22 December 2005

Turning out the rude, debauched spirits

Quaker sources for writing Christmas prose are a bit thin, but about ten years ago I wrote a skit for Christmas worship at First Friends Meeting (Richmond, Indiana) based on these words from George Fox:
We must not have Christ Jesus, the Lord of Life, put any more in the stable amongst the horses and asses, but he must now have the best chamber, the heart, and the rude, debauched spirit must be turned out. Therefore let him reign, whose right it is, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, by which Holy Ghost you call him Lord, in which Holy Ghost you pray, and by which Holy Ghost you have comfort and fellowship with the Son and with the Father. Therefore know the triumph in the Seed, which is first and last, the beginning and ending, the top and cornerstone.
I've long since lost the script, but a couple with a newborn baby played the Holy Family, and at the start of the scene they were in our stable. A group of our meeting's children confronted the rude, debauched spirits occupying the "best chamber" of our simple set. Various adults played the spirits of greed, idolatry, violence, and elitism; the children firmly took charge of this unsavory quartet and led them out of the chamber. They then went to the stable and escorted Jesus and his parents into the chamber.

Since arriving in Portland, I've been part of a number of public social exorcisms, naming these same rude spirits and commanding them to depart from the places we've claimed for Christ. Once we performed a flagwashing ceremony, taking a U.S. flag that had been smeared with the words violence, war, arrogance, greed, inequality, injustice. During the liturgy, the flag was literally washed and displayed again in its clean form.

This Christmas, we see many rude spirits roaming our beautiful world, wreaking havoc in the lives of millions of people. Some of them are financed by our tax dollars. Some of them operate in Christian sheep's clothing. The task of evangelism (continuing the work of inviting Jesus into human hearts) goes hand in hand with the task of evicting the idols.

It's not just a matter of identifying the spirits animating the corrupt practices of politicians and leaders; those rude spirits seek to divert each of us, too. But when our meetings are operating with a good, mutually respectful division of labor, then we have elders and companions who help us with the struggle to stay honest and repentant about our own demons. We are not required to be perfect before we (at least those with prophetic calling) follow the lead of the biblical prophets, George Fox, the children of First Friends, and our worldwide brothers and sisters in ejecting the rude, debauched spirits who seek to define and confine our realities.

The political arena is only one dimension of the struggle to reclaim the heart, and perhaps it isn't even the most important one. In fact, it is very important to remember that politics are an elaboration of behaviors and interactions also found among animals, and that many political boundaries and definitions that we take for granted, and that seem so real (roles, offices, governments, states, nations) are all in our heads. Nevertheless, those behaviors coerce, exploit, and kill; we must take our observations and use them, not be frozen by them.

This past week has been full of complex signs of the struggle. These links are a tiny fraction of what could be listed:
  • The White House Web site includes the transcript of this week's press briefing, with fascinating exchanges on two crucial questions: (1) which branch of government does President Bush wish to dispose of, and (2) "I want to know why we're still there killing people, when we went in by mistake." The almost childlike simplicity of that second question reminds me of someone getting ready to eject a rude, debauched spirit. (Dan Froomkin in his Washington Post column, adds some perspective to this briefing, and goes on to mention the growing currency of the official method provided for ejection: impeachment.)
  • This past week, maverick libertarian and Soviet-era dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, not exactly a romantic or a liberal mouthpiece, felt it necessary to remind Americans on the moral contamination that threatens any government using torture. (Many thanks to Street Corner Society for this link.)
  • Anne Applebaum, whose highly-recommended book on the Soviet slave-labor camps also qualifies her as a non-sentimentalist, weighed in as well: See her Washington Post column, "Hollow Rhetoric on 'Rule of Law'."
  • One final item from that newspaper: "Spy Court Judge quits in protest."
All of these developments are part of a struggle that could, at least in the short term, go either way, that won't permit us to rest on the sidelines, and that is part of a much larger perspective—reaching into our own individual hearts, not letting vindictiveness or evidentiary convenience (i.e., lies) claim territory that is Christ's. While some of us work on these specific concerns, we in the Lamb's War are also claiming territory in our own lives and families and communities where we practice giving Jesus the best chamber. (My favorite example, or metaphor, albeit not a universal one, is seeing the marriage bedroom as the Garden of Eden.)

At times in the past few years I've had the feelings that Bob Ramsey expressed so eloquently a couple of days ago. Seems like these rude, debauched spirits keep popping up. As we pick ourselves up for another round, it's important to remember that the Lamb's War is fought with prayer and love, and we're not alone.

In connection with spying on citizens, the use of special methods of interrogation, the secret transfers of detainees, and other matters, President Bush and his advocates have claimed his right to a wartime deference from Congress, the courts, and the Constitution. Here's the wall of reality that he is only now starting to hit: He has not earned that right to wartime deference. In times of genuine emergency, a trusted leader is given the benefit of the doubt. Today, given what we know (and cannot pretend not to know), the "trust me" defense no longer works.

