13 March 2008

Two Sundays

Two weeks ago, among the February shorts, I mentioned the Northwest Yearly Meeting consultation on Russia. We wrapped those meetings up this past Saturday.

The global outreach board now needs to consider our recommendations. In the meantime, I want to mention a special gift that Tigard Community Friends Church gave us....

Sunday No. 1.

First, some impressions of Tigard Community Friends--a meeting I'd never visited before. The Sunday we were there, many of the young people were on the road (Bible quizzing, I think) and so we probably have a skewed idea of the congregation's demographics. Entering the meetinghouse, you see a large gathering area with lots of tables and chairs, additional chairs in rows off to the side, and a table with different kinds of coffee and other things to drink, as well as pastries and fresh fruit. It was a wonderfully inviting social space. Even an introvert like me found it easy to chat and get acquainted. At other tables, people were having intense conversations; and at others, people sat alone.

When it was time to start gathering the meeting, someone called for our attention, right there in that gathering space, and invited us to talk about our prayer concerns and celebrations. Some people took their seats in the rows of chairs, but others stayed right where they were, finishing their little meals or drinks at their tables. It was the Sunday after Kibaki and Odinga had reached their peace agreement in Kenya, so that was one of the themes of this time, along with many personal concerns. People spoke in their natural voices, as far as I could tell, not with an obvious church voice.

After around twenty minutes, it was time for us to go next door into the meeting room, which felt comfortable and intimate, probably not bigger than the gathering space. I loved how the two periods--that first gathering around the tables and the worship time in the meetingroom--felt seamlessly connected.

After the meeting for worship, we received our gift: Tigard Friends had agreed to suspend their normal adult Sunday school for this Sunday and, instead, gather with us for an extended period of unprogrammed worship to pray and discern. Dan Cammack, one of Tigard Friends' pastors and the clerk of the Yearly Meeting's global outreach board, opened and closed the worship, ending with a period of intercession and commissioning, with participants standing all around us, their hands on our shoulders or each other's shoulders. It was truly encouraging; I felt a deeper level of assurance despite my nagging impatience to be back in Russia with students and friends.

Sunday No. 2.

This past Sunday--a week after the Tigard experience--I was back at Reedwood Friends for meeting for worship for the first time since last September. Carole Spencer spoke on the universality of the covenant invitation, drawing from Isaiah 56:1-8, particularly verse 3:
Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say,
"The LORD will surely exclude me from his people."
And let not any eunuch complain,
"I am only a dry tree."
I had come to worship burdened by George Bush's veto of the bill prohibiting torture. (White House. New York Times.) In particular, why would so many members of Congress, evangelical celebrities, and ordinary American patriots provide so little resistance to Bush's insistence on the freedom to torture?

Carole's sermon seemed to confirm in me that Americans are not equipped by their churches or their culture to question the "us/them" assumptions behind Bush's assertions on wiretapping and torture. These so-called protections are to safeguard "us" (don't ask who that includes) and are only aimed at "them."

Proponents of torture in the popular media, including the television programs where torture seems to extract life-saving information, often pose exaggerated dilemmas that put critics on the defensive, making us seem squeamish and out of touch with the way the world really works. On the contrary, we do know how the world works--we do know that (setting aside the purest pacifism for the sake of discussion), World War II was won more easily because the average German or Japanese soldier in American captivity expected and received decent treatment. We also know that many Americans presently guarding prisoners in today's conflicts are treating their charges decently, despite the controversies that swirl around them. Does anyone seriously doubt that an American reputation for decency makes the whole world safer, including Americans? And can anyone seriously assert that to damage that reputation would benefit us? Furthermore, how much abuse of that reputation, systemically tolerated, would finally replace that reputation with a more "realistic" take-off-the-gloves post-Geneva Bush-Cheney snarl? Is it too late?

