moment in world history, but, in the midst of the mid-17th-century political chaos in England, the renewed proclamation of God's intervention in history was (for early Quakers) also a decisive moment. As Quakers conducted their nonstop campaigns of petition-writing and lobbying of rulers and parliaments -- at first on their own behalf, then increasingly on behalf of others -- their private and inward spiritual exercises were matched by their demands for public righteousness.

Granted, we've calmed down a lot since then (too much?), but the heart of every meeting for business of the Quaker congregation is still a prayer: "God, what would you have us say and do in this time and place?" Our ability to listen for God's answer, and to obey, is partly determined by our diligence in private devotion, Bible study, and time alone with God, but also our awareness of what is going on in the world around us. Our own personal focus might be a ten-block radius around our meetinghouse, or it might be the impact of American trade policy on the textile industry in Bangladesh. Together, as we worship and pray in our churches, yearly meetings, wider associations, and ecumenical relationships, as we ask God what we are to say and do with the concerns we bring prayerfully to the community, we can cover the planet.

A couple of weeks ago ("Our life is politics," quoting the Palestinian teenager) I listed a division of labor based on spiritual gifts, in the hopes that "covering the planet" in these tense and fragile times might seem less daunting. There are two other important aspects to this division of labor:
  • Praying for each other, and letting each other know that we're praying for each other. During the peak months of 2014's Russian-Ukrainian crisis, when it became politically fashionable to blame everything on the USA, we tried not to take the increasingly hostile atmosphere personally. (Even in Moscow Friends Meeting, a bit of hostility erupted!) We knew who was praying for us back in the USA, and that was a wonderful help in keeping our perspective.
  • Giving each other respite care. We can't all keep up a 100% commitment level continuously. Some of us need to get off social media or committee assignments for a season, but others will be able to take up the slack. Get some rest!

Among the many powerful case studies of the revolutionary Quaker message in its early years, including its inseparable social and spiritual aspects, is the story of Katharine Evans and Sarah Chevers, which I summarized here.

The series of online "conversations" organized by the Quaker Religious Education Collaborative presents this theme for February: Quakers, Death and New Life: RE for Lent, Easter, Passover. Choose between this coming Tuesday, 1 p.m. Eastern US time, and Thursday, 8 p.m. Eastern. More information and registration at their Web site.

Quaker House of Fayetteville, North Carolina, USA, recommends our attendance (in person or by streaming online) at the presentation of the final report on national service of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. Registration information is here.

John Fea continues his public service to the faithful remnant of evangelical Christians who reject the enmeshment of white American evangelicalism with the personality cult of the U.S. president. Here are his thoughts on the problem with the "reluctant" Trump voter.

Lawfare's summary of the Trump/Barr/Stone scandal. I loved this line about 3/4 of the way down: "Let's start with the nonnefarious possibilities."

Have you heard about the Putin elevator prank?

A respite from politics!! What we learned from New Horizons photographic study of Arrokoth, a billion miles beyond Pluto.

More from Samantha Fish ... this time with Mike Zito:

06 February 2020

Triumph of the magic tycoon

Do not be overawed when others grow rich,
when the splendor of their houses increases;
for they will take nothing with them when they die,
their splendor will not descend with them.

Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.
Psalm 49:16-17; Ecclesiastes 5:10, NIV

Do you remember the millionaire columnist Percy Ross? His column, "Thanks a Million," was published in one of the newspapers we read regularly in our Richmond, Indiana, years, and in about 800 other papers nationwide. It ended in 1999, when Ross announced that he had exhausted the fund set up for his philanthropic project ... although privately he sometimes still responded to requests after that date.

