19 May 2022

The blogging rules I usually break

Finsbury Circus Gardens ... a nice place to take a break while blogging.

On Saturday, two days from now, I'll be one of the three bloggers participating in a panel that is part of the annual meeting program of QUIP—Quakers Uniting in Publications. The panel will be hosted by Natasha Zhuravenkova of Moscow Friends Meeting (and on the staff of Friends House Moscow). The other panelists will be Robin Mohr of Friends World Committee for Consultation, and Nancy Thomas, poet, theologian, and historian.

The most important part of the "Friendly Blogging" panel presentation, from my point of view, is what you and other participants might want to ask us or advise us. We have some starting points for our contributions, as shown on the programwhat are the joys, sorrows, motivations, and effects of blogging? How to keep a blog engaging, revealing and safe for years to come. In correspondence, Natasha also asked us a question which I find particularly chewy: How can an introvert be a blogger?

One question that Natasha kindly did not ask was "What blogging rules do you usually break?" I wish I had put that question in my readers' survey! (More about the survey below.) In any case, I have my own somewhat sheepish list....

Old templates (2004, 2007).
  • My posts are too long. According to blogging wisdom, this very post is about to exceed the advised limit!
  • I don't consistently focus on one theme or niche. What does Quaker theology have to do with Russian politics or blues?
  • I don't pay enough attention to design elements. Not enough photos, bullet points, or other elements of visual interest. It has been about twelve years since I even changed the template!
  • One list of blogging rules says Get personal! That's easier said than done, especially in the tiny Quaker world where what I say about myself and my experience may affect directly implicate others. However, I confess that I love reading other people's personal stories, so I do push myself from time to time. And, thank God, Judy is a great storyteller. No wonder her guest posts consistently outrank almost all of mine!
  • I don't plan ahead. Most of my work writing a blog post happens on the Thursday of publication, which means that I rarely allow myself enough time, for example, to ask permission of others to quote them. As a result, a lot of good material doesn't make it into my posts. (But they're already too long....) And I spend 90% of my blogging day fact-checking, and searching (usually in vain) for the perfect visual elements for the post, and 10% actually writing.

Despite all these defects, you are here! Believe me, I'm grateful.

This is a good moment to report back on the readers' survey I mentioned above. I got 21 responses, which is too few to make statistically valid generalizations. However, many of those 21 came with fascinating and instructive feedback, so here goes:

Here's the full survey (unfortunately, some answers are clipped short in this format, but you can usually guess the missing bits, and many are quoted in full below)....

Among the open-end responses, I particularly appreciated these:

The themes and topics of most interest to you are: (check as many or as few as you want)

  • There's nothing I would omit as long as you trust your Light about what to post
  • Any topics you touch upon.
  • All of it.

My comment: Take that, you one-theme blog experts! (I seriously cherish the implied trust.)

In the future, I should ... (A question about whether the blog should continue. This is post number 974 today, so I'm tempted to ask, "Would a thousand total be a good number to retire on, God willing?")

  • Trust your Light. If you need to lay it down, lay it down. If you want to publish individual sections as their own posts on an irregular schedule and maybe think about a keyword schema....
  • How are you led?  I'll read most of what you blog on and all that you tweet in English.
  • Do you want release?

I'm also curious about these points....

  • The posts are exactly as long as they need to be, and you should continue to share your musings without concern about heresy!
  • Too much policy :))) I prefer you to be a speaker of Christianity, which is too far from policy, sorry
  • Not enough heresy., Ha ha, just kidding
  • Sometimes I love the thematic range that you work into a whole post. Sometimes I wish for pieces that stand alone. 

My comment: That last point mirrors a process that sometimes happens when I write: At some point I realize that the post has grown beyond itself, so to speak. I then face a question: do I edit it into more than one post, even though the same impulse drove the whole thing, or do I swallow my doubts and keep it all in one? Sometimes I answer one way, sometimes the other. Thanks for the perceptive observation.

How many blogs do you read? (Most respondents chose from the ranges in the survey, but some added comments.)

  • There are too many wonderful things to read and too little time. I click on a link when I see it and have time to read.
  • I basically don't follow blogs.
  • I read a mishmash of blogs, twitter, and email lists so I have no idea what would be helpful here

You wish I would ...

