26 November 2020

Giving Tuesday (and a repost of "Criticizing aid...")

Judy's cornucopia for Thanksgiving Day 2010 at the New Humanities Institute, Elektrostal, Russia.

Thanksgiving blessings to you! 


The "Giving Tuesday" movement has been going on for most of a decade, but I only began learning about it last year. I guess that's how far I've drifted from the world of nonprofits and fundraising that used to dominate my life.

The "Tuesday" of Giving Tuesday is linked to the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday -- it's in the week after Thanksgiving Thursday and the consumer binge labeled "Black Friday." In contrast to the consumer emphasis that is associated with the opening of the Christmas shopping season, Giving Tuesday seeks to inspire people to "give, collaborate, and celebrate generosity."

My introduction to Giving Tuesday began in Hebron, Palestine, where I spent last fall with Christian Peacemaker Teams' Palestinian program. The CPT office in Chicago asked us to contribute video to CPT's own Giving Tuesday campaign. We made several videos; I operated one of the cameras for this one.

The organization and board members behind Giving Tuesday appear to exemplify safe corporate philanthropy, which at first made me wonder why I'd want to link up with it. However, there doesn't seem to be any attempt to claim exclusive ownership of Giving Tuesday, or censor or limit the scope of activists and organizations who are encouraging participation in their programs by using that tag. To the extent that it's a genuine campaign to encourage generosity, I see no need to get all cynical about it.

But I'm not above giving it a test. Facebook is one of the corporate participants, so I'm carrying on my own Facebook-based Giving Tuesday campaign. I chose Christian Peacemaker Teams as the beneficiary of my little effort. For gifts that come in on December 1, Facebook has a formula to determine how it will match gifts that day from its US$ 7 million Giving Tuesday fund. For my CPT campaign, I set a goal of $1764, a dollar for every person on my friends' list on Facebook. Seems a bit ambitious to me, but why not?

In case you're in Russia, there's a #ЩедрыйВторник site.

Another organization I considered for my first attempt at Giving Tuesday fundraising was the program I served as staff for seven years, Right Sharing of World Resources. If this first Facebook/Giving Tuesday experience turns out not to be too embarrassing, I'll work with RSWR next. In the meantime, I'm glad to report that the Friends meeting I attend, Camas Friends Church, has taken on 100% sponsorship of one of the community groups supported by RSWR, and our prayer commitment and correspondence have begun, in what we expect will be an experience of mutual blessing.

My time with Right Sharing helped shape the following article I originally posted here back in 2013. The context at the time was the post-Arab Spring troubles in Egypt, but I hope that some of my observations and questions are still helpful.

Criticizing aid for fun and (non)profit 

As Egyptians seek ways to resolve their current violent clash of values, the USA's foreign policy establishment is caught in a familiar dilemma: how to influence events to our "advantage" by finessing our foreign aid commitments to the country. So often, aid policy seems to put the needs of distressed people in last place. Does it do any good at all?

To show that you, too, are intelligent
Smugly ask, “Is it really development?”
Ross Coggins, source.
There are probably few fields of human activity as rife with possibilities for righteous one-upping than foreign aid--oops, I mean international development assistance. Just think! -- intensely cerebral idealists and shameless opportunists alike (not to mention semi-disillusioned former practitioners like me) can question:
... while actual people living in bondage don't get a word in edgewise. And, just as with theology and doctrinal disputes whose urgency is linked to our concepts of salvation, the whole debate is electrified by the high stakes involved. According to UNICEF, 29,000 children are dying each day from preventable causes.

Having seen development philosophies cycle in and out over the last forty years, I now assume that any development doctrine, no matter how progressive or fashionable, will eventually be denounced as wasteful or imperialistic or self-serving or somehow fatally inadequate with the passage of time. And these devastating critiques will be undergirded by horror stories of failures (like the Norwegian fish-freezing plant on the receding shoreline of Lake Turkana). And our own local church-based attempts to confront poverty will be equally vulnerable to unintended consequences. See these posts by Jamie, the very worst missionary, for examples relating to short-term missions.

