14 March 2019

Serves them right

Anger and ridicule greeted the two Federal judges' sentences, totaling less than seven years after time served, for master influence peddler and tax swindler Paul Manafort.

Ridicule -- provoked in part by the enormous gap between the sentencing guidelines for his crimes and the actual sentences, and made worse by Judge Ellis citing Manafort's "otherwise blameless life."

Anger -- demonstrated by the flood of stories comparing this multiple-mansion Manafort with the harsh treatment of convicts with lower income or darker skin. Among the most shocking comparisons: Crystal Mason, apparently unaware that a prior conviction made her ineligible to vote, was sentenced to five years for voting in Texas. Other comparisons included stolen lawn mowers and equipment (15 years) and quarters from a laundry room (36-72 months).

One of the most disturbing reactions after Manafort's first sentence, in Virginia (47 months) was the tendency of many commentators to reassure us that surely his second sentence in Washington, DC, would be much harsher. Wait! What is the social benefit of that punitive spirit? What the country should demand from Manafort is restoration of money stolen from the Treasury and a total ban from any future participation in selling influence, wangling mortgages, and faking credit-worthiness.

The Paul Manafort case focused our attention on bias in the court system. As a convenient target, it might feel very satisfying to seek to flog Manafort as a compensation for the wickedness of that bias. But the leverage really ought to work in exactly the opposite direction: question all harsh sentences everywhere! Ask whether harsh sentences accomplish any social good at all! Demand that every judge be a "Manafort judge" and assume a seed of decency ... and that every participant in the whole "justice" system work to learn why decency becomes subverted. Seek restoration as the goal in every sentencing decision, and reserve incarceration for the custody of dangerous felons, rather than to satisfy that righteous indignation that is the stock in trade of populist politicians.

In particular, followers of the Prince of Peace should be persistently and incurably curious about the prison industry and how we feed its vicious appetite. We know that "none are righteous, no, not one!" (Romans 3:10, context); our moral superiority to those in prison, if any, is strictly relative. In our advocacy and our political behavior, let's question the lazy and convenient assumptions behind the ancient pattern, arrested = guilty = incarceration.

It is a lot easier to raise a scandal over a couple of dramatically lenient sentences for one criminal than to join together to confront a mass incarceration system that eats people by the thousands. It is popular indifference to the fate of our Crystal Masons that allows the system to grind on unimpeded.

Audy Home version 2014; source.
My sister Ellen, who began running away from home at age 13 (in 1968), spent much of the year 1969 behind bars. At least three separate times she was in the Audy Home (Chicago's juvenile detention facility at the time); most of the rest of her detention was in psychiatric hospitals. Of all the people in our family, she was probably the most mentally healthy, but those psychiatric confinements provided a relatively safe alternative to jail. I am grateful for those times, because when I visited her at one of those clinics, the staff encouraged us to tell our stories -- and a flood of experiences of alcoholism and violence from both of us confirmed the staff doctors' suspicions that there was a lot more going on than just a simple case of juvenile delinquency.

I would like to believe that every young person caught up in the criminal justice system would get such sympathetic attention -- not just a white girl from the suburbs. Sadly, as I've recounted before, Ellen slipped out of custody on February 28, 1970, and a month later she was kidnapped and killed, her body dumped on the Calumet Canal Bridge.

Here's a glimpse of her life in detention, from a letter she wrote to me on May 20, 1969:
We've had a very wild weekend on 1 South. Saturday all the girls kicked this one girl's ass. Sunday there was another fight, and a near riot, in which all the girls got Thorazine shots, but me, who chose not to participate. Monday night two guys tried to escape, and the whole unit was in an uproar. Today a girl got put in restraints (tied to a bed) until Thursday because of the fight Saturday. ... Everyone is really uptight now. Things are gonna blow.

Mugambi Jouet believes that Manafort does not deserve to die in prison.
While Manafort is not the poster child for mass incarceration, his case reveals America’s deep, disturbing attraction to harsh punishment—even among some on the left, who seem to relish the idea that he might die in prison.

