16 March 2023

Thinking twice about the "Billy Graham Rule"

Shurik and Lida study for exams. Operation Y and Shurik's Other Adventures; screenshot, source.

We all knew of evangelists who had fallen into immorality while separated from their families by travel. We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet or eat alone with a woman other than my wife.

With these words, Billy Graham explained how he and his leadership team came up with the so-called "Billy Graham Rule." It was one of four rules that they hoped would allow their work to demonstrate an integrity that they admitted was often missing from crusade-style evangelism.

I don't know of anyone who questions Graham's original intention—to shut down even a hint of the kind of impropriety that had obviously tempted many other public figures in the religion industry. (My term, not his!) However, over the years, the rule has come in for much criticism. Women have pointed out some of the implications of the rule: the not-so-subtle hint that women are temptresses, for example; and the professional and personal cost for women in public ministry because this theoretical risk has robbed them of mutually advantageous mentoring and collaboration; and finally and oh-so-familiarly, once again, men try to set all the ground rules.

In turn, others have noted that the rule reinforces the idea that men are so selfish and predatory that they must make unilateral rules to overcome their own weaknesses. Even if I intend to behave perfectly in my relationship with a woman friend or colleague, the onlooker might still assume "boys will be boys." Kristin Kobes Du Mez's book Jesus and John Wayne documents how this view of man-as-selfish-predator even served the cause of telling evangelical women to cater to their husbands' sexual whims: quoting from the LaHayes' book Act of Marriage, "Few men accept bedroom failure without being carnal, nasty, and insulting." Really?

Behind all these discussions is the age-old question: can two people be friends across the conventional lines of sexual attraction? To be more precise and pointed: can two people who, in a romantic context, might feel sexually attracted to each other, relate fully in other contexts—work-related, for example, or simply as friends with shared interests and mutual appreciation?

Adrian Warnock, an MD and long-time Christian blogger, surveys the subject of male-female friendships in this recent blog post, "Men and Women CAN Be Friends—Retiring the Billy Graham Rule." He ends up firmly supporting the idea that men and women, including married men and women, can have warm and mutually helpful non-romantic relationships outside marriage, even though those relationships would not meet the Graham standard. He points out that some perfectly normal (heterosexual, he assumes) men prefer the companionship of women, and vice versa.

Warnock also says that "Men cannot pass the buck to women for their disgraceful thoughts. Men must take responsibility for handling their own internal thought life. and the stimulus that provokes it." (His emphasis; presumably the same applies to women.) This reminded me of something that a woman Quaker leader once said at a conference: (quoting from memory) "absolutely pure male-female friendships might happen, but they're rare. There's almost always some sexual tension."

If this is true (and I have no research to go on beyond what Warnock cites), the solution is not to avoid such relationships, but (a) not to "pass the buck" for this tension, making it somehow the other person's or other gender's fault; and (b) instead, take the responsibility to confront and manage the tension within oneself. Consider whether, after all, the relationship is rewarding in so many ways that this management of the tension, with prayer and with honest self-examination, is well worth it.

So, the question isn't whether non-sexual friendships across the conventional lines of sexual attraction will ALWAYS be successful, or NEVER be successful, where "success" means mutually beneficial and productive without becoming sexualized. Sometimes the truth is, success takes work and restraint and honesty, but the rewards can make that effort worthwhile.

PS: Is this a fair definition of "success"?

In the past, the categories Adrian Warnock uses in his post (male-female friendship, etc.) don't take into account sexual temptation outside once-predominant heterosexual male-female assumptions. To widen the discussion, I've adopted this formula of "friendships across the lines of sexual attraction,"  or "two people who, in a romantic context, might feel sexually attracted to each other..." but these sound a bit clumsy to me. Are there better ways to express my meaning?

Related posts:  Trust, the first testimony—now it gets personal; What's so urgent about sex?

Swedish "charismactivist" Micael Grenholm interviews Craig Keener on the Asbury University revival of last month.

Russia at war, faith, and conscientious objection: a successful appeal for alternative service; a draft counselor comments on the current wave of notifications to update conscription records (video, in Russian); Forum 18: "Thou shalt not kill" leads to fines.

David Remnick interviews historian Stephen Kotkin on how the war in Ukraine will end.

And so we have a Russia which looks more and more like the Putin regime as a society, not just as a regime, potentially. We have all the flotsam of the xenophobic hard right in Russia complaining that the war is not being fought properly, wanting to nuke Ukraine, nuke the West, as they go on social media and express the extremism that unfortunately social media facilitates and encourages. And so that’s the Russia we have already. Russia has already been transformed utterly. Wars are transformational in all ways.

Friends Committee on National Legislation looks inside the Biden budget.

"Ya gotta have fun, baby." Greg Morgan (Elder Chaplain) gives us a story of friendship and closure from one of his readers. Have you had a similar experience? Write to Greg.

Beacon Hill Friends House in Boston (where Judy and I met 45 years ago) is looking for a facility manager.

The people of Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends: Judy interviews Gil George.

