24 May 2018

When grief just won't come

Brothers, Oregon (elevation 4,640 feet)

As envy goes, it's not a bad thing -- the sympathy and even admiration I feel for my friends when they're grieving their parents and, in recalling the years gone by, crediting those parents with setting them on the right path. Sometimes as I read or hear these stories, I get a funny sort of reverse nostalgia, imagining what it would have been like to have parents like that.

My actual story is somewhat different: my parents were alcoholics, racists, and occasionally violent -- to the dishes and furniture, to each other, and to the children. As they neared their respective deaths, their paths diverged dramatically: my father Harald became a Christian (Eastern Orthodox, thanks to the influence of a wonderful Greek chaplain at the VA hospital in Waukegan, Illinois). Harald became more open to sharing about his own life and regrets, before, sadly, he lost the ability to speak a few weeks before he died in 1995. I still think of questions I wish I'd asked him, but at least we made a start. In my imagination, I can bring some of his favorite growing-up stories to life ... like the homemade rockets he launched at his school in Nazi-occupied Oslo.

My mother Erika, on the other hand, did not like answering questions about her growing-up years in Japan. I vividly remember my very last visit with her, at the nursing home where she eventually died in 2007. I realized that this was maybe my last chance to know her and be known by her. She received me cordially, but turned away all my questions about Japan and the war, and after ten minutes dismissed me.

The few glimpses I had into her earlier life usually came during our parents' truly epic knock-down arguments. One memorable theme of several fights concerned which of them had seen more death and cruelty during the war. My mother held the trump cards ... her city had been bombed heavily by the U.S., and she also told about witnessing the flash of Hiroshima from her train seat on that awful morning of August 6, 1945. On the other hand, I was never sure how much to believe of her stories, because some of her claims simply seemed fantastic. Did she really go to Indira Gandhi's birthday party? Was her wartime community really supplied by German submarines, and did she actually have a teenage romance with a submarine captain? Why wasn't her family evacuated to rural locations, as the Japanese government required of many other Germans during those years?

Most of all, I wanted to know what influences formed her militant racism, atheism, and antisemitism, and why we children were not allowed to talk about sickness and death in her presence, or about religion. Any of these topics could provoke her into rage. It was only in my adult years that I began to realize that mental health was part of this picture, but by then I seemed to have lost any chance of forming a mature relationship with her.

My parents bookend a family shapshot from around 1960.
Larimer Park, Evanston, Illinois, USA.
My parents eventually evicted me from home, a few days before my high school graduation. During the stormy years before that ultimate nightmarish incident, I have to admit to some coping mechanisms of my own that didn't contribute to relationship-building. I found that, when things got tense, one way to avoid becoming the target of parental rage was to set my parents against each other. I blush to think of the times I would form a tactical alliance with one of my parents against the other, only to switch sides pragmatically as needed. My father basically survived through passivity ("preserving the family peace"), so at one moment I could sympathize with him and the trials of being married to such a volatile person, but when my mother complained about her passive husband, I might find myself seeming to take her side! On one of the rare occasions when I confronted both of them simultaneously -- that's the very event that resulted in my literally being put out on the street.

When my father died, my mother was adamantly opposed to holding a funeral. Judy and I went to Waukegan as quickly as we could after hearing of my father's death. Upon arrival, we found that Erika had ordered mortician services by writing to a randomly chosen firm from the yellow pages. Yes, she wrote a paper letter instead of telephoning or visiting, which is how she (firm believer in her "master race" identity) unknowingly chose a black-owned business, whose proprietor could not conceal his puzzlement about our family when Judy and I stopped in to finalize the arrangements.

My Canadian cousin Axel Heyerdahl and I worked with the veterans' hospital chaplain, Father George, to put together a memorial service at the hospital with both Axel and George leading the service. My mother was not present. She didn't explain her opposition to having a service, but I remembered that, when my sister Ellen was murdered at age 14, there was also no service at all. I only knew where Ellen was buried because I accidentally came across the mortician's bill on my parents' desk. ($570 in 1970 dollars.)

When my mother died in 2007, she left no instructions. (In fact, I didn't even find out she died until several days later.) My sister and I arranged for a memorial service to be held at the nursing home where she died, and I led the service. I hope she would forgive me!

When my friends and relatives reminisce about their recently deceased parents, no matter how lovely and often funny their stories are, and no matter how much the stories explain the survivors' good qualities, those retellings are often seasoned with deep grief. I have this hollow feeling that I too should be feeling grief, but it hasn't happened yet. I sit here and try to detect even a vestige. So far, nothing.

However, there is progress of a sort. With the advantage of decades of counseling (both giving and receiving), classes in pastoral care, and conversations with others who've had similar biographies, I'm better able to think about the social contexts that formed and controlled my parents' choices. It used to irritate me almost beyond endurance when people said, "Your parents did the best they could." It never seemed that they put much effort into doing the best for their children; they had other priorities, and we mostly raised ourselves. I interpret that cliche a bit differently now: my parents had little idea of what the "best" might be. Racism, atheism, alcohol, the culture of obedience ... all combined to rob them of tools that might have given them more choices and a higher vision.