Source: screenshot from NASA TV.  
Today: a successful Soyuz launch and rendezvous with the International Space Station. The station is now back to a full staff of six.

Bryan Stevenson on confronting mass imprisonment.

Restorative justice resources: Mennonite Central Committee. American Friends Service Committee. Prison Fellowship International.

Frank Viola on the last days of Christian America -- and his three explanations that don't involve external enemies.

Another lesson in regarding humans: Scenery. Machinery. People.

Franklin Foer on how Russian-style kleptocracy is influencing the USA. For example,
New York, Los Angeles, and Miami have joined London as the world’s most desired destinations for laundered money. This boom has enriched the American elites who have enabled it—and it has degraded the nation’s political and social mores in the process.

When they bury me bury me bury me, gonna bury the blues alongside of me

07 March 2019

Trustworthy, part three: choices

In 1993, when I found out that I had been chosen as the general secretary of Friends United Meeting, I tried to find some books that might help me be a better leader. I particularly wanted to prepare to serve a denomination with deep trust issues, having just gone through a bruising struggle over theology -- a struggle that had calmed down but with no real resolution, and with smoldering suspicions between rural and urban, young and old, liberal and evangelical -- and between personalities representing these divisions.

One of the books I read had this sobering passage:
Religion's socialization process is lethal. It not only offers us the acceptance and affections of a specific group of people, it also offers us the acceptance and affection of God. We become secure in our religious sense of self and vigorously join with the others in defending the fundamentals of our worldview. This is what much of our Christian education is about. A judicious understanding of our fallenness would allow the perspective that a certain percentage of Sunday school classes, sermons, doctrine courses, and seminars are not as much about pursuit of truth as they are about religious socialization.

It's no accident, incidentally, that churches are quite easily characterized along socioeconomic lines. This is a black church from a poor neighborhood, over there is an all-white church from the suburbs, and just a block away is a yuppie church that is not distinguished so much by its ethnicity as by its high percentage of aerospace engineers. Theological seminaries offer courses that ensure the perpetuation of religious socialization: classes are given on the so-called church growth principles, predicated on the idea that the best way to expand is to associate with people who are like yourself. They call it the "homogeneous principle," and in fact it is nothing more than spiritualized racism and classism.

The acceptance and affection of God offered to us by religious socialization comes with high stakes. Any rejection of this religious group's values and behavioral expectations will bring down upon us the wrath and rejection of not only the group but also God.

To become free people is to unleash the indignation of religion.
(Gordon Aeschliman, Cages of Pain: Healing for Disillusioned Christians, published in 1991.)

With Friends' concentric and non-hierarchic structure, there was no real danger that Friends United Meeting would be able to enforce an obligatory worldview or unleash indignation on our international constituency. However, we seemed equally unable to ensure that abuse of power wouldn't occur at more local levels. The more I traveled, the more I found examples of dysfunctional churches and even regional associations where conformity was enforced and freedom feared. Over my seventeen combined years of travel among Friends meetings and churches (with Friends World Committee and then Friends United Meeting), I visited over 300 congregations -- many apparently healthy, but a significant minority reflecting the same sorts of problems that Gordon Aeschliman describes in his book's numerous case studies.

Aeschliman's book shows its age in some ways. (For example, when he wrote the book, his home country of South Africa was still under the rule of apartheid, a heresy backed by much of the country's white Christian establishment.) However, when I reviewed the "untrustworthy church" experiences recounted by my modest recent survey, the diagnoses in his book often still seem all too fresh.

But Cages of Pain doesn't just leave us there. Much of his book includes specific ideas and choices that might help us realize the promise of his subtitle, "healing for disillusioned Christians." For some hints, see Aeschliman's table of contents. In my own comments on choices here today and later in part four, I'm drawing on some of his ideas as well as my own experiences and the advice I've gathered along the way.