Is abandoning international aid the answer? I'd argue that it isn't, because any such decision is just as corrupt and self-serving as the various doctrines and channels of foreign aid have turned out to be. It turns out that we give money to panhandlers in part to stay human, not necessarily to feel virtuous or provide durable help to the panhandler. Nations are no different; if the USA were to indulge itself in an attitude of economic and spiritual isolationism in a world plagued by chronic economic distress, one of its core values--unaffected generosity--would die completely. Indifference is fatal. To struggle to find our way among admittedly imperfect solutions is far better than doing nothing.

Some critics of USA's aid might argue that "unaffected generosity" is already a myth. That may be what the American public thinks it values, but that's because most people are unaware of (1) how microscopic the USA budget for non-military overseas direct assistance is, proportionally; (2) how much of it goes (and in terms of official assistance, MUST go) to USA-based suppliers, carriers, and agencies. This argues, not for less aid, but for more honesty.

I remember a conversation with a USAID representative in Jamaica after one of the hurricanes devastated a part of the island. He said, in effect, that one of the priorities of the aid effort was, by way of the various emergency projects, simply to flood the affected area with money. They knew full well that the money would not necessarily be spent efficiently or 100% honestly, but at least it would begin circulating in areas that had been bled dry by the disaster. Somehow I appreciated both the honesty and the pragmatism of his explanation.

Development aid will always be a messy business, because we're humans, and we can't help getting our narrow worldviews and multiple agendas mixed into the process. Arguing about which channels and methods are best reminds me of endless Quaker debates on evangelism: do we emphasize the Quaker stuff or stress the need for (unbranded) salvation and conversion? I know I'm right about my own viewpoint, but the reality is that different approaches can work together in partnership, and when they irritate each other, it's not the end of the world. So here are some ideas on development aid that seem sensible to me, at least today:
  • systemic and palliative approaches are forever one-upping each other, but both are needed, ... just swallow your damn pride and keep each other informed!
  • waste is inevitable; keep things transparent, but don't get stingy just because not every penny of your own precious dollar is spent exactly the way you'd like (and don't take advantage of "convenient alienation," which is when individuals or churches are happy to find flaws in a denomination or charity so that they can cut their contributions and save money!)
  • fund the aid bureaucracy--competency in transmitting and monitoring resources is worth paying for!--but demand transparency, accountability, and participatory approaches at every point of the chain
  • relationship is supreme; beware of the "project" mentality that relies on forms and procedures instead of waiting for relationships to mature; remember John Perkins' three imperatives and the order they're in: relocation, reconciliation, and (gulp) redistribution
  • instead of blasting your fellow practitioners who are somehow less sophisticated than you or I, focus your withering rhetoric on government policies that can, in one stroke, neutralize all the good you're doing by increasing tariffs or holding aid hostage to favorable U.N. votes
  • always keep God at the center, and if you need a bit of a theological scare to stay focused, remember Emmanuel Charles McCarthy's words: "Apathy in the face of relievable human misery is radical evil."
This is a list that I hope you'll add to or correct! In the meantime, here are some related posts:

"If you know what's good for you"
Intentions and results
Give a man a cliché...
On giving and receiving

Back to 2020....

Two of my friends in the Friends of Jesus network, Micah Bales and Adria Gulizia, are part of the "God Squad" whose discussions form the new podcast, "For God and Country." Enjoy!

Margaret Benefiel: How do we discover the New Song?

Natasha Zhuravenkova and Sergei Grushko on translating Quaker texts into Russian. (I've been involved with several of these texts, including Katharine Evans and Sarah Chevers.)

Mike Farley on normalcy and change, digitalnun and Alexander Parker.

A film about two actual love bugs!

Igor Prado's first visit to Russia. The Roadhouse Blues Club in Moscow.

19 November 2020

Abortion and rhetoric, part two: does your morality measure up?

Another week has rolled by with no sign of outgoing U.S. president Donald Trump's readiness to concede his November 3 loss. His supporters in the public arena point to vast conspiracies aiming to deprive him of his big election-day victory. He takes great comfort from all this support, saying in one of his ongoing flood of fundraising appeals, "One thing has become clear these last few days, I am the American People’s ALL-TIME favorite President."

Meanwhile, away from the public microphones, and especially on social media, the president's supporters continue on their same old rhetorical scripts when addressing the rest of us: we are (1) rabid socialists; (2) baby-killers.

The socialist charge strikes me as wilfully ignorant, as I tried to say more tactfully a few weeks ago. I believe there is more genuine passion in  the anti-abortion argument. Last year, I tried to explain my own mixed feelings about the abortion debate, and how I ended up as an opponent of abortion who also opposes most anti-abortion legislation.

