09 October 2006

The face of courage

This is Anna Politkovskaya, as shown on the front page of yesterday's online edition of Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper in Moscow for which she wrote.

The newspaper's tribute stated, in part:

She was beautiful. What's more, as the years went by she just became more beautiful. After all, at first God gives us a face just to get us started; then we shape our own face--by the way we live.

And then they also say that in maturity our soul begins to show on our face. Her soul is beautiful.

She was feminine. She could be charming as she laughed at a successful joke; she wept at injustice. But she regarded any injustice--whoever it might be related to--as a personal enemy. An enemy to be struggled with to the end.

She was amazingly courageous. Far more courageous than those many many macho types with their armor-plated vehicles, surrounded by bodyguards.

They threatened her, tried to frighten her with surveillance and searches. In Chechnya "our" commandos arrested her and threatened to put her in front of a firing squad. On her flight to Beslan she was poisoned. She pulled through. And though after that her health was never the same, her greatest sensitivity to pain remained, as always, in her conscience.

Many people, even our newspaper's well-wishers, sometimes said, "Well, your Politkovskaya ... maybe she went just a bit too-too ...." Not at all! She always wrote the truth. The truth might be so horrible that many go into denial, but that's beside the point. It's that defensive reaction that comes up with "just a bit too-too." Sometimes even in our editorial team.

Probably the hardest thing for an ordinary person is not to turn away from terrible things. But when you look evil straight in the eyes, it can't stand it, and backs off. Anya looked evil straight in the eye. And maybe that's why she emerged victorious from difficult situations. And maybe that's why she survived when averted eyes would not have survived.

For us, Anya still remains alive. We will never reconcile ourselves with her death. And whoever took it upon themselves to commit this barbaric murder--in the center of Moscow in broad daylight--we ourselves will search for them. And we can guess where they might be....

Anne Applebaum responds to this terrible story with a thoughtful and subdued Washington Post column, "A Moscow Murder Story." She and some other commentators come close to accusing Vladimir Putin and his associates for creating the climate in which political contract killings occur, if not actually signing the contracts, but I have my doubts. Aside from the moral issues involved (which may or may not play a role with power politicians--who am I to say?), all Putin needs to make his life complete is political assassins running around Moscow just when he's trying to create at least a semblance of stability. It seems more likely to me that someone personally threatened with exposure by Anya's journalism would be the most likely suspect.

What should the politicians say at a time like this? Both Putin and Chechnya's Kadyrov have expressed condolences; Putin has pledged a full and objective investigation. To my utter frustration, most Russians interviewed in the media seem to be totally cynical about such pledges (example); the cynicism may be justified but it doesn't help the cause of justice, especially for one who was unafraid to "look evil in the eyes." Cynicism simply solidifies evil's victory. In the meantime, Novaya Gazeta has pledged nearly a million dollars in reward money to help find the guilty.

Our own (Western) politicians are also responding to the murder. George Bush says, "Like many Russians, Americans were shocked and saddened by the brutal murder of Anna Politkovoskaya, a fearless investigative journalist, highly respected in both Russia and the United States." I hope it is equally true that "Americans" and American leaders are shocked and saddened by the fates of journalists in Iraq killed by coalition gunfire.

While I'm preaching about cynicism, I should acknowledge that I've continued to think about my near-blanket condemnation of celebrity leaders of the evangelical establishment in last Thursday's post. I stand by my description of the climate of conformity and lack of intellectual integrity I find in much of that establishment, which was one of the most disillusioning aspects of my seven years as head of the Friends United Meeting staff. But in those years, I also met my share of church leaders who wanted to do better.

It's easy to criticize leaders for the empty posturing that they may do in their public personae, while neglecting to acknowledge their far more complicated private realities. Criticism needs to be accompanied by prayer and personal honesty. In my own leadership of a microscopic denomination, I tried always to say the same things to all audiences, whether "liberal" or "evangelical," and to help construct a shared language without compromising the Gospel. It's for others to say whether I succeeded. Some leaders (notably some in Evangelical Friends Church Southwest, as it is now called, and in Iowa Yearly Meeting, and also a few in Baltimore and New York Yearly Meetings) twisted my words to suit their agendas, but by and large I was treated fairly by most Friends.

In much larger denominations, it is a legitimate chicken-and-egg dilemma for leaders to try to decide: Do I challenge conformity at the possible expense of my career, knowing how vicious the opposition can be, or do I exercise a quieter leavening leadership that will make things better for my successor? More than once, I heard such questions asked off the record at U.S. Church Leaders meetings. I might express the hope for more courage among those leaders, who never faced the kind of risks Anya Politkovskaya looked at unflinchingly, but I acknowledge that my situation as an FUM leader was probably far more congenial than theirs. In fact, we probably need more open conflict among Friends rather than less, given the grave state of our long-term corporate outlook (but we need to conduct that conflict with the same mutual concern and care that I benefited from as FUM gensec; our teenagers and our alienated donors may well respond to useless and abrasive church fights with even more defections).

Returning to my Thursday words, I am not backing off one bit from my bitter disappointment with those leaders who have had access to the White House. The constant association in the public mind of evangelical Christianity with imperial arrogance and the protection of economic privilege is anti-evangelistic, both domestically and internationally. A tiny hint of a breakthrough has occurred with evangelical leaders signing pro-earthcare and anti-torture statements in the press. But we need more. We need what Anna Politkovskaya had in abundance: courage.

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