14 February 2019

Is Jesus optional?

I give you a new commandment: love one another.
Maybe you saw this news story last week: Alabama's authorities saw fit to deny condemned Muslim convict Domineque Ray the presence of an imam in the execution chamber, and a narrow majority of the U.S. Supreme Court ignored the Constitution in denying Ray's appeal. (Links: al.com coverage; Religion News commentary, including crucial details of timing.)

Had Domineque Ray been a Christian, he could have had a Christian chaplain keeping company with him in the chamber in his last moments. (Ultimately, this man's absence was described as a concession on the authorities' part.)

Although the news site ai.com covered the Muslim volunteer chaplain's comments ("The [staff] chaplain is a fine man. I don’t have any animosity to him"), I looked in vain for comments from Alabama's Christian staff chaplains. I can't argue from silence, but in my fantasies, those Christian chaplains would have turned the place upside down to grant Ray his wish. Or gone on strike. Or resigned. Alternatively, why couldn't the administration hire a Muslim chaplain -- if only temporarily -- to meet "protocol" requirements? Wouldn't that have cost less than pursuing their determination to execute Ray on schedule all the way to the Supreme Court?

In sum, despite the clear language of the U.S. Constitution, treating Muslims equally in these maximally grave moments is apparently optional.

Imagine a situation where Muslims are granted the presence of a religious figure in the execution chamber but Christians are not. It's not actually hard to imagine; Christians are persecuted in many parts of the world. (Details at World Watch Monitor.) There are places where conversion from Islam to Christianity has been a capital crime. It's hard to imagine a Christian pastor present at those executions. All the more reason that in our country, with our First Amendment, such travesties in any direction should never happen. And Christians, the beneficiaries of generations of privileged status in this country, should be among the first and most persistent guardians of equality.

Tyrone King, convicted for the murder of my sister Ellen, was sentenced to prison and not to death. I don't know how King identified himself spiritually, or what spiritual resources were available to him in prison, but I know something about his family. In one of my last visits with my father before he died, he told me about what it was like to attend King's murder trial. My father described a poignant scene: King's mother walked over to my father and gave him some evangelistic brochures. My father did not report becoming a Christian as a result of that contact, but maybe it was part of the path that led to his conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy 25 years later.

It's not exactly a logical extension of my meditations on Domineque Ray's last moments and his all-too-disposable First Amendment rights, but I feel led to ask: Is Jesus optional, too?

To me, Jesus is not optional. I know that he'll not be far from me in my last moments of life, just as he was not far from me 45 years ago in the moment when I read the words, "Love your enemies" with new eyes, a moment that pushed me over the line into a lifelong commitment to him and gave me my global family.

The awkward truth: we live in a pluralistic and secular world which often treats Jesus -- and every other aspect of divinity -- as optional, even trivial, occasionally laughable. It doesn't help when Christians themselves marginalize Jesus to bless cruelty, greed, racism, nationalism, or domination. Instead of those anti-evangelistic messages, we could be fearlessly and lovingly eager to learn what others believe -- what occupies the same space in their lives as our non-optional Jesus occupies in ours. Ilya Grits reminds us,
And here we must not forget one of the most marvelous thoughts of the Church Fathers, a thought that Metropolitan Anthony Bloom so loved to quote in the very last years of his life: “Just think – what happiness it is to live among these people. It’s not important whether they believe in God or not.

“God believes in them!”
There are many questions about Jesus I can't answer, and which my own confidence in his reality in my life does not eliminate. It's important for me not to pretend that such questions don't exist -- to avoid them is to lose the ability to evangelize with integrity. Two examples:

First: When Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (from John 14:6, context), does this license us to threaten that every non-Christian faces eternal doom? Robert Barclay persuasively argues "no" ... so I choose to interpret this important biblical passage as a description of his power rather than as a threat. Jesus is God-with-us, not God's instrument of cruel selection; what Jesus offers to everyone made in God's image may be shaped by God's own judgment but will never be limited by our sour interpretations.

Does this make Jesus "optional"? No more than it makes God our Creator optional. As Alexander Men' says, every world religion expresses our laudable human desire to reach God, but Jesus expresses God's desire to be with us. Not exactly optional from a believer's point of view! However, it does mean that we cannot use Jesus as a flag flying over our religious camps, to be pulled up and down our flagpoles to suit our religious exhibitionism, to threaten the unconvinced, and to keep out undesirables.

Second example: In a class I took at Earlham School of Religion about 25 years ago, John Punshon challenged us with a question about the cosmic role of Jesus. If life exists on other planets in our universe, is Jesus their messiah as well? Are there parallel gospel narratives or does our planet have the universe's one and only Holy Land?