Gil: Part of why I have the skill I have at fitting in wherever I go, is because I grew up in a house where I literally walked from one culture to another, just by changing rooms. I go up on the third floor and I'm in Guyana. I go across the hall from the Guyanese room, and I'm in Colombia. I go downstairs, I'm in Ethiopia. I go down to the basement and I'm in Jamaica.

To Josephine from Australia: Queen Juanita and the Zydeco Cowboys play an old classic.

Also on YouTube: Henry Gray's version, old-school (audio only). The Jerry Jaye version I remember from my teen years. The Fats Domino original.

09 March 2023

The joy of politics

CBS Evening News, USA's presidential election night 1964, screenshot from source.

"They still haven't counted the votes in Pennsylvania and
Michigan." (Posted on Twitter with hashtag "Envy.")
Politics is serious business.

Many of us correctly associate "politics" with the ways society regulates itself and allocates scarce resources. It covers the ways human beings, with all our colorful conceits and uniforms, do what all "higher" mammals do: define "we" and "they," mark territory, and mobilize against calamity.

What could be more serious?

The realm of politics becomes even more serious, and takes on even more negative overtones, when we look beyond the formalities of politics and see the corruption and shortcuts that give some of us advantages in the allocation of resources, and marginalize others. I spent most of my growing-up years in Chicago, and I have lots of memories and diary entries about the scandals that regularly erupted in Chicago politics.

(See the sample from Mike Royko in this post.)

Of course, all this seriousness requires some relief. That relief often takes the form of humor, as it did for Mike Royko, and for Sergei Yolkin, the political cartoonist who left Russia last spring. (The cartoon above is his.) Humor can give us precious relief and can remind us that the emperor has no clothes. But it can also be a gateway drug to passivity and cynicism.

In Russia, we often came face to face with this passivity, this utter lack of hope that we ordinary humans can have any influence on "what goes on behind those walls," with the additional reasoning that "why would we Russians need democracy?—we already do whatever we want," and the corollary, "We need a strong hand to keep us in line."

"Do we still have a long way to go?"
"I don't know, I'm not interested in politics."

I may have told this story before: In some of my conversation classes in Russia, I'd ask the students to imagine that they were the absolute monarchs of our city. If they had total power to change just one thing, what would it be? One young woman answered, "I'd like an honest policeman."

"Oh, you'd like an honest police department," I responded.

"No," she said. "Just one honest policeman."

Occasionally, when we talked about students' future professions, I'd ask whether any of them wanted to be politicians. In all the years I asked that question, only once did anyone say yes. The answer nearly 100% of the time was, "It's a dirty business. I wouldn't touch it." 

During one of the big demonstrations in the 2011-2012 election season, we had some students in our kitchen. We ourselves never encouraged students to take any political action at all beyond voting (our school's directors told us instructors to encourage our students to vote), but when the subject came up, we were all ears. One student said, "Why should I risk going on the street to tell Mr. Putin that he is corrupt? He already knows it!"

Here in the USA, we have plenty of excuses of our own to avoid serious engagement with politics, whether it is passivity, cynicism, or despair at the deep divisions in our country's political life. But there's another way to consider politics, a way that starts out by regarding it as ... a spectacle to marvel at.

My best attempt at an analogy is sports. As in politics, sports has teams and competition. Some contests end up with winners and losers, some end up a draw. There are captains, coaches, referees, fouls; there are heroes and cheaters, and moments of sheer inspiration.

I used to think that sports were a trivial distraction compared to real life (for example, politics!). But then I thought about the vast amount of resources devoted to playing and watching sports, and the billions of people who care about their favorite teams, their heroes, their own children's teams, and all the facets of the sporting world. Much of this enthusiasm is voluntary and often it's joyful. Who am I to be condescending?

Then it occurred to me that there are people in politics who behave as athletes, and others who behave as avid spectators. They love the competition, they love the scorekeeping, they keep track of wins and losses—whether we're talking about candidates winning or their policies winning.

To see what I mean, watch this video of Bill Clinton nominating Barack Obama for a second term as president at the 2012 Democratic Party convention. Clinton is all about a serious task: contrasting Democratic political values with what Republicans offer, and explaining why Obama is the candidate that will honor those values. But one thing is incredibly clear throughout the video: Clinton is enjoying himself immensely.

Of course, for the dedicated spectator of politics-as-sports, part of the drama is that this same Bill Clinton worked his head off against Obama four years earlier.

(Speaking of politics and sports, Clinton says this in the speech about his wife's working relationship with Barack Obama: "I’m grateful for the relationship of respect and partnership she [Hillary Clinton] and the President [Obama] have enjoyed and the signal that sends to the rest of the world that democracy does not have to be a blood sport. It can be an honorable enterprise that advances the public interest.")

A couple of days ago, in anticipation of George Lakey's visit to our town and our church this weekend, I watched a video of  a conversation about his new book at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Lakey has a lifetime of experience in organizing and training organizers for social justice, anchored in his Quaker faith. Early on in the presentation, Varshini Prakash asks Lakey, "How do you view the acutely polarized state that we're in?" (This link goes to that point in the Free Library video.) I found Lakey's response fascinating—not just for his analysis of past and present times of polarization and the possibilities that they opened and might again open, but also for the enthusiasm he brought to this analysis. 