Democrats who participate in these abortion debates sometimes resort to the interesting argument that abortion rates may actually decrease during Democratic administrations compared to the stats under Republicans. Politifact assesses this argument as not entirely false, but requiring more context. (Snopes agrees, stressing the weak link between government policies and statistical trends.) However, I think the anti-abortion movement, at least among Christians, is based on an entirely different analysis. Their opponents are condemned, not on the basis of statistics (although the totals of lives sacrificed through abortion have shock value, of course). They are condemned for being willing to contemplate any abortions at all (or, depending on individual nuance, any abortions that are not justified by the need to save the mother's life).

I respect this reasoning. It seems consistent with Christian pacifism. I find it hard to justify the deliberate ending of a human life under any excuse. (My argument doesn't depend on whether or not the embryo has a soul or otherwise fits the description of a human life, if the decisive factor is simply time until that point is reached.)

Signe Wilkinson  
However, let's look honestly at the way the world is arranged now. Vast resources are put at the disposal of armies to extinguish lives as efficiently as possible -- lives that would otherwise be viable. On a more routine level, governments and voters enact policies all the time that are statistically certain to produce more victims than alternative policies might have done -- alternative policies, for example, to end hunger, reduce poverty, improve health care, overcome structural racism, regulate pollution, outlaw the death penalty, and end military assistance to regimes that starve, torture, and kill their political opponents. We seem to be entrusting our politicians to make the moral distinctions that supposedly justify these deaths, or potential deaths, while we abortion opponents do NOT trust women -- that is, the potential mothers -- to exercise their own moral judgment concerning pregnancy. I would love to see huge numbers of Trump voters direct the same moral scrutiny at health care finance, say, or the danger to our planet's ability to sustain human life, that they do to the mothers whom they judge unfit to decide on an abortion.

What unexamined assumptions exist behind this belief that women are unable to make adequate moral judgments about whether to have an abortion? Do anti-abortion campaigners fully understand what agony a women contemplating abortion might be going through, or do they suspect that a typical abortion is undertaken lightly, to correct the inconvenient results of wanton sexuality, and then lazily extend that assumption to everyone who might consider an abortion?

Obviously I don't actually know what judgments these campaigners are making about the women who would be affected by their prohibitions. I just want them to apply those same moral judgments to their own decisions affecting who prospers and who dies. In the case of those people who call Biden/Harris supporters "baby-killers," I don't see any evidence of that fairness.

On November 29, we have an opportunity to celebrate the living legacy of Dorothy Day.

Roger E. Olson: Distinguishing the evangelical movement from the evangelical ethos.
...[W]hen I call myself “evangelical” I am not talking about membership in some organization or even movement. So far as I can tell the “evangelical movement” is dead and gone. I am talking about my identification with a particular ethos that defined that movement but lives on beyond its demise. And it pre-dated that movement’s rise.
Masha Gessen: Why our country needs a reckoning with the Trump era.
Consider the consequences of choosing against a reckoning—what we would leave in place by choosing not to look back. Republican lawmakers who enabled Trump, some of whom are refusing to recognize the results of the election, will likely continue to hold and win office. Executive-branch employees will continue to publish tell-all memoirs and secure appointments at think tanks and colleges as they await the next Republican Administration. In other words, they will continue to be members in good-enough standing of the political élite, demonstrating that political power in the U.S. confers a lasting immunity from prosecution and public reproach. Or, as Trump once memorably put it, “And when you are a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”

As for the rest of us, if we choose to move forward without a reckoning, we move into the future lugging the trauma....
What event in the computer market in 2020 was (in Jack Wallen's opinion) the most important for the advancement of the Linux desktop?

Little Charlie Baty, Anson Funderburgh, Mark Hummel, with R.W. Grigsby (bass) and Wes Starr (drums). Enjoy!

12 November 2020


Perennially sarcastic Dmitri Kiselyov. Source.
When I think about Donald Trump's response to losing the 2020 election, a certain Russian word pops into mind that is difficult to translate into English: неадекватный, pronounced nye-adeKVATny. It's a partial cognate for the word inadequate, but it has particular nuances in Russian that seem sadly applicable to our graceless president. 