The column originated when Ross decided to devote the majority of his fortune to a specific kind of very public but human-scale philanthropy. If you wrote to him with a credible pitch that some cash from him would improve your prospects in a way you weren't able to manage for yourself, and -- of course -- if your letter got picked from among the 10,000 he received each week, you'd get the cash. Actually, many more people were helped than the few whose stories were chosen for his column. In some cases, instead of cash, you'd get an in-kind gift from a sympathetic business, or Ross would kick off a campaign to get donations from other readers. His column would often also include examples of unsuccessful pitches, along with Ross's tart explanation of the denial.

Americans seem to have a fascination with wealthy people, and with the magic wand such people could wave over the rest of us who saw them as role models or yearned for a piece of their good fortune. The enormous popularity of "Thanks a Million" was just one example of that fascination, and by no means the worst. Ross wasn't exactly a systemic critic of capitalism and its ills, but he seemed to have a fair understanding of how people could end up needing help through no fault of their own. Although it seemed clear that Ross enjoyed the publicity while it lasted, there were no political or doctrinal strings attached to his gifts, and he hoped and expected to fade out of public view after his project ended.

All of these thoughts about Ross and other tycoons were stirred up by the spectacle of the constitutionally-mandated State of the Union speech for this year. Once again, a wealthy, publicity-seeking man dispenses his favors -- but isn't it fair to observe that this one is a bit different? All of the gifts and guest appearances arguably were tied into the Trump re-election campaign, but for me the most outrageous moment was awarding the nation's highest civilian honor to Rush Limbaugh, who has endorsed Trump to his dittohead audience.

(Related: see "Trumpworld has converted the nation's regional talk radio hosts into a loyal army.")

The speech was also remarkable for what he claimed that he was achieving or giving us despite his administration's actions (or inactions) to the contrary. His "ironclad pledge" to preserve coverage of pre-existing health conditions is a scandalous example, as is his claim that prescription drugs are getting cheaper or his prediction that the new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico will add 100,000 auto industry jobs. One record he could have mentioned but did not: The U.S. national debt reached $22 trillion last year, or 78% of gross domestic product, with little or no apparent relief forthcoming from the pledges made during the 2017 campaign for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Aside from that law, very little of the national debt can be blamed on Trump, but an accurate State of the Union speech would not leave out this evidence of our collective refusal to live in reality.

Donald Trump did not invent the idea of using this annual speech as a campaign ad, but I cannot remember any previous report on the State of the Union with such a high proportion of blatant self-promotion, self-congratulation, and deception. I cannot pretend to have been surprised. The evidence suggests, however, that a large part of the USA still hopes for our Tycoon-in-Chief to bestow his magic bounty on us for another four years.

If you think I'm being unfair to Donald Trump, you probably shouldn't read or watch this.

Umair Haque asks why Americans idolize the rich. Are his observations fair? Also see Gillian B. White's article on photojournalist Lauren Greenfield, who has been documenting Americans' apparent fascination with wealth. And the Cato Institute surveys Americans' attitudes toward poverty, wealth, and work. Interesting sample:
Nearly three‐​fourths (71%) of Americans admire more than resent the rich. But people also believe this admiration can be taken to excess. A similar share (75%) believe that their fellow Americans admire the rich "too much."
Jacqui Shine tells us more about Percy Ross and his column "Thanks a Million."

Here's why Russian prosecutors dropped murder charges against sisters who stabbed their father.

Josh Daffern proposes six reasons that might explain why the so-called "nones" are walking away from church. His six reasons are all worth considering, but there's another reason that I'd propose -- and this might help explain several of his six: too many churches simply do not take Jesus seriously, and people know it. To borrow (without permission) a phrase from Norval Hadley, the body should reflect the beauty of the Head. Let's start making that our priority, rather than all the programming and thought policing that we see now. (Some of my own thoughts on Friends' weaknesses and potential strengths are here.)

Here's a topic you don't see every day: Sex and the married missionary.

Another kind of blues: Daniel Deitrich's "Hymn for the 81%." "I grew up in your churches...."

