08 December 2005

Borrowed time

Ever since the Christian Peacemakers were kidnapped, I have felt as if I'm in a slightly different dimension. Time is slower. Perspectives have changed: some things are closer, some are farther away. Eternity seems closer, yesterday's imperatives have faded.

After a few days of near-constant surveillance of the World Wide Web for news of our CPT hostages, I've had to back away in favor of a more continuous stream of prayer. I've caught myself offering Lenten-style bargains with God: here's what I'll give up if you'll just preserve those men, if you'll just end the episode with no loss of life.

Other sites and weblogs have done a marvelous job of compiling links to make it easier to stay informed. Here I will just list two pages that somehow had a healing effect on me without either encouraging denial or lapsing into romanticism:

Before I represent myself as some kind of detached, peaceful, contemplative adept, I should admit that I've kept the little BBC pop-up news bulletin utility loaded on the computer I use for my work every day. When it goes off with its dramatic bulletin music, I jump in my seat.

One more Web site. Olympic View Friends Church in Tacoma, Washington, USA, has a podcast page on its Web site. CPT Hebron/Baghdad member Matt Chander and Northwest Yearly Meeting's peace education coordinator, Kayla Edin, spoke recently and the recording is linked to that page.

I had been wondering how the Taizé community in France was faring since the death of its founder Brother Roger. I was glad to see an update: in a recent Books and Culture post on the Christianity Today Web site, Otto Selles of Calvin College's program in Grenoble, France, described a Calvin visit to Taizé.

Not surprisingly, Otto Selles had an urgent question of his own for the Brothers, one that resonates even more on the larger world stage:

"I broke into the discussion to ask the question that had been bothering me since my arrival in France. How could one explain Brother Roger's murder, which occurred in the Church of Reconciliation? 'He was a figure of peace,' Brother Pedro answered. 'Evil cannot resist goodness.'"

Perhaps evil cannot resist goodness, but evil does put up a fight.

Christianity Today's site also includes Cindy Crosby's intriguing conversation with Anne Rice, best known for books that are, shall we say, not in total alignment with the Christian Booksellers Association market. The article is entitled, "Interview with a Penitent." She expresses an unequivocal Christian faith: Referring to her new novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, she says: "I'm not offering agnostic explanations. He is real. He worked miracles. He is the Son of God!"

Anne Rice's faith is probably not in strict conformity with some conservatives' preferred Christian celebrity-conversion script. According to the article, "Rice's own website, www.annerice.com, is a platform for everything from impassioned updates on the needs of post-hurricane New Orleans to Democratic politics and her views on controversial issues (her son, Christopher, also a novelist, is homosexual, and Anne is 'an advocate for Christian and Jewish gays and their right to worship and to take the sacraments').

"To Christians who disagree with her views, Rice says, 'Christians have been arguing with each other for 2,000 years. ... What I hope for is that we can love one another, no matter how much we disagree; that we can embrace one another, no matter how tough the arguing becomes. ... If we love, we can overcome much of what divides us as people.'"

You mean we can both love and argue? The newly penitent novelist may be catching heat from some segments of her public, but it's clear she's never been a denominational bureaucrat. (Just kidding.) (No I'm not. Within three months of my becoming general secretary of FUM, one of its member yearly meetings left.) (Yes I am.) (No ... well, to be continued!)

You always hurt the ones you love: I have been thinking about another Rice, namely Condoleeza, her European journey, and her reported assignment to tell Europeans to "back off" from their fastidious doubts regarding detainees and extrajudicial transfers. For example, this New York Times coverage (Joel Brinkley, 12-5-05):

She made an effort to frame the debate as one over the effectiveness of terror enforcement and not over the propriety of holding suspects indefinitely in secret prisons.

"We consider the captured members of Al Qaeda and its allies to be unlawful combatants who may be held, in accordance with the law of war, to keep them from killing innocents," she said. "We must bring terrorists to justice wherever possible."

The European nations must decide, she added, whether they "wish to work with us to prevent terrorist attacks against their own country or other countries."

Apparently the European nations are not expected to ask us to decide whether we wish to work with them to prevent terrorist attacks on our country or other countries. Arrogance has become as natural as breathing. This is a juicy example of the American "my way or the highway" foreign policy that Richard Florida cites as destructive to our own best interests. (See relevant section at end of this post.)

Maybe this talent for unreflective arrogance is also what explains our rhetorical pistol-whippings of our friends and allies over their doubts about our messianic foreign policy, even as we kiss up to authoritarian regimes whenever it is convenient. Do we want bases in nations of the former Soviet Union? If so, their crackdowns on dissenters and religious minorities are suavely overlooked. Do we have a disastrous proportion of our national prestige invested in a horribly distorting war in Iraq? Then maybe it makes sense to downplay apartheid in Israel, religious repression in Saudi Arabia, and a few election awkwardnesses in Egypt.