Many western observers of Russia are highly concerned about the proposed new regulations of non-governmental organizations and their funding. Russian Blog provides a refreshing balance in this post, and then quoting Mary Dejevsky in this post. Also, I received a letter from a Russian journalist, who (while agreeing with some of my own concerns) pointed out, "Still to my knowledge funding of political activities by foreigners is also prohibited under the US law." Exactly. Other countries must measure up to our ideals, but our realities are sometimes different; and of course the "trust me" presidency makes even those imperfect ideals optional in this indefinite "war."

I've been reading Stephen M. Walt's Taming American Power, particularly on the theme of the USA's consistent efforts to consolidate its military and economic domination of the world. For me, this puts President Putin in perspective. Putin's attempts to maximize his own influence in Russia within all the space and all the vectors open to him are simply the same behavior within Russia that American leaders attempt worldwide. And the motive (at its best) is the same: to deal with the world's (or Russia's) chaos and unpredictability from the strongest possible vantage point.

Each situation is supposedly equipped with checks and balances. Putin can go far in taking up all the power that his system makes available to him, and he is in a pretty strong position with respect to the formal limits on his executive power. He is also a master of electoral politics, including the dirty tricks I associate with the Cook County, Illinois, of my growing-up years. However, the Russian people will continue to build their lives, discuss important ideas, strenuously protest governmental incompetence (witness the Beslan aftermath), circulate among friends of their choice, and cultivate dynamic entrepreneurship, almost without reference to anything Putin does. And if he goes too far, he will lose his legitimacy and add to Russia's chaos, when most of the evidence I've seen (not all) suggests that this is the last thing he wants.

As with any powerful but not omnipotent leader dealing simultaneously with a huge number of challenges, Putin must balance a range of factors, sometimes without much time for reflection—the pressures exerted and favors demanded by his allies, the pressures exerted by his opponents, the capriciousness of the bureaucracy, his own ideals, ethics, and vision for the country, his own appetites and the temptations of power, etc. Time will tell how successful he is in this balancing act.

I wish all governments, including Russia's, would understand that regulation should focus specifically on the abuse to be prevented, rather than a whole universe of activities that might involve abuse. Instead of registering, monitoring, and taxing every organization in the country, as some fear will happen in Russia, why not focus directly on better tax regulations, or spending on political activity, or foreign funding? However, Americans who are upset about limitations on their NGOs' branches in Russia should take a moment to think about the tax regulations, audit requirements, and other regulations faced by our own nonprofits. (I won't even touch on the Quaker and likeminded groups who find their activities monitored by the FBI.) Also consider whether our government grants the freedoms we expect in Russia to organizations here whose funding originates abroad. We try to teach Russians the basics of democratic citizenship; maybe we should invite Russian organizations with Russian funding to come and teach us community-building, the best of collectivism, and cultural literacy. What suspicions and obstacles would such Russian-funded organizations face here?

Meanwhile back at the (Crawford TX) ranch, we have a president who cannot miss a chance to undercut the checks and balances of our system. As Anne Applebaum says, this is not a season for us to lecture the rest of the world on democracy. Of course, pointed questions are always in season, as long as they point both ways.

From Baghdad, Maxine writes,
Dearest friends-

During this time of waiting for news about my friends who are kidnapped, I can't help but think about Mary and Joseph.

It must have been an agonizing thing for them to make a trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem when Mary was near her time of giving birth. I can't help but wonder if they were angry at having to make such a difficult journey to comply with the orders of an illegal occupier in their country. I know I would have been. And then to get to Bethlehem and be told that there was no place to stay would have added fuel to the fire.

But somehow, I suspect that all of that anger vanished when Jesus was born. Who has attended a birth and not realized that everything else pales in comparison to the joy of new life? The miracle of every birth bathes the world in a cleansing light.

I feel like I need a new outlook. After two years of living in Iraq, I find myself discouraged and angry about the situation. And every helicopter that flies over (like one just did) reminds me that two and a half years after the fall of Saddam there is still an occupying force from my own country here, one that has no stated intentions of leaving anytime soon.

Did Mary and Joseph feel the same way? Were they angry at the Romans? Were they worried for the future of their child who would be born into such a situation? I suspect their feelings were similar to what many Iraqis feel every single day.

I'm waiting for the re-birth of my colleagues, and anticipating a new view of the world through this miracle.

In hopeful waiting-

1 comment:

Nancy A said...

I can't tell you how much of my daily dose of alternative US news I get from this blog! My, how much CNN leaves out!

I think the most effective "nativity play" I ever saw was one put together by the children themselves with a little leadership. It was the story of a baby born in a shopping cart in a mall parking lot. All other characters were adapted to fit the context. The "no room at the inn" dialogues were particularly insightful as they looked at affordable housing, social assistance, access to jobs, etc.