As Michele Berdy explains, the word refers to "someone whose thoughts, behavior or emotions are inappropriate to the situation or are out of touch with reality." A "neadekvatny" person isn't just being petty and petulant at a given moment, but could be incapable of ever rising to the occasion. And what occasion is more important than that crowning achievement of democracy, the peaceful transfer of power?

It's not just that Trump wants to dispute the results in certain states because his team detects significant irregularities; they could raise those concerns in a calm way, through well-defined complaints conveyed through the court system and the election bureaucracies of the states involved. Naturally, they would also want to get publicity for their complaints -- even that is not out of the ordinary.

What is absolutely beyond the pale is their resorting to inflammatory accusations, charging unambiguously that the Democratic Party is a "mob" that is hell-bent on electoral sabotage to accomplish a socialist coup, despite a) lack of evidence, b) success of many local Republican candidates, and c) the fact that much of the vote-counting bureaucracy is under Republican management. More than that, their allies in the fringes of white evangelicalism are trying to convince their audiences that the opposition to Trump is nothing more nor less than opposition to God.

Am I exaggerating? After all, some of Trump's allies in Congress speak in measured tones to the press, urging us to allow the lawsuits, recounts, and certification processes to unfold until the formalities wind up. It sounds like sweet reasonableness, despite their disregard for the normal practice of conceding when it's credibly determined that the 270-vote electoral college threshold has been passed. Given the lack of normalcy in this pandemic year, maybe we could allow some modest delay to check on actual irregularities.

However, first of all, election officials around the country seem agreed that, in terms of both logistics and security, the 2020 elections went remarkably smoothly. Secondly, the Trump campaign itself has been the very opposite of sweet reasonableness. I am on the Trump-Pence campaign e-mail list, and just sixteen minutes ago I got another e-mail entitled, "Proof of Election FRAUD" -- but with no proof at all in the body of the e-mail, nor even an allegation. It was the eleventh e-mail I received from them just today. I received eight yesterday, including one entitled "📎234 pages of sworn affidavits" (with the paperclip implying attachments, but there were none); and 22 arrived the day before, all begging me to "step up and join your fellow Patriots in the fight against the Left-wing MOB."

A thirty-six-hour harvest of donaldtrump.com e-mails
So whom should I take more seriously -- the calm operatives who speak to the press, or the campaign that is working overtime to alienate its audience from the democratic process?

It is clear which of these sources is being picked up by the government-sponsored media in Russia. Dmitri Kiselyov, the sarcastic presenter of flagship news program Vesti on Rossiya-1 television, is delighted to tell his audience that the USA, fond of lecturing others on democracy, couldn't even pull off its own 2020 elections. (Of course, under Trump, no such lectures have been forthcoming. No doubt some in the Kremlin will miss him. As for national elections in Russia, they do have the advantage that no one is in doubt about the results.)

Those in the Trump-Pence campaign audience who are Christians, particularly prophecy-oriented charismatics and Pentecostals, are getting special attention from their celebrity prophets. (See Julia Duin's post at GetReligion.org, "Who's covering this? Are charismatics and Pentecostals behind Trump's refusal to concede?") I see multiple layers of danger here: 

First of all, there are the intended and unintended consequences of using the powerful language of faith to build or expand a hard-core disconnected and embittered subculture that is totally available for future mobilization using the same manipulative tactics.

Secondly, those watching this spectacle from the sidelines -- particularly non-Christians -- can be excused for seeing it as a circus. On the plus side, maybe it all reinforces healthy skepticism about religious theatrics, but it might also confirm theological and class biases among those who already look condescendingly on what we might gently call the more enthusiastic flavors of Christianity. It might be easy to dismiss these brothers and sisters in Christ as "neadekvatnye" (so please don't!), but at the moment I'm reserving that term for the ringmaster himself, Donald Trump, for those who could tell him to pack it up but don't, and those who give him cover by publicly pretending that he's just looking for justice.

"A new con" ... is this a fair assessment of what Trump is actually looking for? Maybe it's a bit severe, but do you have any argument to the contrary? Clearly, Trump makes no concessions of fairness to his opponents; I'm way past giving him any benefit of the doubt.

Jennifer Rubin on the intersection of religious affiliations and political preferences.

The Kremlin and the rise of the zombie voters.

GetReligion also covers a new kid on the news media block, sponsored by a controversial sect. I guessed who it was ... I bet you will, too.