  • ...better explain the reasons you choose to be a Quaker - for those who does not. But maybe I missed these post or they were published a long ago?
  • Write more about Q universalism & /or non-theism
  • See my comments above. [Trust your Light....] Do you have an anchor committee? Sometimes the process of how Quakers support ministry interests me and occasional reports on how this works for you might be of interest to others.
  • I look forward to your blog each week. You are truly looking at injustice with Christian eyes instead of faux-Christian words that are really political. Giving a Russian perspective helps with a vision of greater breadth. I like both yours and Judy’s personal stories. I know it is a lot for you but you are providing a needed service.
  • Become Quaker Dictator For Life...   but...  it's clear you're never going to... so I had to let go of that...

My comment: That first observation, that I should do a better job of explaining why I choose to be a Quaker, is just. I probably said something about that in these past 18 years, but now I think I need to do a fresh job. Thanks very much for the idea! To be continued....

Beethoven 7.2, "a prayer meeting in A minor."

2,000 years ago in the midst of the brutal Roman occupation of their homeland and the violent Zionist uprising, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth asked him how to pray. He responded with the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer of gratitude, devotion and forgiveness, a response to the turmoil of his time.

200 years ago Ludwig van Beethoven responded to the defeat of Napoleon and his oppressive domination of Europe with the completion of his 7th symphony in 1811. Most of the 7th Symphony evokes a jubilant celebration with “dancing” rhythms and melodies. The second movement, the Allegretto, is more metaphysical and prayerful. At the premiere performance in 1813 the audience demanded that the Allegretto movement be encored immediately, and it has remained internationally popular ever since. 

This piece was conceived, written and recorded as a prayerful response to our trying times. 

John C Peterson MD (Doc)...physician, composer, arranger, performer (all instruments), co-producer; Nick Melander...digital consultant; engineer, co-producer; Cynda Williams...actress, vocalist, soprano vocals; Amanda Hummer...actress, vocalist. alto vocals; Kyle Ivy...percussionist, vocalist, tenor vocals; Craig Priebe...retired vocal music professor, bass and baritone vocals.

How politics poisoned the evangelical church: the very opposite of disinterested journalism, and the more powerful for it. I would love to believe our Quaker churches are immune from this poison, but I doubt it. Even if we all fell on the (to my mind) healthier side of this divide, do we just accept this alienation from our brothers and sisters? Do we fall victim to yet another brand of elitism? Even so, I get very weary of dealing with still another way of completely misrepresenting the Gospel!! The recent tragedy in Buffalo shows us the stakes.

Roger E. Olson remembers a different era.

Abu Aram v Ministry of Defence: another case of Israel v international law, another lamentable loss for law and for justice.

Taj Mahal and another amazing transcontinental band (and just count the islands) in Playing for Change's version of "Queen Bee" ...

12 May 2022

Ukraine and the dilemmas of pacifism

"Peace to Ukraine," Eddie Lobanovskiy, source.

The urge to do something—anything—to stop the horrifying violence unfolding in Ukraine is deeply understandable. But this is the point where someone should be pausing to ask—is this deluge of arms [to be purchased with the money in the U.S. President's proposed emergency spending bill] going to result in the peace the Ukrainian people need and deserve?

It often feels like engaging militarily is the only way to end conflict. But if we have learned anything from the last 20 years of the war on terror, it’s that military gains are short-lived and exact a high human, financial, and moral cost.

The path we’re on brings us dangerously closer to nuclear war and global annihilation. We must do everything we can to help the parties agree to a ceasefire and lay the groundwork for enduring peace.

— "Investing in a Durable Peace in Ukraine," Jessie Palatucci, Friends Committee on National Legislation, April 29, 2022.

A Christian, as Friends have understood the word, is someone who elects now to live as though the world were Christian. He [sic] will remain a committed person though the heavens fall, because his inward condition demands it of him. He ardently hopes to end wara political changebut he would continue a pacifist though certain his efforts would never bear any fruit at all. The purely secular pacifist, if such a creature exist, starts by being concerned with consequences. He is a pacifist because he wants to end war. His motivation is pragmatic, teleological, and political.

What happens when an act of faith is turned into a political creed? Secular pacifist ideology, so far as it is secular, cannot demand that its adherents remain faithful regardless of whether it works. So the ideologues of pacifism are obliged to figure out a methodology which they can say will probably work, or at least work better in the long run than any other method of social change.

— R. W. Tucker, "Revolutionary Faithfulness," Quaker Religious Thought, Vol. IX, No. 2, Winter 1967-68.