I have also made progress in forgiveness. The biggest step happened about fifteen years ago. I preached a sermon on forgiveness at Reedwood Friends Church, at the end of which I publicly tore up my copy of the codicil to my parents' will that removed me from the family trust. That document served no purpose other than to poison my feelings about my parents, so it was a liberating act to destroy it.

(The full truth: after the meeting for worship was over, I looked at the little pile of paper scraps, and thought out loud about whether they could be taped back together. A member of Reedwood approached, and as I watched silently, her hands scooped up the scraps. She gently said, "I'll take care of those.")

Am I capable of grief in general? Yes, very much so -- my sister Ellen's death was the first of many losses that have left me in no doubt about that. The deaths of my cousin Axel and my former colleague Gordon, and many other emotional blows, were also devastating in their time. I'm reserving a space for my heart and head to catch up with the loss of my parents, sooner or later.

Do you have a similar hollow place of ungrieved loss? What sort of work are you doing that I might also learn from?

I'm not sure whether this is how my father made his homemade rockets, but I do remember that his account involved soaking and drying newspaper pages.

My Twitter feed is dominated right now by shocked reactions to a Pew survey showing that white evangelicals are the demographic group least likely to agree that the USA has a responsibility to accept refugees. Be shocked but don't be surprised; there is little correlation between the social label "evangelical" and actual evangelical discipleship.

Bill Yoder: Russian Baptists choose new leadership.

Bill Samuel on Pentecost.

Becky Ankeny: Hope and living water.

Excellent episode of The Russia Guy podcast: interview with David Filipov.

The Mannish Boys in Germany...

17 May 2018

Hell, holiness, and Jerusalem

Visiting Ivan the Terrible's offices at Alexandrova Sloboda. Andrew Graham-Dixon explains some of the features of the hell fresco: (top) sinners boiling in oil; (middle) Judas  in Satan's  lap. (BBC's Art of  Russia, episode 1.)
Hell is endlessly fascinating.

About six years ago, I commented on Wayne Cordeiro's claim that, in eternity, "we will never see another non-Christian." Then, a couple of months ago, in my usual list of interesting links, I referred to Roger E. Olson's intriguing article, Would You Be Mad at God if He Saved Everyone? He was not arguing against the existence of hell, just against hell and its avoidance being the basis of evangelism or Christian commitment.

Another day, another defense of hell ... this time from Ben Witherington: The Problems with Universalism and the Denial of Hell. Witherington does not insist on eternal torment as the only possible description of hell, but ... well, read for yourself:
If God is a lover of humankind, what if they say ‘no thank you! I don’t want to love you! I don’t even want to believe in you! Go away!’ Hell is the place where God says ‘if you insist on having it your way, then your will be done’. ‘If you insist on being bad to the bone despite my love for you, and refuse to repent, refuse to believe the Gospel refuse to accept my Son, refuse to live a godly life— then there is a place in the afterlife where you can carry on in that direction’. In other words, precisely because God is love, and the required response is that we freely love him back, it is not inevitable that all will be saved. It just isn’t. Sometimes, love doesn’t win. Sometimes love is unrequited and tragically, this is even the case with God’s love.
The problem is, as with most defenders of eternal damnation on the basis of a binary choice, this isn't any sort of 3-D reality. It only deals with the theoretical rebel who's personally experienced God as lover of humankind, is fully aware of God's healing grace, and has rejected it.

This isn't a trivial exercise in theology. Just three days ago, the USA's government arranged a global microphone for two Christian leaders to express a supposedly Christian blessing and benediction on a terminally stupid event: the opening of the new site for the U.S. embassy in Israel. How many people in Palestine, in Gaza, and around the world, watching the spectacle of death and agony on the boundaries, truly believed that the involvement of Jeffress and Hagee was consistent with God's love for all? How many heard an invitation to "believe the Gospel" (aka the Good News)? On the other hand, for how many was Christianity's credibility as an expression of God's grace and love reduced?

And what do you think: was God gratified by the praise at the place where divine approval was being asserted with imperial confidence, or was God with the bleeding and dying? How do we know?

Let's be fair. Maybe this highly politicized event was an extreme example. Here's my life and death question: Exactly how much exposure to God's love meets the threshold requirement that, when not accepted, merits damnation? Is there a compensating calibration that takes into account the hateful messages poured out by Christian celebrities and their faithful zombies? Does God sometimes wink at the unchurched who are trying to make sense of such mixed messages and say, in effect, "Don't worry, honest seekers and jaded observers, those guys have forgotten how to do real evangelism -- they're just playing to a domestic audience"? (OK, maybe I'm fantasizing, ... or maybe that wink is sometimes our job!)

Many defenders of eternal damnation argue that God's holiness cannot tolerate sin. I agree! This means that God could never impose coercion or cruelty on sinners, because God cannot be exempt from God's own standards of holiness. Instead, through Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and the testimony and good company of God's people, God is persistently drawing us away from every sin and imperfection ... not limited by our inability to imagine the perfection to which the Bible calls us, nor by our pathetic impatience.