When a global pandemic interrupts your careful mission plans, what you say and what you're thinking might differ. Marilyn has no easy answers.

When our kids were growing up, we loved watching Bob Ross, and went to Muncie once to meet him at a public television event. Now, in that same location, there's a Bob Ross museum.

Another gem from Taj Mahal.

05 November 2020

Election week shorts

It's a very different U.S. presidential election experience this time than we had four years ago. For one thing, in 2016 we were living eight hours ahead of the USA's Eastern time zone, which meant that we did not learn the outcome until we were in the second period of our Wednesday morning teaching schedule.

(On second thought, maybe that's not a good comparison. In this year's election week, it's already Thursday, and we still don't know the 2020 results.)

Another difference: in 2016, almost all of our face-to-face social community was pro-Trump (and assumed we were, too). With some of our friends and colleagues, we had a lot of explaining to do. Now, thanks to the pandemic, we temporarily don't even have a face-to-face social community, but most people we're in daily contact with are not Trump supporters.

Election day itself was also very different. Four years ago, I was teaching a class at the Moscow Theological Seminary on election day. Now we're retired -- and on Tuesday we dealt with the stress of election-day suspense by going to the Oregon Zoo, where the residents were definitely able to take our minds off our anxieties: 


In a few days, or maybe even a matter of hours, we will know the 2020 results. A few minutes ago, I saw a video of today's White House press conference, and my mind flashed back to yet another election day -- November 4, 2008 -- and to John McCain's remarkable and historic concession speech.

"It's so interesting who's been elected U.S. president, I'm monitoring every channel, it's so hard to wait, ohhh, if they'd just announce the results already!"
"Here's what interests me: how much more of this I can take.Source.

Elections in USA: Will Trump or Biden win?
Elections in Russia: "I guess I'll choose Putin."
As I shake my head over the clumsy ways of USA elections, I have to remind myself that there are others in this world whose perspective is very different. 

For example, a few days ago I was speaking online with a group of Russians. I was bemoaning the potential dangers of a second Trump four-year term: "We'll be just another banana republic." One of the Russians smiled and said, in effect, "Welcome to the club." He must not be the only Russian who shares this perspective -- there's a theme going around the Russian Internet, which can best be summed up as "be glad you have any elections at all."

Here's an article on this Internet theme, with some bittersweet examples.

Speaking of Russia, here's an interview with Taisia Bekbulatova, founder of a new magazine dedicated to quality journalism in the distant regions beyond Moscow.

Stephen Bates on theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's timely pessimism.

Is it fair to call "make liberals cry again" the Battle Hymn of today's Republicans? (I wonder what Niebuhr would say about this question!)

The remarkable International Space Station celebrates twenty years of continuous human habitation. Robin McKie: Has it been worth it? Alice Gorman and Justin St P Walsh: the unromantic realities -- and the future -- of living in space.

Taj Mahal!

29 October 2020

God's sweet revenge

Hell as interior decoration. BBC's Andrew Graham-Dixon in the TV series The Art of Russia.
Grayson Gilbert wants us to know that "There Are No Atheists in Hell." 

Is this the kind of good news that Pope Francis means when he reassures a grieving child that the child's unbelieving father will not be rejected by God? (In other words, that atheists are not automatically condemned to hell?)

Not exactly. Judge for yourself:

At the end of all days, every knee shall bow, every tongue shall confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord. They [that is, atheists, with their "concealed hatred of God"] will not confess that He is Savior then because He will not be a Savior to them then. There is nothing they can be saved from. They squandered away a lifetime of opportunity to repent and believe the gospel; there are no second chances. It is assigned once for man [sic] to die and meet judgment. There is no hope for the one who dies under the consuming wrath of God, but just as there remains no hope for those who do not believe upon Christ prior to their death, there will be no lingering skepticism. There will be no doubt. There will be no unbelief. All will believe and will either go away to eternal death or eternal life, for there will be no atheists in Hell.

In my ongoing attempts to find out why certainty about eternal torment plays such a central role with some Christian thinkers, I took Gilbert's approach and the Pope's approach and let them play out in my imagination. I imagined the atheist father of the child whom Francis consoled in the video linked above, and, on my mind's stage, had him appearing before God's judgment seat.