On the one hand, these questions certainly don't cause daily anxiety; they're just an extreme variation on all the dilemmas of pluralism. On the other hand, my curiosity is as high as my anxiety is low! A happy and humbling thought: God knows what God is doing, whether I understand it or not.

I still argue that those outside the church who are scandalized by perversions of Christianity should know enough to "meet Jesus halfway" and distinguish him from those perversions. It does happen!....

Brian Drayton on one cost of our Quaker theological diversity. (The comments are also highly recommended.)

Evangelical definitions through the ages, and their varying compatibility with Anabaptist faith. I'd love to see a thoughtful survey along these same lines from a Friends viewpoint.

America's sobering brush with naked fascism, 1939 version: A Night at the Garden. (Short film by Michael Curry.)

Marg Mowczko on wifely submission and holy kisses.

Russia's upcoming "sovereign Internet" test; a related interview with Tanya Lokot.

Anton Shekhovtsov on how Russia pretends to be a normal member of the international community.
Russia’s mimetic power is the ability to influence Western nations by creating the impression that Russia is a normal member of the international community and emulating what pro-Kremlin actors perceive as Western soft power techniques. By presenting Russia as a credible and responsible international partner, Moscow is trying to convince the West – especially following the Ukraine-related escalation of the conflict between the West and Russia – to lift the sanctions, go back to “business as usual”, and ultimately stop any attempts to democratise Russia

Jean-Rene Ella-Menye plays his beautiful tribute to his late friend Zula Summer. "You Left Me Blue."

07 February 2019

Evangelistic malpractice

Bug zapper (source)
Last Sunday at Camas Friends Church, after the meeting for worship, Judy Maurer led a threshing meeting on the question, "What is God calling us to do?"

For context, see this issue of the Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends newsletter. At this threshing meeting, we were previewing an exercise we'll be doing together at our quarterly gathering later this month.

I was particularly excited about this moment in the discussion:
We need to learn how to teach and reach out in this world in a way that is constructive, not neglecting but re-imagining evangelism. How can we be extravagantly hospitable?
(... quoting from Heather Tricola's notes.)

If you've been reading me for a while, you know that integrity in evangelism has been a long-time theme -- especially anything that might turn evangelism from good news to bad news. I'm not at all alone in this concern. For example:
As we dream about our new yearly meeting and the fresh start it offers our little corner of the Quaker movement, I could imagine making lists of the values and testimonies that we want to advance (peace and nonviolence, simplicity and sustainable living, equality, church governance based on praying and discerning together, biblical literacy without legalism -- my own unofficial list). I could also imagine another list: the wider organizations we might want to join based on these values and testimonies.

I'm glad to report that we didn't just start making lists. Instead, we gathered in small groups to review the themes in that bulletin -- what we valued in our new association, what we already know how to do (and what we need to learn!), the things we cherished from previous associations ... and (my emphasis) who needs those things that we can do?

I was grateful that the "who" question was there -- testifying that we are not centered on ourselves, dutifully inventorying our Quaker markers. For me, evangelism (paying urgent attention to the "who") puts all those other testimonies in perspective. All those testimonies are "signs and wonders," qualities of the Light by which we as the Body of Christ participate in making Jesus visible.

"Light" is an old Quaker metaphor for God. When I read stories of disillusionment with Christians, it reminds me of those old electric bug zappers I first saw in Maine years ago. The bug zapper's light attracts unwanted insects who are electrocuted by the high-tension wire mesh surrounding the light. I hated the crackling sound made by the bugs hitting the screen. That's sort of what hidden screens do to the faith of unwary idealists as they near the light. That's not genuine evangelism, that's malpractice.

Evangelism with integrity involves at least two features that should help us avoid the cycle of baiting and disillusionment that the articles I linked above, and others like them, so often reflect.

First: evangelism is not just a winsome expression of faith based on actual experience, it is also an invitation to test the message in context -- that is, in a community formed by that faith. Many of us in Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends, because of our history, have built-in skepticism about formulaic religion and compulsory language. If the things we say about our faith, and about our path to that faith, manage to attract someone to visit us, we hope that they will find that there is more actual Jesus than words-about-Jesus, than things-you-must-say-correctly-about-Jesus. Also, they might find people among us who haven't made up their minds yet, but somehow know that we would not be the same if it weren't for this beloved Teacher and Savior.