30 January 2020

"Our life is politics"

Alexei Navalny (light blue shirt) and Ksenia Sobchak (other end of row) debate opposition strategy on election day 2018.  Sobchak was rumored to have been approved as a candidate by Kremlin strategists who wanted to make an otherwise boring political campaign more interesting without threatening V. Putin. Source.

Not long ago, I was one of several Americans talking with a 16-year-old Palestinian from Gaza. As she answered our questions about her family's experiences living inside that locked-down territory, she said something I'd never heard from a teenager anywhere: "How can we not talk politics? Our life is politics."

I cannot say that every teenager in Palestine would agree with her. But I checked with her to be sure she was really saying what I thought she was saying: People in her situation did not have the luxury of ignoring politics. Or to put it in contemporary terms, they did not have that privilege.

It was an interesting contrast to our experiences with young people in Russia during the years 2007-2017. In a blog post from three years ago, "Russia's YouTube generation," I reported the single most popular cliche about politics I heard over all those years: "Politics is a dirty business; it's not for me."

As I reported in that post, the anti-corruption movement in Russia had made inroads among young people, some of whom seemed undaunted by the prospect of being arrested at a demonstration. Their increased awareness seemed connected to their choice of information sources -- mostly Internet-based, in contrast to older generations' preference for broadcast television.

However, those demonstrations, startling as they were in a political scene that had seemed almost dormant, only involved a microscopic percentage of all young people in the country. Our own students were well aware of the anti-corruption movement, and talked about it without fear, but were almost uniformly skeptical about its utility. Few (if any) trusted the government, but almost nobody saw any point in public opposition.

On the Global Voices Web site, freelance writer/editor Eilish Hart just posted more recent impressions of youth participation in Russian politics. Some young people, having known no other Russian leader, are asking, "Volodya, aren't you tired?" I don't doubt that there is potential for more creative pressure from this generation, but it is not obvious how and when they will become a critical factor.

I wish I could now go back and discuss with our young Russian acquaintances what that Palestinian teenager said: "Our life is politics." Specifically, is their definition of the word "politics" the same as hers? If they could all compare understandings, how much overlap might actually exist between her viewpoint and theirs?

For example: if by politics you only mean "effective participation in an open process of choosing those who will govern us, and then choosing their replacements," neither the average Palestinian nor the average Russian is likely to get this kind of experience anytime soon.

In contrast, if "politics" means "gaining influence in choice of leaders by whatever means are available," then you filter out -- in both countries -- those who are allergic to the "dirty" reputation of politics. Those available means can include trading on family ties, buying influence, currying favor by joining the right youth groups, patriotic clubs, political parties' summer camps and seminars, and so on. That's exactly the sort of definition that many of our students assumed, but perhaps not our friend from Gaza.

Of course, neither the cleanest nor the dirtiest versions of these understandings of politics are all we have in real life. If a company builds chemical warehouses, disobeying laws and polluting the local park near a housing complex (an actual situation not far from Elektrostal), ordinary people who had always assumed that politics was not for them, might mobilize in response, and in that process might learn more about the laws, the authorities who are supposed to enforce them, the incentives that bear on those authorities, and -- ultimately -- how they can be replaced. On a national level, things might look stagnant, but there is local ferment nearly everywhere in Russia; and as the old saying goes, "All politics is local." It follows, maybe, that the most effective education for learning about politics is also local.

There's a way of understanding politics that is far more descriptive and analytical than all transaction-based descriptions -- and to my mind, far more helpful. "Politics" simply refers to the social processes by which a community allocates scarce resources. It's not just limited to the arrangements in place at the moment -- it also includes the marketplace of ideas within which we advocate fairer and more transparent processes and learn to do that advocacy more persuasively. There are few forces that can resist the power of an idea whose time has come ... thanks perhaps to years of intelligent development and persistent advocacy.