That's what I mean by "the joy of politics" in a context that takes humanity and justice seriously.

Later in the video, Lakey describes how he assigned students in his University of Pennsylvania classes to take a crate to Philadelphia City Hall plaza, stand on it, and speak to the passing crowds on a vital subject of their choice. "The students universally thought I was putting them through hell ... and afterwards they felt like they could move mountains."


Maybe the joy of politics isn't for everyone, but I'm absolutely sure that many more people would discover that joy, if we can break open some of our learned passivity currently bound up with "that dirty business."

The word "politics"—is it singular or plural?

Related posts: Am I a political junkie? Thoughts on hope and cynicism. "Our life is politics."

George Lakey's visits to the Portland, Oregon, area, tomorrow, Saturday, and Sunday. (PDF with live links.) And, specifically, his visit to our Quaker church.

Kristin Du Mez on Beth Moore's autobiography, on the use and misuse of theological labels, and on coming out as Calvinist.

Covenant community requires trust, so how do we know when to trust? Our traditions have weakened, our signals don't necessarily travel well. Emily Provance challenges us to propose solutions.

Nancy Thomas on "coming unglued" in a poetry writing seminar.

Ally Venable, Buddy Guy: "Texas Louisiana."

02 March 2023

Vanity of vanities: partly a repost

'Your post titled "Vanity of vanities" has been unpublished.' 

About a week ago, I was startled to get this notice from blogger.com. It went on to explain that "Your post titled 'Vanity of vanities' was flagged to us for review. We have determined that it violates our guidelines and have unpublished the URL http://blog.canyoubelieve.me/2008/01/vanity-of-vanities.html, making it unavailable to blog readers."

The letter went on to explain how I could edit the post and submit it for reconsideration. Naturally, being a spiritually mature, even-tempered Quaker, I was ... INCENSED! I looked back at this fifteen-year-old post (archive.org version) which I'd revisited a couple of years ago to edit dead links, photos, and video, and tried to figure out what could have caused the blogger platform to blow the whistle.

After a day or two of calming down, I made a couple more changes—one or two more dead links eliminated, and a newer version of a video subbed in—and republished. Only then did I notice that I had received another notice from blogger.com, from the same date as the previous notice. Subject line: "Your post titled 'Vanity of vanities" has been reinstated." Well!

It just happens that this "Vanity" post's theme, class issues among Friends, has been popping up again.

For one thing, I've had a long-standing concern that I've sometimes shared in this blog, that the ways we Quakers talk about our faith is often too wordy. According to Elizabeth Gray Vining's biography of Rufus Jones, he once gave an address after which he was gently criticized with these words: "Our dear Lord said,'Feed my lambs.' He did not say, 'Feed my giraffes.'"

I've had a couple of chances to help edit text on Quaker Web sites, and I've looked for chances to use language that doesn't imply "if you don't have an advanced education, you're not welcome among Friends." I also remember a Methodist writer who pointed out, rightly or wrongly, that most devotional literature is written by intuitive introverts for intuitive introverts.

And for another thing, Quaker writer and activist George Lakey is coming to our town and to our church this month (information below), and that reminded me of something I've always appreciated about him: his advice that successful movements united people across class lines, rather than dividing them. See the links section below for a couple of samples of Lakey's thinking on class.

Here's an edited and shortened version of my "Vanity of vanities" post. (You can read the comments on the original post through this link.)

Two Johan Fredrik Maurers, both nattily dressed. (At right, my great-great grandfather, 1817-1887.)

Vanity of Vanities [January 2008] 

Questions about Friends and social class have been prominent again in recent weeks in the Friends blogging community.

For examples, go here, if you haven't already:

The Friendly Funnel, "22 Class Steps Forward" [archived]
Susanne Kromberg, "Poll on Class and Faith"
Social Class and Quakers, "Questions, Questions"

Some of these questions came up a couple of years ago, when Brooklyn Quaker wrote his "Thoughts on the New York City Transit Strike--and Quaker Class Narrowness."

I'm happy about this development, in part because of my visceral dislike of elitism and of the spiritual violence that we do when we objectify others. (We "objectify" when we look at people coldly, forgetting their equal status with us as made in the image of God; when we reduce people to categories; when we see them as objects of our agendas, or as irrelevant to those agendas.)

Some of my intense feelings no doubt come from growing up with my mother who believed in the superiority of her German "master race"—to the point that she displayed a swastika on her Skokie, Illinois, front lawn during the controversy over Nazis' wanting to march in Skokie. (Did she ever see the irony later on when she moved north to, of all places, Zion?)

For reasons that relate to our family's own violent history, we straddle classes, which gives me insights that I sometimes would rather not have. No doubt this also adds to my blind spots.

But, turning to Friends, I also share a concern that elitism in any form is a dangerous heresy. It is a betrayal of Friends theology, which is radically hospitable because it respects no categories that are not directly tied to God. You (every possible "you") and I are, first of all, created and loved by God—we have no license to create a category outside that compass. The only relevant remaining categories are (1) presently in community with God (converted and convinced, in Christian Quakerese) or (2) potentially in community with God!