In any apparent war of aggression, a purely secular pacifist, "if such a creature exist," is confronted by an excruciating dilemma. In the present war in Ukraine, this observer should certainly be extremely uneasy about the lethal arms flooding into Ukraine to destroy Russian invasion forces and take back the territory that those forces now occupy, alongside an economic boycott that will certainly hurt the ordinary citizens of the aggressor nation more than its elites.

But the opposite response to the aggression is equally repellent: the spectacle of a country being abandoned by all its late friends and left to be diced and quartered, even to die on the field of battle, while the rest of the world continues to help fund the aggression through all the routine ties of trade that have enriched global elites on all sides of the conflict—while allowing, of course, politicians and church leaders to bemoan the aggression and call for ceasefires.

Depending on this observer's political orientation, he or she might be tempted to abandon pacifism, pointing out that there is absolutely no hope that placating Vladimir Putin, giving him concessions so that he might be nicer to Ukraine, will result in peace. It might be better to support the Ukrainians with weapons as a middle way that is less likely to result in global war than actually fighting alongside the Ukrainian military.

Or he or she might say that we Americans (for example) have invaded any number of countries ourselves, so what basis do we have to criticize Russia, which just wants to ensure safety from NATO's dubious agendas? So sad to see all those awful scenes from Ukraine, but maybe they're fake.

But let's say you and I have put all our eggs into the Jesus basket. Abandoning nonviolence is simply not an option. What can we say that is different from the calculations of our peace-loving friends and neighbors who are casting about for political solutions and compromises when evidence suggests that the aggressor is completely uninterested in what we think of him?

Here are a few thoughts. I hope that you will be able to add some of your own.

  • First, let's keep our capacity for clean and honest analysis. Am I right to assert that Vladimir Putin has voluntarily engaged in a war based on a theory of Ukraine's illegitimate existence as a Leninist invention? Do nations have the right to secure, peremptorily and violently, the civil rights of people in other countries who happen to speak the same language? Are Nazis a significant presence in Ukraine, or are they not?? Can I make these analyses without resorting to whataboutism concerning the sins of my own country, and deal honestly with those sins on a separate occasion? Live not by lies.
  • Second, let's reject the fantasy that our benign influence will make authoritarians nicer. On the other hand, it is not helpful to demonize them, as evil as their actions might be. They, and we, are all made in the image and likeness of God, but they (and we) are also caught up in worldly systems, some of whom include long-standing patterns of cruelty and bondage. Participation in the Lamb's War includes working together to discern those worldly systems and patterns, and confront them rather than objectifying those trapped in them.
  • Third, how can we use our spiritual gifts to "get in the Way" (referring to an early Christian Peacemaker Teams slogan) in our prayer lives, in nonviolent confrontations with authoritarian forces, in forming teams to be physically present in conflict zones (or paying and praying for those who do so), in not paying taxes for military purposes, in supporting politicians whose policies we like, or in running for office ourselves? The possible variations are as numerous as the numbers of spiritual gifts. 
  • Fourth, let's grow our capacity to love the community that organizes around these responses, and ask God to help us direct our love even to those whom we've so far been unable to reach. In every war, this expansion of our capacity to love may be the hardest work of all, and the most urgent. Of all the Quaker testimonies, the testimony of evangelism continues to be top priority: to evangelize the secular world that still puts blind faith in violence, by communicating the love and mercy of the Creator as we have experienced it.
  • Fifth, let's do all we can to encourage the prophets and peacemakers in the conflict areas, and to sabotage the forces and technologies that seek to isolate them. For me, this particularly means staying in touch with the many people we got to know in Russia during our years there. Some have left, but most are still there. I'm careful not to endanger them by sending content that might expose them to danger; I let them take the lead in what to say or not to say. Some, but not all, of my channels are Christian—some specifically Quaker, and some Russian Orthodox and Baptist—and they include people who have raised up the banner of peace in amazing ways despite all the hazards. The doors seem closed to travel there myself at the moment, but I'm watching and waiting.

I'm struck by how often we Western idealists have good ideas about how others should conduct themselves. Our politicians should or shouldn't send weapons to Ukraine, for example; our oil companies should stop opening new oil wells. We often neglect to ask what we are doing to create or support good choices or diminish the market for bad choices. This is not to minimize the importance of holding authorities accountable, but we ought to hold ourselves accountable, too, and to recognize when our complicity weakens our case.