Looking at the stories of disappointment and betrayal in my survey responses, and reducing them to their essential causes, I found these top ten interrelated dynamics that made congregations (most, but not all, being Friends meetings and churches) seem untrustworthy. All of them resonate with stories in Aeschliman's book:

(In order of decreasing numbers of examples...)
  1. Backchannel communication patterns, often based around factions and shared enemy lists
  2. Denial of conflict to preserve appearance of peace
  3. Old guard -- sometimes allied with pastor, sometimes allied with pillar-of-church families
  4. Rules (both explicit and tacit) elevated over relationships
  5. False advertising -- attractive invitations, unattractive or nonexistent implementations
  6. Unrecognized family systems and roles leading normally "good" people to behave hurtfully
  7. Private support coupled with public shunning or demonstrative neutrality 
  8. Unethical or nontransparent personnel practices
  9. "Pastor knows best" assumption
  10. Betrayal of trust (specifically involving children's safety)
What choices do we have?

The most obvious and most glib answer is: leave! Escape! In fact, after prayer and consultation and weighing options, that may end up being the best answer. Certainly it was the answer chosen by some survey respondents. But there may be many reasons not to take that route: family reasons, a commitment to others (at least some others) in the congregation, a readiness to confront the roots of your disillusionment or alienation, an unwillingness to surrender a beloved church to some usurping spirit or person, or simply a sense of leading from the Holy Spirit.

On your way to a stay/leave decision, you might also need to confront your own part in the untrustworthiness surrounding you. (One of my respondents wrote: "Not sure if it 'was me' or if it was the congregation.") I like Aeschliman's advice to examine the "bars" around you that make up your own cage of pain, including those factors that you and I need to acknowledge about our own participation in dysfunction. Unacknowledged, these patterns might just go with us to our next church, or rob us of the joy of ever finding a new, more trustworthy church home. Some of those bars include cynicism, spiritual codependency, and our own unexamined mistakes. None of these aspects of self-examination require us to submit to spiritual tyranny or self-flagellation of any kind, or to reconcile ourselves to anything that we, after due thought, continue to consider unacceptable.

Readiness for self-examination and repentance must be coupled with a biblical sense of your uncompromised, non-negotiable self-worth: No matter who is trying to do a power play on you and yours, Jesus infinitely outranks them, yet for all his divine worth, he was tortured, mocked, and executed by the politicians. You have a share in his crucifixion and resurrection; you are his beloved; you carry his name and his authority.

On your way to that grounding in truth and comfort, or re-grounding as the case may be, you may need to re-learn how to express how you actually feel. Aeschliman writes about the risky path of reconciliation with the church:
Some would tempt you to trade in the integrity of facing the abuse head-on, but you must resist. Specific sins have been committed against you, and you will never be free of their influence in your life until you tag them. You must call them for what they are. Some of the pain has serious consequences that are not easily repaired. For example, slander may have resulted in the loss of a ministry that you birthed and to which you gave your life. The emotions you have experienced in connection with the loss probably include everything listed in part two of this book.... Be honest with the hurts, and avoid the advice of those who would have you quickly move on from the shambles. You must dwell on the wrong as long as your heart requires, reliving the painful moments and crying your despair that your life has been irretrievably altered.

This honest encounter will release your rage: you must let rage run its course. It is a gift from God.
And when your rage is has burned through, and perhaps exhaustion and despair replace the fiery pain,
...[Y]ou awake to the friendship of honesty. Your aching body and parched throat are there to affirm your dignity, to agree with the outrage of your heart, to reward you for the honesty of your anger. You are a wonderful person, and you were trespassed. Contrary to the message of the abuser, you are not trash. And you hold your tired head high as you walk back to town, ready to live your worth.
Not every betrayed person in Aeschliman's book, or in my own experience, has a happy ending from the institutional point of view; not all of them choose reconciliation with the church (either their original congregation or the Church as a whole). But happy (or at least happier) endings do happen, and they happen on the basis of honesty.

What are the church's choices? This is the subject of part four.

(Part one. Part two. Related, somewhat: Leaving Quakers.)

The best gift of life -- accept or reject?

Thanks to David Brin for speaking my mind better than I could! Oligarchy and aristocracy and power.

Amanda Ripley on the American town with the least amount of political prejudice.