Gilbert's God: "What are you looking at me like that for? See, I'm real, you damned atheist. You had a lifetime of opportunity to repent and believe the good news, but you squandered them away in (a) riotous living, or (b) helping other people to the best of your secular self. Go to hell and fry forever!"

(I know we're supposed to imagine them roasting or broiling, or as the vivid icon in Ivan's the Terrible* office shows, boiling in oil, but my mother used this specific curse when she was really angry: "Go to hell and fry forever!")

(* That punctuation is an inside joke.)

The Pope's God: "Surprise! Maybe now you'll believe me. Beloved, welcome to my house!"

Yes, I'm having fun now, but actually I'm angry. What evangelist in his or her right mind thinks that we can build a case for a loving and merciful God by insisting on God's final revenge on those who cannot cross the threshold of faith, not because their atheism masks a "concealed hatred of God" but because (1) they can't work it out intellectually, despite genuine efforts, or (2) they've never heard a coherent and credible presentation of the Gospel offered without hidden agendas, or (3) most members of God's fan club they know seem to revel in malice, racism, xenophobia, violence, or greed.

I'm not the only angry one. When early Quaker theologian Robert Barclay, in writing his Apology for the True Christian Divinity, got around to dealing with this damnation business, he had nothing but scorn: 

As for that doctrine which these propositions [Propositions 5 and 6 of his Apology] chiefly strike at, to wit, absolute reprobation, according to which some are not afraid to assert: That God, by an eternal and immutable decree, hath predestinated to eternal damnation the far greater part of mankind, not considered as made, much less as fallen, without any respect to their disobedience or sin, but only for the demonstrating of the glory of his justice; and that for the bringing this about he hath appointed these miserable souls necessarily to walk in their wicked ways, that so his justice may lay hold on them: and that God doth therefore not only suffer them to be liable to this misery in many parts of the world, by withholding from them the preaching of the Gospel and the knowledge of Christ, but even in those places where the Gospel is preached, and salvation by Christ is offered; whom though he publicly invite them, yet he justly condemns for disobedience, albeit he hath withheld from them all grace by which they could have laid hold of the Gospel, viz.: Because he hath, by a secret will unknown to all men, ordained and decreed (without any respect had to their disobedience or sin) that they shall not obey, and that the offer of the Gospel shall never prove effectual for their salvation, but only serve to aggravate and occasion their greater condemnation.

I say, as to this horrible and blasphemous doctrine, our cause is common with many others, who have both wisely and learnedly, according to Scripture, reason, and antiquity, refuted it.
Gilbert's God: Johan, you're in for it now. Robert Barclay is roasting or frying (take your choice) with all those others who tried to gain followers for me without warning them about the awful consequences should you fail to convince them. Turn or burn!

In one of my previous attempts to deal with hell's advocates, I granted that, theoretically, it is possible for someone to become aware of God's grace and mercy and deliberately reject it, but is that the real situation of everyone who finds themselves outside the camp of certified Christians? And, as long as we're imagining this vain and hypercritical God who says, "Love me or else!", what fate awaits those Christians whose anger, hunger for power, or imperial enmeshments repel potential believers?

I have a gentle question for these pro-hell Christian intellectuals:

If you and I were to go into a quiet corner where colleagues whose approval you crave, the buyers of your books, and your media audiences all can't hear us, would you agree that God's mercy might extend to those in Matthew 25 who unknowingly fed Jesus when he was hungry, clothed him when he needed clothes, and visited him in captivity, without doctrinal conditions? I suspect many of them would say "yes." What keeps them from proclaiming this? (Or are they really all beyond hope?)

Jesus mentions the outer darkness and the flames of eternal torment more than once -- perhaps most vividly in describing the fate of the rich man who did not open his gate to Lazarus. He says or implies that committing evil acts, abusing children, ignoring his explicit invitations, and blaspheming the Holy Spirit, all put us in spiritual danger of going to the bad place prepared for the devil and his angels. But where does it say that a person of good will who cannot believe in God will only find out his or her error when it's too late to escape eternal torment?

I'm serious. If you really believe this, try to persuade me. Please try to make your persuasion consistent with a holy and all-merciful God; no lesser God will do.

Related posts:  More heat than light (in which we see Al Mohler utterly misunderstand and misrepresent the reasons why some Christians reject his concept of damnation); We will never see another non-ChristianHell, holiness, and Jerusalem.