The big issue in my mind is: what is the nature of the border between those two categories? From God's all-encompassing perspective, I'm sure the answer is far more interesting and gracious than anything we can conceive. But descending to our Quaker perspectives for a moment, I can imagine how personal biases affect our answers. I want to defend the importance of conscious personal decision, of saying "yes" to God, so I see a definite boundary there, although one for which that "yes" is the only, and I mean only, requirement to pass. Universalists inside and outside Christianity would see that boundary differently, or not at all. A strict Calvinist would have a different understanding, too.

Whether or not you agree with me about the importance of that conscious and personal "yes," we probably all agree theoretically that nothing else should obstruct the threshold into the community. If there is anyone not living in the glorious freedom of the children of God, we should invite them in. We should certainly think carefully and creatively about what it would take to connect both honestly and persuasively with that person, and what aspects of our corner of the community would undercut our message of hospitality.

Back when Brooklyn Quaker first posted his "class narrowness" thoughts, I responded on his blog as follows:

... I won't take the space here to enumerate the number of class-related snubs I've seen or heard about among Friends.

One such snub deprived us of a working-class smoker (*gasp!* - yes, he smoked, but many of the nonsmokers drank like fish). [Fifteen years later, I am inclined to soften this last judgment.]

A working-class woman struggling with Catholicism was another brief visitor, snubbed in part because of her enthusiasm. [Let me add, however, that one of the weightiest members of that meeting said that this visitor was more like George Fox than anyone he knew.]

A husband and wife who wanted to do door-to-door evangelism were told, "Perhaps you'd be happier elsewhere." This, in a meeting that had shrunk to one-third of its size in fifteen years!!

A meeting made its bathroom off-limits to those coming to get boxes of food.

More pet peeves. (Sure feels good to get these off my chest.) ... Meetings whose rhetoric, however well-intentioned, makes it clear that poor people, low-income people, people of "other" races, addicts and members of addiction recovery groups, are not part of THIS fellowship, even when they actually are. [I'm referring to Friends who regard such people as not necessarily worse than us, but as OBJECTS of our goodness.]

I do have a hypothesis: a group that has integrity and spiritual power can attract people from any race and social class. (Unfortunately, so can groups that fake it well: there's never a time when discernment isn't required.) I remember one very dear Friends fellowship that was pretty homogenous but yearned for diversity; half a block away was a Pentecostal church where there was ACTUAL diversity—racial, social, class, temperament, language. Spiritual power does NOT necessarily mean emotional contortions, but it does mean crossing a threshold of conversion and self-abandonment not typically found among the self-satisfied or terminally autonomous.

For the nnnnth time, this sort of meditation has led me to the question: If I see so much incompleteness, why do I stay among Friends? Because I'm deeply convinced that Quaker discipleship is the most authentic way of being Christian that I've been led to. And the inhibitions and compromises that keep this authenticity under wraps are wearisomely familiar to me because ... I share them! Finally, every meeting for worship is a new opportunity to confront those inhibitions and take another step toward greater faithfulness for myself and my community.

Several of the above-referenced blogs refer in one way or another to cultural screens that may or may not play a role in our being inclusive or exclusive. For example, are we too intellectual? Does our comfort with ambiguity repel those who prefer certainty? Are our activist folkways too full of "inessential weirdnesses"? (Thanks to Jeanne/Social Class & Quakers for this link.)

I resist making these class issues—there are intellectuals in every discernible social class, and certainly self-regarding elites can be addicted to certainty. (How else did we get into Iraq despite the misgivings of ordinary people of every class?)

And I'm not at all worried about our having weirdnesses, since every social group has them, and nobody of any class is so stupid as to think that a new place they're visiting will have no peculiar features at all. My question is, are we willing to do the hard, worthwhile work of figuring out which of our behaviors is just our particular wallpaper, and which actually undercut our theology of radical hospitality?

Some additional thoughts, in no particular order:

  • I continue to believe that the most important pathology underneath Quaker elitism is a defective understanding of God's role in our community. I wrote about this at excessive length here: "Nancy's question" (What are we so afraid of?)
  • I've visited more than two hundred Friends meetings over the years, and we're in the middle of a ceaseless round of visitations within Northwest Yearly Meeting right now. Some Friends meetings have a very truncated social spectrum; others have an amazing range of people. The wider-range meetings seem to have at least a couple of characteristics in common: First, they are places where talking about one's faith is very easy and natural, where people speak openly about what God is doing in their lives. Second, they're places where it is possible to confess doubt, problems, failures, addictions, fear.