New Russian satellites promise "Internet for 'everyone' and 'everywhere'..." as long as you don't use the Internet to express disrespect for authorities. (How Russia's Internet detectives work to track down undesirable authors.)

Has even Women's Day become militarized?

Eilen Jewell, "Satisfied Mind"

28 February 2019

Trustworthy, part two: a colony of heaven

 Most -- but not all -- of my small sample have experienced a trustworthy faith community. 
The sample size was small and self-selected, but it's clear that unhappy experiences are not unusual.

When I first put together the "trustworthy church" survey, I thought that stories of trustworthy and untrustworthy churches/meetings, and experiences of churches becoming more trustworthy, would be the most interesting answers. In fact, many of those accounts really were fascinating -- some were inspiring, and, as you can guess, some were just plain awful. In many cases, I realized that I already knew the situations in some of the stories, and that's making me very cautious about repeating them here, even with permission. We Friends need to grow our numbers if for no other reason than to increase anonymity!

The pleasant surprise in these surveys, however, were responders' wish lists of qualities they would like to see in a meeting or church. It should have been obvious to me that this category ("What qualities or features would be most important to include in any congregation you'd consider joining?") would often be the hard-earned result of the good and bad experiences already recounted by each person.

Here are some of those features -- similar answers combined....
  • Sincerity, openness, warmth -- among regulars and also with guests and visitors. (Maybe the most frequently repeated request.)
  • No hidden screens -- if you say you welcome everyone, that the good news is for everyone, then "everyone" includes all sexual orientations, social and economic classes, and the full variety of cultures, races, nationalities, abilities. Differences are acknowledged with candor and humor.
  • Unanxiously Christ-centered and biblically literate, ready to engage with people on the boundaries of our definitions, and beyond.
  • Grounded in Quaker teachings, aware of the varieties of global Quakerism.
  • Concerned with both faith and practice, including the practice of social justice.
  • Not in denial about evil, but not obsessed with sin, purity, certainty.
  • Hopeful, positive, but willing to have difficult conversations. 
  • Engaged with the surrounding community.
  • Clear, accessible paths to membership, with transparent explanations of the differences between regular attendance and membership, and the responsibilities of membership and leadership.
  • No gender differences in leadership or in the process of becoming leaders.
  • A culture that welcomes questions, encourages significant conversations, and encourages participation in worship and leadership.
  • The liberty to focus on things of transcendent importance rather than trivial distractions.
  • Able to deal with imperfect people, to weather conflicts arising from gossip and other inevitable crises and friction.
  • Encouraging and educating for spiritual growth, helping each person discover and use their spiritual gifts.
  • Small enough for genuine relationships, large enough to sustain programming that goes beyond just governing and maintaining the church.
  • Small groups.
  • Mutually accountable leadership that is willing to uphold the community's agreed standards and confront violators.
  • Concern for evangelism, both locally and globally.
Some phrases stood out to me so strongly that I was reluctant to combine them with other statements, even if they might be similar. Some examples:
  • A good church provides both comfort and challenge. A healthy church helps people learn how to be better together.
  • There are no qualities or features reflected in an outwardly visible church that would prompt me to join in membership.
  • A church's policies, presented on its front-facing website, in its bulletin, or on its signboard say a lot about what a congregation intends or how it thinks about its purpose and identity. But I can tell when I enter the sanctuary, from who's in the room and up on the platform, whether this is a church where I'm allowed to be myself.
  • Conflict is seen as an opportunity for growth rather than Satan's trash fire.
  • Women in leadership, affirming, focus on service of community, common faith in Jesus and reliance on scripture. [This was all one sentence, which in itself I found moving.]
  • Any urge to condemn or expel is a disqualifier in my view -- and there, again, I am not quite living up to the standard I am demanding.
  • God is Love, if love is not central in the congregation -- not for me!
  • A real commitment to listen until we all can plead anyone's case to their satisfaction. 
Finally, here is a book of Christian discipline, a Faith and Practice, all in one paragraph:

The primary feature would be a genuine knowledge of God and Christ. I'd want to see some effort had been given to studying Scripture and early Friends writings, additionally contemporary writers who have studied these original resources and written sensibly about their findings. I'd want to see good character, not only in major issues such as marital fidelity, but in minor day-to-day behaviors, such as not monopolizing conversations or podium time, etc. In short, I'd want to see some self-awareness and discipline counteracting the fallen nature's tendency to self-aggrandizement. I'd like to see a creative, personal approach to worship and socializing: the house church where each brings a psalm or prayer, and worshippers gather around a table to share and joyfully have a meal together sounds like an ideal. I'd like to see true friendliness and concern about one another's lives. I'd like to feel that the group was truly the body of Christ, a colony of heaven. I'd like to hear others minister the Word of God. (Don't think I've made such a wish list since I was six-years-old, and writing to Santa.)

Please let me know if you'd like to add to or challenge any of these responses. You might also recognize something that you contributed, but that got weakened by my combining it with other statements -- and that you'd like me to restore to your original language or urgency.

Part three of this series will look at some of those personal experiences reported in the survey, and what they might mean for our choices as we seek (or build) trustworthy congregations.

(Back to part one on the cost of betrayal.)

A question for any church conference: What would happen if the Holy Spirit did indeed fall upon us? (It's a question I've asked myself before several momentous Friends United Meeting triennials over the decades, and after one very over-controlled Friends pastors' conference.)

Mark Russ reports on a Woodbrooke gathering on diversity and inclusion -- including evangelism and "the heart of our dilemma as liberal Quakers."

Fred Clark on Benjamin Lay, an "unQuakerly Quaker" and the apostasy of slave-holding.
...[W]e sometimes describe people like Benjamin Lay as being “ahead of their time.” Which they of course weren’t, because no one can be. That odd phrase — “ahead of their time” — is sometimes meant as a compliment, but it is also sometimes employed to deny people like Lay the same gracious solicitude we’re eager to bestow on their contemporaries. We tend to be, in other words, more willing to forgive people like Edwards and Whitefield for being disgracefully wrong than we are to forgive people like Benjamin Lay for being defiantly right.
Mike Farley: Contemplation, like pain, is not a private enterprise.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: a photo gallery, Boris Nemtsov, a life and death in pictures. (Here's a link to my related blog post, Boris Nemtsov 1959-2015.)

War resister to war resister: Rory Fanning's conversation with Hilel Garmi in Israel.

Delta Moon keeps their lamps trimmed and burning.

21 February 2019

Trustworthy, part one: the cost of betrayal

This isn't one of the QL issues I mentioned
below. In this March 1998 issue, we covered 
financial betrayals.
Money is hardly a full and adequate way of costing out harm, but it does have a snappy convenience. When Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends was sued in 2015 for having had a sexual abuser in its employ, the amount demanded was $4 million. Just for perspective, its budget for that year was $1.2 million, and its assets (2013, actual) about $3.17 million.

As far as I know, the final settlement in that case was never made public. In a larger sense, the "final settlement" demanded by God's grace and justice will never be measured in dollars, but sometimes it is satisfying to know that money is involved: almost nothing slices through pious misdirection or sophistry like cold cash. But it's also true that cash doesn't cut deeply enough.

We're in a season of exposure for all sorts of betrayals, particularly sexual and psychological. With Paul Manafort in the news again, I ran into Maya Gurantz's article Kompromat: Or, Revelations from the Unpublished Portions of Andrea Manafort’s Hacked Texts. The author manages to be extremely pointed and amazingly merciful all at the same time in her dissection of multiple layers of betrayal ... not least, the theft of the raw material (the daughters' private texts) behind the article.

My biggest concern is when it's the church who betrays. There, too, we have plenty of new material coming into public view. Today, Pope Francis has opened a global leadership conference on abuse, challenging participants not to be content with "simple and predictable condemnations." Meanwhile, the Southern Baptist Convention is reeling from recent revelations published in two Texas newspapers, and powerful voices are calling for a new reckoning of the links between sexist theology and patterns of abuse.