A second, related point: With an unanxious Christ-centered identity giving light to our community, we don't feel the need for hidden screens. We're trying to build a radical hospitality for everyone who is ready to learn with us, or is simply curious about, what life with Jesus at the center looks like. We don't have secret snares that say "oops, we didn't mean YOU!" We do have boundaries, but we are learning to be open and honest about them. We're not about to play fast and loose with what Quakers have been learning about God and Jesus and the Bible for over three and a half centuries. And, who knows, we may not have all the dilemmas perfectly calibrated in being a host with a teaching voice while at the same time offering extravagant hospitality, but we are united in eliminating any high-tension hidden screens.

It's my hope and prayer that we will not let any such screens get in the way of the Light -- that very Light that attracted us in the first place.

PDF announcement for the 2019 Northwest Quaker Men's Gathering: Finding Our Way. (Location: Camp Tilikum.)

Confronting abuse in the church: Jonathan Trotter's Three Spheres of Offense.

The complicated legacy of Alice Miller. (It's complicated because Alice Miller was far from a perfect parent, but the insights she taught in books such as The Drama of the Gifted Child were helpful even in her own child's dealing with her legacy. I greatly valued another book of hers, For Your Own Good, in my own recovery from a violent childhood, so I read this article with great interest and some sorrow.)

Adria Gulizia: worshiping a suffering Savior.

Russian authorities "can't operate with common sense concepts" when dealing with Jehovah's Witnesses.

Here's a byline Bobby Ross is glad to see again: Sarah Pulliam Bailey, covering religion for the Washington Post.

I saw Billy Boy Arnold live for the first time when he visited Eugene, Oregon, last year at age 82, as part of the 2018 edition of Mark Hummel's Blues Harmonica Blowout. Amazing!

31 January 2019

Quaker Life, 25 years ago

One of the benefits of our return from overseas is getting reunited with my paper archives. For example: here's a pile of back issues of Quaker Life from before the magazine went online.

The January-February 1994 issue of Quaker Life was my first as editor. But I cannot take credit for the excellent cover story -- the interview with Tony Campolo had been conducted by outgoing editor James R. Newby.

Jim asked a number of perceptive questions about evangelical Christianity. One of Tony's answers in particular jumped out at me, given today's context. The question: Has the evangelical movement gone far enough in responding to the peace and justice issues?

Tony's answer:
I believe that the evangelical community has failed to stand for social justice to the degree that it should and could, primarily because it is caught up in the confusion between nationalism and biblical faith. the fact that Oliver North [of the Iran/Contra scandal] became such a hero in evangelical circles says it all. He will be running for the U.S. Senate in Virginia, and he will get the broad support of the evangelical communities. In fact he will get so much support that I'm almost certain that he will win. [However, he didn't, despite setting a record for direct-mail political fundraising that year.] All of this will happen in spite of the fact that he acknowledged that he lied to the American people and to the U.S. Congress. The only reason he's not in jail is because of a legal technicality. yet American evangelicals are ready to forgive him for all this because he did it in the cause of patriotism. It seems that situational ethics is wrong for evangelicals when dealing with sex, but it's perfectly okay to lie and even to murder if it's in the cause of patriotism.

The answer, of course, is to preach a biblical Christianity. The radical faith articulated by Jesus calls us away from our affluent consumeristic lifestyle into a simplistic way of living in which we will use our financial resources to meet the needs of the poor. It also calls us to be pacifists in a world in which wars seem omnipresent. It seems to me that if we would just preach the Sermon on the Mount instead of the American success story, the church would move in the right direction.
The interview with Tony Campolo was accompanied by articles by my colleague Mary Glenn Hadley ("If the church is to have the impact in society God intends, it must understand the times and know what to do") and former Quaker Life editor Jack Kirk ("The Changing Quaker Scene").  In my first of many "Commitments" editorials, I explained the new format and priorities of the magazine, particularly a more transparent approach to challenges and conflicts within Friends United Meeting -- and the budget constraints that led FUM to fold the editor's job into my responsibilities as general secretary. A full audit later that year revealed how unsustainable FUM's finances had actually become.

As I leaf through the magazine this evening, I can't help stopping at this news item mentioning Friends of the yearly meeting (Canadian) where I first became a Friend.
Canadian Friends Arrested in Logging Blockade

CLAYOQUOT SOUND, BC. Since July 1993, many Canadians have been blockading the  Kennedy Lake logging road which leads into the largest single tract of ancient temperate rain forest remaining in southern British Columbia. The British Columbia government had decided to allow logging of 74% of the rain forest.