    Just one verbal picture: At Melba Friends Church in Idaho, a few weeks ago, a meeting for healing prayer was announced to take place at the rise of meeting for worship. Those who wanted healing prayer were to gather at the front of the meetingroom, while the rest of us got ready for the potluck dinner. There was no mistaking the intense spiritual work that was going on among those gathered at that meeting—but everything about the atmosphere of that community told us that this was completely normal.
  • When I was a Friends denominational bureaucrat, I noticed (and wrote about) the divide between those who were temperamental skeptics and those who were temperamental proclaimers. The seminary, specifically Earlham School of Religion, was a perennial arena for collisions among those two groups. One group was there to explore their spiritual issues; the other was there to refine their existing commitments and prepare to deploy them in pastoral or other forms of service. What I longed for was a depth of love and accountability in the community that would allow both groups to be themselves and still contribute to building up a faithful, hospitable body.
  • No group will grow in numbers or faithfulness through guilt or shame. When Judy and I were young adults, we were at a meeting for business at which someone said, "What our church needs is more young couples." No, not so fast! ... what they needed was more confidence in their own identity as people of God. Anxiety about their defects was useful only if it led to positive, creative work on tearing down barriers, not to a negative tearing down of themselves. This was a meeting full of people who'd done amazing things in their (mostly) long lifetimes; they needed to reveal more of themselves, not obsess on their shortcomings.
  • But on the other hand, maybe that meeting I just mentioned did need to enter a season of self-doubt. They'd been a prestigious Main Street church for so long that perhaps it was important to face at least a few unpleasant realities. My point is to use those doubts creatively, let them break the power of respectability and denial, but then move on to build a more solid foundation of group identity. Recover your dear early love! (Revelation 2:4-5)
  • This same meeting had young people who once challenged the meeting, through a Sunday School teacher, "Some of you have been Quakers for 60 years—why can't you tell us more about why you became Friends and what you've learned about God in those years?" Well, part of the answer was: "Our generational culture is very private." That privacy is not something to be ashamed of, but it needs to be worked on.

Details on George Lakey's upcoming visit, and a few links:

Lakey on "the middle-class capture of Quakerism...."

... and on "coming out as a working class man."

... "How progressives can win."


Dining across the divide: Can these two Utah grandmothers have a civil conversation?

Sergei Chapnin's open letter to the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Last Sunday at Camas Friends Church, Leann Williams spoke on trauma and "conduits of healing." Recommended!

A couple more links on the Asbury revival: Nadia Bolz-Weber, "On Longing and the Asbury Revival"; and Zach Meerkreebs thought his sermon had bombed.

Greg Morgan: When is it ok to greet a death happily?

Yesterday Portland's Waterfront Blues Festival announced that Buddy Guy was scheduled for this July's Festival program as part of Guy's "Damn Right Farewell Tour." You guessed it: I have my pass.

Back to 1969: "My Time After Awhile."

23 February 2023

Ukraine: a blogger's recapitulation, part one

• 2009-11

I first began making regular visits to Elektrostal, Russia, in 1994. I had no idea at the time that eventually I'd make a home there for ten years, and teach in a local college. My first goal had simply been to get to know the local Friends meeting, and, through them, the local students, doctors, and educators who had initially reached out to Friends in the USA.

Elektrostal is a relatively new city, built around heavy industry. Many of the people I met were from distant parts of the former Soviet Union, including Kazakhstan, the Russian republic of Dagestan, and several parts of Siberia. However, the greatest number of family connections were in Ukraine. Among the families I grew close to, one of them spent every summer at grandma's home in rural Ukraine.

Odesa Main Station, Pushkin Square (October 2009)
In October 2009, the board of Friends House Moscow held its annual meeting in Odesa, and Judy and I seized the opportunity to make our first visit to Ukraine. Anyone who knows Odesa will not be surprised to hear that we fell in love with the city. (Some pictures and comments in this post.)

Our next visit to Ukraine, in 2011, was totally unplanned, a quick visit to Kyiv to iron out a work visa problem. (See Judy's post about this trip.) Thanks to this unexpected opportunity to explore Kyiv, we made our first of two visits to the Ascension (Florovsky) Convent and the grave of St. Helen, which was renowned for its healing powers.

Later that same year, we returned to Kyiv and the convent after a Quaker retreat in Kremenchuk, Ukraine, on the theme "The Gathered Meeting." (I wrote about the retreat here.) We enjoyed our long walks around the city of Kremenchuk during free time.

• 2014-15

In early 2014, the popular uprising and power struggle in Ukraine came to a head. As a fellow guest at a Moscow hostel told me, the zombies were coming out

Our own Friends meeting was divided on the situation in Ukraine, but after one particularly lively discussion, we were able to agree to watch and pray through the week, forming a spiritual observatory for the events unfolding in Ukraine, with the hopes of writing a statement at the next meeting for worship. The result was this message to the world family of Friends. A week later we had another vigorous discussion on Ukraine and added a few more words to our message.

We continued to follow the situation during the occupation of Crimea, the Minsk processes, and the ongoing fighting in Donbass. With the help of Friends World Committee for Consultation, Europe and Middle East Section, we urged Friends worldwide to support Quaker fact-finding visits to Ukraine; one visitor was our meeting's own Misha Roshchin, and the other was Roland Rand of Tallinn Friends. I first wrote about this initiative here, and in January 2015 posted a follow-up report.

• 2022-23

In January 2022, as Russia was demanding security guarantees, and world powers were sending their diplomats here and there, I felt we were witnessing an "artificial crisis" that was strikingly similar to Adolf Hitler's confrontation with Poland at the end of August 1939.

Novaya gazeta, Friday, February 25,
Then, on February 24, as I listened online to explosions and air raid sirens, I tried to come up with some first principles to help me cope with my sorrow and anger.