I cannot go completely universalistic. I agree with Ben Witherington that, at least theoretically, it's logically possible for someone to be exposed to the full scale of God's goodness and deliberately reject it. But how often does that really happen, in contrast with the cartoonish scare tactics of some representatives of the religion industry? I just don't believe that any theologian, no matter how white and male and well-connected, and full of righteous anger, can define that rebellion on God's behalf. And woe be unto that one whose corrupt confidence pushes the sinner away from God.

Seventeenth-century Quaker theologian Robert Barclay begins his exploration of salvation and damnation here. Read and be refreshed!

Times of Israel interviews John Hagee.

Chemi Shalev in Haaretz: "Israel has only one king, and his name is Donald Trump."

The first Palestinian museum in the USA opens quietly in Connecticut.

Gracy Olmstead: What the early church knew -- women make great leaders.

Fascinating and important: Keith Gessen on the USA's "old Russia hands" in today's context.

Now is the needed time.

10 May 2018

Iran, biblical realism, and perpetual war (old posts remixed)


A new day, a new crop of ominous headlines. Iran, Israel, and Syria are featured prominently, not for the first time. We get a glimpse into U.S. involvement in Niger. (By the way, what other country has an "Africa Command"?) Saudi Arabian air strikes hit central Sana'a, Yemen. The world waits to see how North Korea will play its nuclear chips in upcoming negotiations. (Will they really agree to an honest denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and will the USA also agree to the exact same condition?)

The first time I offered the following Bible study on perpetual war, it was early in Barack Obama's presidency, but I saw little to change as I checked it over for today's post. As a case study, I've drawn from another post -- this time on Iran -- still within Obama's first term. It's all for one purpose: to remind us that the powers and principalities seem organized around perpetual war. Followers of the Prince of Peace need to continue our prayerful vigilance. We need to learn to live, worship, testify, play, resist, create, heal, and celebrate in the unsentimental assurance and joy of biblical realism.

Biblical realism and perpetual war

Lots of smart people have been busy redefining the word "war." Maybe it once referred to lethal combat between nations or sharply-defined groups, with declarations and surrenders, truces and treaties. We Quakers were taught by our elders and our books of Christian discipline that war, and preparations for war, were inconsistent with discipleship. Sane citizens of all political persuasions at least united on wanting peace for ourselves and our children, imagining and working for the day that the country's war would end.

Now, things have become fuzzy. In particular, guerrilla warfare, counter-insurgency, low-intensity warfare, and the so-called stateless actors have changed the nature of warfare. In these bizarre times, a wealthy power like the USA can actually pay people not to shoot at our forces -- and take political credit for the resulting reduction in violence -- and at the same time define many detainees at bases abroad as implacable enemies and hold them for years without effective due process.

It's a crazy world, and it presents urgent challenges for believers.

The challenges of wartime faithfulness to the Prince of Peace may be increasing, but at root those challenges are not new. They are still extensions of the same old patterns of human sin, about which the Bible has always been refreshingly realistic:
  • In 1 Samuel, chapter 8, the Hebrew people ask Samuel to appoint a king over them, so they can be like other nations. God tells Samuel to respond to the people with an explicit warning as to what this means: (verses 11-18)
    He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.
  • Jeremiah 17:9: "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?"
  • Psalm 14:2-3 (The Message):
    God sticks his head out of heaven.
    He looks around.
    He's looking for someone not stupid—
    one man, even, God-expectant,
    just one God-ready woman.

    He comes up empty. A string
    of zeros. Useless, unshepherded
    Sheep, taking turns pretending
    to be Shepherd.
    The ninety and nine
    follow their fellow.
  • More realism: Ecclesiastes 5:8: "If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still."
  • Romans 3:10-17:
    As it is written:
    "There is no one righteous, not even one;
    there is no one who understands,
    no one who seeks God.
    All have turned away,
    they have together become worthless;
    there is no one who does good,
    not even one."
    "Their throats are open graves;
    their tongues practice deceit."
    "The poison of vipers is on their lips."
    "Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness."
    "Their feet are swift to shed blood;
    ruin and misery mark their ways,
    and the way of peace they do not know."
    "There is no fear of God before their eyes."
  • Ephesians 5:11-14a: "Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible...."
  • Ephesians 6:10-18:
    Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.
  • James 4:1-2: "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God."
Biblical realism not only prepares us for the prospect of perpetual war, it equips us to confront some of its specific features.