At the end of September, fifteen Quakers were among the 653 persons arrested in these actions. In mid-December a power-sharing accord between first nations and the BC government was announced. (Quaker Concern, Canadian Friends Service Committee, and the Washington Post.)
In the "Resources for Renewal" column, my colleague Bill Wagoner recommended several resources to build a more effective missions constituency. One was an InterVarsity book, Global Trends: Ten Changes Affecting Christians Everywhere, by Gordon Aeschliman. A list of chapters: The Shrinking Globe; The Islamic Revolution; Reaching the World's Poor; The Earth Groans; Setting the Captives Free; The Urban Challenge; The Gorbachev Revolution; The Facing Glory of the West; The Evangelism Crisis; The Internationalization of the Gospel.

Among the obituaries in that first issue of 1994 was one for Samuel R. Levering (d. December 1, 1993). Sam and his wife Miriam Levering were remarkable and persistent champions of peace and simplicity. They may be best known for dedicating more than ten years of their lives working toward the Law of the Sea convention. (The Levering fruit orchard celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2008.)

In that issue, we continued Alan Kolp's Bible columns, and introduced readers to a new contributor to the "Back Bench" column: Stan Thornburg. His inaugural essay, "Lending God a Hand," begins thusly:
Admit it, you want to be God! Everyone does. I learned this from noted psychologists. They should know. Psychologists are people who spend years and thousands of dollars watching dogs salivate, frogs undergo electroshock, and rats run around in boxes with lots of walls. One can readily see that this qualifies them to ask people about their mothers and conclude: "Everyone wants to be God."
For the full column (PDF), go here. With a bit of encouragement, I could post some of his succeeding columns....

In case I've kindled a bit of either sentimentality or curiosity in you, Quaker Life began publishing selections from (almost) each issue online starting in June 1997. The online archives were taken off the server with a redesign of FUM's Web site in 2012, but most of the content is available here through archive.org.

Quaker Life celebrated its 100th anniversary (counting its predecessor publications, The American Friend and Quaker Action) in 1994. So ... this year we can celebrate its 125th anniversary.

Everence published this tribute to Ked Dejmal of Eugene Friends Church. For anyone who knew him, the article will bring back a flood of memories. We have a very personal reason to affirm the title, "If you needed help..." -- when we needed a place to live during our 2014-15 sabbatical year, Ked provided us a room in his home nestled in the beautiful hills outside Eugene.

Becky Ankeny explains how even grumpy brothers can become the life of the party.

Ekaterina Schulmann believes that Russia is becoming an increasingly "normal" country despite its abnormal governance. Mark Galleoti summarizes her observations with a link to her Russian-language original lecture.

Sheer pleasure: visualizations of James Jamerson's bass lines.

Rory Block performs "Preachin' Blues" by Son House.

24 January 2019

What is our vocation? (Twelve years later)

christart.com, all rights reserved.  
About twelve years ago I wrote a blog post on things that I appreciated about being a Friend. Somewhere in there I asked,
So what is our vocation among the larger body of Christians? We are called to shape a community around the simplicity of New Testament Christianity. Our central testimony is trust in the promises and power of God, freeing us from the endless searches for control, security, and wealth. Trust is our central testimony; all the others spring from it. With trust in the promises and mandates that Jesus made in person to our family 2000 years ago and confirms daily, we can lay down our dependence on weapons, false social distinctions, and affluence.

Three factors (at least) weaken us in our contemporary realization of this calling: not enough of us know our own spiritual gifts and how they mesh together in the community; we pay far too little attention to making our communities accessible to those who would find spiritual liberation among us; and too often we cover up the weaknesses caused by these failures by the usual counterfeits: legalism (either a Christian legalism or an absurdly thorough mastery of Quaker trivia); lame imitation of "successful" models outside Friends; uncritical sentimentality; a social quakerism devoid of belief in the power of God -- what Parker Palmer called functional atheism.
Twelve years later, do I stand by this diagnosis of our weaknesses? I've become far more optimistic, actually. The first and third points (lack of knowledge of spiritual gifts, and the counterfeits we employ to distract ourselves) are being addressed by a new generation of Friends. Many of these Friends cross the lines of Quaker divisions far more easily than we did decades ago when I first jointed the Friends World Committee staff, where crossing those lines, sometimes slipping past the gatekeepers, was my job. I dare to hope that these Friends are remixing the creative elements of our legacy (to use Wess Daniels's verb) to good effect, and questioning some of the old cliches and assumptions.

As for the remaining weakness, making our communities accessible: Instead of addressing this with a tone of discontent, I'd like to be encouraging. I think we are becoming more aware of our spiritual gifts and how they strengthen each other, and we also seem to be loosening up the old false polarities of salvation-first vs Quaker distinctives. These developments free us to look directly at the task of becoming more accessible and welcoming.

(By the way, I don't mean to set up a generational comparison -- the renewal I see crosses those lines, too. For example, I love the mutual encouragement I see in our new yearly meeting, Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends.)