Maybe you're able to understand why it's so hard not to keep following invasion news, despite the closing down of Dozhd TV and other Russia-based information channels, and the inevitable fog of war. Last spring I found relief of a kind on a transatlantic ocean voyage, but still couldn't keep away from the news.

For me, maybe for most of us, the hardest thing to witness is the suffering of Ukrainian people under fire—the deaths, bereavements, separations; the loss of homes, loss of light, heating, and water; the interruptions of careers and educations. But for those millions of us who also cannot turn our backs on Russia—I've spent my whole adult life studying the country's language, culture, and politics, and have years of good memories and hundreds of former students among my social-network contacts—there's another level of pain as well. (And I can barely imagine what those who have had to leave their Russian homeland are feeling!) It's as if the country we know is being held hostage, politically and spiritually, and it's no comfort that a huge part of its population seems to have accepted this state of affairs. This is a country that broke the power of the tsars, and then of the Communist Party; why such passivity now? (I know, I know: it's easy for me to ask!)

Out of these sorts of questions, I wrote about the "beautiful Russia of the future." Later, in "beautiful Russia of the future, part two" I quoted Dmitri Bykov: "It is clear that Russia crossed many red lines. It cannot live any longer as it did in the past. The world will no longer see [in Russia] a place of spirituality, a place of great culture, a place representing victory over fascism."

I'm sure that most of my posts on this war over the past year are utterly forgettable, however therapeutic their writing was for me personally. Although I've tangentially touched on the increasingly extremist descriptions of Ukraine in the Russian media (see this article from my "Ceasefire shorts" list of links), I have written almost nothing about the uses to which religion, and specifically Satan, is being put as a tool to attempt to heat up popular enthusiasm in Russia for the war. (See this discussion on YouTube about whether Zelens'kyy is the Antichrist or just one of his demons.) The manipulative enmeshment of religion into politics is, of course, a phenomenon we also constantly need to confront in the USA.

In the meantime, please join me in watching and praying, and let me know what you've learned over this past year that keeps you centered in this storm. Thanks for your company!

The two most visited posts this past year, related to Ukraine, have been the "first principles" post on the day of the invasion ("RUSSIA. BOMBS. UKRAINE.") and "the dilemmas of pacifism."

What happens to Ukrainian children transported to Russia, according to the Yale School of Public Health's Humanitarian Research Lab. (PDF.)

George Persh on war and eschatology in today's Russian/Ukrainian context.

Eschatological rhetoric, which is gaining momentum and has become part of state propaganda, is designed to justify more clearly Russia’s mission in its present and future. Russia has one path and task: to crush the forces of Satan that Ukraine serves.  And this view of the current conflict is not a marginal phenomenon but in fact, is the official position of the Russian Orthodox Church, which was expressed at the last World Russian People’s Council, where in the presence of Patriarch Kirill the radical professor Alexander Dugin spoke, stating: “This is the war of heaven against hell… His Holiness in his special report gently hinted at the figure who stands on the other side, which defines, inspires, and organizes our enemies. This figure is very close. We do not know the times; no one does. But we can understand them by the signs, see how close they are… That’s why more and more often, we talk about Armageddon, the end of times, and the apocalypse. We are taking part in the last, maybe the penultimate, no one knows, but a very important battle.”

Forum 18: A Ukrainian Protestant conscientious objector is apparently being sent to prison.

Bluesman Jason Ricci on recovery and relapse.

James Fallows on Jimmy Carter's "ninety-eight years of an exceptional life."

This year's Quaker nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Micah Bales: "I Like An Underdog—But I'm Not One.

Life and Power: Quaker discernment on abuse and violence in the family and community.

What might the discovery of massive early galaxies mean for our current models of the universe?

OK, this has been a somber blog post, and rightly so. Still, it's good to see how much fun these musicians are having. Rick Holmstrom and his band with Nathan James. 

16 February 2023

"Let us become more aware of Your presence"

The congregations sings the chorus "I Speak Jesus"
(screenshot from source)
These words from the praise song "Holy Spirit" sum up what I've gained from watching several hours of YouTube feeds of the nonstop worship from Asbury University, that began a week ago yesterday.

At the moment, I have the audio from Hughes Memorial Auditorium on my headphones as I write. I'm completely aware of the conflicting ways we Christians view revivals of this sort, or even how we define them. We can see them as worship events that overflow the usual formats we use to fit worship into our lives and schedules. We can see them through the lenses of mass psychology. We can worry about manipulation; we can wonder whose agendas are played out in these events.

As with any group behaviors, we are right to exercise discernment. But after these hours of enjoying (yes, enjoying, in the midst of this time of loss and pain and bondage), I keep noticing these features of what is going on in that auditorium and campus:

  • student leadership
  • prayer from the front, at the edge of the platform, in small groups, and on many faces
  • beautiful, soaring aspirations conveyed with quiet, modest rhetoric
  • no celebrities, no slogans, no coercive exhortations
  • no flashing lights or pounding bass
  • cycles of contemplative songs followed by more lively songs, again followed by contemplative songs
  • expressions of joy, expressions of repentance, of gratitude, of intercession
  • behind the scenes, amazing efforts to keep people safe, fed, moved in and out of the worship space
  • emphasis on God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, without sharp dogmatic elbows
  • No dramatic claims that these days foreshadow End Times; the fruit of these many hours remains to be revealed.