Supporters of cruel methods say that we need to have them on the implied menu so that our enemies can't simply train and prepare for the limited methods in the U.S. Army's manual. That argument also bears examination: What if all our enemies prepared themselves on the basis that Americans were decent and had values that disallowed cruelty? Again, let's be realistic, not sentimental! I can imagine that we would probably fail to crack a few hard nuts (would we have cracked them before, given suicide bombers' willingness to pay an ultimate price?). Even so, despite those possible losses, isn't it realistic to expect that if our global behavior reflected such a commitment, we would have thousands fewer enemies? Or do we seriously believe, as a hard, objective fact, that every self-described enemy of the USA is either evil or deluded, that no legitimate grounds ever exist for opposing the USA?

And before we dismiss those more humane methods, let's remember that some of them are the same methods that police departments and prosecutors' offices have used for generations to obtain convictions of so-called hardened criminals. They're not Sunday school! As for McCain's assertion that there are additional methods, not in the Army's manual, that are still consistent with the Geneva Convention, why not propose language to permit those methods, or to provide for research into effective interrogation while still accepting a robust safeguard against cruelty and torture?

As for the most exquisitely fine-tuned hypothetical situation, where torture is truly likely to obtain a lifesaving piece of information from a weak, believable, but nevertheless irredeemable villain, let the interrogator take the risk of violating the law! Let that conscientious, modest, reluctant torturer courageously face the consequences of a decision to cross the boundary of decency for a supposed higher good. Bonhoeffer faced this very dilemma in choosing to support the assassination of Adolf Hitler. Judgments must sometimes be made that I would have hoped to go another direction, and I can accept that, but (again, sticking with realism!), human nature being what it is, torture with official protection and immunity is far different and more corrupting than the possibility of an occasional extreme decision under extreme pressure, with accountability.

The logical arguments for permitting cruel methods seem so weak to me that I can only believe that George Bush has another agenda, and I believe that Steven Lee Myers in the NYT article puts his finger on it when he says, "At the core of the administration’s position is a conviction that the executive branch must have unfettered freedom when it comes to prosecuting war." But that's another reason for urgent opposition: part of America's supposed decency are the values of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. There is in fact no legitimate war going on, but even if there were, we are still not a monarchy nor a dictatorship. At least not yet.

In any case, Christians have no permission to declare anyone outside the circle of decency and grace. Any claims of a mission to advance freedom and claims to be protecting "us" must always be subjected to a test: whose freedom, whose protection? Two days ago, speaking to the National Religious Broadcasters, Bush said that "The liberty we value is not ours alone. Freedom is not America's gift to the world; it is God's gift to all humanity." It is up to his audience not just to say "Amen" as the broadcasters did, but to measure assertively whether our policies and actions are actually for "the world" or, in the final analysis, just "us."

Back at Reedwood, at the end of meeting for worship, without a pause, we went into a called meeting for business. At the previous regular monthly meeting, a concern had been raised about immigration raids and prosecutions that had separated American-born children from their parents and caused other hardships of similar gravity. A group had offered to draft a minute, and this called monthly meeting considered their draft. During the half hour of discussion, it was clear that our heart was in making a public statement to declare support for undocumented immigrants and against disruptive enforcement, but we were less sure about making policy recommendations or implying more innocence for undocumented immigrant workers than was factual. To my great relief, the meeting was able to agree with the minute in principle and entrusted the writers to complete the drafting and publish the minute.

It was a great example of the immediate relevance of biblical and Quaker theology.

Righteous links:
    Friends Committee on National Legislation's torture page. Why the Iraq "war" may continue indefinitely: Tomdispatch nails the eight fundamentals of the faith for our "experienced" policy establishment. William Safire on waterboarding. "Pardon me: I'm busy being consumed by Jesus." Aj Schwanz comments on local author Paul Louis Metzger's Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church. The importance of story: Scot Bower recounts the nonviolent prayer-based movement that helped bring down the Berlin Wall in 1989. FRIDAY PS: Another example of vital storytelling: "Being on the side of the crucified," via Ekklesia. Nadine Hoover writes on war tax resistance as discipleship in her Friends Journal article, "Yielding to our faith." On the same topic, see Atlanta Friend Julia Ewen's important article from Easter 2006. On spreading the gospel of democracy in Russia; a former British ambassador comments.

Buddy Guy accompanies Cat Power (second half of this video):

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