07 February 2008

Remember what you know

These words came to me several times in the past few days: Remember what you know.

They came to me first as I was listening to a story about a church which was experiencing conflict between some church members and the pastor. Members were being drawn into pro-pastor and anti-pastor factions; I imagined some were feeling the temptation to resort to worldly tactics for the upcoming monthly meeting.

Although there were allegations about the pastor that needed to be taken seriously, I wasn't happy with the possibility of a struggle for or against an individual, a struggle that ignored the systemic "Lamb's war" dimension of the problem. I wanted to say to everyone, Don't get knocked off center; remember what you already know:
  • Among Friends, leadership involves mutual accountability; we don't accept theologies of authoritarian leadership, even when it is dressed up in contemporary shepherding language. Jesus is the center of a Friends meeting, not an ideology or philosophy (however good or bad). With Jesus at the center, there cannot be a human dictator or "decider" claiming presumptuous power. Friends leadership can be based only on spiritual gifts, never social status or politics or personality.
  • We avoid pointing at villains. Humans are made in the image of God, even when they have been taken prisoner by the principalities and powers.
  • Friends sometimes forget that every leader sometimes need to give strong advice, occasionally approaching commands, but only to people who are empowered. To give commands from on high to oppressed or subservient or frightened people can lead to awful mischief. The first task of a pastor dealing with frightened people or people in crisis is to build them up, rebuild their identity as people infinitely loved by God, not to tinker with their relationships.
Then those words came back to me as I was thinking about the marketing challenge faced by a particular college. Some people at this college are wondering how to angle their recruitment messages tactically to be more intriguing to larger numbers of people. They want catchier techniques.

Again, first they have to remember what they know about themselves--the goal shouldn't be to suck in inquiries from undifferentiated masses; their messages must reach more of those specific people who would actually blossom at their school.

Barack Obama speaks at Ebenezer Baptist Church,
Finally, I listened to yet more political coverage on the radio as I was coming home this evening from downtown Portland. I fantasized about what a candidate needs to do not to disillusion me after I'm just starting to dare to believe in a reawakening of idealism.

They need to remember what they know.

If the manipulations of opponents and the blandishments of contributors and pollsters make a candidate doubt that yesterday's message will be effective today, the reality check should not be "what do my tacticians say will give me an incremental advantage?" It should be, "Was yesterday's message faithful to my core convictions, to my heart? Or by spinning in a different direction today, will I take the wind out of my strongest supporters' sails for the sake of a clever soundbite?"

I was impressed by an observation David Brooks made in the New York Times in his December 18 column: "Obama is an inner-directed man in a profession filled with insecure outer-directed ones. He was forged by the process of discovering his own identity from the scattered facts of his childhood, a process that is described in finely observed detail in Dreams From My Father. Once he completed that process, he has been astonishingly constant."

Now Obama will be tested as never before. He has not put specific policy slogans or grievances at the center of his campaign, but the vision of a more united country -- united not by calls to fear, but by a renewed commitment to close the "empathy deficit" and regain the ability "to recognize ourselves in one another."

Listen to his speeches and sermons: The themes of hope and unity are hardly empty piety; they're part of a far richer rhetoric than the few seconds of sampling they're given in the media. Obama has taken the risk of setting his value standards very high. Judy and I once heard a prominent Christian child psychologist say that only sociopaths can get to the top of our political ladder in these hardball times. He had hoped that Bush II would prove him wrong, but I think we need a more convincing demonstration, and I hope that Barack Obama can provide it.

On the one hand ... On the other hand ...
from Russia Today, a story on the Institute for
Democracy and Cooperation
There are multiple layers of reality in this Russia Today story on the new Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in New York City.

The institute is Russia's attempt to set up a human rights non-governmental organization, based in the very country from which stories critical of the human rights situation in Russia often originate.

And why shouldn't they, at last, set up such an idea shop here? When our own current White House occupants consider themselves qualified to lecture Russians on the proper conduct of elections, and for years we've financed civil-society NGOs in Russia, isn't it time for a little payback?

What got me going was a comment by Natalia Narochnitskaya at the press conference announcing the institute's foundation. "On the one hand, it will help us get a lot of useful information from the West so we can analyze the problems Russia faces," says Narochnitskaya. "The Western experience in the field of human rights deserves respect. On the other hand, we can also point out, it's not perfect."

This is truly Russia today: on the one hand, on the other hand. On the one hand, many Russians admire the West; on the other hand, they enjoy growing national self-confidence, along with some irritation and resentment at the double standards, harsh assessments, and outright condescension of Western observers.

On the one hand, some of my Russian friends are sick and tired of comparing their own shabby infrastructure with the glass-and-steel perfection they see in Western media. On the other hand, many suspect the West of spiritual shabbiness compared with the depths of the Russian soul.

On the one hand, they're suspicious of the new chill, the new peremptory tendencies emanating from Russia's local government offices. On the other hand, I've personally heard, more than once, Russians bring out the old adage, "We Russians need someone strong at the top."

On the one hand, when they have such a leader, they're ready to support him. On the other, they repeat that other old adage, "We Russians always figure out how to get what we want."

This is not a situation of static balance, either. On the one hand, I'm ready to believe that Vladimir Putin is fully familiar with the basic principles of democracy -- and to some important extent actually agrees with those principles. On the other hand, he believes it would be utterly foolish for him to relax his grip on any of the relatively few levers of power he controls, given the constant threat of total chaos on any number of fronts in his country, and perhaps even within his government. It's my intuition that this unresolved and dynamic tension is a reality in many Russian souls, perhaps even in Putin's. The political, social, and spiritual reality of Russia today: everything is in play.

Righteous Links: Useful observations and distinctions from Sarah Imhoff on the continuing phenomenon of American anti-Semitism. ~/~ In the midst of the recent Quaker discussions on social class, perhaps we more than some other Christians need to grapple with the special role of the military in our society. Here's William Astore to help: "In the Military We Trust."
The hypnotic music of the late John Lee Hooker... "You know, I'm doomed with the blues." Second (on the other hand ...), the longer version, from which the first clip was taken:


1 comment:

Imperfect Serenity said...

Thanks so much for posting this Obama video. I found it very moving.