I don't consider myself qualified to say what the Pentagon or NATO "should" do to end the bloodshed in Ukraine. All their apparent choices look awful. I think I know what the Kremlin should do ... but in any case I am not content with the choices that imperial power politicians offer. I want to learn what God wants me to do, and I'd love to know how you are feeling led. And ... I want to know what might happen when all our meetings and churches, together, ask what God wants us to say and do in the face of war.

Related posts: The fog of war, part two: face to face with the curse; The beautiful Russia of the future.

And here's an article on the Pope's reaction to Patriarch Kirill's defense of the Russian invasion. "I listened [to Kirill's list of points in defense of the invasion] and then told him: I don’t understand anything about this," Francis said. "Brother, we are not state clerics, we cannot use the language of politics but that of Jesus. We are pastors of the same holy people of God. Because of this, we must seek avenues of peace, to put an end to the firing of weapons."

A dialogue in Friends Journal:

Bryan Garman, "The Peace Testimony and Ukraine."

David Hadley Finke, "The Spirit of Christ and our Historic Peace Testimony."

(PS: "... When war's on the horizon, are the Savior's words less true?")

Here's the Guardian article that provoked my comment on oil companies not opening new oil wells. Among other things, the article describes the "carbon bombs"—huge projects already underway or on the drawing board that would destroy our chances of staying under the 1.5 degrees C climate goal. It's an important article, but it focuses mostly on the greed of corporations and hypocrisy of governments. I would love equally dramatic coverage of citizens' lack of concern about where they get their energy. The energy companies would not have these dramatic expansion plans if they didn't think they could sell their product at a profitable price. What can we do to shift consumers' mentalities?—prepare to pay the true price of your (my) energy, and support rapid conversion to more sustainable energy sources.

Bill Yoder on evangelicals in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

An interview with Alexei Yurchak: "It's impossible for the system not to change." Yurchak is the author of the highly-recommended book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation.

The latest update from Rights in Russia.

A sermon at Spokane Friends Meeting in Washington state, USA: John Kinney gives a superb, simple explanation of substitutionary atonement theology and its defects. (By the way, I usually speak at Spokane Meeting on fourth Sundays of the month.)

At the far end of a missionary's one-way ticket: Something new is being built.

Big Daddy Wilson at the Bluesmoose Cafe in the Netherlands. "I Heard the Angels Singing."

05 May 2022

Abortion and the cost of rhetoric (repost) ... and goodbye to the Atlantic for now.

In the straits of Gibraltar ... lights of the North African coast are discernible off starboard side of ship.
First port after Atlantic crossing: Málaga, Spain. This evening I'm writing from Madrid.

I first published this post, Abortion and the cost of rhetoric, back at the time of the first round of intentionally provocative anti-abortion legislation in several states. It may be coming to pass that more recent state legislation is now making those legislators' dreams come true, as at least part of the U.S. Supreme Court appears to be drooling over the political bait represented by those new laws.

The preamble of the original post seems out of date, but my personal struggle with the issue itself has not changed, so it seems worth posting my arguments again. For me, the whole thing is made more pointed by the fact that so many people with whom I usually agree seem to be eager to find political gold in the draft Supreme Court opinion that is drawing so much attention. And I agree that it is urgent to find anything that serves as genuine warning of the authoritarian, white-nationalist future that awaits us if the Supreme Court becomes totally politicized. I just don't like the convenient assumption that being anti-abortion automatically correlates with support for that dismal future.

Here's most of that original post:

For much of my adult life, I've been in the perverse position of opposing abortion while at the same time opposing most anti-abortion rhetoric. Right now, as the controversy swirls around the Alabama law and similar attempts elsewhere, there are three reckless inconsistencies that gnaw at me:

First: the new "heartbeat laws" are far more extreme than most anti-abortion advocates have advanced in the past. The new laws seem to represent a calculated tactic: their dramatic clash with the relatively moderate U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision would (they hope) inevitably lead to a chance to reverse it. According to polls, even Americans who oppose abortion still wish to reserve that option for rape and incest cases, but in Alabama's case, the law could punish abortion providers more severely than rapists....

In any case, tactical extremism just adds to the impression that brass-knuckle politics will, once again, make dialogue all but impossible. It makes me see double: are the bill's supporters being truly idealistic in their maximalist stance, or are they cynically exaggerating their true positions for a political gain?