Back in 1961, Eisenhower warned about the increasing power of the military-industrial complex. "Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry," he said, "can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together." But part of today's challenge is that it is extremely difficult for citizens to stay "alert and knowledgeable." Here are some of the reasons:
  • The policies of permanent war are rarely discussed in accessible public forums. If Tom Hayden is correct, military thinkers are focusing on a "long war" with a fifty-year time horizon. When have you heard a congressional debate about this? "The way of peace they do not know."
  • Some of the specific methods used in this long war are even less likely to be discussed openly--everything linked to "torture," to the "dark side" ("for it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret"), to the methods that made Gen. Stanley McChrystal's reputation as a can-do commander for the Afghanistan-Pakistan front.
  • We routinely forget our Biblical realism when we recount American history. Over and over again, we put our trust in glib experts whose collective reputation for accurate forecasting and sound management stands at near zero. We are overawed by the nesting bureaucracies and crisp technocratic orgnames of the Pentagon, as if the new cult of the Zen Warrior armed with a PhD, precision drone airplanes operated from Colorado, along with the naive goodwill of Americans who have entrusted their sons and daughters to this machine, can make up for fatal levels of hubris and lack of a shared moral center.
  • "National security" has been raised to cult status; it justifies everything from rude treatment of airline passengers to pre-emptive warfare. However, a super-nation that has established military and economic trip-wires all over the globe cannot help but hear alarms constantly. Only genocidal civil wars in central Africa, apparently, do not trip loud enough alarms, but a self-serving politician in the country of Georgia can summon billions of dollars of US weapons to aim at Russians. When do we discuss the "national security" of a just world, and of health care, educational reform, and environmental sanity within our own borders? "You yourselves have become his slaves."
Biblical realism allows us to confront perpetual war by reminding us that the hearts of nations as well as individuals are inclined toward deceit, and the Bible doesn't make an exception for us. This is why it is so important for us to demand clear definitions of loaded terms such as torture, enemy, national security, bases, experts, extremism, terrorism, and patriotism. Yes, it's hard to keep up with Eisenhower's expectation of an "alert and knowledgeable citizenry," but it should not be for lack of trying.

Biblical realism allows conservatives to make common cause with progressives, as long as both sides are willing to have some of their favorite oxes gored. For example, progressives might have to be willing to see what conservatives see, looking around the world -- evil exists, sworn enemies exist, and a sentimental, mindless isolationism provides no security for anyone by any definition. Imperialism and an unceasing search for geopolitical and economic advantage is an unsustainable policy (progressives are right about that) but, what ARE sustainable policies? Are there some among us who would be able to work on that question, confronting the realities of a fragile, unstable, angry, and often ecologically oblivious set of global actors? Christian conservatives are beginning to realize that they can't only be conservative when it is convenient. If you believe in biblical inerrancy, for example, doesn't that cover the Bible's teachings on wealth and poverty? Immigration? Peace? Loving one's enemies?

The same skepticism that conservatives like to train on bleeding-heart idealists might also help create a more critical and careful examination of wealth, power, the possibility of structural injustice, and the possibility that some enemies might even become friends -- and at less expense than it would take to kill them.

Both progressives and conservatives, unfortunately, get too caught up in their own identities, rather than using their philosophies as analytical disciplines and sources of inspiration. Checking to see if someone puts out the right cultural signals, shares the same visceral dislikes of certain politicians ("who makes you hear the dog whistle?"), and laughs at the usual stereotypical jokes about nutcases--all that builds false community, not true national security.

Biblical realism challenges liberals and progressives alike with thousands of years of evidence that its diagnosis of the human condition is absolutely right. Power corrupts, period. When people try to go it alone without God (with or without a religious cover -- see Jeremiah), disaster results. Here's where we can start a conversation that crosses the divisions: Conservatives have years of experience with the protection of individual rights and promotion of individual responsibilities; progressives have years of experience promoting a vision of sustainable interdependence. Together, we face a new challenge -- a system of undeclared perpetual warfare that arguably poses a spiritual, economic, and political danger to all our children, and our global neighbors' children. What can we tell our children together -- or will we keep the walls up, conspire to give them only half the picture?

Right now, if I look at the momentum that's already been built up for the "long war," a more or less permanent state of imperial armed vigilance in some of the world's most troubled regions, it's hard to feel much optimism. In part, that's what makes this a spiritual issue. For Friends, especially, I hope and pray for a new burst of creativity and (humble) confidence. We have progressives and conservatives already in close quarters in our tiny global family; we have political scientists, mystics, evangelists, social critics, libertarians, economists, poets, scientists, even veterans and a Quakers' colonel! .... I'd love to believe we could rehearse and model what a biblically-rooted, ethically-shaped, prayer-driven revival might look like -- one that not only transforms individuals, revealing Jesus to many people and communities without hope, but also equips us to confront and replace the vision of perpetual warfare.

The case of Iran 
(from "Idealism and realism: the case of Iran")

It's hard to imagine a crazier policy proposal for the U.S. government than to initiate or support an attack on Iran, but some Israeli sources say that their country has already been given a tacit go-ahead by U.S. president Obama. Others, while skeptical of success, feel that hot rhetoric is fueling a war-momentum that may become hard to resist. Our own Friends lobby in the USA, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, is urging us to help legislators resist this rhetoric and support legislation that prioritizes diplomacy.