It's that kind of alertness to the forces at work and readiness to respond knowledgeably, rather than dependence on heroes and villains, that may be one important way of understanding that "our life is politics." It's a refusal to resign oneself to a passive acceptance of whatever happens, in favor of awareness of today's hazards and tomorrow's possibilities of change. The more hazards you face (e.g., Gaza!!), the more important it is to stay aware.

Christian discipleship potentially influences all these understandings of politics, but to apply discipleship to political life, we have to think systemically. If we only see politics as transactions among personalities, we will only attract and repel based on our audience's willingness to engage in those transactions -- whether they be abject loyalty at one extreme, or character assassination at the other.

Instead, we need to do the work of building ideas and visions of a biblically-shaped allocation of resources. What that actually means may not be clearly and universally understood, but those kinds of conversations, even passionate debates, can be conducted ethically, with love and respect, within a discipline that bans today's ever-popular practices of bearing false witness, name-calling, objectifying the "other," and so on. To ask what it means systemically "to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" is worth all the hard work, active listening, and mutual forbearance we put into it.

Even when we succeed in convincing more people that politics is simply a systemic process of allocating resources, not a fancy euphemism for conniving and mud-slinging, we have work to do. But we don't each have to do all of the work. We need a division of labor: we need prophets to stick their necks out for advocacy, vision, and for calling out unethical shortcuts. We need evangelists to spread the vision of a Godly rebuke to all bondages, and to invite people into the community that's building upon that vision. We need pastors to care for them all. We need teachers to do the hard work of shaping a common arena where everyone potentially knows the same things, can learn to analyze for themselves, and where none are left out. As E. Stanley Jones said, we need conservatives to protect traditional values, and liberals to expand the reach of those values. Each keeps the other honest.

Maybe all this can be done outside the Church as well. I'd like to think we have an advantage: by having Jesus as sole occupant of the center of our lives as individuals and as community, we can take risks with all other aspects of human diversity. The lion and lamb can be together, as can the liberal and conservative, the prophet and the pastor, the socialist and the capitalist, the skeptical newcomer and the weighty Quaker. Our churches and meetings can be laboratories and incubators of that capacity for systemic discernment that can start building new visions, new alliances ... new politics.

Opportunities and dates:

Quaker Men's Gathering for the full variety of Friends in the U.S. Pacific Northwest: April 17-19 at Camp Tilikum near Newberg, Oregon.

Pacific Northwest Quaker Women's Theology Conference, June 24 to 28th, 2020 at Cascades Camp, Yelm, Washington.

Support the Friends International Medical Teams (and Judy!) as they take their ministry back to Bolivia, April 15-27.

Micah Bales brings to our attention one Christian experiment in understanding politics differently.

British and Irish Quakers on Brexit.

The Trump-Netanyahu annexation plan, and what Palestinians could do.

Russia and Poland ... both guilty of distorting Holocaust history?

From "president" to "Supreme Ruler" ... some highlights of recent proposed Russian constitutional amendments.

Finally ... twelve years ago I asked myself, "Am I a political junkie?"

Samantha Fish with Christone "Kingfish" Ingram ... another version of "I Put a Spell on You."

23 January 2020

A disciple looks at impeachment

"But does he really need to be removed?" Source.
Almost exactly a year ago I commented favorably on Yoni Appelbaum's article advocating impeachment of Donald Trump. I agreed with Appelbaum's hope that impeachment might funnel some of the chaotic, bombastic accusations flying back and forth between Trump's critics and supporters into a more dispassionate, dignified, orderly process.

I'm writing this as the House managers, the seven congresspeople in charge of presenting the impeachment to the Senate for trial, have completed their second full day of presenting their case. They have indeed presented the limited and focused series of charges that were formed by the House House's impeachment hearings and debates rather than the long list of scandals and grievances that have accumulated since Trump's inauguration. Of course this has not eliminated all the chaos from public arenas, but at least there is another show in town that offers us a way to distill the central issues that have put our republic in danger, and to measure the performance of our legislators in confronting the crisis.