Second: while both pro-choice and anti-abortion advocates count many women among their participants, a large percentage of anti-abortion legislators are men. For example, every Alabama state senator who voted for their new law was male; the state's four women senators opposed the bill. It seems beyond strange that so much veto power over women's health decisions is still exercised by men -- and those men seem, as a group, to be unembarrassed by this discrepancy and unenthusiastic about working for a more representative politics.

Third: both sides exploit the Bible. This is also an old story -- abortion opponents have one way of looking at Scripture; pro-choice advocates have another. The cost of this proof-texting approach: the secular observer concludes, in the words of the ancient cliche, "You can make the Bible say whatever you want." The "orthodox" and "progressives" of James Davison Hunter, or George Lakoff's "strict fathers" and "nurturant parents" -- all can find what they pragmatically need in the Bible to bash opponents and thereby gratify their main audiences.

The actual Bible is achingly ambiguous about the "sanctity" of life. My serious summary: life is precious, except when it isn't. Babies are precious, except when they're not. My opposition to abortion is not based on any specific Bible verse, but on the whole tradition that is summed up by the "consistent life ethic" -- which opposes abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, militarism, social and economic injustice, violence in all its devious and addictive forms. Are there other traditions of biblical interpretation? Yes, of course. Can I prove that the "consistent life" interpretation is more correct? No! Does it even command the respect of most Christians? I doubt it.

However, for me there's a persuasive consistency of this "seamless garment" approach to following the Prince of Peace. It's internally consistent: the unborn life is important, but its survival is no more guaranteed than that of the life that has emerged into the world. Just as we ask for sacrifices and communal responses in situations where conception was unanticipated, we ask for sacrificial and communal responses to injustice. We ought to be just as diligent in caring for the born as for the unborn, knowing that all our outward fortunes are uncertain, all of us require care and mercy. It's consistent with the loving kindness and mercy of the God of the Bible. And, just as Jesus and Paul demand, it rejects the hypocrisy of forms for the countercultural reality of the Good News.

This persuasive consistency, I think, would go a long way toward subverting the rigid categories of anti-abortion and pro-choice campaign mentalities. As a first practical step of mercy, we could gain the capacity to describe those we disagree with in terms that they themselves would recognize. (See Katelyn Beaty's "The Abortion Conversation Needs New Language.") And while we slowly build friendships around the complex shared challenge of reducing abortions, we may also find new allies for those other consistent life challenges: injustice, militarism, and all other threats to life.

Some time after this original post, I wondered whether women were not considered capable of making their own ethical decisions. Does your morality measure up?

Forgive yet another male evangelical writer weighing in on abortion, but Chris Gehrz's ability to keep the real-life complexity of the concern front and center, and be skeptical about quick legal fixes, is very welcome.

Quakers Uniting in Publications (QUIP) hold their annual meeting in three online sessions, starting in two days: Saturday, May 7. The schedule is here; the registration form is here. I will be part of a panel of bloggers on the third day of the meeting, May 21.

Nina Belyaeva, a legislator on Semiluk District Council, Voronezh region, Russia, may be the first person investigated for opposition to Russia's war on Ukraine on religious grounds.

Nancy Thomas on old romance: The trees talk...

Kim Wilson, Kid Andersen, and a great band: "High and Lonesome."

28 April 2022

The Quaker high-wire act (and the Atlantic Ocean again)

Wonder of the Seas: our position this morning.

Still on the open ocean. What a difference a week makes, at average speed of about 20 knots. The zigzag in our course was the result of responding to a medical emergency yesteerday, during which a Portuguese helicopter airlifted a passenger to a hospital on land. We will be approaching Gibraltar in about 32 hours.

Years ago, at the All-Kentucky Gathering of Friends, I remember being asked how I, an apparently intelligent person, could call myself a Christian. (I mentioned this incident in a post entitled Risk and resurrection.) I was a staff member of Friends World Committee for Consultation at the time, and my service included two contrasting expectations: courteous and empathetic outreach to the full spectrum of Quakers I met in the course of my travels, and honest expression of my own testimony. In those days, most corners of my Quaker world either strongly identified as Christian, or were places in which Christians were a (sometimes defensive) minority.

My current spiritual home is Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends, though I also continue to be a member of Moscow Meeting in Russia. SCYMF and my home meeting, Camas Friends Church, describe their values as Christ-centered, Quaker, and welcoming all sexual identities on an equal basis. There are probably many in the Christian world that would see tensions within that set of values, but many of us say that they are mutually reinforcing.