With all the enthusiasm for war that features prominently in U.S. political life these days, it took a comedian and his fake news program (Daily Show [updated] link) to expose the opportunism behind so much of this truculence on all sides, and to call on everyone to calm down. A calmer atmosphere might help us all to consider some of the complex sides of the concern about Iran:
  1. Hawks! Remember Robert McNamara's first lesson of war ("Empathize with your enemy") and ask yourself what the world looks like from Iran's perspective. The nations that have the power to destroy Iran have (a) nuclear weapons, and (b) pre-emptive-strike defense doctrines. Furthermore, Americans and Israelis don't even question that we and our nuclear weapons and angry politicians are self-evidently on the side of the angels. In other words, no other country can justify having the kind of defenses against us that we maintain against them. Is our use of drone assassin airplanes, our falsely-hyped war against Iraq, our support for dictators whenever convenient, and Israel's peremptory and often lethal occupation policies, consistent with this angelic assessment of ourselves? Аre we as trustworthy as we want our adversaries to be? If not, why should Iran be weaker or more angelic than us -- simply because might makes right?
  2. Doves! The case is not at all clear that Iran wants nuclear weapons, even though its main proclaimed enemy, Israel, already has them. Nuclear weapons are hard to build, hard to deploy, hard to store, and extremely hard to deliver! -- and that's not even considering the political cost of having them. However, what if it's true? What if Iran's leaders don't simply want to get the theoretical capacity to develop weapons eventually (something every medium-sized power in a hostile neighborhood would probably like, rightly or wrongly) -- what if they actually want the weapons and are crazy enough to deploy them? Our analysis as disciples of the Prince of Peace can certainly be based on nonviolence, but it should never be based on wishful thinking. What do idealists concretely do in the actual presence of evil?
  3. Presidential nominee candidates say that the time for talk is over. Is it, however, true (as the FCNL FAQ sheet for Iran asserts) that "U.S. and Iranian officials have reportedly spent a grand total of 45 minutes in direct, one-on-one talks in more than 30 years"? [Update: recent FCNL statement.] There is a strange political and intellectual laziness -- or maybe it is cowardice -- in official U.S. circles about vigorously pursuing high-level contacts with Iran in favor of trying to guess what their official pronouncements really mean. (See "The first rule of gracious correspondence.") Maybe there are secret communications all the time, but communication that does not influence public perceptions and rhetoric eventually is useless.
I'd like to see more proposals along the lines of Thomas Buonomo's "green energy" proposal for Iran -- offering a blessing to Iran that has the added advantage of offsetting (or challenging) Iran's nuclear-fuel option. This proposal alone is hardly enough to calm down war fever, but it is the sort of proposal that can remind us what's at stake and that we're not trapped! The search for alternatives to war should get as much enthusiasm and resources as are devoted to promoting war--in fact, more.

This post has grown far too long. Instead of my usual batch of righteous links, I'd like to recommend one site that has been a reliable resource for my permanent war watch: Tomdispatch.com.

With that, let's go directly to music ... another repost.

"Clothes Line" is a song we'll probably never use for a classroom gap-fill exercise! (Historical background on this song here, but Rick Estrin and the Nightcats have made it their own; I've never seen them not perform this song.)

03 May 2018

My privacy, part two: Facebook

Ruth Bascom Bike Path, Coburg Road overpass, Eugene, Oregon, USA.

A section of my Vkontakte (vk.com) timeline. Vkontakte
allows access to copyrighted music for an extra fee.
(Part one: My privacy and your transparency.)

On a typical day, my Facebook feed will tell me about three or four birthdays, at least one accident or sickness, news about a pregnancy or new birth, and, this season, several graduations. Through groups and pages I've liked on Facebook, I'll learn about a new publication in Russian or a new blog post by a Quaker somewhere in the world.

Furthermore, I'll find a post criticizing Donald Trump, or praising him, and a response going strongly in the other direction, followed by a cascade of others weighing in. Knowing the people involved, I'm guessing that they'll somehow remain friends.

Having recently hunted for a new car, booked a motel room in Wilsonville, and researched travel to Japan by ship, I can also count on ads for Hyundai Sonatas, Celebrity Cruises, and SnoozInn. (That is, if I've got F.B. Purity switched off.)

Very occasionally, Facebook even introduces me to relatives I didn't know I had. (For example, in Argentina!)

I also visit Facebook's Russian competitor, Vkontakte ("In Contact"), nearly every day. My Vkontakte list has only 400 friends (vs 1500 on Facebook) but that's where most of my former students and colleagues from the last ten years hang out. That's where I see what they're doing with their education and talents, and through VK they continue to send me seasonal greetings and music recommendations ... along with their grammar and usage questions. I keep track of my favorite Russian blues bands and musicians and listen to their recent performances. And despite changes in ownership, Vkontakte continues to provide a platform for political diversity.

On any news site other than FB and VK, I'll be kept up to date on all the scandalous ways these networks have made money by compromising my privacy. Yasha Levine's new book, Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet, removes all sentimentality about the Web's idealistic pretensions: military priorities are deeply embedded in the Internet's history and ongoing development to this day. There's nothing particularly paranoid or conspiratorial in acknowledging that any major Internet-based enterprise will find itself entangled with governments or cybercriminals, or both.