Will I be in danger of eternal torment for linking to this Bible study on hell?

A somewhat more pro-hell summary. And another.

Oregon's e-sticker: "I voted."
On Tuesday, USA's national election day, Judy and I plan to spend the day on a visit back to the zoo.

The U.S. House Judiciary Committee's majority staff report on the administration's family separation policy.

Russia's annual commemoration of the victim's of Stalin's purges was held online this year. (And here's why I will be very careful in the future when considering linking to rferl.org and its Russian-language service, svoboda.org.)

Vasilii Vereshchagin: A Russian artist who painted the true face of war.

Once again, Heather Cox Richardson summarizes another day in U.S. politics.

Kim Wilson and Rick Estrin enjoying each other's musicianship:

22 October 2020

Quaker communion (partly a repost)

If there's such a thing as Quaker communion, is it more like what some of us call open worship, or more like a potluck?

(For the moment, I'm not addressing those places in the world of Friends where a formal communion is celebrated that resembles other Protestants' practices -- although I'd welcome their comments.)

These two comparisons came up in a recent discussion of communion in the Facebook group "Christian Quakers." Participants made a variety of good points about Friends' spiritual understanding of communion. The comparison with open worship was there, but most Friends in this thread focused on the connection with a common meal. 

How does the meal fit in? If in worship we seek the companionship of the living Christ, we are already memorializing his life and death and resurrection; what more do we need? However, if we rush to answer, "Nothing at all -- we're Quakers!" ...  we may be giving in to an abiding temptation in at least northern-hemisphere Quaker culture: to over-spiritualize our religious experience, and then, worse, to look down upon other Christians when those others value outward markers for their experiences of initiation (baptism) and spiritual intimacy with God (communion).

My original post (see below) was dated July 2010, and it was occasioned in part by an experience we had in Moscow Friends Meeting that summer. Our friend Sasha marked the fortieth day after his mother's death by leading a period of communion with bread and wine during our normally unprogrammed meeting for worship. It may have been only the second or third time in my whole life that I experienced such an observance in a Quaker setting, but, given the occasion, I had no hesitation about participating.

Applying the word "communion" to unprogrammed worship, or to the period of open worship in programmed meetings, seems to happen much more often than using it for potlucks or common meals, although I honestly see the validity of both if the heart-level intention is there. I've visited a fair number of pastoral and programmed meetings where the open worship period is described in terms similar to this: "Communion after the manner of Friends." The Richmond Declaration of Faith (1887) says, "The presence of Christ with His church is not designed to be by symbol or representation, but in the real communication of His own Spirit." ("The Supper of the Lord.") Deep Creek Friends Meeting in Yadkinville, North Carolina, referred to Quaker worship as "a time of intimate communion with God and one another..." in this newsletter article from 2013 that described a Sunday morning when their pastor suddenly needed to be elsewhere.

Here's the original text of my post from 2010.

Not long ago, I read some reference to "the Quaker mass," and that got me to thinking. When I'm in a Christian community that practices communion or the Eucharist, I love its deep connection both to history and to the earthiness of life. Usually I'm a sympathetic observer, but occasionally I've participated myself.

Moscow Friends enjoying tea after worship (2010)
Moscow Meeting is unprogrammed, and usually nothing takes place during the hour of worship that would look like a traditional communion to most Christians.

This is as close as we normally get: somehow over the years, a practice arose among us of singing a simple prayer before beginning our tea, asking God to bless us and pour grace on each of us.

Honestly, some Quaker arguments against ceremonial communion seem a bit thin to me. Back when I was serving with Friends World Committee for Consultation, my colleague Val Ferguson used to caution her Quaker audiences about the "three misleading negatives" that we sometimes use to define ourselves. If I remember correctly, she listed those misleading negatives as "we don't have doctrines, priests, or sacraments." 

Val urged us to define ourselves positively, not negatively. She reminded us that we have our own forms of doctrine and leadership, and pointed out that the absence of something is not always an advantage. The sacrament of communion, for example, can be a vivid reminder of the physicality of God's creation in the form of food and drink -- essential products of the earth, and in fact products which too many people don't have enough of.

Among our beloved 17th-century Quaker soundbites are these two from George Fox: "Christ has come to teach his people himself," and "You will say Christ saith this, and the apostles say this: but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest: is it inwardly from God?" Both imply the importance of communion as relationship, of being in the Presence, of "meeting" in the deepest sense.