As I write this, the president's defense team has not yet begun its presentations and rebuttals, which may begin on Saturday. However, comments from individual Republican senators and from Trump spokespeople provide two chief talking points that are likely to be part of the defense:

The House provided insufficient evidence to back up the alleged abuses. (To which Democrats will either ask for the evidence being withheld by the Trump administration, which would presumably strengthen the House case but could also give alternate explanations more favorable to the president.)

The Hunter Biden/Burisma case is evidence of actual corruption in Ukraine, and therefore Trump's perfect phone call had a legitimate purpose in asking for investigations. (To which Democrats have already responded: There's no sign that Trump cares about Ukrainian corruption more generally, or cared even about the Biden case until Joe Biden became a candidate with favorable polling vs. Trump. Also: how does Trump explain the abusive treatment of Masha Yovanovitch, the highly irregular role of Rudolph Giuliani, and the illegal withholding of military aid under cover of secrecy, and without policy consultation or justification? Finally, isn't it a dangerous precedent to ask for another country to investigate a U.S. citizen, never mind one who is a political rival?)

A legally irrelevant Republican talking point, heard both yesterday and today, is that the House presentations have been highly repetitive. Attorney Jay Sekolow was quoted in the Washington Post as saying "We're hearing the same things over and over." That criticism is inconsequential when compared to the question, "Are these 'same things' TRUE?"

However trivial in the larger context, the criticism itself is definitely true: almost every detail of the case against Trump has been presented at least three times -- in the service of arguing for documents and witnesses, then in a lengthy and very detailed chronology, and finally (?) in thematic form, reflecting the division of charges into two broad articles. I would not be surprised if, tomorrow, it were all repeated again!

The strategies of both sides reflect the reality that the Senate itself is not the only audience of their presentations and rebuttals. It might not even be the major audience. The nation as a whole is the ultimate audience, and each side seeks to mobilize its electoral base. The House impeachment managers, for their part, want their messages to communicate at times of convenience to all members of their national audience, wherever and whenever they happen to have a chance to listen to the news. The repetition may be irritating to senators, but most members of the wider audience can't spend the whole day watching the trial -- they will probably rely on mass media summaries that will comb out the repetition in favor of the most recent or most dramatic iteration.

They also want to assure that audience that no Republican senator can now claim ignorance of the serious charges they are leveling, and the evidence already collected to support those charges. If those senators vote for acquittal, the Democrats will point to the blatant absurdity of a whole party caucus turning their back on "high crimes and misdemeanors" without seriously engaging with questions of truth.

Likewise, the president's defenders will not be primarily speaking to the Democratic senators. In fact, they may realize that their assertions in defense of Trump will sound to Democrats and many observers as completely disconnected from reality. Their primary audience (in addition to Trump himself) is Trump's electoral base, who will, if past experience serves as guidance, accept their talking points at face value. These defenders know that the care with which the House managers assembled their indictment, including their hundreds of quotes, clips, texts, and legal citations, are not likely to weigh nearly as much with that base as the mocking commentary of Fox News and other Trump allies.

If it's not already obvious, my own point of view is that the House case as presented was effective and persuasive. However, I wasn't pleased with all of it. For rhetorical reasons (just to give an example), to make Trump's cat and mouse game with Zelenskii even more dastardly than it certainly already was, the managers probably exaggerated the "desperation" of Ukraine to obtain an Oval Office meeting with Trump for their new president.

For us contemporary descendants of the "Publishers of Truth" (a nickname for the first generation of Quaker evangelists), the issue of truth continues to be a central priority. Adam Schiff's summary tonight focused exactly on that concern:
If "right" doesn't matter, [then] it doesn't matter how good the Constitution is. It doesn't matter how brilliant the framers were. It doesn't matter how good or bad our advocacy in this trial is. It doesn't matter how well-written the oath of impartiality is. If "right" doesn't matter, we're lost.