Are these vectors of intrusion so different from other aspects of life? Mass media channels (print and broadcast) reflect the interests of their owners and decisionmakers, with varying levels of candor. Advertisers seek to influence us. Salespeople try to close the deal. The technical equipment used to record, produce, print, broadcast, transport their output is often built by military contractors. Mail can be opened, telephones tapped. Even our garbage can be examined. How is the Internet different?

That is not entirely a rhetorical question. There are some things that make the Internet unique,  including the complexity and invisibility of its channels and nodes to the average end user; the sheer volume and speed of its content; and its many ways of tailoring content and feigning care and intimacy to beguile each individual audience member.

Does all this cold reality mean that I should give up my daily feed of graduations, medical emergencies, birthdays, and motel ads? Here's a bit of what goes into my consideration of this question. (Do you think I might be fooling myself?)
  • I'm deeply skeptical about the ability of any Internet-based company, no matter how idealistic, to guard my data. In the very rare instances where I need reasonable security, I use a VPN and encryption. (In a couple of cases I also use two-factor authentication.) But even those measures are far from perfect; my biggest defense, realistically, is my own unimportance in the context of the Internet's billions of participants.
  • Similarly, I don't resent Facebook's success, because it's that very success in signing up a significant proportion of Earth's population that allows me to stay in touch with so many families, friends, church organizations, and content providers. Furthermore, the more subscribers Facebook has, the more invisible I become as just one individual. Facebook may make assumptions about my tastes and politics, but I'm interesting to their marketers only as part of a market segment, not as an individual.
  • I militantly ignore news bulletins and rumors in Facebook and Vkontakte unless they're convenient to verify. Their sources likely have a political, emotional, or commercial stake in how I respond.
  • Finally, to be honest, I'm not sure that I want total invisibility. I live on this planet; my friends and I take up some space here. If I occupy a few bytes of data in a few databases, at least I've registered my existence. It's not the personal details that I resent sharing; as I said in part one, what matters to me is the system's trustworthiness in not using those details against us. To demand trust, to participate in the political process of building that trust, might require some thoughtful compromises.

Betsy Kent hopes you don't abandon Facebook. Does she make the case?

On the digitally revealed life ... and the difference between emotions and feelings.

Yasha Levine (Surveillance Valley) on Kevin Rothrock's The Russia Guy.

A religious journalist on Waffle House hero vs Waffle House gunman.

On the racial demons that may help explain evangelical support for Donald Trump. (Lots of helpful links.)

Are you and I missionaries in a secular land? ("Christendom has died. Not Christianity, statistically, but Christendom.")

From Moscow!

26 April 2018

Russian humor as testimony

Facts about Pluto:
 1. Pluto's surface area is equal to Russia's.           
   2. Pluto has about the same level of infrastructure.

"The correct way to wait for the bus, to avoid violating
the law against unsanctioned demonstrations."
In my recent post grieving the end of our residency in Russia, I mentioned my love of Russian humor. Much of that humor consists of national self-deprecation, and that's why I'm a bit reluctant to share too much of it among my friends and contacts outside Russia. There's enough dumping on Russia in the West right now, and I don't want to add to it without good cause.

"Good cause" often does exist, mostly resulting from actions by Russian politicians following well-worn paths of authoritarianism, corruption, and toadyism. Russia is not alone; similar patterns afflict many other countries with local variations, myths, and blind spots. The USA is currently challenged by its own particular outbreak of this plague.

Russia's endemic political ailments are very competently diagnosed -- and ridiculed -- by Russians themselves. Foreign help is not needed, and furthermore can be resented. I've quoted Pushkin on this point before: "Of course I detest my homeland from head to toe -- but it really gets on my nerves when a foreigner shares this feeling with me."

So: my intentions are honorable. I neither want to add to the undifferentiated criticism of Russia as a country (as distinguished from the well-earned criticism of some of its leaders); nor do I want to irritate Pushkin and his descendants, the Russian people who may somehow find this post. Sharing Russian humor is my testimony to the intelligence, honesty, discernment, and resilience of the Russian people as I've come to know them over my whole adult life.

Three other points of "testimony":
  • To convey something of the flavor of Russian self-reflection is not a matter of comparing Russian highs and lows with America's or anyone else's. To me it's a reassuring evidence of human solidarity that Russians cope with absurdity and adversity with humor, just as we do. Self-deprecating humor, the specific type of humor that can be both howlingly funny and risky to share with unintended audiences, is also found all over the world. (Once, in rural Honduras, I remember a farmer pointing to a flock of large black birds flying overhead. "Look," he said. "It's the Honduran Air Force.")
  • Nancy Ries, in her book Russian Talk: Culture and Conversation during Perestroika, studies the Russian use of self-deprecating humor in detail, as part of the litanies and laments that often characterize Russian commentary on their lives and their nation (their "Anti-Disneyland" as one of her interviewees said). As an American who lived in Russia, and loved living there, it was not my job to fix the problems that that went into those laments, despite the American tendency to jump immediately to problem-solving mode, but it was my job to listen. As a human being, as a Christian evangelist, as a Quaker communicator, listening was the highest priority. When we listen, we hear the witness of God in each person, and temptations to intervene recede to their proper place.
  • However, there is a spark of truth in that desire to intervene. Nancy Ries encourages us to consider when the rhetoric of hopelessness, no matter how wittily deployed, actually perpetuates powerlessness. The ideal ministry team includes the pastoral listeners, but also the prophetic capacity to propose next steps.