One of our challenges as a young yearly meeting is, as I see it (and I have no official voice!), to balance two qualities: solidity without false certainty.

By "solidity" I mean a continuity of vision and purpose, a trustworthy teaching voice, and the stability needed for a Christian community to go beyond existence today as congenial affinity group, but instead also to be a place where people are born and die, come to faith, become leaders by a transparent process according to their gifts (without irrelevant criteria getting in the way), and wish the best for each other even in conflict. "Solidity" as a Quaker group means to me to be grounded in the essential Quaker agenda: "What does God want to say and do through us?"

Here's the high-wire act: doing all this without resorting to false certainty. I have my own sense of security in my experience as a disciple of Jesus -- 48 years of counting on the trustworthiness of Jesus, and recognizing that the Quaker testimonies match my experience of the signs and wonders empowered by the Holy Spirit. However, my understanding is not, and cannot be, any organization's official template. My influence on others is completely dependent on my own trustworthiness and the integrity of my relationships with others, and even that does not guarantee any particular outcome of our conversations. Change is possible in either direction, but not because we are trying to fit into an external mold.

To tell the truth, there is no corner of Christianity where "certainty" truly guarantees anything other than a motivation to conform and be accepted. In more authoritarian circles, people who are feeling a need to "deconstruct" their faith either have to hide or leave. (Tell me if I'm wrong about any particular group; I'd be glad to hear their story.) I hope that Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting and Camas Friends Church are places where people who can no longer accept their earlier certainties know that they will be given just as much love and support during this process as they were and will be in seasons of greater confidence.

I find much value in doctrines as important attempts to express urgent spiritual insights and make them public and communicable. To the extent that we Quakers have doctrines, such as those expressed by Robert Barclay and other gifted Quaker theologians, I think that these expressions should be considered and meditated upon by anyone wanting to know about our community and its history. But let's be honest -- there is probably no Friends meeting or church that exactly conforms to those doctrines, and that is not surprising. Practically nobody comes to faith along the same paths as those early Friends. Their faithfulness -- evidenced in the staying power of the movement they began -- earns them the right to be taken seriously, but not to be followed uncritically.

Some Christians see the Bible as a guarantor of right doctrine. The Bible is a unique testimony to God's relationship to Creation and to all of God's creatures, but the Bible itself neither has nor claims to have any magical ability to provide its own interpretive keys. As soon as someone insists on providing and imposing such a key, we have another example of false certainty.

People of faith are always on a high wire. There's no aspect of faith that doesn't involve the risk that our prayerful discernment, necessary as it is, might be in error. What I love about Camas Friends, our yearly meeting, and similar trustworthy Christian communities is that, if I fall, my friends will catch me in our net. And at another time and place, I will return the favor.

Somewhat to my surprise, I've not written anything about Ukraine today. The war is still what I'm thinking and praying about more than anything else. I was glad that the rather thin Internet service on this ship made it possible to join the Tuesday meetings for worship with a concern for Ukraine, under the care of Friends World Committee's European and Middle East Section.

Thinking about Jesus in the shadow of the Russian Easter offensive: Is death the point?

Russia's fascist "background noise" (a look back eight years ago).

David Hadley Fink: the Quaker peace testimony has never been rescinded....

I need some blues dessert. Nothing less than high-voltage Albert Collins will do.

21 April 2022

Anger, healing, and the Atlantic Ocean

Eighteen hours after departing Fort Lauderdale, our transatlantic voyage has just begun. We're out in the open ocean. We reach our first European port in nine days.

Though this voyage is marketed as a cruise, my personal conceit is that I've booked a normal transatlantic passage by ship, the way my family always traveled from Europe to the USA and back during all my childhood and teenage years. I remember the troopship that first brought me from Germany to the USA; the Statendam (twice); the United States; the France. More recently, Judy and I traveled by sea to Japan, arriving there the same way my mother's parents came to their new home in Japan in 1905.

In earlier times our ship's position was marked by pins on a map prominently posted near the purser's office. Now each stateroom is equipped with a huge monitor that can show our exact position from minute to minute.

This ship, Wonder of the Seas, is supposedly the world's largest cruise ship, but somehow its owners left out something that no ship I've ever been on lacked: a library. In fact there is no location anywhere on the ship specifically set aside for reading or writing, not even a computer room. Words fail me, literally.

Capt. Knut Maurer, M.S. Meteor.