Rice talks about "bringing terrorists to justice." When does justice mean "justice" and when does it mean "smackdown or worse, on our terms" or a particularly gruesome variation on "good enough for government work"? Today the Law Lords of the U.K. decided that evidence gained through torture, by whatever route received, by whomever or wherever inflicted, is inadmissible in any British court—not because of idealism but of the utter realism of knowing, as one of the Law Lords put it, that if we give one concession to the use of torture, it will spread like a virus. There is never ever a case when we can entrust fallible human human with absolute unchecked power over other human beings. Never.

Why Russians don't smile. At last, some thoughts on an ancient puzzle: Why the lack of ready American-style smiles on Russian faces? Thank goodness for Konstantin at Russian Blog, who bases his explanation on Russian culture's peasant-village roots.

When you live in Siberia in a small rural commune you should be very distrustful of every stranger. Moreover – strangers should feel immediately that you are hostile towards them. Only when a stranger proves beyond doubt that (1) he wants to belong to the commune, (2) he accepts all laws and traditions of this particular commune, (3) he can be trusted; only then he is accepted. And an accepted member of the commune enjoys so much trust, friendliness, openheartedness and sincerity that is very surprising to Europeans and who think that Russian openness is over the top.

It is not for me to judge the validity of Konstantin's thesis, but it does not entirely conflict the explanation in Alexander Elder's 1998 book Rubles to Dollars, if you stretch things a bit and grant that in some ways the Iron Curtain turned Russia into one huge village:

After seventy years of "breeding the New Soviet Man," little wonder that there are quite a few specimens still walking around. You know you've run into one of them when you encounter dull laziness or unprovoked rudeness and suspicion. Modern Russian slang for this is sovok—derived from Soviet, meaning a leftover of the old system. Those traits are rapidly becoming less common, to the point where a Moscow financial weekly named Kapital instituted a "sovok award" for readers who sent in examples of such encounters. Still the low-grade sovok is more widespread than Russians like to think.

Many Russians consider openness and trust, the qualities we value so highly in the US, as silly and childish. [Remember, this book was written before 9/11 and the Patriot Act.] In the old repressive society a trusting person was a fool. To this day in Russia you keep running into secretiveness and suspicion, even duplicity inherited from the communist years. When you sense those traits in a person do not waste your time trying to build mutual trust, American style. People who viscerally and illogically mistrust you have been damaged—leave them alone. In general, you'll find younger people more Western in this regard.

The repressive Soviet regime burrowed deep into people's lives. The KGB informers watched everyone, and the system punished deviants. People were fired from jobs for listening to jazz and sent to labor camps for telling politically incorrect jokes. You always had to watch yourself—always on guard, ready for trouble. It was better to maintain an impassive face. A person who looked upbeat was more likely to come under suspicion. "What are you smiling about—you have more than others?" was a common refrain.

After years of living under such pressure, many Soviets acquired a sullen, suspicious look. It became indelibly impressed on their faces; it showed in their posture—tense shoulders, rigid neck, and perpetually darting eyes. The look became so ingrained that even today I often recognize people from the Soviet Union on the streets of America. I see them from half a block away. Even if they have lived here for years and wear Western clothes, you can't miss that tense and hypervigilant look.

The stiff Soviet look has begun to fade in recent years, especially among the young. Russians not only dress better, their body language is changing. It used to be that only foreigners held their heads high or smiled riding Moscow's palatial subway. Many Russians today look very Western; they carry themselves as free people, in a manner that would look perfectly normal in New York, Paris, or London.
Seven years after Elder's book was published, the number of sovoks is probably much lower.

Although Elder himself is Russian, I can't help feeling a twinge of regret at the sovok stereotype. (The context of his book is important: he's urging Americans to invest in Russia, and trying to help investors assess risks and benefits. His advice to a psychologist or evangelist might be very different.) Konstantin's references to "over the top" openness, extravagant hospitality, and limitless generosity once a friendship has been established, are absolutely true.

Aside from "village" explanations, differences in personal security and affluence, and the sometimes bizarre American need to be liked, the final answer to the smile gap between Americans and Russians might simply lie in a few percentage points' difference in the proportion of introverts and extroverts. My guess is that there are more introverts in Russia. And as an introvert myself, I feel quite normal there. Of course, Russians might have a different assessment. Something along the lines of "all the same, he smiles all the time for no reason. Can he really be normal?" (Он не, так сказать, "наш".)

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