In the parts of Russian national life most visible to me here in the USA, namely the Russian Internet, there is a new crescendo of biting humor arising from the misadventures of the Russian agency in charge of supervising media and telecommunications, Roskomnadzor. Its nameplate looks like this:
... which is important, because that little diamond logotype refers to Roskomnadzor in the flood of memes that commemorate its so-far-disastrous attempts to shut down Telegram, the online messaging service. Telegram is, in turn, represented in the graphics by own logotype, the little paper airplane on a blue disk, or by founder Pavel Durov's face.

Pavel Durov, 2015: "I suggest banning words. It's reported
that terrorists communicate with the help of words."
Roskomnadzor charges that Telegram, with its capacity for anonymous encrypted communication, is used by terrorists, and demands that the company provide access keys for the government. Telegram's head, Pavel Durov, was the founder of Russia's answer to Facebook, Vkontakte, whose current ownership is in Kremlin-friendly hands. Durov is committed to security for Telegram's users, as he was to Vkontakte in the years before his ouster. (Whether Telegram actually provides 100% security is a disputed technical question; the political issue is Durov's commitment to refuse any demand for access.)

"I couldn't resist."
In the face of Durov's refusals, Roskomnadzor applied to a court for approval to block the service in Russia. When approval was granted after an eighteen-minute hearing, the agency began blocking more and more servers and IP addresses associated with Telegram's pathways through cyberspace, and in the process blocked or impeded hundreds of businesses and services, including Google, Amazon, and Yandex, none of which are linked in any way with Telegram other than the coincidence of using some of those same pathways. It's almost as if you decided to block my phone number by blocking everyone who used the same exchanges or area codes I might have used once, simply because I could change my number to outwit surveillance.

Roskomnadzor now has to deal with the floods of complaints of blockage and lost business, but also with being made a laughing-stock: Of all the victims of Roskomnadzor's tactics, Telegram is (so far) among the least affected.

"OK, so where's Telegram?" (Source: found on memepedia.ru.)
(Source: found on memepedia.ru.)

Dialogue in graphic at right:

"We built a gigantic wall. There's no way you can get around it."

"But that's a door right over there." (VPN)

"Nevertheless, you're not going to ..."

"Ooh, looks like I got through."

"Make that wall three times higher. HURRY!"

(The name of the graphic file is the very Russian saying, "There's always a doorway.")

(Source: found on pikabu.ru.)

On fence: "INTERNET" (Source: found on oborot.ru)

"Give me Telegram, and I'll let you live." (Source: found on oborot.ru)
Finally, "The Battle of the Century: Telegram vs Roskomnadzor"... this homemade modification of a fragment from a classic Soviet-era cartoon. The chair is labeled "Constitution of the Russian Federation"; probably nothing else needs translation.

More information on the Meduza Web site: The damage done. Telegram supporters will protest in Moscow on Monday. There's an update in Russian here.

ADDED: An interview with Tanya Lokot.

Were these evangelicals trying to save their movement from Trumpism? (And Mark Labberton's address to the Wheaton consultation.)

Exchanging the worship of God for cheap emotional thrills. (Is this article completely fair?)

Higher power: When Americans say they believe in God, what do they mean?

Julia Duin on the Religion News Service "meltdown," part one.

Melanie Spring Mock: Why it's ok to cry at writing retreats....

Deborah Coleman, 1956-2018

19 April 2018

Games, sports, comedies...

About ten years ago I was talking with a Russian Orthodox believer who had grown up in a Russian Baptist family. Why had she left the Baptists and joined the Orthodox? "The Baptists were always in each other's business, judging and gossiping," she explained. "Orthodox Christians aren't afraid to have fun."

A few days ago I was working on edits for the Russian edition of Barclay in Brief, Eleanore Price Mather's masterful abridgment of Robert Barclay's Apology for the True Christian Divinity. We're near the end; I've finally reached the Fifteenth Proposition, for which the original unabridged English-language text is here: "Concerning Salutations and Recreations, &c." As I worked on the section entitled "Gaming" in Mather's abridgment, I couldn't help but remember my conversation with my Baptist-turned-Orthodox friend.

I also thought about the Baptist students I had the joy of teaching at the seminary in Moscow. Some of them are in my Facebook circles. I had the impression that many of them would score well on Barclay's list of suitable "recreations" in the list in the excerpt below, but they certainly seemed to know how to have fun.

As for most Quakers I know, Barclay's limits would probably strike them as very severe.

OK, so here is Mather's version of Barclay on recreation:

(Mather uses only Barclay's original words, but she makes no use of ellipses or other devices to show evidence of her surgery, even within sentences.)