The online coverage has been free and fragmented, with people apparently using their mobile phones to share their experiences, trading off without apparent planning, and no centralized control. I can't recommend any single channel; I've just jumped from one live feed to another as they start and stop. [UPDATE: See rules and schedules now in place.] 

The comments are fascinating, too. I've seen so many languages, including Russian and Ukrainian, the tone overwhelmingly respectful even as occasional sour moments also occur.

In my first few minutes of watching these feeds and clips, I had a twinge of regret that there was no way I'd get to attend in person. That ended as soon as my eyes were opened to the reality that we were already a global congregation, upholding and being upheld by each other, wherever we were. There were people we know who are physically present, and others we know are sharing their reflections—all testifying to the authenticity of this experience.

Wherever we are, we are fulfilling the yearning of the chorus. We are becoming more aware of God's presence.

In case some background to this story would be useful, here are a few links:

"Why students at a Kentucky Christian school are praying and singing round the clock." Bob Smietana, Religion News Service.

Video: Shane Claiborne interviews several students as well as Clint Baldwin of the faculty. Interesting comment from Lena, one of the students, concerning terminology: "… I’m kind of transitioning from using the word 'revival' to an 'encounter' because I feel like with 'encounters,' when we encounter God, God also encounters the people that we’re close to." (Yesterday Shane Claiborne spoke again with Clint.)

The Roys Report, which I'd consider an unsentimental observer of the church, posted this article, "Opinion: What is Revival—and is it Happening at Asbury?"

"We're witnessing a surprising work of God." Thomas McCall of Asbury Seminary (a separate institution; he's writing for Christianity Today).

"When the dust settles." Some thoughts from an Asbury student leader on life beyond the revival.

Quakers were born of revival. May you find a blessing in these sober words from George Fox:

All Friends every where, in the living spirit, and living power, and in the heavenly light dwell, and quench not the motions of it in yourselves, nor the movings of it in others; though many have run out, and gone beyond their measures, yet many more have quenched the measure of the spirit of God, and after became dead and dull, and questioned through a false fear: and so there hath been hurt both ways. And therefore be obedient to the power of the Lord, and his spirit, and his spiritual weapons; war with that Philistine that would stop up your wells and springs. Jacob's well was in the mountain, (read that within,) he was the second birth. And the belief in the power keeps the spring open. And none to despise prophecy, neither to quench the spirit; so that all may be kept open to the spring, that every one's cup may run over.

For you may all prophesy one by one, and the spirit of the prophets is subject to the prophets. ‘Would all the Lord's people were prophets,’ said Moses in his time, when some found fault; but the last time is the christian's time, who enjoys the substance, Christ Jesus; and his church is called a royal priesthood, offering up spiritual sacrifices; and his church are his believers in his light. And so in the light every one should have something to offer; and to offer an offering in righteousness to the living God, else they are not priests; and such as quench the spirit cannot offer, but become dull. ‘I will pour out of my spirit upon all flesh, in the last time,’ saith the Lord, which is the true christian's time, God's sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and old men shall dream dreams; ‘and on my servants and handmaids I will pour out of my spirit in those days, and they shall prophesy.’ Now friends, if this be fulfilled, servants, handmaids, sons, daughters, old men, young men, every one to feel the spirit of God, by which you may see the things of God, and declare them to his praise; for with the heart man doth believe, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation; first, he has it in his heart, before it comes out of his mouth: and this is beyond that brain-beaten-heady stuff, which man has long studied, about the saints' words, which the holy men of God spake forth as they were moved by the holy ghost: so the holy ghost moved them, before they came forth and spake them. And therefore, as I said before, do not resist the holy ghost....

from epistle CCLXXV, 1669

Nancy Thomas's valentine may not win the prize, but I like it!

Emily Provance begins a series of posts on institutions. "The best thing that institutions do is perpetuate existing patterns. The worst thing that institutions do is perpetuate existing patterns."

We still receive bulletins intended for USA citizens in Russia. Reuters describes the latest such bulletin, which can be summarized in one word: "Leave." (And I keep dreaming of the day we can visit again and be reunited with former students and colleagues.)

An astronomical phenomenon described as "a colossal and utterly spherical blast..." or, in other words, a "kilonova."

Just audio this time: "... You're going to need King Jesus on your bond." Lightnin' Hopkins, Big Joe Williams, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Jimmy Bond.

09 February 2023

The Christian nationalist mission field

A major new national survey conducted jointly by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Brookings Institution finds nearly two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants qualify as either Christian nationalism adherents (29%) or sympathizers (35%), and more than half of Republicans are classified as adherents (21%) or sympathizers (33%). This is a marked contrast from the 1 in 10 Americans as a whole who adhere to the tenets of Christian nationalism and the 19% who are sympathetic. [Source; link in original]

This survey, released to the public yesterday, contains many headline-worthy statistics that will disturb some and gratify others. Given that even the smaller segments among the Christian nationalist "adherents" and "sympathizers" include millions of people in the USA, the study and its methodology are worth careful examination. Is this an accurate picture, and, if so, what conclusions do we (speaking specifically to the Christians among us) draw for our own guidance?