Here are some aspects of the task that seem very realistic to me. You can add more, or challenge me on what I'm listing.

The freedom to explore spiritual gifts unleashes the gift of evangelism. I'm still convinced that most -- maybe all -- Friends meetings and churches have people with this gift, no matter how alien the word is to the local subculture. We just need to liberate, encourage, and if necessary train these Friends instead of marginalizing them or being totally unaware of them. It's correct that we Friends don't "proselytize" but we still need to communicate our faith. The concern is to communicate with integrity.

The Friends testimonies work together. At the center of Friends discipleship is trust in God. (Elsewhere I've argued that "trust" is the first testimony.) That trust allows us to experiment with letting Jesus be at the center of our church governance and discipleship, rather than a fearful reliance on status and coercion. Evangelism involves not only a winsome and honest expression of faith, but also an invitation to experience a community formed by that faith, so proclamation and witness reinforce each other.

(NOTE: I'm not asserting Quaker exceptionalism; we retreat to those fallbacks far too often ourselves; and other churches have produced amazing legacies of faithful witness. We just have fewer excuses for wriggling out of our own claims.)

(Related post: Division of labor, part two, on what this collaboration might look like.)

A community empowered by spiritual gifts is not culturally narrow. This assertion is backed by vast hopes and very little experience. Many Friends meetings and churches yearn for cultural and racial diversity, but seem to be stuck arguing about theoretical ideals rather than choosing to examine hurdles: location, unintended or unexamined "we-they" messages (no matter how benevolent or progressive the intention), and a tendency to see non-members as objects of service rather than co-equal participants already part of "us" in God's story. But most of all, I believe that spiritual power unites while cerebral analysis divides.

Russian translation of Christ in Catastrophe
by Emil Fuchs. Very relevant.
Let empathy and creativity loose in new ways!  A decade ago, I became involved in choosing Quaker literature for translation into Russian, and our committee did some marketing research into other Christian publishers' priorities, and the apparent demands of the market. One thing I noticed early on: much religious publishing begins by prioritizing the audience, not the church organization behind the publication. Some books address addiction, some address loneliness or financial stress or raising children, some directly address spiritual hunger, and some simply aim to deliver an entertaining read. Whatever the specific issue in the reader's life, the writer and publisher bring biblical or theological or devotional insights to bear on that issue.

In contrast, so much Quaker literature seems to be concerned with delivering nuggets of Quaker goodness -- our history, our testimonies, our famous ancestors, our social justice arguments, our "wisdom." Much of that stuff is wonderful, but maybe we can become more audience-centric, addressing actual life situations of our readers.

What have I left out? And am I right to feel hopeful?

Nancy Thomas continues her series on Bolivian Quaker history. Catch up on her blog, mil gracias.

Nadia Bolz-Weber on talking to our children about sex without shame.

Kirill Medvedev on the anti-fascist legacy of Stanislav Markelov, ten years after his death.

Palestinians, Israelis, and others protest an apartheid-style highway and its implications for the future.

The atomic scientists' Doomsday Clock and a new abnormal.

Blues singer and guitarist Mike Ledbetter leaves us, dying at age 33.

17 January 2019

Good news or bad news, part three: truth and impeachment

Detail of cover of The First Publishers of Truth: Being early records (now first printed) of the introduction of Quakerism into the counties of England and Wales. Source.

The call-in advice show of Radio Yerevan (a legendary template of Soviet-era jokes) received this question: "Can you recommend an eye-and-ear doctor?"

Announcer: "Do you mean an eye doctor? Or perhaps an ear-nose-throat doctor?"

Caller: "No. My problem is what I see doesn't match what I hear."

(Part one, part two.)

What I "hear" as an ordinary U.S. citizen is that we live in a constitutional democracy, a republic of the people, by the people, for the people, with remedies for corruption and abuse of power by even the highest officials in the land.

What I "see" is quite different: conflicts of interest on every hand, from Cabinet appointments to the emoluments debate; a string of indictments and convictions of presidential associates; capricious decisions; constant lies; peremptory demands, including that stupid wall; petty and vulgar personal attacks; outrageous mismanagement of refugee assessment and border control (including new revelations of children being separated from parents); utter lack of transparency in U.S.-Russian relationships; irrational, contradictory, and bizarre pronouncements about Obama, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan, coal power, trafficking in women, the danger posed by immigrants; ... the list of flagrant violations seems endless.

In making his case that the U.S. House of Representatives should impeach the president, Atlantic Ideas editor Yoni Appelbaum carefully argues that impeachment is a calm and rational response to Trump's off-the-rails presidency. It's not an extreme, apocalyptic, risky step for Congress to take. Instead, it would channel the wild, divisive argumentation we see everywhere now, fueled by slashing social-media campaigns, and potentially reduces this bitter torrent to the disciplines required by the very process of impeachment: an actual application of the Constitutional filter of "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors."