Fourthly, let us consider the use of games, sports, comedies and other such things, commonly and indifferently used by all the several sorts of Christians under the notion of divertisement and recreation, and see whether these things can consist with the seriousness, gravity, and godly fear which the Gospel calls for.

There is no duty more frequently commanded, nor more incumbent upon Christians, than the fear of the Lord, to stand in awe before him, to walk as in his presence, but if such as use these games and sports will speak from their consciences, they can, I doubt not, experimentally declare, that this fear is forgotten in their gaming; and if God by his Light secretly touch them, or mind them of the vanity of their way, they strive to shut it out, and use their gaming as an engine to put away from them that troublesome guest.

But they object, that men's [sic] spirits could not subsist, if they were always intent upon serious and spiritual matters, and that therefore there is need of some divertisement to recreate the mind a little, whereby it, being refreshed, is able, with greater vigor to apply itself to these things.

I answer, though all this were granted, it would no ways militate against us, neither plead the use of these things, which we would have wholly laid aside. For that men should be always in the same intentiveness of mind we do not plead, knowing how impossible it is, so long as we are clothed with this tabernacle of clay. But this will not allow us at any time so to recede from the memory of God and of our souls' chief concern, as not still to retain a certain sense of his fear; which cannot be so much as rationally supposed to be in the use of these things which we condemn. Now the necessary occasions, which all are involved into, in order to the care and sustentation of the outward man, are a relaxation of the mind from the more serious duties; and those are performed in the blessing, as the mind is so leavened with the love of God and the sense of his presence, that even in doing these things, the soul carrieth with it that divine influence and spiritual habit, whereby, though these acts, as of eating, drinking, sleeping, working, be, upon the matter, one with what the wicked do, yet they are done in another spirit, and in doing of them, we please the Lord, serve him, and answer our end in the creation, and so feel, and are sensible of his blessing.

There are innocent divertisements, which may sufficiently serve for relaxation to the mind, such as for friends to visit one another, to hear or read history, to speak soberly of the present or past transactions, to follow after gardening, to use geometrical and mathematical experiments, and such other things of this nature; in all which things we are not so to forget God (in whom we both live and are moved, Acts 17:28) as not to have always some secret reserve to him, and sense of his fear and presence, which also frequently exerts itself in the midst of these things, by some short aspiration and breathings.
Lying on Mather's cutting room floor are the specific dangers behind Barclay's warnings -- such spiritual hazards as "lightness and vanity, wantonness, and obscenity." But the general point comes through clearly: all of these worldly recreations threaten to crowd out the awareness of God. Not that Barclay is against rest and relaxation, but I suspect he feels that rest and relaxation are a concession for our weakness, and if we were not in vessels of clay we would be at maximum reverence and sobriety 24/7. Just think of what passes for relaxation in Barclay's sight: geometry!!

So here I am, reading detective novels, getting massages, listening to blues, and grieving the death of Harry Anderson. Are my recreations evidence of the degradation of society (or of Friends) in the centuries since Barclay? Or am I uniquely corrupt? Or is there a way I'm actually honoring his cautions despite the greater freedoms I claim in choosing ways to relax?

To be fair to Barclay, I admit that I have absolutely no idea how much violence and vulgarity dominated life on his city streets, or whether he interpreted the noise around him through filters of social class and conventional piety. My contemporary parallel, maybe: I can enjoy films and novels that are full of uproarious nonsense and colorful language, but if there is no evidence of faith in a story or in any of the characters, things seem two-dimensional and I soon get very bored.

I also don't know whether Barclay made his own temperament the measure of true sobriety. Could he laugh at a good honest pun?

What redeems my recreations, whether Barclay would agree or not, is that I love observing how the mind works -- mine and others'. I believe that God built this capacity for recognition, analysis, synthesis, and joy into our minds. Maybe that is what Barclay meant when he talked about minds being leavened with the love of God and the sense of God's presence. Just as Eric Liddell feels God's pleasure when he runs ("it's not just fun"), I feel great pleasure watching ideas, creativity, stories being born, whether it's happening in myself or in others. Would it truly be impossible for a modern Barclay to appreciate the sight gags in Night Court? Even at moments of exasperation and outrage, I'm grateful to be participating, finding my place, and sharing observations with others who are on a search for faithfulness. Yesterday I spent most of a morning talking with a friend about the Trinity, and about the difference between George Fox's Christology and Robert Barclay's -- and then we had the most delicious cream of broccoli soup!

OK, next on the translation list will be the section on "swearing." I pray that the Russian audience for all this work will not see us Quakers as offering yet another matrix to conform to, but a reorientation to a life of transparency to God -- a life that Barclay exemplified but did not define for all time.

More on Christian asceticism: from Orthodox Christianity for Absolute Beginners; from Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, chapter 4

Frida Berrigan on growing up with the threat of pervasive violence.

Martin Marty, the "Francis-friendly Protestant," on the tensions around the Pope.

Todd Dildine on Anti-Community Forces (ACF) and the decline of the church. Part one. Part two. Two more parts to come.

Ivan Krastev: Russia haunts the Western imagination.

Extended version of "Tuff Enuff."