Our own brush with the cost of betrayal -- that $4 million lawsuit -- had swift consequences for all of us on the Northwest Yearly Meeting program staff. An improved abuse policy meant that every program and field staff member, and every church staffer and ministry volunteer throughout the yearly meeting, had to comply with training and background-check requirements.

Somewhere else I mentioned the sadness I felt when I heard there had been harassment going on even in my earliest Friends community, Canadian Yearly Meeting. Later, in the 1990's, I was confronted by church-related betrayals in the first year of my administration at Friends United Meeting. I was asked to be part of an ad hoc group investigating charges of sexual harassment at a Friends school. Around the same time, one of the Mennonite periodicals (much to the consternation of some readers) directly addressed abuse by church leaders, and that gave us the idea of devoting the May 1994 issue of Quaker Life to that same topic among Friends. We mentioned the school case without naming the student whose experience of abuse was described; however, she wrote a letter to the editor, published in July. Her words could have been written yesterday:
Judy [the cover story's author] referred to three (pseudonymous) women, Alice, Bonnie, and Carol, who had been sexually perpetrated by Quakers or in Quaker organizations. The article was true and good. I know, because I am Alice. I was molested by the headmaster of a well known Friends school in the early 1960's. The devastating emotional impact of this has become apparent only in the last few years. I need good therapy but I can't afford it, so I contacted the school and asked if they could help. I didn't ask for much, I just wanted to be able to pay for weekly therapy for two years or so. I assumed that some fund had been set up because the episodes of sexual molestation, (not just mine) were known to the school's administration, faculty, and board of directors at the time. My request was met with silence and total denial of responsibility. I was devastated, re-traumatized.

Does anyone have any suggestions about what I should do? It seems that protection for the institution and the "pillar of the community" (the perpetrator) take much bigger precedence. If one is not part of the solution to help end sexual abuse and to help victims and instead protects the perpetrator, then one becomes part of the problem and thus a co-perpetrator. I wish Quaker Life well and thank you for addressing this widespread and terrible problem.
Later, when several cases hit close to home -- among Friends I knew personally, in our Indiana county -- I was at least a little better prepared. I remember being impressed by West Richmond Friends' approval in 1998 of a "bill of rights" compiled by Joshua Brown and given to every member and attender. Still, conversations with other denominational executives at gatherings such as the U.S. Church Leaders and American Bible Society meetings, reminded me constantly that perpetrators continued to wreck lives and churches. Lawsuits and insurance payouts gave these (mostly) men some solid incentive to come up with "policies" ... but we never seemed to go deeper to ask whether the roots of these problems were in our theology -- particularly our theology of leadership.

Last weekend we attended a quarterly gathering of our new Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends. As part of the business agenda, we worked through a draft abuse prevention policy. We also reviewed and approved a policy to deal with comments on candidates for being recorded as Friends ministers. This was not jolly work; we began the discussions of these policies with silent worship to acknowledge the betrayals that made these kinds of policies imperative.

As we went slowly through the abuse prevention document, trying to identify unintended loopholes and other potential problems, I reflected that this was a very different kind of devotional exercise. It wasn't pious in any conventional sense, but it was the work of building faithfulness. That's why I said at one point, "I'm daring to believe that we're starting to build a trustworthy church."

Interestingly, the majority of our pastors are women. The sample is very small (five churches so far, and our male leadership minority really seems beyond reproach!), so I am not asserting anything definitively, but I'm simply going to suggest gently that some underlying theological influences might be working in our favor.

In part two, I'll look at some of the information I've started to glean from last December's survey.

Diana Butler Bass tweets about sin and shame.

This list of articles by Myriam Renaud includes three interesting pieces on the political behavior of white American evangelicals.

Clint Schnekloth: All activism is pastoral ministry. (How protesting and hospital visitation are similar.)

This evening, a Falcon 9 rocket sent an Israeli moon lander on its way, and Japan's Hayabusa 2 operated its impact collector on asteroid Ryugu. A lot for one day! David Brin reviews our recent space milestones.

While we're at it ... Ultima Thule has an unexpected flattened shape.

Larkin Poe, "Trouble in Mind."

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!