12 April 2007

Angels rush in where fools fear to tread

We are approaching the second anniversary of Marla Ruzicka's death on the Baghdad airport road. She was the founder of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) and an almost instant legend among human rights activists, journalists, and NGO workers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thousands of people all over the world were captivated by the story of this young American who threw herself into the struggle for relief for innocent war victims and their families, apparently oblivious to her appearance of total naivete and headstrong, foolish idealism. Sadly, many of us were only captivated after we found out she was gone.

Veteran reporters and politicians were shaken by her death, and were not ashamed to say so. Many of their reflections and reminiscences are collected on CIVIC's "Marla's Memorial" Web page. The first impressions I got from their stunned comments two years ago was of a young woman all of whose energy seemed to go into two activities--helping those who were injured, or whose loved ones were killed, by accident or error in the process of American military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq; and arranging and animating wild and wonderful parties in improbably locations for the internationalists among whom she ceaselessly networked on behalf of her cause. In short, she seemed like an angel with a difference--a party angel, both stubbornly earthy and improbably ethereal.

In an early reflection on the Slate site, Jennifer Abrahamson warned that this was not a full picture: "Over the past few days I have seen many descriptions of Marla, including those likening her to an angel or a saint. Neither of those words do her justice. She was driven by a passion I have never encountered before, and she had a boundless heart. But she was also consumed by extreme lows as well as highs, tears along with laughter. In discussing plans for a book, she wanted to be depicted as the rich and complex woman that she was."

Abrahamson eventually completed that book, Sweet Relief: The Marla Ruzicka Story, and I've just read it. Now I see what she meant. That same young woman who could barge up to Donald Rumsfeld at a news conference and talk his ear off all the way to his car, or introduce herself to a whole roomful of experienced journalists she'd never met before with serene assurance that they would all totally be her friends, also suffered from depression and incredible self-doubt, didn't eat well or enough, pushed herself hard physically and emotionally, went into an unsustainable marriage, leaned too heavily on alcohol--while frequently trying to break this habit ... in short seemed incapable of sustained moderation.

Her complicated story also includes her evolution, or perhaps reorientation, from passionate American dissident to a sharply-focused organizer who was less concerned to find villains than to do whatever it took to obtain justice for victims--even if it meant building cooperative relationships with the U.S. military. Sadly, as a result she fell out of synch with some of her early collaborators.

Abrahamson's book itself feels a bit out of synch--shifting gears, rushing forward and braking, now reflective and now a breathless intercontinental itinerary. Maybe, given her subject, that scattered style is not entirely inappropriate. I also looked in vain for any understanding of the role of faith in Marla's story--the only tiny hint comes in the descriptions of her funeral at St. Mary's Catholic Church, Lakeport, California--for example the statement that the priest had known her all her life. The narrative includes her time at the Friends World program at Long Island University, but doesn't mention the Quaker background of that program.

It was not disillusioning to have my initial party-angel impression stripped away by Sweet Relief. To tell us what it cost for the world to receive her unique blessings is a deeper honor. It also challenges our conventional wisdom about what true effectiveness means, and what is required of us in community to support those who are led into unusually visible and risky confrontations with injustice.

The CIVIC site also includes a page honoring Marla Ruzicka's colleague Faiz Ali Salim, who died with her on April 16, 2005.

The American Civil Liberties Union has obtained the first, very partial, report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq compiled from U.S. military reports. (ACLU announcement. CIVIC commentary. AP article.)

Friends United Meeting and symbolic politics, continued:

From several sources I've heard about the decision of Southeastern Yearly Meeting to suspend its membership in Friends United Meeting, for two years, after which, without a definite decision to reactivate it, it would be discontinued. Without discounting the pain involved, this feels to me like a decision that honors truth.

I have experienced convergence among Friends as we meet and mix in all sorts of informal ways, building new patterns of dialogue and mutual aid. I experience divergence as formal relationships seem less and less reflective of spiritual reality. Uniquely among North American yearly meetings of Friends, Southeastern was "united" in relating to Friends General Conference and Friends United Meeting almost right from its very origins, partly because of the natural mixing that resulted from snowbird and retirement patterns. That original vision, and the influence of Miami Friends from Cuba, have not proved spiritually persuasive for some critical minimum number of Friends. As was made clear to me in my own visits to Southeastern, many perceive FUM as something alien, external, something that causes pain. There is no theory worth subjecting people to pain.

More about all this later. May God bless Southeastern Yearly Meeting and also the remaining yearly meetings of Friends United Meeting. And may FUM remain faithful to its purpose of energizing and equipping Friends through the power of the Holy Spirit to gather people into fellowships where Jesus Christ is known, loved, and obeyed as Teacher and Lord. And more than that: may FUM become far more powerfully persuasive in advocating for itself and may it (we) become ever more transparent in its governance, programs, and finances.

Righteous links:

Elizabeth Bwayo and Carol Briggs, victims of a violent carjacking in Nairobi that killed Elizabeth's husband Jacob, were visited in Portland, Oregon, at Eastertime, by their Kenyan surgeon, Eric Kahugu. KGW-TV's story here; the Oregonian's here.

PC World reports that "Google Earth has added a Global Awareness layer to its maps program that lets you learn about the crisis in Darfur." I tried it and found this feature profoundly helpful and disturbing.

Wander around in Susan Jeffers' Peace Church Bible Study Home Page. You may experience a strange urge to learn biblical languages!

The Guardian presents two (at least!) different viewpoints on blogosphere civility: Jonathan Freedland "The blogosphere risks putting off everyone but point-scoring males" and Brian Whitaker "Blog and be damned: Today's argument over the tone of online debate would be familiar to the pamphleteers of 18th-century Britain."

Buddy Guy does have a quiet side, and not just when he's shushing his band. Here's a nice clip of "Lucy Mae Blues."


Bill Samuel said...

Your comments on the Southeastern YM decision on FUM were interesting, and I generally agree.

In my FUM days, Southeastern generally seemed less engaged with FUM than the other dual YMs. I guess the original vision in Southeastern never really took hold.

Another way to put Southeastern's uniqueness is that it is the only one without an institutional tie to FUM dating from before its dual affiliation days. I think the historical factor in the other 4 YMs may make it harder for them to be as honest in their reaction as Southeastern.

Johan Maurer said...

Hi, Bill. During most of the years I was at FUM, Southeastern Yearly Meeting's Alice Bejnar gave a lot of devoted service to Friends United Meeting. I'm sure others helped, too, but her name stands out in my memory. My visits to the Yearly Meeting included both some of the warmest and a few of the most hostile encounters of my entire time as gensec.