Picking just a few cherries from this study: (quoting directly from the study, but emphases are mine)

  • A majority of Christian nationalism adherents (57%) disagree that white supremacy is a major problem in the United States today, and 7 out of 10 reject the idea that past discrimination contributes to present-day hurdles for Black Americans.
  • Seven in 10 (71%) Christian nationalism adherents embrace so-called “replacement theory,” the idea that immigrants are “invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background.”
  • Nearly a quarter of Christian nationalism adherents (23%) believe the stereotype that Jewish people in America hold too many positions of power, compared to just 9% of Christian nationalism rejecters.
  • Two-thirds (67%) of Christian nationalism adherents say we should prevent people from some majority Muslim countries from entering the United States, compared to only 29% of all Americans.
  • Nearly 7 in 10 Christian nationalism adherents (69%) agree that the husband is the head of the household in “a truly Christian family,” and his wife submits to his leadership, compared to only 33% of all Americans. Around four out of ten Americans (38%) believe that “society as a whole has become too soft and feminine,” while 59% disagree. At least six in ten Christian nationalism sympathizers (60%) and adherents (66%) agree with this statement.
  • Americans under age 50 are approximately twice as likely as older Americans to be Christian nationalism skeptics or rejecters.
  • Christian nationalism adherents overwhelmingly express a preference to live in a primarily Christian nation (77%, including 59% who believe this strongly). This preference to live in a predominately Christian nation is only shared by a quarter of Americans (27%).
  • A unique embedded survey experiment revealed an estimated 17% of Americans agree with the experimental statement that “the United States is a white Christian nation, and I am willing to fight to keep it that way.” [The study explains the methodology behind "experimental statements.]
  • There is a strong positive correlation between Christian nationalism and QAnon beliefs, particularly among white Americans.
  • About two-thirds of Christian nationalism adherents (65%) and sympathizers (65%) agree that biblical obligations are more about charitable acts by individuals, compared to 57% of skeptics and 39% of rejecters who agree. Christian nationalism rejecters are the only group in which a majority (61%) believe the biblical injunctions refer primarily to the task of creating a just society.

Among all the assertions and beliefs assessed by this study, there may be one glaring omission. I couldn't find any questions relating to respondents' attitudes toward what evangelical Christians traditionally call "missions"—that is, cross-cultural evangelism. I would love to know whether Christian nationalist adherents and sympathizers are in favor of missions. If so, do they see any inconsistencies between advancing a faith with universal appeal and universal application, on the one hand, and believing in a special status for the USA, or for a specific race, on the other? 

And, if as a result of our missions, converts want to come to the USA to experience the fellowship claimed by the mission senders, would we want our immigration system to welcome them? (And if Americans were converted by overseas-based missions, would we think less of them if they emigrated to those countries?)

On Twitter, there are many responses to this survey along these lines: "We get it, you’re mad Christians believe Christian things." (Quoting from a response to a New Evangelicals post on this study.) This isn't surprising: for millions of the people categorized by this survey as adherents and sympathizers, this set of beliefs isn't "Christian nationalism"; for them, it's normative Christianity.

I suggest we expand our understanding of Christian missions. These people are a mission field. However, not everyone might be ready to enter this field, since other surveys have documented the growth of "exvangelicals" and "nones" who have abandoned evangelical Christianity—or the faith altogether—as a result of these anti-evangelistic definitions of "normal." Some of them may still need healing from the abuse they experienced in those settings, before venturing back there.

Missiologists would do well to study, or continue studying, the social, economic, political, and spiritual forces that lead some of us to obscure the Gospel of love, grace, and freedom, in order to advance one form or another of bondage. Those who are called to this mission field need to act with the same positive love, grace, and cultural intelligence that we expect from the best of our more traditionally-defined missionaries.

If you feel that I'm categorizing you, fairly or unfairly, as being part of this mission field, you're welcome to join this conversation....

Sampling the study's news coverage and commentary:

The Washington Post
The Guardian

Baptist News Global
A virtual roundtable on the threat of Christian nationalism
Religion News Service: What is Black History Month in a White Christian Nation?

Irina Guzova. Screenshot from source.
Consider these organizations to support earthquake relief in Turkey and Syria. Within the peace church family, consider supporting Mennonite Central Committee.

Terry Mattingly at GetReligion: Why is biased news the new reality?

Mondoweiss: More acknowledgments that the Israeli-Palestinian "two-state solution" is cracking.

Becky Ankeny: What do Jacob and Esau teach us about conflict?

Advice from Wess Daniels about where to find definitions of Quaker terms.

In Yakutsk: Irina Guzova, defying terminal cancer, continues cooking free food for hungry people.

One of my friends just lost his mother to cancer. I couldn't help thinking of this old song, presented here by Hans Theesink and friends at a concert in Vienna, 2018:

Here's another performance of the song, one that might be familiar to many of us. Mavis Staples has said that this was the first song that her father Pops Staples (to Johnny Cash's right on screen) taught his family, the Staple Singers.