So when we Friends argue for an inward and spiritual understanding of communion, as Robert Barclay did in his Apology for the True Christian Divinity (see Proposition XIII), I tend to agree, as long as we modestly remember we still need to make the effort to connect our faith to our practice (for example, keeping a time of quiet waiting in our meetings for worship so that we can actually, simply be in God's presence). If we don't make this effort to link intention and opportunity, it's probably not communion, no matter how lofty our theory.

In fact, isn't this the same effort required by ceremonial communion? What is superior about Friends' practice? Is it the fact that we devote a time of unprogrammed silence to this intention, shielding it from getting crowded out by the other elements of worship? My experience is that communion can be happening whenever God's people assemble -- as I've found among Pentecostals and Russian Orthodox people, among others -- and most Friends wouldn't deny that this can be the case.

No, what I cherish about our minimalist approach is actually more political than spiritual, if it's okay to make that distinction. As soon as you establish an outward practice, you need to guard it. How frequently is it celebrated? Is it optional or mandatory -- and what are the stakes? Who is allowed to lead and to participate, and who isn't? How do we interpret the relevant biblical passages? Is there a script, and how far can we deviate? Must there be literal bread (what about gluten intolerance) and wine (will grape juice do)? Barclay, in his Proposition XIII, touches on the difficulties Christians have had in reconciling their different understandings -- "For there have been more animosities and heats about this one particular, and more bloodshed and contention, than about any other."

But here again, Quakers are not off the hook.

It's true that most yearly meetings don't use ceremonial communion at all, and those yearly meetings that do provide for communion simply allow it, they don't require it. So maybe we're not tempted into the politics of licensing and quality control for this specific practice. However, I know what happens when someone speaks a second time in certain unprogrammed meetings, or speaks too long, or too emotionally, or too early in the hour, or uses the wrong theology. Without "forms," is there also a danger of treating the reality of communion so casually that we, too, might lose the connection between faith and practice? So maybe we still have issues of quality control after all.

Many meetings and churches have elders, or meetings of ministry and counsel, and this is the provision for "quality control" I like the best among Friends. Elders approach the discipline of matching faith and practice, not by appeal to a rule-book or external authorities, but again by going into communion and asking God for guidance. Being humans, they can't guarantee that they will always discern correctly, but neither does an external structure carry any guarantees.

Communion at ecumenical peace demonstration
Jesus said, "Do this in remembrance of me" -- and Barclay rightly points out that it's the remembrance that counts, not the exact method of remembering. Jesus uses other occasions to make similar connections, such as his discussion of Living Water with the woman at the well, and washing the feet of his disciples. But do we in fact remember Jesus? The Russian Quaker Tatiana Pavlova said, "When I sit in worship, I want to know that the person next to me is worshipping the same God." Our practices may seem very different from those of Christians with more liturgy and ceremony, but if we stay faithful to Jesus' words, and if we use our Quaker understandings of communion to grow in Christ rather than to marginalize him in favor of private meditation, or (just as bad) to one-up other Christians, we're still at the same Table. 

(Here's a link to the post as it appeared originally, along with Bill Samuels' thoughtful comment.)

Confession: I prepared this post instead of watching this evening's U.S. presidential election debate.

This Saturday: Friends Peace Teams present a workshop, "Toward Right Relationship with Native Peoples." Information. Registration.

Seventeen countries send their diplomats to the South Hebron Hills. Guess what? The USA was not represented.

A Lesley Stahl interview. No, not that one -- here she interviews Aleksei Navalny. I didn't know his English is this good.

Two very different examinations of a dysfunctional U.S. presidency: Amy Siskind. John Piper.

Louis René Beres examines the continuing risk factors for a miscalculated war between the USA and North Korea. (Thanks to jurist.org for the link.)

Fifty years ago, the concert that launched Greenpeace. (Thanks to Bill Smith for the link.)

Nancy Thomas presents a poetic breath of fresh air from C.S. Lewis.

Mike Farley on the life of prayer that (in the context of today's post, I believe) supports any real communion -- or any movement for social transformation.

A different sort of blues clip: Christone "Kingfish" Ingram describes his guitars, pickups, and pedalboard, demonstrating how each contributes to the sound he wants. Enjoy!