Appelbaum challenges Representatives not to base their impeach/don't impeach decision on Senate vote calculations, on scattershot investigations by Democrat-dominated House committees, or on the hopes that Robert Mueller or other judicial processes will either force their hands somehow or do the job for them. (It's also possible that many of us, acting from a misplaced sense of prudence or just disbelief, are waiting for Trump to commit, at long last, another outrage so scandalous that the country is galvanized into decisive action -- but somehow not so outrageous as to do us permanent damage!)

The urgent case for impeachment, from Appelbaum's point of view, is that it would be far less destructive and far more orderly than what is already happening.
The fight over whether Trump should be removed from office is already raging, and distorting everything it touches. Activists are radicalizing in opposition to a president they regard as dangerous. Within the government, unelected bureaucrats who believe the president is acting unlawfully are disregarding his orders, or working to subvert his agenda. By denying the debate its proper outlet, Congress has succeeded only in intensifying its pressures. And by declining to tackle the question head-on, it has deprived itself of its primary means of reining in the chief executive.
Each day that impeachment is postponed is another day where the gap grows wider between what I've always heard -- we're a democracy, we have equal justice before law, we resist corruption and tyranny -- and the brazen violations we see all around us, and to which we're daily becoming habituated.

Personally, I've found Yoni Appelbaum's advocacy for impeachment more persuasive than I might have expected. In part this might be because we're reaching some kind of crescendo in the shambles Trump is making of our country and its reputation worldwide. But I'm also sensing a growing spiritual urgency that relates to a word that's been sacred to generations of Quakers: Truth.

Students of authoritarianism repeatedly caution us that the royal road to dictatorship involves detaching us from any connection with truth. (Example.) It's not that authoritarians deliver a set of different interpretations of the same data, or different philosophies or policies. They want to set aside our common search for good policy (within which search decent people can differ), in favor of such a blizzard of lies that we must rely on their confident, authoritative Voice to lead the way. If we catch them in a lie, they can say, "Oops, here's another version, but your guys lie, too." And those who stubbornly insist on verifiable truth will eventually find themselves in a direct confrontation with those who put their trust in the Voice. Those Voice cultists may be in a minority, but too many of the rest of us may be tempted to avoid the confrontation, or postpone the day of reckoning. Impeachment makes the confrontation real, honest, direct. Passivity does not provide an escape.

In our search for truth, we also reject any temptation to paint Trump as even worse than he really is. It is quite true that Donald Trump correctly identifies some huge gaps in American policy. His cloud of lies and racist innuendos concerning immigration and border control gains currency precisely because earlier politicians have utterly failed to put together a humane and balanced approach. His manipulations throw trash into a vacuum that he did not create.

Quaker cartoonist Signe Wilkinson, from January 2013. Source.
Similarly, he questions American imperial conventional wisdom at some crucial points. To what extent is the USA's "indispensable nation" status in the post-World War II global configuration, and our 800 overseas military posts, serving our actual values, rather than the interests of the military-industrial complex or the convenience of other nations who rely on us to preserve international order while serving as their rhetorical pincushion?

There's nothing inherently wrong with an iconoclastic president who questions conventional wisdom. I can't help fantasizing how an independent-minded leader with intelligence and soul could gather the intellectual and spiritual resources of this country to examine both the strengths and the pitfalls of American exceptionalism. For many of us, Obama approached that ideal, despite his apparent need to reassure the elites by (maybe) overcompensating for his unconventional origins. His speeches (Nobel Prize speech; Cairo speech; prayer breakfast) revealed an ability to reflect on these nuances. However, the Congress, with the opposition party committed to its "party of no" stance, was rarely able to provide him a bipartisan forum to debate these questions and seek a reasonable balance.

In any case, Trump is manifestly incapable of engaging in searching dialogues with diverse voices, even on topics where he has correctly identified inconsistencies in American policy. These inconsistencies need solutions, but nothing Trump has done tells us that he's qualified to address them ... or do more with them than simply use them to rally his base against his opponents.

Finally: In the service of Gospel truth, Christians in particular should reject any alliance with him and his inhumane approaches to all policies involving human welfare or environmental stewardship. I've already written plenty about this fraud he's managed to perpetrate on millions of white evangelicals, drawing them into his personal cult; now I just want the political tie to be severed while we evangelicals still have a shred of dignity. (OK, I heard someone back there just say, "too late.")