What the ship does have, and my soul needs, is the constant sight and sound and motion of the ocean. I'm sure this necessity was programmed into me by my ancestry on both sides of my family. As we make our way through the waves and whitecaps, I'm remembering my father's father, Captain Knut Maurer (Bergen Line), his brother-in-law Captain Martin Jensen (Wilhelmsen Line) and my father, who spent a term on the school ship Christian Radich.

I'm thankful for the healing power of these elemental sensations as I realize how tiny I am -- how tiny even this ship is -- compared to the ocean surrounding us on all sides. As my body relaxes in response, I realize with something of a shock: for the last eight weeks I have been in a state of constant anger and grief.

Not that I have now made my peace with the Russian government's war on Ukraine. My retreat to the ocean does not reduce the agony of this war by the tiniest degree. Nor are we passengers isolated from the world; television and Internet are available aboard the ship just as if we were on land. This retreat does not reduce my need and desire to pray for peace, and to stay in contact with those among our old friends and contacts in Russia who are themselves trying to come to terms with what's happening.

One friend deviates, somewhat, from the pattern. Here's what she wrote:

Right now in the mass media there is a lot being said about how Russia is the aggressor, the invader. But what is happening now was bound to happen. In the western part of Ukraine they have never loved Russians. My husband and I were there for the first time twenty years ago. And when we were on the train, traveling on our way there, they warned us, don't go to places at night where there are not a lot of other people, and don't speak Russian. And when you go to the store, be prepared to find that, when you speak Russian, you are not served.... [Her ellipsis.] The soil was already prepared for the growth of conflict. And what is happening is a sign of the times.

The most recent survey showed that 83% of Russia's population supports Putin's actions. They don't speak about this in the West, where he is portrayed as a tyrant.

Contrast this with the friends who write to me along these lines (quoting one of them): "I am already tired of arguing with them [Putin supporters] because it's absolutely useless.... I have never felt before like I feel now, no hopes for a better future, no power to survive."

The samples are small, but my own observations are in accord with this video sampling of reactions to the Bucha revelations (from a U.S. government-funded outlet):

In this video, the generational differences are pretty much what we observe among the people we know personally.

And here's a more recent sampling concerning reactions to Russia's battlefield experiences:

Given all this reality (and also given the actual agony playing out in hundreds of locations in Ukraine this very day!), what use is my anger? I don't blame myself for it -- after all, wouldn't it be worse to feel no anger at all?? -- but at some point it numbs my ability to pray and discern; it just burns me out to no purpose.

And what is my purpose? The Quaker in me answers that it is the same purpose we always have as a community: to ask what God wants to say and do through us in this time and place.

Alfred McCoy on how Russia can be made to pay for rubbishing Ukraine.

Putin as hero for USA's evangelicals? Maybe not so much anymore.

Rethinking the Russian Orthodox reunification of 2007: was it accomplished under false pretenses?

Nancy Thomas on still being two years old.

From Russia's Bridges Blues Festival: The Jumping Cats.

14 April 2022

Collateral damage, part four: Easter 2022

Cover design (original edition) by Kathie McKenna.
PDF edition (2010) available here
Jesus Meets the Daughters of Jerusalem. Source.

His eye is on the collateral damage.

Part two: Noah and the flood.

Part three: shock and awe in Ezekiel.

We're on the eve of Good Friday (Western calendar). I know I ought to be able to say, with Tony Campolo's pastor, "It's Friday, but Sunday's coming," but, my God, this "Good" Friday has been dragging on in a certain region of the world that is especially precious to me, for seven bloody weeks.

And at the moment we cannot even count the bodies of the Ukrainians who have died—who would have been alive today were it not for the genocidal vision of V.V. Putin—and we cannot yet count the bodies of the bewildered young Russian soldiers he sent to their deaths.

Some say that Putin's war will grind on at least until May 9, Victory Day in Russia, the holiday that represents the climax of the civil religion that has formed around the USSR's victory over Nazi Germany. If he can find some reason by that date to claim victory in Ukraine, maybe that will allow at least a temporary pause in his campaign.

But the calendar requires one thing: to get to May 9, you have to pass through Good Friday and Easter. You have to see how the powers and principalities rejected the way of peace, mocked the Son of God and hustled him off to execution, and assumed they had done the right thing. On Easter Sunday, God had the last word. Now in the carnage of this year's Holy Week, we want to see how God will have the last word once again.

Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, author of the devotional booklet I use every year during Holy Week, once said that "History is a butcher's block." Watching and grieving this current episode of butchery, we feel shocked, but not surprised. The Bible, too, contains such episodes of mass mayhem, which is what got me thinking about God's collateral damage. "Oh, Mary, don't you weep" because Pharaoh's army drowned, whether or not they deserved that fate as individual humans. Jeremiah tells us that "a voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more." (Here we have kidnapping as well as killing ... just as is alleged in eastern Ukraine.) Were Noah and his family literally the only righteous people left on the face of the earth? (In my post on that story, I note that Noah wasn't always a pillar of righteousness.)

I have found it hard to reconcile these awful scenes with the God who has been so merciful to me. That's why I proposed several different ways to understand them:

  1. These people's sufferings were inconsequential to God in comparison to the value of teaching the rest of us a lesson.
  2. God's biblical chroniclers did not understand God well enough at that point in history to record God's provisions of care to those whose death appears cruel to us.
  3. These incidents did not happen exactly as they're depicted in the Bible; in reality, no innocent people suffered just for the sake of shock and awe.

This is a defective list: I only considered these alternatives in terms of God's intention in causing or permitting the death of innocents "just for the sake of shock and awe." These deaths often resulted from evil decisions by those in power, or by societies refusing to put God at the center. It was not God who sent Pharaoh's army to chase the escaping Israelites, it was Pharaoh. It was not God who decreed the death of young boys after Jesus' birth, it was Herod. Even when those in power claim God's license (Moses condemning the Korahites, including "wives, children, and little ones," all miraculously swallowed up by the earth), we can see the primordial pattern of a leader confronted with rebellion: death to the rebels! Does God really have no other option?

The role of arrogant leadership is not a neat little key that solves biblical mysteries of the death of innocents. Why did God not rescue Jephthah's daughter as God rescued Abraham's son Isaac? Did the boys who taunted Elisha really deserve their gruesome death penalty? However the biblical writers may have understood God's role in such tragedies, there is a common thread that runs through many of them: whenever we humans lose our connection with our Creator, cruelty and mayhem soon ensue. The crucial mission of Jesus and his disciples: restore that connection.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord." [Matthew 23:37-39; context.]

Chances are, our tears will still be flowing on Easter 2022. Still, I believe that many of us will be able to look through our tears at the new dawn and say, "Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord," the One who strengthens us to say NO! to the principalities and powers; the One who helps us overcome the lies and cynicism of our age, and restores our fragile ability to hope.

Daniel Treisman's brief primer on Putin's war.

Viewed purely in foreign policy terms, Putin’s invasion makes little sense. There was no prospect of Ukraine joining NATO anytime soon, and Putin could have achieved some of his other objectives, such as securing independence for the self-declared Donbas republics, with a far more limited and less costly intervention. Even if the Russian army were more effective, it would still lack the troops to occupy and subdue a country of more than 40 million people. Poorly planned and with no clear endgame, the whole operation seems almost nihilistic in its violent riskiness.

Seen in light of Putin’s evolving style of rule at home, however, the assault on Ukraine fits into an emerging pattern—one that features anti-Western nationalism; angry, self-justifying speeches; and increasingly open uses of force. Starting about four years ago, and even more insistently since the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has been reshaping the system through which he exercises political power.

This war is tearing apart the Russian-speaking Jewish world. (Thanks to Stu Willcuts for the link.)

Until this war, the cultural differences between the Russian and Ukrainian Jewish diasporas were blurred in many networks of Russian-speaking Jewry in the West. Jews from the FSU have historically identified with the Russian language as a key marker of their identity, and most still do.

Marc Chagall was not painting just any Ukrainian family...

Becky Ankeny on the burden of our sin.

This newest war--replete with cold-blooded torture and killing and desecration and thorough destruction--as all wars are--the rape of one nation by another: where is Jesus in this?

Surely he carries both Russians and Ukrainians, their deeds of loyalty and caprice, their sins of commission and omission. How can anyone in a war obey the two greatest commandments--to love God more than country or anything else, to love the other as oneself.

Jesus shoulders our burdens of sin--our betrayals like that of Judas, our perfidious committees like the cabal of Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians, our workmanlike cruelties like that of the Romans--he bears them from the very beginning to the moment of now.

Blues from Ukraine: "Sad Hours" (Little Walter), played by Konstantin Kolesnichenko with this backing track.