Three more defenses of Trump have been floating around in social media, and all of them concern me. They're not likely to be repeated by Trump's Senate defense, because they're either harmful or irrelevant to the defense, but they help to explain why "right" and truth require our constant attention.

One goes more or less as follows: Sure, Trump may have done those things, but what's the big deal? So does everyone else. This line of reasoning feeds on the cynicism people have about politicians and amplifies it. It's a variation of "whataboutism" that doesn't encourage an actual inquiry into whether or not previous presidents observed norms, courtesies, and ethical boundaries that Trump has long since trashed. It would be equally lazy to assert that all previous presidents were angels who never lied or trafficked in secret intrigues. Actual truth requires a willingness to go deeper.

Another popular "so what?" defense of Trump is basically, But look what he's done for the economy / the anti-abortion fight / guns / conservative judges / freedom of religion! Once again, it's important to look beyond labels and slogans to see what he's accurately claimed and actually done (abortion; religious liberty), and at what cost, rather than assuming that those who advance these slogans are shining apostles for fair and trustworthy rhetoric.
Context matters! Two very different unemployment graphs, both drawing on valid stats. The one you choose to post on Facebook probably reflects whether or not you're a Trump fan.  
Sources: Fox Nation; Business Insider.
Finally, the frequent Republican charge that the whole impeachment proves that Democrats want to reverse Trump's 2016 election victory: This charge is truthful, in a way. Many of us predicted that the election of Trump was an unprecedented disaster, permitting an impulsive narcissist to gain access to the world's most powerful office.

However, no Democratic "coup" was necessary or attempted. Trump himself provided the grounds for "reversing" the election by way of impeachment. His own illegal and unethical acts, fulfilling our predictions, are the immediate cause of this process.

A related charge is that Democrats will do anything to "destroy" Trump. This is typical political exaggeration and maybe should be ignored ... except that it is constantly repeated within the isolation chamber of the Trump personality cult. For those of us who pray daily for the president and want nothing more than plain justice, this charge constitutes false witness.

A public service: Jim Kovpak's (Russia without BS) articles on disinformation.

Another public service: Optimists make everything good. (You're welcome!)

A fabulous recently-discovered treasure trove of Soviet-era photography.

What's missing from Sunday sermons? Well ... sex. (The author wants to hear from you.)

Flávio Guimarães and Álamo Leal:

16 January 2020

Are all hearts clear? (Partly a repost)

Source: Wellcome Collection.  
"Are all hearts clear?" This question is often heard near the end of Camas Friends Church's meetings for worship. They are usually almost the last words we hear in worship, just before the closing words, "Go in peace."

At Camas Friends, we members and attenders take turns hosting the meeting for worship -- that is, calling us together to begin the worship, giving announcements, and then, at the end, signaling the close of worship with those two sentences.

On one recent Sunday, the person serving as host said that she wasn't going to ask, "Are all hearts clear?" because she wasn't exactly sure what it meant. She continued: speaking for herself, her heart was hardly ever "clear." Instead, she was going to ask whether anyone still had something on the tips of their tongues to contribute to the meeting.

Many of the Friends meetings and churches I've attended or visited end the meeting for worship, or the unprogrammed portion of the worship, with those words. The query feels warm and familiar to me. It says to me that the meeting for worship doesn't simply come to a mechanical halt; there's always space for the vocal ministry that might still be making its metaphorical journey from heart to lips.

The phrase also reminds me of a remarkable comment George Fox made just two days before he died: "...I am glad I was here. Now I am clear. I am fully clear."

I thanked that morning's host for making me think about this familiar phrase. Familiar to me, that is, but perhaps not to everyone who happens to be at a Friends meeting for worship on a given occasion. My point isn't to advocate giving up the phrase altogether, but to pause long enough to consider what we're doing as a community to learn and teach clarity of heart.

Any time I encounter an artifact of Quaker peculiarity -- from pacifism to plain language -- I am tempted to question its utility in building up our discipleship as Christians. Have we remembered to connect our peculiarities to the concern for integrity which gave them birth? Or have they become vanities, reinforcing Quaker exceptionalism?

I originally used the Wellcome Collection photo above in my post of September 6, 2007, "Open Hearts." Here's the title portion of that post:

Yesterday's The World program on Public Radio International had a remarkable interview. In June of this year, Jennifer Sutton, 22, underwent a heart transplant operation at Papworth Hospital, Cambridge, England. In the radio interview, she describes what it was like for her to examine her heart -- literally. Her old heart. The one on display at the Wellcome Collection, just west of Friends House on Euston Road in London.

As the Wellcome Collection's Web site explains, Sutton "had been suffering from Restrictive Cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the heart muscles stiffen, meaning the heart chambers are unable to fill with blood properly." Before the transplant, she was unable to walk more than a few meters without resting. Clearly, her heart was functionally inadequate for the life she wished to lead, and she was told she had maybe six months to live.

I wouldn't be surprised if all over the world preachers were finding ways to insert this news story into their sermons. If you look into your heart, what do you see? Rigidity? Without a healthy heart, how can you stay in circulation?

Actually, it's not a laughing matter, even as a metaphor. It just happened that, when I heard the story, I was in the weight room at Mount Scott Community Center. In fact, I was on the treadmill, doing the cardio part of my workout. Whenever I start revving it up on that machine, I touch my heart and tell it, "I love you." Thanks to The World and Jennifer Sutton, my words had extra weight this time.

One more thing. I thought about Jennifer's heart on public display, for all the world to see. Normally our hearts are tucked inside us, never exposed to the light of day. The world of realists doesn't honor hearts much, except in sentimental contexts -- our leaders are supposed to be hard-nosed, ready to make the tough decisions. We know that their lives don't always match up to this cerebral ideal; sometimes their other private parts don't stay private enough, but their hearts, conversely, too often stay too private. Sometimes I wish I could speak to some of our leaders and ask, "In your deepest heart, can you really not believe that the president of Iran was seriously reaching out when he asked about Christian consistency in our president's policies? Is there not ever any doubt in your heart about the efficacy of coercion over respectful persuasion in dealing with the world? Do you really believe that access to regular health care should be subject to the law of the capitalist jungle?"

I'm an organ donor, so I suppose it is possible that my heart will someday be inside someone else. I hope that the surgeons will judge that it will still give life and hope, as Sutton's new heart is doing now, and that the new owner will be able to touch it and say "I love you."

UPDATE: The Wellcome Collection's Web site has been thoroughly overhauled and now relies on archive.org's Wayback Machine for access to older pages, including those relating to the exhibit where Jennifer Sutton's heart was on display. Here's a BBC article with more information about that exhibit.

In 1980, Judy and I, newlyweds, moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, so that Judy could begin her MBA program at the University of Virginia. I worked at the Logos of Charlottesville bookstore, a Christian bookstore whose owner, Florence Skove, was a vocal supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. During the ratification campaign in Virginia, she and I (and the bookstore's one other employee) wore ERA pins.

Yesterday, the amendment was finally ratified by Virginia's General Assembly.

Is Russia heading toward autarky? And what might be the possible upsides of Vladimir Putin's newly-announced reform proposals? (By the way, Aleksei Navalny and his team wonder how [Rus.] the new prime minister's wife earned 800 million rubles.)

Jennifer Wilson on an experimental approach to Elena Ferrante and the sources of literary influence.

Internet Monk: There's a big difference between a biblical approach and a biblicist approach.

Here's a delightful video about Samantha Fish: Fil Henley, a British rock guitarist, analyzes a video of Fish performing "I Put a Spell on You."

To his observations I'd add another quality that isn't as obvious on this track as it is on some of her others, namely her melodic discipline. This is a great quality in a genre that often allows cliche chords and hooks.