We are not excused from the requirement to pray for the president. I do pray for him daily -- for him and for his early retirement. Impeachment is the most orderly, honest, and direct way toward that goal.

This is my 800th blog post. I wish it could be more inspirational. However, by speaking so directly to the need to begin the impeachment of Trump, I hope I've carved out the freedom to write about other things in the next weeks. I had hoped to start discussing the fascinating responses I received to the "trustworthy church" survey; and I also want to return to my long-time theme of Friends worship in future weeks. Another theme in the pipeline: what are the stakes in the recent Eastern Orthodox schism?

Today's sudden substitution of this impeachment theme was prompted by the events dominating American politics these last couple of days -- not in the service of alarm and outrage, but in the spirit of a specific form of discipleship: reducing that gap between what we've heard and what we see.

Friends Journal and the cautious hope of a racially diverse Society of Friends.

On welcoming broken missionaries back.
The church dare not, dare not, pray for the unengaged to be engaged while in the same breath refuse to face the tragedy that will come with that engagement. This is dangerous and irresponsible, if the church is not prepared to deal with the consequences.
Ted Grimsrud's Civil War question: Can one hate both slavery and war equally?

Johns Hopkins University continues to make available remarkable images and animations from New Horizons' flyby of Ultima Thule. (On a more sober note, here's NASA's shutdown staffing plan.)

Kashmir Hill on a less fortunate consequences of space-based resources: unreliable, even dangerous cartographic tagging. (Thanks to Raphael Satter for the link.)

Open Culture: Infographic on American global military deployment.

Nastya Rybka's saga continues with an unexpected stop in Moscow. (Original Navalny video, with subtitles.)

Mary Oliver broke Tim Brown's heart.

Edvard Munch's Scream: Jonathan Jones says it's become the ultimate image for our political age. (And, back in Elektrostal, for a New Humanities Institute exam I used an article about the meteorological connections with Munch's imagery. Take the test if you like!)

"Some people ask me, 'what does a stranger do?'"

10 January 2019

Judy Maurer: Accents, eggnog, and foreigners in our midst

This week, I’m delighted to welcome my wife Judy Maurer as guest blogger.

A few days before Christmas, a well-dressed woman in Winco approached me with a bottle of Irish creme in her hand. “Is this drink for the Christmas?” she asked.

I squelched the desire to quiz her about her native language and how it navigated without articles like “a” and “the”, since the use of those tiny words was clearly not intuitive for her. But like my students in Russia, she was able to get her point across well, without being able to land exactly on where one used a “the” or an “a”. Normally, it’s not a problem -- unless you want to say, “My husband has the money” and you end up saying, “My husband has money.”

But I left all that aside and said, “If they’re Irish-American, it would be perfect.”

“I want traditional drink” she said. Again I squelched a desire to explain that in America, what one perceives as traditional at Christmas flows from your parents or grandparents’ ancestry. Lefse for Norwegians, stollen and marzipan for Germans, and all that. I also didn’t explain that usually, the ones with English ancestry got to decide that their traditions would be mainstream traditional in the US. I’m not entirely sure why that is, since Spaniards were first in to invade North America in any numbers, and then the English.

Instead I just tried to explain about “eggnog”. I wrote it out on my smartphone for her, because what is a “nog”? How would she know how to capture that in her memory? She seemed perplexed that she should look for it in the dairy section.

After nine years in Russia, it’s a familiar point of stress for me. Going to a social gathering as a foreigner means trying to figure out what is the accepted practice. Everyone else knows it, accepts it as gospel truth as the-way-it-should-be-done, but you have no idea, and even have to set aside your own sense of the-way-it-should-be-done which is so embedded in your view of life that you don’t realize it is just your culture’s sense of the-way-it-should-be-done. So what the others think is the civil and polite thing to do may seem at the least perplexing. So my worry tended to be: “when I stumble over a social obstacle, will the others think my cluelessness is charming, or rude?”

Asking a stranger in a grocery store is a good tactic. I told her that the Irish creme in the fancy bottle would be a very good thing to bring to a party in America, but she repeated that she wanted to bring “traditional drink.”

Painful things have happened since I left the US to go to Russia in 2008. In 2017, I came back to a country in which people speaking English with accents are no longer as willing to engage in a conversation about where they are from. But I hoped I had built up enough rapport with her so that she would be willing to talk. So I asked.

“Iraq,” she replied.

“Good. I’m glad you’re here.You’re safe.” She seemed surprised, but when she caught my eye again while quizzing grocery store employees, probably about traditional drinks, she beamed.

During the worst of the Ukraine crisis, when Russian media blamed the “decadent West” for everything that went wrong, I felt vulnerable in Russia as a westerner. State media is dedicated to telling the news in just such a way to make people more compliant with what the leadership wants to do anyway. (I know. This never happens in the US, right?) Blaming foreign countries, and foreigners in their midst, is always a good strategy for deflecting blame away from the realities of this country. This tactic works particularly well if there is significant corruption among the political leadership, but what would we in the US know of that, right?

In the spring of 2014, when pro-Russian separatists took over parts of eastern Ukraine, the Russian leadership was in desperate need of these tactics. Stereotypes are particularly useful in these times, and state media trotted them out. They flooded state and social media with reports of the “Godless West”.

I grew up in a very conservative area of the US southwest, and was regularly subjected to films in school about “Godless Communists”. So as Yogi Berra said, it felt like “deja vu all over again,” but with a mind-numbing twist: I was now defined as the enemy. A wise Russian friend told me that the easiest way to rile people up against the enemies of Russia was to dust off and use again the Soviet-era stereotypes of Americans, as we had been the most frequent targets during the Cold War. It would have been a farther reach to enrage the populace against western Europeans. State media was just doing what came easier.

It was particularly painful when our good friends bought into these stereotypes. In my own living room, an old friend asked with wide-eyed wonder, “Can a man find a woman who would take care of her husband in America?”

I felt like saying, “you’ve seen with your own eyes how I take care of Johan -- and he takes care of me. Do you really think I’m the only American woman who takes care of her husband?”

The cold-war stereotype in Russia is that American women are selfish, independent feminists who won’t lend a hand to their own families. Another good friend insisted to me that I must have learned to cook in Russia, after I left the US. The unstated part was, “everyone knows that women in America don’t bother to cook for their families.” Since I had just provided a yummy home-made treat for the teachers’ lounge, then it stood to reason that I had learned to cook in Russia. Really? One learns to make apple crisp in Russia? In most of these cases, I was too stunned to argue.

While our friends believing in Soviet-era stereotypes was the most painful, being outside their care, as foreigners in public, was the most frightening. I polished my public Russian image so I could blend in. In addition to my black leather coat, silk scarf, brick face without smile in public, I stuffed an orange and black -striped ribbon in my purse so I could whip it out and tie it on at a moment’s notice. This ribbon was the Russian nationalists’ symbol; I would look safely like a Russian nationalist with a St. George’s ribbon on my purse.

Once when I was in Moscow I called home and said, “Johan -- I forgot to tell you. I moved that carry-on suitcase -- the one to take if they knock on our door.” High-profile deportations of westerners -- politicians who were proving their mettle by deporting hapless English teachers -- were enough of a thing that I put everything I would need for a sudden deportation back to the US right next to our front door. Some of our students believed it was enough of a threat that they described for us what cars the immigration service would use - the Russian equivalent of an FBI Black Maria.

And I resolved, once I returned to the US, to help individual foreigners in the U.S. feel welcome. In the Old Testament, the foreigner is sometimes an example of a marauder, but more often of the vulnerable, as in Deuteronomy 24:17-19 “Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this. When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.”

Even back then, foreigners were vulnerable, without status or protection, and God told Israelites to treat them well. That part has not changed. We must treat the foreigners among us well, particularly if our country had much to do with making their country a dangerous place to live in. While we’re at it: What national problems might be hiding behind these “enemies” and distractions being thrown at us? What does our political leadership not want us to see? Let’s focus on those problems. Let’s reject fear, so that God might bless us in all the work of our hands.

Judy Maurer is a member of Moscow Friends Meeting, Russia, and Eugene Friends Church, USA. From 2008 to 2017 she and Johan taught English at the New Humanities Institute in Elektrostal. Before leaving for Russia she was a publicist and fundraiser for ARMS - Abuse Recovery Ministry and Services. She is writing a book on anger and angry people.

Photo: at Cathedral of Elijah the Prophet, Yaroslavl.

Mike Farley: The heart being the place where God's love meets us (Romans 5.5-6) it meets too there the one whom we are holding in our heart.

Red Cross photos from Russia of the Civil War era. (Last two photos are from the region where Friends worked in famine relief.)

Bridget Collins in The Guardian on the top 10 Quakers in fiction. (Thanks to Martin Kelley for the link.) I would have included the Birdwell family in Jessamyn West's The Friendly Persuasion, particularly Eliza, among my own top ten. What do you think of the list?

Remembering Lamin Sanneh and Friend Samuel Snipes.

Jackie Pullinger warns us that we're going to feel stupid for eternity if ...

And to add to our current season of major space exploration stories, could these repeating fast radio bursts be from aliens?

One more time for this delightful blues collaboration with James Harman at the BluesMoose Cafe: